The Greek noun diakonos underlying the English word “deacon” has in general usage the meaning of “servant,” especially in the sense of one who waits on tables (cf. Matt. 22.13; John 2.5, 9). Perhaps the word was originally applied to early Christian leaders who assisted at celebrations of the Lord's supper. It has often been suggested that the establishment of the diaconate is sketched in Acts 6.1–6, and this may be Luke's intention, although neither here nor elsewhere does he use the noun diakonos (see Seven, The).
The understanding of Jesus as servant (e.g., Mark 10.45, using the verb diakonein) informs later Christian concepts of ministry, though the New Testament applies diakonos to Jesus in a positive sense only once (Rom. 15.8). The term occurs twenty‐eight other times in the New Testament but only rarely in relation to a special church office.
In Philippians 1.1 Paul addresses a letter to all the Philippian saints “with the bishops and deacons.” Generally the Pauline letters do not imply the existence of fixed church offices with distinctive functions, but in this passage “deacons” clearly refers to a particular group of church leaders. No function is specified, but perhaps Paul mentions them here (along with bishops) because they helped provide the material assistance that partly occasions his letter (4.10–18).
In Romans 16.1–3 Paul mentions a certain Phoebe as a diakonos of the church at Cenchreae (a port city of Corinth) and “benefactor” of many Christians, himself included. Nothing specific is said about her work, but there is no indication that she is a deacon in a lesser or different sense from that of the persons addressed in Philippians 1.1.
One passage in the Pastoral letters (1 Tim. 3.8–13) follows a list of qualifications for bishops with those for deacons. Deacons must be of good character, not avaricious, and good managers of their private households. Such requirements suggest that deacons are administrators with special responsibility for money. Nothing is said about teaching ability. A sentence about women (1 Tim. 3.11) may allude to women deacons or to the wives of male deacons.
Although the Pastoral letters seem to reflect an advanced stage in the development of church organization and differentiation of clerical roles, it is noteworthy that here and elsewhere diakonos can also be used as a general term for Christian “minister” (1 Tim. 4.6). Paul several times applies the term in this broad sense to himself and to other church leaders (1 Cor. 3.5; 2 Cor. 3.6; 6.4; 11.23; cf. Eph. 3.7; Col. 1.23, 25).
David M. Hay