Deacons: A New Definition

deaconsA few weeks ago, in a comment, Mike Cope referred me to Diakonia: Re-Interpreting the Ancient Sources 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.

I took both of these with me on a trip to Chicago to read on the plane. I didn’t do so well. Collins is doubtlessly a brilliant scholar, but I find his writings very hard to follow. I mean, I’m a bond lawyer. I read 100-page, single-spaced legalese for a living. And I struggled to work my way through Collins’ prose.

Therefore, as important as his work is to the Churches of Christ, I can’t recommend his books to anyone but the most highly motivated.

Nonetheless, the office of deacon is an extremely important element of Church of Christ thought — especially those who consider a church to not be “scripturally organized” unless it has deacons.

Of course, this line of thought presupposes that we know what deacons are supposed to do, and yet even our most conservative writers admit that the scriptures are silent, or very nearly so, on the role of deacons.

Collins seeks to redefine diakonos. His 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…

Hence, 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 connotes 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

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 is not so much a servant of Christ as an agent or representative of Christ. Therefore, 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.

Deacon as church office

So what does mean with regard to the office of deacon? Well, we should not think of them so much as servants but as representatives, agents, or even attendants. That is, they serve at the behest of the elders to assist them in their duties.

The subtle question that the redefinition forces us to ask is: whom do the deacons serve represent? If the word means “servant,” then we would naturally take the deacons as serving the church, and that has been our traditional interpretation (and the traditional interpretation of many others).

But if the word means “agent” or “representative” in this context, the church can’t be the answer. Rather, Acts 6 offers an example of the deacons taking on a role previously held by the apostles, doing work so that the apostles are freed for prayer and the ministry of the word.

Hence, the Acts 6 deacons are deacons for the apostles. They carry out assignments for the apostles, which in this case is serving the Hellenistic widows.

Then how should we translate —

(Act 6:4 ESV) 4 “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry [diakonia] of the word.”

Here’s the flow of Luke’s thought, as retranslated —

(Act 1:24-25 ESV) 24 And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen 25 to take the place in this ministry [role as messengers] and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.”

(Act 6:1 ESV) Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution [diakonein = delivery of the message]. [Note that the Greek makes no reference to food here.]

(Act 6:4 ESV) 4 “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry [delivery of the message] of the word.”

Collins’ suggestion is that the passage be re-translated as follows:

The Greek-speaking member of the community complained against those who spoke Aramaic that their housebound widows were being overlooked in the great preaching (diakonia) that was going on day by day in the environs of the Temple. So the Twelve summoned the whole complement of the disciples and said: “We cannot possibly break off our public proclamation before the huge crowds in the Temple to carry out a ministry (diakonein) in the households [at the tables] of these Greek-speaking widows. Brothers, you will have to choose seven men from your own ethnic group who are fully respected, empowered by the Spirit, and equipped for the task. We will then appoint them to the role the needs to be filled. That will mean that the Twelve can get on with attending to worship in the Temple and to our apostolic ministry (diakonia) of proclaiming the word there.

(Deacons and the Church, 58). Collins takes diakonia to be used by Luke of the apostolic task of carrying Jesus’ message to the world, with that meaning being established in chapter 1 and then carried throughout Acts until —

(Act 20:24 ESV) But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry [acting as messenger for Jesus] that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.

(Act 21:19 ESV) After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry [acting as messenger for Jesus].

If that’s so, then Acts 6 is not about failing to feed widows but a failure to bring them the message of Jesus in their own language at home. If that’s so, then it only makes sense that Luke immediately tells us about Phillip’s and Stephen’s proclamation of the gospel. They were originally appointed to proclaim  the word within the church, to its Hellenistic widows, and then they were called to do the same for the lost.

Wrapping up

Now, if this is right, and the scholars seem to be persuaded by Collins, then the role of deacons is even less well defined than I had imagined. They may be simply members of the church tasked to assist the elders in their work or they may be teachers of the word, assisting the elders in their task of teaching the word.

If deacons are teachers, then that would nicely explain why Paul mentions shepherds and teachers and not deacons among church offices in Ephesians 4.

On the other hand, the earliest uninspired sources we have associated deacons with serving the Lord’s Supper on behalf of the elders, as well as providing for the poor and widows.

And so, the likely answer is that deacons are simply members charged with helping elders fulfill their duties. The elders’ duties certainly include teaching, and so it may well be appropriate for deacons to be teachers. But the elders are also concerned with the needy and with carrying on the Sunday assembly.

Therefore, we cannot easily draw lines as to what deacons can and cannot do — which means there is no way that we can distinguish “deacon” from “teacher” or “ministry leader” or “small group leader.” All are acting, directly or indirectly, at the behest of the elders to perform the elders’ work.

Therefore, in today’s church, there’s really little need to have “deacon” as a stand alone title. There are no deacons at large, that is, deacons without a job. Rather, any task that would show up on a church organizational chart could be called the work of a deacon. Hence, we really have minister-deacons, teacher-deacons, ministry leader-deacons, small group leader-deacons, lost sheep ministry-deacons, and all sorts of other deacons, whether or not wearing the title.

We’ve simply used other words that mean essentially the same thing. Any good eldership should assign members to teach, to lead ministries, to do various ministries, to conduct the Lord’s Supper, to otherwise lead in the assembly, or to otherwise carry out the work that Jesus has assigned to the local church. And if they carry with them any of the responsibility or authority of the elders, they may properly be called “deacons.”

And if that’s right, then the qualification list in 1 Tim 3 becomes problematic if we take the list as requiring a deacon to be male, married, and a good father. If that’s so, we would be required to remove over half of the men and all women who serve the church and elders well in all sorts of responsible tasks.

On the other hand, if we read the lists less strictly and more as examples of how a deacon would be shown to be “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3), the problem goes away, and we aren’t required to put married men in positions that God has not equipped them to do. [And as I’ve said before, I’m not convinced that this logic applies with equal force regarding elders, for reasons discussed long ago.]

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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14 Responses to Deacons: A New Definition

  1. Would this mean that we have been correct all along in applying the word “minister” to those who deliver the message of Altamonte Springs action as representatives of Jesus Christ?

  2. The most common collective term which matches this definition is “staff”. In the congregational sense, the deacon may be distinguished by being unpaid staff.

  3. That should read “as messengers of salvation as representatives of Jesus Christ”.

  4. alanrouse says:

    That is pretty much how I’ve always understood the meaning of “deacon.” It does raise the question as to whether the requirements in 1 Tim 3:8ff also apply to preachers.

    OTOH I’m not sure I accept that the the problem addressed in Acts 6 about the Grecian widows is referring to a failure to preach to them. More likely it was a daily distribution of food and/or money (Acts 2:45, Acts 4:34-35). That matches well with the orthodox definitions of διακονειν τραπεζαις (serve tables) in Acts 6:2.

  5. Larry Cheek says:

    We also have the message about distributing the funds that were being donated to the Christians staying behind to listen to the preaching who had needs beyond the provisions they had brought with them. Should we quickly dispense with those duties being assigned to the Seven. I could see that it be very important that men placed into a special responsibility of this nature, be publicly assigned this responsibility. Should we suspect that these same men would not be capable of further service of promoting the Gospel while performing the duties assigned to them concerning the Widows?

  6. Rose Marie says:

    Adding to the broad definitions (as one commentator used staff), then paid staff members such as secretaries can also be included as deacons. I fill that role for my church and had not considered myself to be a deacon. Except for the male part, I believe that I meet the other qualifications. While not letting my head swell with this, I believe I now hold my job with more self respect now. Thanks for the new insight.

  7. Jay Guin says:

    John F,

    If you study the CoC “doctrine” of deacons in any detail at all, you quickly discover that we made most of it up out of nothing. Silent where the scriptures are silent? Not when it comes to deacons.

  8. Jay Guin says:

    John F,

    Latest version of the TDNT is 1984 and so pre-dates Collins’ research. Collins published in 1990. I think Collins’ work is becoming accepted as to the meaning of diakonos in the later lexicons and dictionaries.

  9. Jay Guin says:

    John Collins wrote,

    many bishops do not tolerate deacons; parishioners often wonder why the lawyer they know dresses up big for the Sunday service; women, especially those with aspirations towards ministry, despise the whole game; theologians keep making up theology on the run, and there are strong confrontations on the ultimate question, what are deacons for? …? helping the needy; liturgical assistants; pastoral fill-ins (baptisms, marriages, funerals)…?

    So the Churches of Christ are very much like the Roman Catholic Church on this one. We’re not sure what they’re there for either. And our theologians have a marked tendency to invent doctrines to support traditional roles. And the women seem to often be much better than men at deacon work. The Spirit doesn’t seem to limit his gifts based those who are called deacon or are male.

    So it’s good to know that we aren’t alone on this one.

    (Personally, I think the doctrine of gifts of the Spirit is a far more helpful and pastorally practical place to find out what members should be doing what. I figure the deacons helped with the widows ministry — per 1 Tim 5 (and Acts 6, perhaps) — and so had to be married, family men of proven character to work with money and widows. So maybe the local widows ministry needs to worry about the deacon qualifications in 1 Tim 3. Otherwise, we just follow the Spirit’s lead based on what he’s gifted our members to do. But the CoC traditions are hard to change.)

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