What is a Deacon? Who was Phoebe? Twisted Bible Part 7

This Twisted Bible series seeks to unpack and develop many words in English translations of the Bible that seem to be lacking. In this series, we will start by looking at words that could have been translated better (or at least more accurately), and then we will gradually build to translated words that were more heavily twisted, censored, or out-right butchered. If you have not read the introductory post on this series, please read it here. For every word I will give you the link so you can look it up on Blue Letter Bible. There you can see the Greek word, the full definition, and the cross references. Here is an article on how to use it for all its worth.

"Deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. - 1 Timothy 3:8

The Greek Word here is "diakonos," and while it clearly shows where we derived the word "deacon" the main issue is how English Translations handle the word. When we survey the 29 times this word occurs in the New Testament, the ESV translates it "deacon" 3 times, "minster" 7 times, "servant" 13 times, and "attendant" 1 time. While it would be easy to argue how unnecessary it is to translate the same Greek word 4 different ways, that is not my issue. The problem arises when we study the actual verses in which it is used, and how translators selected certain verses to have the title "deacon." 

If we have a leader in the church who serves, why call him a "deacon" instead of "servant"? Since the word "servant" can fulfill all the contexts of the Greek word, why have we created a title of authority? Just as we studied the word for "pastor," we have elevated a role in a way that Jesus did not. Though He was God, Jesus modeled true servanthood; why would we not follow in His steps? Why should we elevate His example of servanthood into a position of power? My first point is that in the upside-down nature of the Kingdom of God, we should be emphasizing the servanthood aspect overtop of leadership. 

But what is equally troubling is how English translations seem to have promoted or continued an agenda. At the end of the book of Romans, Paul sends greetings and commendation to many people and groups. The first person he thanks is the only time where one person is highlighted as a "diakonos" of a specific church. This person was quite important, not only because this person was the first one mentioned, but also because this person was one Paul talked most about in the chapter. But instead of translating the word as "Deacon" or "Minister" we just have "servant." If you wonder why, I believe the answer is clear: It is because she was a woman. "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well."

This is a prime example that no matter how many references we have to woman as leaders in the Early Church, English Translators refuse to call Phoebe a deacon. What's even more interesting about this passage is the Greek word for "patron" which is "prostatis." This comes from "proïstēmi" which means "set over," and it is most often translated "rule" in the New Testament. It is clear from Paul's choice of words that Phoebe was a critical leader in the church at Cenchreae, yet, our twisted translation of her role aligns with a historical and present allergic reaction to this topic - women can't be leaders in the church. This is revealed again in this same chapter, verse 7. The name "Junia" was often mistranslated to "Junias," changing a woman's name to a man's. Does this surprise you? It surprised me too when I first studied this.

So what's the point of all this? If we are going to use the word "deacon," Pheobe certainly deserves the title. And while I support "women in leadership" we often wrongly emphasize leadership overtop of servanthood. I wonder, if pastors and deacons focused on the humble and lowly aspect of being a shepherd or servant, would we even have a debate on women being leaders? I would much prefer, in all leadership roles, that we set aside our titles and authority like Jesus did. For when we elevate ourselves in positions of authority, we cease to follow the example of Jesus.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. -Philippians 2:5-7

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