Consider the case of perhaps the grossest bias I have yet discovered in my years of reading the Bible among Bible translations that are usually considered to be reliable, conservative texts, leaning much more toward formal equivalency than dynamic - that of the inconsistent treatment of the word διάκονος (diakonos) (a noun) and its verb form διακονέω (diakoneō) in the major English versions.
The English word "deacon" is usually explained as a transliteration of the noun diakonos from Greek into English. I lack the resources to dig into the etymological history of the word "deacon", but suffice it to say for our purposes that it appears as early as the Wycliffe Bible, and that probably means it had been part of regular ecclesiastical English usage for quite some time before. I would not be surprised at all to find that it is a holdover from Roman Catholic language, thoughtlessly brought over into the Reformation tradition by men who got much right but also left much unreformed.
I will argue that this traditional language has slipped past the guard not only of pastors and religious service providers, lecturers, and theologians of the past 500 years or so, but even worse, past the guard of Bible translators. I can see no sound reason why either of these Greek words ought ever to be translated with the word "deacon" in any English text of the Bible. To claim "deacon" belongs there is to hold to this translating tradition that is actually at odds with consistent translation and contextual practice. The conclusion that it is translated this way in all these Bibles because of the tradition-colored bias of the translators is very hard to escape.
The DataIn the Greek NT, there are 27 occurrences of διάκονος. The NASB renders those as "minister" or "servant" every single time except Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8 and 3:12. The ESV similarly says "deacon" only those three times and "minister" or "servant" every other time except Matt 22:13, where it reads "attendants".
In the Greek NT, διακονέω (which is the verb form, you'll recall) appears 32 times. The NASB and ESV render those as "administer", "minister", "wait on", "serve", "take care of", and suchlike. They read "serve as deacon" only twice, in 1 Timothy 3:10 and 3:13.
Thus we find that the NASB and ESV translators continued an established tradition, whose backing we will go on to question, that led them to render 11% of the occurrences of διάκονος as "deacon" and 6% of the occurrences of διακονέω as "serve as deacon". That's a very small amount; when the majority of the translations of a given word are a more general word like "servant" or "minister", but in certain situations one wants to change it to something more specific, one needs a good argument to do so, whether etymological, contextual, whatever.
All the New Testament occurrences of each word can be found at Blue Letter Bible, which is a wonderfully helpful resource:
Thus you can review each text in context. It will probably also be helpful to take a look at διακονία, "ministry", which has the same root, a very close relationship to the other two, and note how many times (out of 34 occurrences) it is translated with anything like "office" or "deacon" (never).
Now, let's take a look at some specifics.
The Epistles to TimothyOf some note is the fact that neither render διάκονος as "deacon" in 2 Tim 1:18, despite the fact that it's the same author as 1 Timothy, Paul, writing to the same recipient, Timothy. Why the different translation?
Even more noteworthy is the same phenomenon in 1 Timothy 4:6. Note the way the NASB translates the three verses in 1 Timothy that employ διάκονος:
--1 Timothy 3:8 - Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain...
--1 Timothy 3:12 - Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households.
--1 Timothy 4:6 - In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following.
Here in the very same letter, just a few sentences down from the other two appearances of διάκονος, the NASB translators use a different English word. One may object that the context calls for that different word. Fine; I invite anyone to show me how the context is appreciably different such that one could know that Paul is referring to some sort of specialised office or something that demands the creation of a new English word in the third chapter, but just a little later when identifying what Timothy will be if he does these things, suddenly it's a different meaning entirely. I don't think that argument is sustainable. The only reason one would say this is if he had a pre-existing commitment to the existence of a thing called "the office of deacon". The Greek text certainly doesn't lead anyone to that conclusion, taken by itself, which is pretty much what we're supposed to do if we want to go ad fontes as good Sola Scripturists.
Just Who Is A διάκονος?I don't see a reason not to render διάκονος consistently across the board. To whom is διάκονος applied in the New Testament?
--Phoebe (Rom 16:1)
--Tychicus (Eph 6:21; Col 4:7)
--Epaphras (Col 1:7)
--Apollos (1 Cor 3:5)
Interestingly, I think most people would think of Apollos as more of a teacher or something, and that doesn't fit the traditional "deacon" role.
But it gets better.
--Old Testament prophets (1 Peter 1:12)
--Paul (1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6, 6:4, 11:23; Col 1:23-25)
--Jesus (Rom 15:8)
So, does the word mean "deacon" or doesn't it? If you're going to go to the trouble of creating a new English word (back 600+ years ago when it was created, I mean), why wouldn't you apply it to every occurrence? Are these people deacons or not? I can't think of anyone who would contend that they are, with the possible exception of Phoebe. Phoebe is often the center of "can women be deaconesses?" debates, and of course the reasoning behind those debates is that there is an office called "deacon" in the New Testament.
But wait, there's more!
Not only are these individuals referred to with διάκονος; other individuals such as Onesimus (Philemon 13), as well as all believers, are said to engage in διακονέω (the verb), in Hebrews 6:10 and 1 Peter 4:10-11! If Phoebe is possibly a deacon, then so are Jesus, Paul, Apollos, Amos, Jeremiah, Daniel, and everyone else who believes in Jesus.
Also, don't forget that Jesus Himself said that the greatest among His disciples shall be διάκονος (Matthew 23:11). One wonders, then, why deacons don't occupy such a lofty position in modern churches, as usually it's the pastor who's the greatest among the disciples.
A Third Church OfficeNow that we mention 1 Peter 4:10-11, it would appear we have approximately equal biblical support for saying that "steward" is an office in the church.
As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves (διακονέω) is to do so as one who is serving (διακονέω) by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:10-11)If we're going to go around willy-nilly creating church offices out of thin air based on isolated passages in which we translate words in a way that is inconsistent with the way we translate it everywhere else, why not do that with "steward" (οἰκονόμος), given the way Peter uses it here in 1 Peter 4, in the context of local church life?
What's the difference? It is that "steward", in the course of medieval Roman Catholic and proto-Protestant history, never came to be thought of as an office. If it had, I have no doubt the modern pastoral zeitgeist would ensure we're all teaching and seeking men to fill the three church offices of which the New Testament speaks, and there would be whole sermons where the Scripture is butchered to "support" the establishment of the office of steward as we now see for the office of deacon.
You see, holding a church office allows men to feel important and achieve recognition, which is a basic (and usually sinful) human desire. It also allows for people to, when convenient, parry questions about their behavior and teaching, since they have a Badge of Ecclesiastical Approval, to which the hypothetical inquiring "layperson" has not attained. It's the "Touch Not God's Anointed" syndrome, which is common, many claims to the contrary notwithstanding.
Deacons and WomenFurther evidence that the Apostle Paul meant something other than to be setting out "qualifications" for "church offices" in 1 Timothy 3 appears in verse 11.
The claim is that Paul is saying "if a man has the following qualities, he can be a candidate for the office of 'overseer/elder/pastor/bishop/presbyter/whatever else' or of 'deacon'." While this is less a question of translation proper, it raises questions with reference to the backing tradition that brought the translation about that included "deacon". If these are indeed qualifications for offices, why do we see parallel sentence structures in verses 2, 8, and 11?
Verse 2 - An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach
Verse 8 - Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain,
Verse 11 - Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.
Is "woman" a church office? I know of no one who thinks so, but one of the most significant arguments in favor of these church offices is the language in 1 Timothy 3, and if "overseer" and "deacon" are offices, then "woman" would seem to be one as well.
A Better SuggestionBible translations ought to communicate as clearly and faithfully as possible the meaning of the original language text. I'll just say it like it is - inserting the word "deacon" in 1 Timothy 3 and Philippians 1, instead of sticking with what διάκονος actually means, which is "minister" or "servant", is an unhelpful and false translation that stems from the traditions of man rather than properly passing on the meaning of the Greek text.
The inconsistencies we have seen already. Of course it is preposterous that Jesus be a deacon. Of course it is preposterous that all women hold a "church office", leaving churches that are majority "clergy" and minority "laypeople". That's the point. Whoever it was who thought of the word "deacon" should have cared about these points, enough to not transliterate διάκονος into English. Later translators should have corrected that error - such a thing has been done numerous times, but not in this case. Rather, translators and theologians and the like have, up to this very day, perpetuated and promulgated this mistaken notion and thus led churches into error.
My proposal is simple - remove "deacon" from the English text and replace it with "minister" or "servant", like the word is translated in pretty much every other occurrence. Let us rejoice that the Lord has given us yet another opportunity to be semper reformanda and throwing off the false practices, structures, and teachings that Rome bequeathed to us.
Then, let's consider what 1 Timothy 3 actually means, since it doesn't mean "holder of a church office called 'deacon'", bear fruit in keeping with repentance, walk in the truth in all things, and reform our churches to match true biblical teaching.