In Romans 16:1, Paul begins a long series of greetings to people he knows in or near Rome. The first person he mentions is a woman, Phoebe, “who is a diakonon of the church which is at Cenchrea.” This Greek word used by Paul to refer to Phoebe is a familiar word in the Greek world. It’s the word we translate as "deacon."
A diakonos in the first century was a household servant, whose duties were those of administration and service for a master (see Matt 22:13; John 2:5). In the secular world, the term rarely implied selfless service. But in the New Testament, the term became associated with voluntary and selfless service to God (Rom 13:4), being a servant of Christ (John 12:26), or of one another (Matt 23:11). Hence the group of seven men selected in Acts 6 are said to “serve tables” and the qualification for deacons in 1 Timothy include the ability to rule or manage well their own households (3:12). These uses of the word diakonos conform to the common usage in the first century.
But there’s something strange about the history of the translation of this word. In most Bible translations, diakonos is translated as "deacon" only in 1 Timothy 3 (vs. 8, 10, 12) and Philippians 1:1. All other occurrences of this word are translated either "servant" or "minister." The verb form of the word, diakoneo, is translated most often as "to serve" or "to minister." The same goes for the word diakonia translated as "service" or "ministry."
I have found that every time the words diakonos, diakoneo or diakonia are used in connection to a male person in the writings of Paul, the major English translations have either translated them as "minister" or "servant."
- In 1 Corinthians 3:5, Paul and Apollos are "ministers" (King James Version, New King James Version) or "servants" (English Standard Version, New Living Translation, New Revised Standard Version, New American Standard Bible, New International Version). In Ephesians 3:7, Paul is a "minister" (KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV) or a "servant" (NRSV, NIV, NLT). In Colossians 1:23 and 1:25, Paul serves also a "minister" (KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV) or a "servant" (NRSV, NIV, NLT).
- In Ephesians 6:21, Tychicus is a "minister" (KJV, NKJV, NRSV, NASB, ESV) or a "servant" (NIV). In Colossians 4:7, he is referred to as a "minister" (KJV, NKJV, NRSV, NIV, ESV) or a "servant" (NASB).
- In Colossians 1:7, Epaphras is a "minister" (KJV, NKJV, NIV, NRSV, ESV) or a "servant" (NASB, NLT).
- In Colossians 4:17, Archippus is active in "ministry" (diakonia) (KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV).
- In Philemon 13, Onesimus is doing "ministry" (diakoneo) (KJV, NKJV, NASB) or "service" (NRSV, ESV) for Paul.
Most of these English translations tend to be consistent. The KJV and NKJV always translate the word diakonos as "minister," the NASB and ESV do the same most of the time, and the NIV translates the word as "servant" most of the time. However, the NRSV is not consistent and fluctuates between the two words, while the NLT varies between "servant" or "helper."
Gender Bias In English Translations
But what is most intriguing is that when it comes to the only reference where the word diakonos is used in connection with a female person in Paul’s writings, the word is never translated "minister" in our current English translations.
Phoebe (Rom 16:1) is a "servant" (KJV, NKJV, NIV, NASB, ESV) or a "deacon" (NRSV, NLT). But in none of the translations is she described as a "minister!"
The KJV, NKJV, NASB and ESV consistently translate diakonos as "minister" when the word is used in connection to a male person, but not so when it comes to Phoebe. I think this shows a strange bias against women in ministry.
Since through the centuries the King James Version has had such an important impact on our understanding of the doctrine of the church (at least in the English-speaking world), could it be that our modern attitudes toward women in ministry have been shaped by biased translators? In contrast, however, William Tyndale’s New Testament (published in 1534) consistently referred to Phoebe and all of Paul’s co-workers as "ministers" – no distinction between them! The same happens in the Geneva Bible (1560). If these translations had been followed for this verse when the King James Version was produced in 1611, may be we would be less resistant toward women in ministry today.
We believe we should let the Scripture guide our reflection on the future of ministry in our church.
If men and women could be diakonos in the New Testament, why couldn’t men and women serve in the same capacity today? This is not about whether women should be ordained or not. It is about allowing women to fully participate in the life and ministry of the church, as was happening in the New Testament church.
Phoebe served the church at Cenchrea in the same capacity that Paul, Apollos, Tychicus, Epaphras, Archippus, and Onesimus did elsewhere. It is possible that not all churches had women diakonos, but some churches like Cenchrea did. 1 Timothy 3:11 seems to imply that Timothy also had women diakonos in his churches.
Adventist patterns of ministry are similar but not quite identical to what we see in the New Testament. In our churches today, deacons tend to take care for the physical needs of the church building and congregation. In the New Testament, deacons like Stephen and Philip also preached the gospel and even baptized new converts (Acts 6:8; 8:5, 38). I think we can confidently say that their diakonos ministry empowered them to do a similar ministry to that of the apostles. That’s what I conclude from this study of the word diakonos in regards to Paul’s ministry and that of his co-workers.
Early in our Adventist history, our pioneers realized that the complexity of ministry demanded that we create, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, new structures and patterns of ministry in order to fulfill the mission God had given us. I think the same continues to happen today. Hence, I believe our church should invite women with gifts of pastoral ministry, administration and leadership to serve at all levels. The New Testament certainly shows this pattern of service for both men and women in the ministry of diakonos.
Denis Fortin is dean and professor of theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. Prior to coming to Andrews, Fortin served as a pastor in the Quebec Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He earned a doctorate in theology from the Université Laval, Quebec, in 1995. His dissertation was titled: "Adventism in the Eastern Townships of Quebec: Implantation and Institutionalization in the 19th Century."
Denis Fortin has previously written for Memory, Meaning & Faith on the question, What Did The Adventist Pioneers Think About Women In Ministry?