Gendered titles & getters-of-stuff-done

While reading the biblical books of Ephesians and Colossians in Greek, I have been struck by Paul’s repeated references to himself and others as διάκονος (pronounced de-ä’-ko-nos; it’s where we get the English word “deacon”):

  • Paul says that he has become a διάκονος of the good news of God’s promise in Jesus, according to the gift of God’s grace (Eph 3:6-7).
  • Paul calls his friend Tychichus a beloved brother and faithful διάκονος in the Lord (Eph 6:21).
  • Paul says that the Colossians heard the good news from his other buddy Epaphras, whom Paul describes as a beloved fellow servant and a faithful διάκονος of Christ (Col 1:7).
  • Paul says (again) that he has been made a διάκονος of the good news (Col 1:23).
  • Immediately after this, Paul calls himself a διάκονος of Christ’s body, which is the church (Col 1:24-25).
  • Paul mentions Tychichus again and calls him a beloved brother, faithful διάκονος, and fellow servant in the Lord (Col 4:7).

Different translations, in different places (the passages above as well as others), translate διάκονος as servant, minister, or deacon.

Danker et. al.’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (affectionately known as “BDAG,” which stands for the initials of the four main contributing scholars…not to be confused with a d-bag, which is something else :D) describes a διάκονος as “one who is busy with something in a manner that is of assistance to someone”; for example, “one who serves as an intermediary in a transaction,” or “one who gets something done, at the behest of a superior.”

So basically, a διάκονος gets *stuff* done. On someone else’s behalf. (Feel free to think of that when you read these passages from now on.)

I think I was struck by Paul’s descriptions of himself―and of other friends and fellow leaders whom he clearly likes and respects very much―as διάκονος, because it feels like such a humble term. When you are a διάκονος, you are doing something on behalf of another; carrying out another’s wishes; assisting someone else in achieving their goals, while perhaps putting your own goals on the back burner for a time. 

These are all things that have been historically, and are often in the present, relegated to women. They are things that are expected of women, often much more so than they are expected of men―however much churches and their male leaders might talk a big game about servant leadership. 

Because of this, I’m surprised and glad to see that Paul is proud to apply the term to himself and to his male friends. He doesn’t mind seeing himself as a getter-of-stuff-done on behalf of the good news of God’s promise; on behalf of Jesus; on behalf of the church.

When we call someone a “minister” these days―at least for those who hold some sort of respect for the church and its titles, and I don’t particularly blame those who don’t―it’s a term of honor, leadership, respect. Some churches balk at the idea of female ministers; others (well, more precisely, the same ones, plus a whole bunch more) balk at the idea of LGBTQ+ ministers. 

People and churches who find their place in the more conservative streams of Christianity often end up doing a great deal of verbal gymnastics to try to delineate which roles and titles are available to women (and/or LGBTQ+ people) and which ones are not. Some churches want to allow women and/or LGBTQ+ people to be deacons, but not pastors; children’s program directors, but not ministers; or teachers of other women, but not elders who make decisions on the behalf of the entire church.

Paul’s use of διάκονος―servant, minister, and all-around getter-of-stuff-done―to describe himself pushes back against these odd distinctions churches sometimes draw. 

Paul was a gifted pastor who saw himself as a διάκονος, a deacon. He was a director or co-director of many ministries who saw himself as a διάκονος, a minister. He was a man willing to be taught by women and recognize their leadership―women like Phoebe, whom Paul also calls a διάκονος in Romans 16:1.

Distinctions like deacon vs pastor, director vs minister, or teacher vs elder have been manufactured by subsequent generations of Christians; they are not part of the mindset in which Paul and others wrote the parts of the New Testament that people look to for guidance in these things. 

I’m not exactly someone who would try to make Paul a feminist by modern standards (as much as I might wish he had been), but I do think it’s very much worth pointing out the (many) places where he pushes back, even just a bit, against the particular brands of patriarchy and misogyny so prevalent in his own time and culture―in the hope that this might help us learn to push back against the particular brands of patriarchy and misogyny so prevalent in our own time and culture.

And so, I like that Paul isn’t afraid to name himself and his fellow bros as διάκονος. 

(As a bit of a side note, I’m wary of translations that make gendered choices around how to translate διάκονος in different places. For example, the KJV, ESV, and NASB all translate διάκονος as “minister” when applied to Paul in Eph 3:7, but “servant” when applied to Phoebe in Romans 16:1. Paul didn’t make this distinction; why would we?)

Here’s to breaking down the false distinctions we tend to set up in order to justify discriminatory attitudes and practices.

Here’s to powerful religious leaders like Paul learning―often slowly and painfully, I’m sure―to be a διάκονος: to get stuff done on behalf of something (the good news), someone (Jesus), and some ones (the collections of people who make up church communities) other than themselves.

Here’s to churches thinking more about honoring the gifts and the faithful service-ministry of women and LGBTQ+ people, and less about restricting them, controlling them, and limiting how they are allowed to lead or what titles they are allowed to have.

I think that Paul―the self-proclaimed διάκονος―would approve.

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