Church 2.0: Part 10.16: Deacons, Part 1 (Redefining “Deacon”)

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John N. Collins and the meaning of diakonos

A couple of years ago, in a comment, Mike Cope referred me to Diakonia: Re-Interpreting the Ancient Sources (1990) ($38.95 at Amazon) by John N. Collins. In this book, Collins comprehensively surveys secular and Christian Greek literature to find the correct meaning of the terms diakonia and diakonos.

Collins has followed that 368-page book with a shorter sequel focusing on a handful of key passages, Deacons and the Church: Making Connections Between Old and New (2002) (out of print).

A helpful article summarizing Collins’ work may be found in a 1992 article by Karl Paul Donfried in the Concordia Theological Quarterly, especially beginning at p. 7 (free download).

Collins published a follow up article in 2011, “The problem with values carried by diakonia / “Diakonie” in recent church documents.” Collins points out that no less of an authority than Cardinal Ratzinger (who became Pope Benedict) adopted Collins’ arguments (also a free download).

Collins published a collection of essays on the same subject in Diakonia Studies: Critical Issues in Ministry (2014), but at $78 for the Kindle edition, this is yet another example of the absurd over-pricing of academic materials that separates the Christian academy from the churches.

The church office in various denominations

Much of the published materials wrestle with the implications of Collins’ conclusions for denominations in which “deacon” is an important office, especially among Catholics and Lutherans.

Of course, the office is hugely important among Baptists, where the board of deacons superintends the “secular” work of the church and generally has authority to hire and fire the pastor, although I’ve not found any awareness of Collins’ work among the Baptists. However, the Nazarenes are restudying their diaconate in light of Collins’ work.

Everett Ferguson, a professor at Abilene Christian University, a long-time advocate for exclusively a cappella music in Churches of Christ, deals with the office of deacon in his
The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (1997). He cites to Collins’ work (p. 333 n. 86), but then concludes,

The deacons continue the serving ministry of Jesus. They have the special privilege of representing the distinctive aspect of the ministry of Jesus that was his preferred way of characterizing himself and his work — serving.

(p. 334). And this, of course, is exactly contrary to Collins’ research. It’s not that Collins would deny that deacons should serve. Rather, the point is that diakonos does not mean servant and to define the office merely as serving fails to take into account the meaning of the term or the retranslation of key passages in light of Collins’ study.

As a result, the Churches of Christ have given little thought to the implications of Collins’ work in defining an office that many consider essential to a church being “scripturally organized” and hence among the saved.

(I strongly disagree that being scripturally organized is a salvation issue. This teaching is utterly without scriptural support, lends itself to a works-salvation theology, and is to be fled.)

Church of Christ definition of “deacon”

The office of deacon is an extremely important element of Church of Christ thought. In the Churches, deacons are considered subordinate to the elders, but the Churches have struggled to clearly define their duties. The preacher is normally hired and supervised by the elders (always a plurality). But there is no agreed understanding of what job one must be a deacon to perform.

In a small church, the deacons may be assigned the duties of building maintenance, handling church funds, opening and closing the buildings, and such like. A much larger church might actually hire non-members to act as janitors and accountants, while assigning the deacons as program heads. Hence, it’s common in a church of 200 or more members for a youth minister to answer to a deacon, who in turns answers to the elders, so that only the deacons, and not even the youth minister, have direct contact with the elders.

In fact, the deacon who heads a program may have no competence at all in the area he supervises, but the elders feel obligated to have a man meeting the 1 Tim 3 requirements for a deacon in a supervisory position because of the power of church tradition — even though there is nothing at all in the Bible saying that deacons are supervisors or that only a deacon answers directly to the elders.

Moreover, in many Churches of Christ, the elders and deacons routinely gather to make decisions regarding church affairs, as though the deacons were a parallel board to the elders, rather like having a Senate and House of Representatives. Again, there is no scriptural authority for the deacons having general oversight of church affairs or “secular” church affairs. The notion that deacons have “secular” authority is from Baptist tradition, and falsely distinguishes the care of widows (a typical deacon job assignment) from the “spiritual,” when in fact the care of the church’s needy is deeply spiritual and at the core of what it means to be a church.

1 Tim 3 is silent on the role of the deacon (other than the word “deacon”), and so the closest we have to a working definition is found in Acts 6:1-6, where the apostles appointed seven men to take over the apostles’ responsibilities regarding the Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) widows in the congregation. Most commentators believe these to have been the first deacons, and if so, this is the only scripture that tells us what their job was.

As a result, in a few Churches of Christ, the deacons take on the care of the church’s widows at their particular job responsibility, although this is very much a minority practice.

The re-thinking of the definition by Collins, therefore, has the potential to dramatically impact how the office is perceived in Churches of Christ.

The true meaning of diakonos

The traditional definition of diakonos (translated “deacon”) is “servant,” but Collins has forced Greek scholars to redefine diakonos. And that changes much of what the Churches of Christ teach regarding the office.

Collins’ scholarship has been so persuasive that the latest edition of BDAG (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature), the most respected dictionary of New Testament Greek, revised its entry for diakonos to read as follows:

1. one who serves as an intermediary in a transaction, agent, intermediary, courier …

2. one who gets someth. done, at the behest of a superior, assistant to someone…

Collins sees the word as meaning something like “agent” or “representative” or even “messenger” rather than “servant.” While an agent may well act as a servant, there is nothing in the word itself that denotes humble, submissive service.

With respect to the verb form, diakonia, BDAG gives these definitions:

1. service rendered in an intermediary capacity, mediation, assignment …

2. performance of a service

3. functioning in the interest of a larger public, service, office

4. rendering of specific assistance, aid, support … esp. of alms and charitable giving

5. an administrative function, service as attendant, aide, or assistant

Donfried explains,

The major consequence of Collins’ thorough and careful analysis is that Paul, in a wide range of texts (e.g., 1 Cor. 35; 2 Cor. 3:6; 6:4; 11:23), is not talking in some imprecise way about “servants” of God or of Christ, but about messengers who are on assignment from God or Christ. The apostle’s primary concern is to state something about “the communication of the gospel rather than about service to the Lord or to the brethren.” Even as difficult a text as 2 Corinthians 8:4 is seen in a new light. Rather than translating it as “begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief [diakonia] of the saints,” Collins would translate it as “begging us earnestly for a share in the fellowship of the mission of God’s holy people.” 

Examples of re-translations

The shift in meaning is often quite subtle, but still it can be very important. Hence, Collins would re-translate Mark 10:45 as follows:

(Mar 10:45 ESV) “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

[Collins] the Son of Man came to carry out an assignment not to benefit himself but others by giving his life in ransom …

Hence, rather than the more general “servant,” Collins prefers “carry out an assignment.” And this certainly fits the context.

Or consider —

(1Co 3:5 ESV) 5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.

Rather than “servants,” Collins would translate “messengers,” that is, representatives of the Lord who brought his message — which is more fitting to the context and makes the words of  Apollos and Paul matter much more.

The same shift in meaning is important in —

(2Co 3:5-6 ESV) 5 Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, 6 who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Paul is not just a minister or servant of the covenant, he is God’s messenger — someone empowered to speak on behalf of God regarding a new covenant.

Just so —

(2Co 11:23 ESV) 23 Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one — I am talking like a madman– with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death.

Paul’s point is not that he is a superior servant of Christ but a superior agent or representative of Christ. The fact that he has suffered in this way shows him to be like the person he represents.

Servants do not have to be like their master, whereas an agent or messenger must act and speak as their master does.

[T]he sense of service as an assistant to a supervisor also becomes clear in the two cases in which the formal meaning of “deacons” is meant. In each case, the term occurs in relation to and following the term “overseers.” In 1 Tim 3:1–13, where the most reflection on positions in the church occurs, the order of treatment and the greater attention given to the overseer suggests that the role of deacons be regarded as a subordinate position and an assistantship in some sense. The roots of the formal position of the deacons are not easily linked to the table-waiting seven in Acts 6:1–6. The broad use of the term for gospel ministry sustains its use independent of the formal church meaning (at least at this point in church history) as a reference to ministers in general (e.g. 1 Tim 4:6). Probably with the position(s) of overseers and elders already in existence, the need for greater specialization in some churches of more significant size and longer history led to the establishment of a group commissioned to support the ministry overseen by the episkopoi and presbyteroi.

As in the case of the overseer, the instructions relating to the deacons have mainly to do with aspects of character, which makes attempts to define “diaconal” duties difficult. This focus makes it unwise to assume that tasks of teaching and preaching were excluded from the deaconate, or that the ministry of deacons consisted mainly of practical duties in the church. Almost certainly the insistence that candidates for the diaconate be deeply committed to “the mystery of the faith” (3:9) presumes participation in the ministry of teaching and preaching. And the requirement of proficiency in household management in 3:12, parallel to 3:4–5, suggests leadership responsibilities in the church. As pointed out above, we should probably understand the deacon’s task as being that of assisting the overseer/supervisor in administration, leadership and teaching within the church. The arrangement in Ephesus was apparently that of a group of deacons (note the plurality) serving the church as assistants either to the overseer (singular) or team of overseers.

Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), 261–262.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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2 Responses to Church 2.0: Part 10.16: Deacons, Part 1 (Redefining “Deacon”)

  1. Price says:

    Gives further credence to Phoebe and her role as “deacon” of the church at Cenchreae… Maybe the unusual nature of a woman serving in this authorized capacity is why Paul describes her as a Patron to show her support of the church and unusual qualification.. He surely tells the leadership to help her in any way that “she” needs.

  2. John F says:

    More t come later as I find some previous thoughts. In the “early” days of the restoration movement, there was often a single elder in a congregation.. The “realization” of a plurality came later. Also, Acts does not record distinct “elders” until chapter 15 if memory serves. Were there no “scriptural congregations” before then? Of course not. While Acts 6 is instructive, the seven and not subject to Paul’s later instructions regarding deacons.

    There is more to say, but “I have chosen to be with my church family this morning!” 🙂

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