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Many churches have “deacons”. Earlier, the Catholics had even “arch-deacons”, and apparently some Anglicans still have them, and so does the Orthodox Church where “deacons” and “subdeacons” (“hypodeacons”) are considered to be “clergy” and wear cassocks or other “priestly vestments”. Even many Protestant denominations have “deacons”, but there, they are often considered to be “laymen”.
The concept “deacon” is built around Acts 6 which records how the saints in Jerusalem put seven men to take care of the daily distribution of aid to the needy. But: Those men were not called “deacons”; there is no mention that they would have had a “title” of some kind.
In the Greek text of the New Testament, the noun diakonos never refers to “deacons”. It is used of servants of different kinds, and it refers several times to elders in the saints’ fellowships. Even Jesus is called diakonos (Romans 15:8, Greek text). But, that noun is not used of the seven men of Acts 6. And still, many bible-translations contain the word “deacon”. Some even talk about “the office of a deacon”. Where did that come from? This article takes a closer look at that matter.
In old Greek, the word diakonos could be used of anyone who in some way served or helped others. It was used in such meanings as “attendant”, “servant”, “aider”. Some linguists and lexicographers have said that it probably came “from an obsolete diakô (‘to run on errands’)”.
Old Greek had also the adjective diakonikos which was used in such meanings as “serviceable”, “servants’ business” and “menial work”. The related verb diakoneô meant “to be a servant”, “to serve”, see for instance John 12:2. The noun diakonia referred to “attending to”, “serving”, “aiding”; for an example, see Luke 10:40 where the Greek text contains both the noun diakonia and the verb diakoneô.
In an appendix at the end of this article, there are some examples of the New Testament use of the noun diakonos, the related noun diakonia, and the verb diakoneô.
Background: The saints in Jerusalem had a system where aid was distributed daily to people in need, such as widows. But, there were complaints that some widows were neglected, to the favour of some others. That problem had to be solved. The apostles told the saints to select fitting men and put them to take care of that aid distribution.
Acts 6:1 In those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, there arose a murmuring of the Hellenists against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. [a] 2 And the twelve called the multitude of the disciples to them, and said: It is not right that we should leave the word of God, and serve [a] tables. 3 Therefore, brethren, select from among yourselves seven men, of good report, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business: 4 but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry [a] of the word. 5 And the speech pleased the whole multitude […] (AND, note signs added)
a In verse 1, the Greek text has the noun diakonia, “assistance”, referring to the daily distribution of aid to the needy. Verse 2 contains the verb diakoneô – the apostles noted that it would not be right for them to spend their time serving, diakoneô, at the aid distribution tables – others could do that, so that the apostles could use more time in tê diakonia tou logou, “the service of the Word”, verse 4. But, there is no mention that the seven men whom the saints in Jerusalem put to take care of the aid distribution, would have had a “title” of some kind. Also: The Greek text of that chapter does not contain the noun diakonos.
A note: Some might wonder about Romans 16:1 where the Greek text uses the noun diakonos (“servant”, “aider”, “helper”) of a woman by the name Phebe in the town Cenchrea. But, that verse does not state that she would have been a “deaconess”. It appears that the meaning simply is that she in one way or another served or helped the other saints. (Some copies of a Greek text which was compiled by the Catholic priest Gerrit Gerritszoon [“Erasmus”], have the word diakonos even at the end of that epistle – in translation, “sent by Phebe a servant of the assembly in Cenchrea” – but those words appear to be a later addition, not original.)
If we take the 1991 edition of the NKJV as an example and look for the word “deacon” there, we will find it in five passages.
Two of them are 1 Timothy 3:10 and 13. There, the translators added the word “deacon”, without any basis in the Greek text. Those two verses are considered in more detail, later in this article.
The three other passages are Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8 and 12. The reason why many translators have put “deacons” into those verses, is that they have copied that from the Latin text of the Catholic Vulgate version. Background:
In most of the 29 places where the Greek NT text has the noun diakonos, the makers of the Vulgate translated it properly with the old Latin minister which meant “attendant”, “servant”, “aider”, just as diakonos did. But, in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8 and 12 they used instead that Greek word, in the latinised forms diaconis, diaconos and diacones. That has then been copied into English bible-translations.
That is the reason why many bible-versions have “deacons” in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8 and 12 – the whole thing is copied from the Catholic Vulgate version.
In one popularly used English bible-version, the old Greek noun diakonos is rendered 20 times as “minister” and 7 times as “servant” – and then 3 times as “deacon”, in the places where the makers of the Catholic Vulgate version failed to translate diakonos into Latin.
Here, it is good to know that in old Latin, the noun minister had the same meaning as the old Greek diakonos – “attendant”, “servant”, “aider”.
Many bible-versions have in 1 Timothy 3:10 and 13 the word “deacon”. Some have even “office of a deacon”. But, the original text refers to elders. The relevant phrases in the Greek text of those verses are eita diakoneitôsan, “after that let them serve”, verse 10, and [hoi] kalôs diakonêsantes, “those who have served well”, verse 13.
Many bible-versions have even “bishops” in 1 Timothy 3, in addition to “deacons”. But, that chapter is about the election of elders. – Also the concept “bishop” is a Catholic invention, just as “deacon” is. (Bishops are priests. Here, one must keep in mind that the saints did not have any mortal priests.)
In short: 1 Timothy 3 records how the apostle Paul was giving Timothy instructions in regard to what kind of men were eligible as elders. Under the following subheadings, it will be shown when and how and why the phrase “office of a deacon” came to appear in English translations of 1 Timothy 3:10 and 13.
The Greek text of 1 Timothy 3:10 does not contain the noun diakonos but only the verb diakoneô in the phrase eita diakoneitôsan which means “after that, let them serve”. The Catholic Vulgate translates that Greek phrase eita diakoneitôsan quite correctly into Latin as et sic ministrent, “and so let them serve”. (In old Latin, the verb ministro simply meant “attend to”, “wait upon”, “serve”. Keep this in mind, as you read the following.)
Early English translations did not have any “deacons” in 1 Timothy 3:10.
Again, this is regarding 1 Timothy 3:10.
Where the above-quoted translations have “preued”, “proued” or “proved”, the Greek text has the verb dokimazô in the form dokimazesthôsan, “let them be examined”. This referred to an examination for the purpose of finding out whether the men in question were qualified for election as elders. If they were that, they could be put to serve as such.
Where those translations have “mynystre”, “mynister” or “minister”, the Greek text has the verb diakoneô in the form diakoneitôsan which means “let them serve”.
And again, that was regarding the election of elders, and not “deacons”. The context mentions a number of requirements in regard to what kind of persons elders were to be. Here is a part of that:
1 Timothy 3:1 It is a true saying that if someone wants to be an elder, he desires an honorable responsibility. 2 For an elder must be a man whose life cannot be spoken against. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exhibit self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home and must be able to teach. 3 He must not be a heavy drinker or be violent. He must be gentle, peace loving, and not one who loves money. (NLT96)
Men who were proposed as candidates for election as elders, were first to be examined, checked, controlled. If it was found that they met the requirements, then they were eligible as elders. Here is a plain English translation of the Greek text of verse 10:
1 Timothy 3:10 But let them be examined first, and so let them serve, if they are beyond reproach.
As was shown above, early English translations did not have any “deacons” or “offices” in that verse. But since the 1600s, many English bible-translators have put “deacons” into that verse. – The men who between 1604 and 1611 created a new bible-edition for king James I of England, were given orders to produce a text that gave support to the Catholic-type hierarchy of the Church of England. And so, they put into that verse the wording “and let these also first be proued; then let them vse the office of a Deacon, being found blamelesse”.
A note: The new bible-edition which king James ordered in 1604 and which then went to print in 1611, was merely a for political reasons “adjusted” version of the 1602 edition of Bishops’ bible. The “translation group” was given forty loose-leaf copies of it as a basis for their work. They were told to produce a new text that was as close to that 1602 text as possible, but certain things were to be “adjusted” according to the king’s wishes. The end result was a slightly modified text which contained more support for the Catholic-type “church hierarchy” and “ranks” that were customary in the Church of England. The article nsa030.htm has some notes on this. (It includes even a text comparison between BIS1602 and KJV1611.)
In the case of 1 Timothy 3:13, the serving which that verse refers to, had actually already taken place, before the men in question were considered for election as elders. The point was that elders were to be persons who had served their families and households well. Background:
1 Timothy 3:5 (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?) (NASB77)
Here is a translation of the Greek text of verses 12–13:
1 Timothy 3:12 Let elders be men of one woman, men who take well care of their children and their own houses. 13 For, those who have served well, have a good standing and can confidently speak about the faith which is in Jesus the Messiah.
Verse 13: The Greek text has the wording hoi gar kalôs diakonêsantes, “for those having served well”. And again, the context is that those who were considered for election as elders, had to be men who were known to have served their families well.
But, the makers of king James’ bible (1611) had been given orders to produce a text that gave support for “church hierarchies”. And so, they put into verse 13 this wording:
1 Timothy 3:13 For they that haue vsed the office of a Deacon well […] (KJV1611)
Please note that the Greek text of that verse does not contain any words for “office” or “deacon”. The context, that whole passage, is about the qualifications and selection (election) of elders, and not “deacons”.
The answer is no. To begin with: The word “hierarchy” is not scriptural; it is not even found in the Bible. Literally, the Greek-based word “hierarchy” refers to “priest rule”, but again, the saints did not have any mortal priests. The resurrected Jesus was their only priest. And, there were no “ranks” among them; they were all brothers – equal. Let us keep in mind what Jesus said to his disciples:
Matthew 23:8 “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 “And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 “And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. (NASB77)
(Many churches have “priests” or something similar, but that has nothing to do with what the saints practised. The “ecclesiastical hierarchies” which are in use in many churches today, are of Catholic origin.)
Acts 6 does not say that the seven men whom the saints in Jerusalem put to take care of the aid distribution tables, would have had some “title”.
A number of bible-versions have in five verses the word “deacon” (Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8, 10, 12 and 13). Details:
In the case of Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8 and 12, the reason why some translators have put “deacons” into those passages, is that that is copied from the Catholic Vulgate version. In those three verses, the makers of the Vulgate for some reason failed to translate the Greek noun diakonos properly into Latin, and used instead that Greek word, in the transcribed forms diaconis, diaconos and diacones.
In the case of 1 Timothy 3:10 and 13, the word “deacon” is an addition; the Greek text of those verses does not contain the noun diakonos. And, as was noted earlier, 1 Timothy chapter 3 is about the election of elders, and not “deacons”.
See also the “recommended reading” section, after the appendix below.
Here are some examples of the use of the noun diakonos, “servant”, “aider”, the related noun diakonia, “serving”, “aiding”, and the verb diakoneô, “to serve”, “to aid”, in the Greek text of the New Testament.
1 Corinthians 3:5 Who therefore is Paul and who is Apollos? But rather helpers [Greek diakonoi] through whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to each man. (ACV, comment added)
2 Corinthians 3: […] 6 who also made us sufficient as servants [diakonous] of a new covenant; not of the letter, but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (WEB, comment added)
2 Corinthians 6:3 We give no occasion of stumbling in anything, that our service [diakonia] may not be blamed, 4 but in everything commending ourselves, as servants [diakonoi] of God, in great endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses (WEB, comments added)
Ephesians 3: […] 6 that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of his promise in Christ Jesus through the Good News, 7 of which I was made a servant [diakonos], according to the gift of that grace of God which was given me according to the working of his power. (WEB, comment added)
Ephesians 6:21 But that you also may know my affairs, how I am doing, Tychicus, the beloved brother and faithful servant [diakonos] in the Lord, will make known to you all things (WEB, comment added)
Philippians 1:1 Paul and Timothy, bondmen [Greek douloi, “slaves”] of Jesus Christ, to all the sanctified in Jesus Christ who are at Philippi, with the guardians and helpers [episkopois kai diakonois] (ACV, comments added)
(Here in Philippians 1:1, it appears that the apostle Paul used the poetic expression episkopois kai diakonois, “guardians and helpers”, of elders in those saints’ fellowship. Two words regarding the one and same duty. The article nea010.htm has some notes on Philippians 1:1.)
Colossians 1: […] 23 if it is so that you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the Good News which you heard, which is being proclaimed in all creation under heaven; of which I, Paul, was made a servant [diakonos] (WEB, comment added)
Colossians 4:17 And say to Archippus: “Attend on the service [diakonian] which thou didst receive in the Lord, that thou mayest fulfil it. (DiaBW, comment added)
(We do not know who Archippus was, but we see that Paul was sending him a message that he was to fulfil his serving, whatever it was.)
1 Thessalonians 3: […] 2 and sent Timothy, our brother and God’s servant [diakonon] in the Good News of Christ, to establish you, and to comfort you concerning your faith (WEB, comment added)
1 Timothy 1:12 And I thank him who enabled me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he counted me faithful, appointing me to service [diakonian] (WEB, comment added)
1 Timothy 3:8 Servants [diakonous], in the same way, must be reverent, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for money; 9 holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. 10 Let them also first be tested; then let them serve [diakoneitôsan] if they are blameless. 11 Their wives in the same way must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things. 12 Let servants [diakonoi] be husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. 13 For those who have served [diakonêsantes] well gain for themselves a good standing, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus. (WEB, comments added)
A note: 1 Timothy 3 is about the election of elders. A number of things in that chapter are discussed in more detail in the main part of this article.
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Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters
An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → nsa090.htm
On the King James translation. The story behind king James’ bible, including the men who were involved in producing it. → nsa030.htm
What does the Bible say about elders? What was their role in the saints’ fellowships? → nea010.htm
What does the Bible say about ordaining or ordination? How did the saints choose their elders? Were those elders “ordained”, and did they function as “priests” of some kind? → nea020.htm
What does the Bible say about religious titles, such as “apostle”, “bishop”, “evangelist”, “father”, “pastor” and so on? → naa080.htm
How the saints took care of the elderly and the poor. → nma070.htm
Easy keys to deeper understanding of the Scriptures. → nga020.htm
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