Brief ‘διακονον’ Word Study

Posted by Bob Mattes

In the battleground over women deacons, Romans 16:1 seems to be the hill on which partial and full egalitarians primarily wish to battle. In this verse and the following, Paul writes (all citations from the ESV):

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, 2 that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.

There’s a lot we could say about the context of these verses, but the current controversy is over a single word in verse 1. Translated as “servant” in the ESV, the underlying Greek word is ‘διακονον’. My intent in this post is to look briefly at this word and its related forms with an eye to their use throughout both the New Testament and the LXX.

First the technical details of the overview. The Greek text used is the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament, 27th Edition with McReynolds English Interlinear, the common text used for New Testament work. For the English translation, I used the English Standard Version New Testament Reverse Interlinear. The ESV is fast becoming the standard text used in Reformed and Evangelical churches, so it makes a good and contemporary choice for this study. For the LXX, I used the Septuaginta: Morphologically Tagged Edition by Alfred Rahlfs.

Some years ago, such a study would have taken many hours over several days or more. Today, computer-based tools like Logos Bible Software 3 can do the grunt work in seconds on a fast machine, freeing the student to spend their time doing the brain and grammar work. Unfortunately, Logos only runs under Windows, so even though I’m a Linux guy, I have to run Windows XP under a virtual machine by VMWare. This works very well, but I’d really like to dump Windows all together. Oh, well. On to the word study!

First, in Romans 16:1, διακονον is an accusative, singular, feminine noun. The accusative noun form only occurs four times in the NT: Rom 15:8:

For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs,

Romans 16:1 which we’ve already seen; 2 Cor 3:6:

[God] who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

and 1 Tim 3:8:

Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain.

Note that Διακόνους in 1 Tim 3:8 is accusative, masculine and plural. This makes perfect sense considered with 1 Tim 3:12 since both refer to the same class of male church office holders. Those that say that 1 Tim 3:8 can be separated from 3:12, or that 1 Tim 3:8 doesn’t specify gender, miss or ignore the underlying grammatical construct. It’s male all the way.

Overall, διακόνους in all its forms occurs 29 times in the New Testament. It is only translated as “deacon” three times: Phil 1:1:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,

To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:

as well as 1 Tim 3:8 and 3:12 which we’ve already seen. The word in Phil 1:1 is dative, plural, and masculine as one would expect in order to be consistent with 1 Tim 3:8 and 12. No female “deaconesses” to be found. Out of the other 26 occurrences (with immediate context provided), 18 are translated as “servant”:

Matt 20:26 – would be great among you must be your servant,
Matt 23:11 – The greatest among you shall be your servant.
Mark 9:35 – he must be last of all and servant of all.
Mark 10:43 – would be great among you must be your servant,
John 2:5 – His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
John 2:9 – (though the servants who had drawn the water knew),
John 12:26 – there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me,
Rom 13:4 – for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you
Rom 13:4 – For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out *
Rom 15:8 – servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness,
Rom 16:1 – Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae,
1 Cor 3:5 – What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants
2 Cor 6:4 – servants of God we commend ourselves in every way:
2 Cor 11:15 – So it is no surprise if his servants, also,
2 Cor 11:15 – also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.
2 Cor 11:23 – Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one— *
Gal 2:17 – is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! *
1 Tim 4:6 – you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being

Clearly, none of these refer to a church office, especially when seen in context with each other. Jesus and Paul are consistent that we are all to be servants.

Seven occurrences are translated as “minister,” in particular of Christ and the New Covenant:

2 Cor 3:6 – has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant,
Eph 3:7 – a minister according to the gift of God’s grace,
Eph 6:21 – minister in the Lord will tell you everything.
Col 1:7 – He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf
Col 1:23 – and of which I, Paul, became a minister.
Col 1:25 – of which I became a minister according to the stewardship
Col 4:7 – faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord.

and once as “attendants”:

Matt 22:13 – Then the king said to the attendants,

Returning for a moment to Romans 16:1 and looking at 13 relatively common English and Latin translations that I have lying around, 11 translate Romans 16:1 as “servant.” The other 2 are RSV-based (RSV & NRSV), which shouldn’t surprise anyone given that translation’s liberal bias (but that’s a whole other story).

In the LXX, διάκονος occurs just six times: Esther 1:10; 2:2; 6:3; 6:5; Proverbs 10:4; and 4 Maccabees 9:17 in the Apocrypha. It always refers to servants or attendants.

That’s a brief overview of the use of διακονον and its forms in the New Testament and LXX. I believe that there are several points to take away from this brief survey: 1) whenever Paul refers to ‘διακονον’ as church officers, it’s always with the plural, masculine form of the word; 2) only 3 out of 29 occurrences of the word form are translated as “deacon” in the ESV, all referring to male office holders; and 3) both the NT and the LXX are consistent in the way they use the word.

It’s no secret that I started this overview opposed to the idea of female deacons. Even so, I let the Greek grammar speak for itself. In the end, this deeper look at the underlying Greek has entrenched me even further against the idea. There’s not a shred of doubt in my mind that the Scriptures are clear the only men may serve as deacons, and that this is indeed a Scripture authority issue. As I’ve already shown, the PCA Book of Church Order follows Scripture accurately on the issue.

In honor of Mary Kathryn, I’ll stop here. :-)

Posted by Bob Mattes

Great Post

Some really great arguments as to why the authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith were right in saying that the entirety of the moral law was given to Adam before the fall.

Scriptural Basis for the PCA BCO on Deacons

Posted by Bob Mattes

I posted on the 36th General Assembly proceedings on deaconesses here without duplicating Lanes or TE Aquila’s posts on the subject. My initial thoughts on the issue of female deacons/deaconesses can be found here on GreenBaggins. I wanted to comment in this post on an item in both Overture 9 and the Overtures Committee minority report.

The operant phrase in Philadelphia Presbytery’s Overture 9 reads:

Scriptural teaching bearing on women’s eligibility for election and ordination to the office of deacon and recommending, if necessary, changes to the BCO in keeping with any findings proceeding from the study of Scripture;

And in the minority report from the overtures committee concerning Overture 9:

Is the Book of Church Order more, or less, restrictive than the Scriptural teaching bearing on the role of women in the diaconal ministries?

I thought that I’d help answer these questions by showing the direct connection between the BCO and the applicable Scriptures. Perhaps that will help some folks who think that they need a study committee to look at a handful of verses that we can all read for ourselves.

First, there’s a direct connection between 1 Tim 3:12 (all citations ESV):

Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. [my emphasis]

and Acts 6:3:

Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. [my emphasis]

And BCO 7-2:

7-2. The ordinary and perpetual classes of office in the Church are elders
and deacons. Within the class of elder are the two orders of teaching elders and ruling elders. The elders jointly have the government and spiritual oversight of the Church, including teaching. Only those elders who are specially gifted, called and trained by God to preach may serve as teaching elders. The office of deacon is not one of rule, but rather of service both to the physical and spiritual needs of the people. In accord with Scripture, these offices are open to men only. [my emphasis]

BCO 9-3:

9-3. To the office of deacon, which is spiritual in nature, shall be chosen men of spiritual character, honest repute, exemplary lives, brotherly spirit, warm sympathies, and sound judgment. [my emphasis]

and BCO 24-1:

24-1. Every church shall elect persons to the offices of ruling elder and
deacon in the following manner: At such times as determined by the Session, communicant members of the congregation may submit names to the Session, keeping in mind that each prospective officer should be an active male member who meets the qualifications set forth in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. [my emphasis]

Here you can see that Scripture commands deacons to be men only, and this guidance is followed exactly in the BCO. Nothing more or less.

Further, both the Scriptures and the BCO cover the issue of providing outside help to the diaconate. We find 1 Tim 5:3-16:

3 Honor widows who are truly widows. 4 But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God. 5 She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day, 6 but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives. 7 Command these things as well, so that they may be without reproach. 8 But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

9 Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, 10 and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work. 11 But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry 12 and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith. 13 Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not. 14 So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, give the adversary no occasion for slander. 15 For some have already strayed after Satan. 16 If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are really widows.

corresponding nicely to BCO 9-7:

9-7. It is often expedient that the Session of a church should select and
appoint godly men and women of the congregation to assist the deacons in caring for the sick, the widows, the orphans, the prisoners, and others who may be in any distress or need.

No disconnects, just unity of thought and approach between Scripture and the BCO. So what about Phoebe and Rom 16:1?

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae,

The word for “servant” in that verse is ‘διακονον’ in the Greek. I cover this in some detail in this post, so will not duplicate all that here. Bottom line is that as far back as the Geneva Bible in 1560, Phoebe has been called a servant in accordance with good translating practice and the context of the verse. I will post a fairly comprehensive word study on the word ‘διάκονον’ and its close relatives in both the Greek New Testament as well as the LXX in the next few days. To get a sense for Paul’s usage in the meantime, look at Romans 15:8 and tell me if Christ is called a deacon:

For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs,

or 2 Cor 3:6 if we all are:

who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Or the well-known Matt 20:26 for Christ’s usage of the word:

It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,

Are we all to become deacons? Of course not. I picked these particular uses of the word because they are very similar to the context in Romans 16:1. There’s no real case to be made here for female office holders.

Yet, some still disagree and think that Phoebe may have been a deaconess in the office-holding sense. Though I and other complementarians disagree with such a mistranslation, let’s assume for a moment, just for the sake of argument, that the details of this verse are unclear. Making Phoebe a deaconess here would make Paul inconsistent in his teaching on the role of women in the church. It certainly wouldn’t square with very clear verses like 1 Tim 3:12, 1 Tim 2:12, and 1 Cor 11:1-24 just to name a few. Roll Luke’s Acts 6:3 in as well. According to the analogy of faith, if one verse or passage isn’t clear, then we turn to others that are clear. Those standing on Rom 16:1 in hopes of finding deaconesses would do well to consider this basic Reformed principle and seek clarity from Scripture rather than the feminist culture.

None of this is rocket science. The majority report of the Overtures Committee cited these portions of the BCO. For those that want a Scriptural warrant, I have cited several clear Scriptural teachings in this and my previous post.

I’ll repeat here something that I posted on my blog earlier tonight. If we treat Scripture like a wax nose to accommodate the culture, we fall for the same lie that Eve swallowed in the garden: “Did God really say…” This deaconess thing is a Scripture authority issue, pure and simple. 1 Tim 3:12 by itself should be clear enough to settle this issue for those that hold to Scripture’s absolute authority. If we decide to try to conform Scripture to the world for whatever reason, we trade the gospel for a lie.

Posted by Bob Mattes