The word "deacon" essentially means servant. The word group consists of diakoneo [diakonevw] (occurring thirty-six times in the New Testament) meaning to serve or support; diakonia [diakoNIVa] (occurring thirty-three times in the New Testament) meaning service, support, or ministry; and diakonos [diavkono"] (occurring twenty-nine times in the New Testament), meaning server, servant, or deacon. The word group as a whole is scarce in the Septuagint, occurring approximately nine times. The word has both a general and technical sense in the New Testament. It may simply refer to any type of service or personal assistance performed for another. In the common usage of the day, the word meant to wait on tables or to assist or care for household needs. Eventually, the word came to mean "to serve" in any capacity.
The idea of serving others was not popular among the Greeks. Jews on the other hand found nothing inherently distasteful about service. Yet it was the Lord Jesus who raised service to a completely new level. He used the word as an expression of his humiliation in giving his life in suffering and death as a ransom ( Matt 20:28 ; Mark 10:45 ). Thus the word takes on the sense of loving action for others, especially in the community of faith, which is rooted in and founded upon divine love as seen in the atonement of Christ.
In this light, Paul could speak of being a servant of the new covenant ( 2 Cor 3:6 ), of righteousness ( 2 Cor 11:15 ), of Christ ( 2 Col 11:23 ; Col 1:7 ; 1 Tim 4:6 ), of God ( 2 Cor 6:4 ), of the gospel ( Eph 3:7 ; Col 1:23 ), and of the church ( Col 1:25 ).
The institution of the technical office seems to be found in Acts 6. Although the noun "deacon" (diakonos [diavkono"]) does not occur, both diakoneo [diakonevw] and diakonia [diakoNIVa] are used, with emphasis resting more on the character of the men than any specific function. In this instance they cared for the needs of the Hellenistic widows and guaranteed fairness in the distribution of food. Their election was made jointly by the apostles and the congregation. It was determined that they must be men "full of the Spirit and wisdom" (v. 3). As one scans the Book of Acts, "fullness of the Spirit" almost always entails bold witnessing for the gospel of Christ (cf. Acts 1:8 ). That these men served in a manner transcending the traditional notion of deacon is clearly seen in the prophetic teaching activity of Stephen (Acts 6-7) and the evangelistic ministry of Philip ( Acts 8 ).
First Timothy 3:8-13 is the most complete account in Scripture addressing the office of deacon. (In Php 1:1 ; it is only mentioned as being an office along with that of the bishops. ) As in Acts 6, the emphasis is again on character qualifications rather than function. In fact, the qualities necessary for eligibility run in close parallel to those for bishops. Emphasis is placed upon the necessity of an exemplary life. Thus deacons must be worthy of respect, sincere (lit. "not double-tongued"), not indulging excessively in wine, not pursuing dishonest gain, holding the mystery (proved and approved), being found blameless, husband of one wife (a one-woman kind of man publicly and privately), and a good manager of children and household. The reward for such service found in verse 13 is having both an "excellent standing" and "great assurance" in the faith (before both God and people). Because teaching and leadership are not mentioned, the servant role of this office is made clear. These men are to be helpers in the practical areas of ministry, eligible to serve because of the unquestioned integrity of their lives.
It is possible, although not certain, that women served as deaconesses in the early church. In Romans 16:1 Phoebe of Cenchrea is commended as a sister of us, being also a diakonon. Whether the word is to be understood in a general or technical sense is open to debate. Of further significance for this issue is 1 Timothy 3:11; 5:3-16, and Titus 2:3-5. In 1 Timothy 3:11, there appears the phrase gynaikas hosautos, translated "likewise the women." "The women" has been variously interpreted to mean the wives of the deacons, female assistants to the deacons, deaconesses, or women in general. In favor of view 1 is the fact that gunaikos [gunaikei'o"] occurs also in verses 2 and 12, where it clearly means wife. Second, to return to qualifications for deacons in verses 12-13, and to address the children in verse 12, argues for wives being in view in verse 11.
In favor of views 2 and 3 is the use of the word "likewise." The same word also occurs in verse 8 and is used to introduce a distinct but related subject (deacons versus overseers). Second, the absence of the word "their" would seem to imply that the women in view are not the wives of deacons but rather women who serve in the same capacity as the men. Third, the list of qualifications for the women, although abbreviated (only one verse), is similar to those for the deacons. Fourth, the silence concerning any qualifications for the bishop's wife ( 3:1-7 ) argues against this being understood as referring to deacons' wives. When 1 Timothy 5:3-16 and Titus 2:3-5 are taken into consideration, it appears quite probably that there was a servant-oriented group of women in the early church. These women may have been wives of deacons. That such women would have ministered to other women, especially those in need of physical assistance and spiritual instruction, seems most likely. Practical considerations such as baptisms and intimate personal counseling and care would indeed have necessitated such a ministry of women to women.
Daniel L. Akin
Bibliography. H. W. Beyer, TDNT, 2:81-93; G. M. Burge, EDT, pp. 295-96; D. Guthrie, New Testament Theology; K. Hess, NIDNTT, 3:544-49; L. Morris, BDT, pp. 156-57.
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