Behind the Word “Deacon”: A New Testament Study -- By: D. Edmond Hiebert

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 140:558 (Apr 1983)
Article: Behind the Word “Deacon”: A New Testament Study
Author: D. Edmond Hiebert

Behind the Word “Deacon”: A New Testament Study

D. Edmond Hiebert

[D. Edmond Hiebert, Professor Emeritus of New Testament, Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California]

The English word “deacon” is a loan-word coming through the Latin (diaconus) from the Greek word διάκονος.1 The basic meaning of the term is a “servant.” When a person refers to someone appointed as a “deacon” in a local church, the concept of a servant is united with that of office. The term “deacon” thus denotes an office involving the basic duty of rendering service to others. A deacon then is one who is placed in an official position for a ministry of service to benefit others.

The Greeks, with their strong sense of personal freedom, held a rather low view of servants. They did not exalt the servant’s position, but they did have a keen understanding of various aspects involved in the servant concept. They developed a remarkable variety of terms to express different aspects of it.2 These terms naturally shade into each other and frequently it is not necessary to seek to bring out the different shades of meaning involved. But each term can be used to convey its own distinct emphasis.

Perhaps the most common was the word δοῦλος, “a slave, a bond-servant. “As the opposite of a man who is “free,” this term carries the thought of one who belongs wholly to his master and is obligated to do his master’s will. The early church found it a fitting term to express the spiritual reality that a believer belongs wholly to his heavenly Lord and consequently must obey Him in total submission.

The term οἰκέτης was often used as the practical equivalent of the word δοῦλος (cf. 1 Pet 2:18), but it is more specific and denotes “a house-slave.” It portrays a closer and more intimate relationship between servant and master than δοῦλος (cf. Rom 14:4).

Two kindred terms, μίσθιος and μισθωτός, both rendered “hired servant,” embody the picture of one working for pay. These self-centered terms are not used in the New Testament in connection with its “servant” teaching. Jesus used the latter term of the inferior “hireling” as contrasted to the “good shepherd” (

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