The handling of the verb diakoneo, with its accompanying noun forms, diakonia and diakonos, provides a vivid illustration of how far the contemporary church has departed from the New Testament pattern, and from the clear instructions of Jesus.
Classically, this family of words referred to any kind of service, the person who performed such service (Thayer summarizes quite well, “to attend to anything that may serve another’s interest”), or the care or support thus rendered. It was actually a very simple idea, even when broadened to include the giving, acceptance, or fulfillment of some specific assignment.
Jesus employed this concept in speaking of his own purpose, “not to be waited-on, but to serve” (Mt.20:28), and in expressing his expectation that his followers should display a similar attitude (Mt.23:11 and parallel in Mk.9:35), giving them the example (although the word is not used on that occasion) by washing their feet (Jn.13). Please refer to chapter 11 of Citizens of the Kingdom for a fuller exploration of this event.
In parables and narratives, diakoneo is frequently used of preparing and serving a meal (Lk.10:40, 12:37, 17:8; Jn.12:2, Mt.8:15, and Mk.1:31), or of a more generalized looking-after-needs (Mt.27:55, Mk.15:41, Lk.8:3, Phm.13), and the relief-offering sent by the Gentile churches to their Judean brethren (Rom.15:25, 15:31; II Cor.9:12, 8:19-20).
Whence, then, came the lofty, nearly-untouchable idea of “ministry/ministers” as members of an institutional, clerical hierarchy, quite set-apart from a disenfranchised “laity” (a word created from laos, “people”, though with the usually unspoken demeaning modifier, “common” or “ordinary.”) Certainly not from Jesus, who flatly forbade titles or elevated positions, reminding us that we are “all brethren” (Mt.23:11-12). See chapter 6 of Citizens of the Kingdom.
I strongly suspect that these varied and distorted translations (which, after all, date only from the 17th century) are the artifacts of the hierarchical patterns that had developed in the institutional churches of the intervening centuries, for they certainly do not occur in the text. Of course this is not the only place where it has become a common practice to alter the text to match one’s “doctrine”, rather than the more faithful reverse process!
Notice the irony that it is the same word which Jesus used of his own purpose to serve, and to urge his followers to offer each other even the most menial of service, that has been wielded as a weapon to demand superior status and/or authority! In the first century, the meaning folks “heard” from the use of diakoneo was simple, selfless service. This was the behavior expected of every faithful follower. In fact, all of the other, more specialized assignments enumerated in Eph.4:12 are specifically said to be for the purpose of enabling that service!
Official positions of course were not unknown in the first century: but they were represented by different words: leitourgia/leitourgos (“to serve in public office; to perform public duties for either the state or the gods”) – notice the English cognate, “liturgy”– and huperetes (“an officer or agent of a government or hierarchy; the rendering of military service, or to serve any entity in a subordinate role: an assistant.”) These appear rarely in the New Testament; the former often referring to the Jewish legal hierarchy or priesthood, the latter when John Mark traveled with Paul and Barnabas as an assistant (perhaps in a sort of apprenticeship).
It is instructive to note the individuals to whom Paul applies the term diakonos. They include Timothy and Erastus (Ac.19:22), all those traveling with him to carry the relief offering to Judea (II Cor.3:3), Onesiphorus (II Tim.1:18), Onesimus (Phm.13), Tychicus (Eph.6:21 and Col.4:7), Epaphras (Col.1:17), Stephen’s household (I Cor.16:15), Archippus (Col.4:17), and Phoebe (Rom.16:1). He labels them ALL with the same word he applies to himself!
Interestingly, it is only Phoebe who is described with an additional title: Paul speaks of her as a prostatis – which L/S defines as “a presiding officer, guardian, patron, or protector” – and says that she has filled that position for him and for many others! We have no clue what that position entailed, or whether it was civil or religious. This is the only use of that word in the New Testament. It is in addition to the more common role of diakonos, (which is here used with a feminine article) in the church at Cenchrea. Traditional translators, bound by their definitions of “ministers”, could not bring themselves to use the word here, but substituted “servant” – a perfectly good translation, if it were not used as if the meaning were different.
Only five times (out of 30) is diakonos traditionally translated “deacon”, and interpreted as if it were an official title. Four of those are in I Tim.3:8, 10, 12, 13, where qualifications are listed. Nowhere in this passage is there any word indicating an “official position” (see above). Look again at the context: Should this not describe any faithful follower of the Lord Jesus?
Similar qualifications are applied to both men and women: Note that it is a cultural decision, not a linguistic or semantic one, to translate gune as “wife” rather that simply “woman” (both are correct). Other references that specifically connect women with diakoneo and its related words are Mk.8:15 (Peter’s mother-in-law), Mt.27:55 (the women who supported Jesus and his disciples in their travels, and Lk.10:40 and Jn.12:2 (Mary and Martha).
Paul also frequently uses diakonia to refer to an assignment that he was given: (1) to carry the news of Jesus’ Kingdom (Ac.12:25, 20:24, 21:19; II Cor.5:18), (2) to deliver the relief offering to Jerusalem (II Cor.4:1), or similar assignments given to others (Col.4:17 and I Tim.4:6). Perhaps “assignment” or “a task assigned by the Lord” would sometimes be a better translation. Such assignments may vary with the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
The recipients of our service may also vary: they may reach as far as the “outside world” (Ac.21:19, II Cor.5:18), or be directed specifically toward the brethren (I Pet.4:10-11, I Cor.12:5, Col.1:25), or toward anyone in need (II Cor.8:19-20, 9:12; Mt.25:44, Rom.5:25). Ultimately, it is all service to the Lord Jesus (II Cor.3:3, Col.4:7, I Tim 4:6, 1:12).
“There are different kinds of service (diakonion) but the same Lord; and there are differing jobs to do (energematon), but the same God who does all the work (energon).” I Cor.12:5-6
There is no better or more accurate conclusion than I Pet.3:10:
“Just as each one has received a spiritual gift [empowerment], SERVE EACH OTHER WITH IT, as good trustees of the many-faceted grace of God,”
determined, with our brother Paul, to “complete (our) race, and the assignment (we) received from the Lord Jesus” (Ac.20:24).
This is the essence of diakonia: ministry/service.