the weblog of Alan Knox

Ministers in Scripture

Posted by on Mar 2, 2011 in service | 27 comments

I specifically used the word “ministers” in the title of this post. I could have just as easily used the word “deacon” or the word “servant.”

So, which one am I planning to write about? Am I planning to write about “ministers,” “deacons,” or “servants”? Yes.

You see, all of these terms are used as glosses and translations for the same Greek term. Why do we have three different English terms? “Deacon” is a transliteration of the Greek term. “Minister” is a transliteration of the equivalent Latin term. And “Servant” is the English term.

In English, the three words have completely different meanings. But, we must understand that these different meanings have grown out of traditions and practices, not from the Greek text of the New Testament. All three words should be synonymous with the meaning of “servant,” but unfortunately, in modern English, they are not synonymous. This leads to many misinterpretations of Scripture.

So, why am I writing about ministers, deacons, and servants? Well, this all stems from a few questions that people asked me last week in the comments of my post “Q&A Session.” For example, Bobby asked, “Is there a biblical distinction between deacons and elders?” Hutch asked, “Do the NT scriptures contain examples of female apostles, deacons, elders and pastors/shepherds?”

Before I can answer those questions, I must first try to find out who are called “servants” in Scripture.

Jesus said that he was a servant (Matthew 20:28). He also told the Twelve (and other Christian “leaders”) to be servants (Matthew 20:26). Paul introduces Phoebe as a servant (Romans 16:1). Furthermore, Paul says that he and Apollos (and by extension all those listed earlier including Peter/Cephas) are servants (1 Corinthians 3:5). Paul says that Tychicus (Ephesians 6:1) and Epaphras (Colossians 1:7) are servants. Finally, Paul exhorts Timothy to be a good servant (1 Timothy 4:6).

When you include the noun for “service” and the verb form “to serve,” you see others listed as servants. Interestingly, both the apostles and the seven are said to be servants in Acts 6.

I think this kind of review is important before we try to understand a passage such as 1 Timothy 3:8-12. The connection becomes more clear when we understand that Paul encourages Timothy to be a “good servant” (1 Timothy 4:6) immediately after that passage (which is usually attached to “deacons” but not “servants” or “ministers”).

Furthermore, with the many exhortations to serve one another (Galatians 5:12 and 1 Peter 4:10 for example), it seems that the authors of Scripture want all followers of Jesus Christ to be “servants.” Are they? Obviously not, otherwise the exhortations would not be necessary.

So, to conclude, we see many examples of “servants.” It is misleading to describe some of them as “minsters,” some of them as “deacons,” and some of them as “servants.” Why? Because while these English terms have different meanings, in Scripture, they are all servants.


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 3-2-2011

    Thank you for this, Alan. Now a follow up question to clarify my reason for asking: do you think we have different tranlations of the same word because of the different types of service? Are elders considered different from deacons because elders should devote themselves to teaching and prayer while deacons take care of serving the widows and others as Acts 6 suggests?

  2. 3-2-2011


    According to Acts 6, both the apostles and the seven chosen were considered “servants.” Elders are not mentioned in that passage at all, so I’m not certain that we can apply it to elders today. It seems that the apostles concern about devoting themselves to prayer and the message was a temporary concern, because they were soon traveling around the Roman empire.


  3. 3-2-2011

    Just cause it bugs, can I point out again that Acts 6 doesn’t ever refer to the servants caring for widows as “deacons”?

  4. 3-2-2011


    The word “deacon” is simply a transliteration of the Greek word that means “servant.” In Acts 6, both the apostles and the seven who were chosen to serve are described as “servants”… or you could use the word “ministers”… or you could use the word “deacon.” The point is, they’re all described by the same word. Misunderstandings and misinterpretations come in when we start using different words for each group. (Actually, the word “servant” is not used, but the word “service” is used for both groups.)


  5. 3-2-2011

    Maybe this was part 1 of 2 or more posts. If so, disregard the question below.

    In this post you concluded:

    “It is misleading to describe some of them as ‘minsters,’ some of them as ‘deacons,’ and some of them as ‘servants’…they are all servants.”

    I’m still left with a puzzle re: the folks of Eph 4, and the way in which Paul, in I Tim 3 (1-7 & 8-13), appears to be describing two different sorts of folks the community might recognize when he lists observable character traits that evidence their maturity.

    Yes, all of us believers are servants who serve. We’re all to submit to one another, esteem the other better, give place to others when speaking, etc. Some excel at enacting these values and are recognized as examples and trusted ones in the community. There are no layers of Christians/clergy hierarchy, etc.

    Still, I Tim 3 is saying something about two apparently distinguishable groups of folks. Who is the second group?

    I’m not advocating we make these or any other saints into an elevated ministry (actually, an oxymoron).

  6. 3-2-2011


    Yes, I feel like I need to write at least one more post about this topic, but I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to do yet. The lists in Ephesians 4 (or Romans 12 or 1 Corinthians 12 for that matter) shows some of the ways that God gifts his children through the Holy Spirit. I wouldn’t necessarily tie some of those to a specific type of servant, while other gifts are more general. Instead, I would say that all believers should use their gifts to serve others, and that the church needs all gifted believers working together in order to grow.

    The passages in 1 Timothy 3 are very interesting. While we know that Paul and Barnabas appointed/recognized elders, and we know that Paul instructed Titus to appoint/recognize elders, we do not have a similar type of appointment/recognition for “servants.” Do you think that’s important?


  7. 3-2-2011

    cool, thanks 🙂

  8. 3-2-2011

    Alan, re: 1 Tim 3, it might be useful to discuss the translation of ‘praxis’ as ‘office’. Implications?

  9. 3-2-2011


    It’s not a complete answer to your question. But, it’s a start.


    Where is “praxis” in 1 Timothy 3? If it’s there, I must keep overlooking it. Thanks.


  10. 3-2-2011

    I don’t think it means we can dismiss what he told Timothy.

    Paul doesn’t use a comprehensive checklist when writing. For example, the lists of gifts are inconsistent, as are the elder chracter traits between Tim and Titus, but I’m assuming that Paul (and, overseen/inspired by the Holy Spirit) wrote each letter to stress certain points/issues/topics to a level he thought was important for the hearer(s).

    We always are only hearing one side of a conversation and we don’t at all know the audience as Paul knew them. He might know where their weaknesses were, where they might not quite be understanding something, etc.

  11. 3-2-2011


    No, Paul doesn’t use a comprehensive checklist, but can we assume things that are never mentioned? No one talks about ordaining “female elders” based on Titus 2, but the word in Titus 2:3 is the feminine version of the word translated “elders.” Plus, Titus 2:3 and following seems to give a good “job description.”

    Why do we not consider them “female elders” but we consider Timothy 3 to describe some type of official servant role? (I can think of a few other passages where functions or characteristics are listed like Timothy 3, but we don’t consider those some type of role that should be appointed/recognized.)

    Perhaps, we are supposed to recognized those younger (not elders yet) men (and women?) who follow Christ and living an exemplary life, but are not old enough to be recognized as elders?


  12. 3-2-2011


    Hutch asked, “Do the NT scriptures contain examples of female apostles, deacons, elders and pastors/shepherds?”

    I liked the way you answered the question in the original post.

    The way I read it:

    Female apostles mentioned in scripture. = Yes.

    Do the New Covenant scriptures contain accounts of females who functioned as “deacons/servants” who lived lives of sacrificial examplary service who shepherded others and who taught spiritual truth verbally and by example(IOW: functioned as pastors/elders/shepherds). = Yes.


    Any New Covenant scriptures that forbid women from doing so? = No.


  13. 3-2-2011


    After answering your question initially, and after interacting with Art in the comments on that post, I decided to look at the word translated “minsters”/”deacons”/”servants”. There are several servants listed in Scripture, both men and women.

    Do you think some servants are deacons while other servants are not deacons?


  14. 3-2-2011

    No. I think they are the same.

    I also think elder/pastor/shepherd are the same – people who are more mature Christians/followers of Christ, whose maturity can be discerned by observing the fact that their lives are one marked by sacrificially loving and serving others – their example serves to shepherd and guide those they meet with on a regular basis as they gather together around Christ. We recognize such people by giving careful consideration to what they say since their example of obedience to Christ is worth considering and emulating. That is the extent of their authority, its contained within their example.

  15. 3-2-2011


    Do you think that churches should recognize servants like they recognize elders?


  16. 3-2-2011

    How are churches supposed to recognize elders?

  17. 3-2-2011

    I am sure we will recoignize a maturing Christian who is a sacrificial servant when we see one, they are rare.

    IOW, I’ve met lots of people with titles like “Elder” or “Pastor” but they are usually hired public speakers, on the other had I’ve only really met a few people who are sacrificial servants who shepherd others with their loving example.

  18. 3-2-2011


    Yes, I’ve met people who have titles but are not actually serving people. That’s not what I’m talking about. Paul and Barnabas appointed/recognized elders, and Paul told Titus to appoint/recognize elders. In the same way, should we appoint/recognize some as “servants”?


  19. 3-2-2011

    No, I do not believe human beings are to appoint or title servants of any stripe within the body of Christ. I do believe that the Holy Spirit as Paul told the Ephesian elders raises up and appoints those who will function as servants/pastors/shepherds/elders in the natural process of spiritual growth within the assemblies of those who have new life in Christ. We know they are servanst by observing their loving sacrificial service and considering what they do and say and emulating their example as they emulate Christ.

  20. 3-2-2011


    What do you think Paul and Barnabas did in Acts 14:26 and what did Paul want Titus to do in Titus 1:5? Whatever they were expected to do with respect to elders, do you they did (and should we do) the same thing with respect to “servants”?


  21. 3-3-2011

    Hi Alan,

    One of the questions I’ve been trying to get to is who do you think the “servants” are in I Tim 3:8-13)?

    You asked Hutch, “Do you think some servants are deacons while other servants are not deacons?”

    I think you do hold that some servants are recognized as elders while other servants are not. And, I’m thinking you don’t see a recognized “Deacon” role in the way they are framed in many church traditions. This seems to me to be a manufactured explanation because who these servants are is misunderstood.

    One suggestion you have made is that the folks in I Tim 3:8-13 might be folks too young to be recognized as elders, but whose walk reflects a maturity level. But, a key age indicator we have is that both elders and these “servants” have children in order and houses they take care of well.

    If I’m misreading you, help me understand your take on the “servants.” Who/what are they?

    I’m seriously wondering if they aren’t the rest of the Eph 4 crew, the itinerant apostle, prophet and evangelist, collectively called simply, “servants” since they, along with elders, provide excellent examples to the community of the type of servant lifestyle we should all be living.

    Paul is associated with 38 others he variously called brother, servant, apostle, fellow-soldier, fellow-prisoner, companion, worker and fellow-slave. Some of these were like Timothy, who was “well reported of by the brethren that were at Lystra and Iconium,” and were tapped by Paul to share in the work of church planting and strengthening communities.

    At least, we don’t have to manufacture a new “Deacon” role. (or a not-quite-an-elder-yet role). Seems like a lot of trouble when we have a more likely candidate for who these recognized servants are that are not elders in the itinerants (Eph 4 apostle, prophet, evangelist). They are all over the book of Acts…but mostly ignored by the church traditions as current ways of serving.

  22. 3-3-2011


    They did exactly what it says they did.

    Should we do likewise today?

    Acts 14:26 = Yes.

    Titus 1:5 = No.

  23. 3-3-2011


    The more I think about it, I don’t think age is the only factor. There could be other factors as well that could cause someone to be a “servant” but not an “elder”.

    I have no problem with any of the gifted people listed in Ephesians 4 being “servants.” But, I wouldn’t limit “servants” to people in that list.


    Thanks. I appreciate the help thinking through this issue.


  24. 5-7-2012

    Alan, Ive had a question for many years, and Im finally going to ask it.
    After reading the responses to this post, I’m mystified why anyone thinks that God changed His mind about women just because He brought in the better covenant?
    As a matter of fact, I’m mystified why they think He had any antipathy toward women in the Old Covenant.
    The question of who or what He meant by minister seems to automatically dredge up the woman question, and so I bring it up.
    Ive read everything I can get my hands on for 40 yrs about women in the Kingdom, and in ministry in general, and since I wasnt in the mainline churches, I guess most of the stuff that makes sense to them went over my head, but in general, I see no change toward women, or anyone for that matter, reflected in scripture.
    Seems to me if we are asking the wrong questions about women in ministry, we might also be asking the wrong questions, and getting the wrong answers about ‘ministry’ itself.
    Since half the kingdom is comprised of these most argued about, and precious creatures, maybe we are getting half our understanding wrong?

  25. 5-8-2012


    Whenever I hear this question today (i.e. women and ministry), it’s asked in the context of positions and authority. I don’t ministry (i.e. service) in Scripture is ever placed in the context of positions and authority. That makes the question difficult for me to answer. In fact, I think it shows that we’re asking the wrong questions.


  26. 9-10-2012

    I’m confused on one point. Should there be an office in churches called “deacon” when the word is always the same = servant or service. And all believers are called be/do it. Phoebe is a good example. Does she hold an office are is she “just” doing it. Should churches “appoint” deacons. In Timothy, is Paul describing the “qualifications” for a church officer (deacon) or is he describing a good servant.

    I suppose the same series of questions could be asked about elders. It seems we got this hierarchy/church office thing all turned around.

    As an aside, I’ve come to look at Jesus’ admonition that the greatest will be your servant as a message to those who want to be leaders. Don’t worry about leading, he seems to say. Just serve. Most of the time people discuss that passage in that our “leaders” should “servant-leaders,” when I think Jesus is saying, just serve. Then you will be leading. Again the dump the offices and titles. Just serve.

  27. 9-11-2012


    I don’t think elders or deacons are offices in the church. Instead, they are recognitions of who among us are actually living (including serving) in the way that all of Jesus’ followers are to live.



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