Deacon, Deaconess

See also Deacon



2. Christ as deacon. The unique source of all Christian diakonía, and its perfect prototype, is found in Him who, being Lord, made himself servant (diákonos, Rom 15:8) and slave (doûlos, Phil 2:6). By His incarnation as the messianic servant of the Father and by His messianic suffering, Christ completely inverted the servant-master relationship and transvaluated the dignity and honor of serving and suffering. Contrasting his own servant-role with both the power structures of Gentile authority and the ambitious strife of the disciples, He affirmed that “whoever would be great among you, must be your servant (diákonos), and whoever would be first among you must be slave (doûlos) of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve (diakonêsai) and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:35-45, cf. 9:35; Matt 20:20-28). Luke, who places the episode in the table context of the Last Supper, concludes the account with the declaration of Christ, “But I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27, ho diakonôn). In the fourth gospel the same servant-nature of the Son is dramatically illustrated by His washing the disciples’ feet prior to the Supper (John 13:1-11).


A curious rabbinic parallel occurs in the Mishnah: when Rabban Gamaliel II astonished his fellow rabbis by rising and serving them at table, Rabbi Jehoshua commented that “Abraham was greater than he, and he served at table,” while another confrere added, “God himself spreads the table before all men, and should not Rabban Gamaliel therefore arise and serve us?” (SBK II, p. 257). In the judgment described in Matthew 25:31-46, the Son of man will separate the sheep from the goats on the basis of diakonía: the Son acknowledges those who ministered to Him (25:44) in feeding, clothing, sheltering and visiting “one of the least of these my brethren.”

From these teachings it becomes clear that all Christian diakonía, and indeed the whole Christian life, is a participation by grace in the Servanthood of the Son of man. This diaconate-in-Christ marks the entire Church; we are partakers in the communal life and in the corporate servanthood and suffering of the Suffering Servant (cf. Phil 2:5-11; Col 1:24-28). According to Romans 12:7 and 1 Peter 4:7, this diakonía is a distinctive gift of the Spirit within the Body of Christ, along with (or manifested in) such gifts as helps, liberality, mercy, and hospitality.


Some have seen in Acts 6 the initiation of the diaconate as a church office, since the passage employs the noun diakonía (6:1, 4) and the verb diakoneîn (6:2), and introduces the significant distinction between the “ministry of the Word” (6:4) and the “ministry of tables” (6:1, 2). But the seven are nowhere called “deacons”; Philip is in fact called an evangelist” (21:8) and subsequent accounts emphasize the role of the seven in disputing, teaching, preaching and baptizing.

The salutation of Philippians 1:1 seems to refer to the diaconate as a specific and relatively defined function within the congregation, closely associated with the bishop (or overseer), perhaps esp. in administration of the contribution for which Paul thanks the Philippians. The same quasi-official use reappears in 1 Timothy 3:8-13, again closely linked to the bishop. The requisites for the choice of deacons fit those required for the administration of congregational funds and for house-to-house visitation, two functions typically ascribed to the deacon in patristic lit. (Hipp. Ap. Tr. 9, 21, 23-25, 30). These two passages stand alone as instances of a more technical official sense of the term. Patristic lit. illustrates the progressive definition of its official character, along with the gradual distinction of the bishop and presbyter to constitute a threefold ministry in which the deacon assists the bishop.

4. Deaconess. The synoptic gospels give curious emphasis to the diakonía of certain women (see above). In Romans 16:1 Phoebe is described as a diákonos (RSV, “deaconess”), but since the form is masculine, without article, and since the first indications of an office of “deaconess” appear only in the 3rd cent., it is highly doubtful that the v. refers to a specific and definite church office. The “women” of 1 Timothy 3:11 prob. refer to the wives of deacons rather than to deaconesses. These passages, however, plus the role of widows indicated in 1 Timothy 5:3-16 and 1 Corinthians 7:8 may point to the earliest origins of the development of the later office of deaconess.

Bibliography B. Reicke, Diakonie, Festfreude und Zelos (1951); G. Kittel, TWNT II, (1964), 81-93; J. McCord and T. H. L. Parker, Service in Christ (1966); H. von Campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries (1969).

Article 2

DEACON, DEACONESS (Gr. diakonos, servant). Paul used the Greek word of himself (1Cor.3.5; Eph.3.7). Jesus was declared to be a diakonos of the Jews (Rom.15.8). Household servants were diakonoi (Matt.22.13). Paul told Timothy how to be good diakonos (1Tim.4.6). NIV usually renders “servant”; KJV, “minister.”

The diaconate, as a church office, is inferred from Acts.6.1-Acts.6.8, but at least two of the seven men were evangelists. Ignatius, a contemporary of the apostle John, declared that the deacons were not mere servers of meat and drink. But the seven in Acts.6.1-Acts.6.15 did serve (diakonein) tables, so that the apostles could give themselves to the ministry (diakonia) of the Word. Their successors came to be recognized as church officers. Qualifications given in 1Tim.3.1-1Tim.3.16 show that they were not considered ordinary lay members of the church. Paul’s mention of deacons in connection with bishops (Phil.1.1) supports the view. Clement of Rome based the office on the two classes of synagogue workers mentioned in Isa.60.17 (lxx)—pastors and helpers.

The same Greek word is used of Phoebe in Romans 16:1—translated as “servant” (kjv, nasb, niv) or “deaconess” (jb, rsv). Certain women ministered (diakonein) to Jesus (Luke.8.2-Luke.8.3). It does not appear from the Scripture or early church literature that deaconesses were ever church officers.——JDF