One of the realities that I love writing about is how Jesus turns things we’re so sure about on their heads. The poor will inherit the Kingdom. Blessed are you when people revile you. The greatest among you are those who become like little children.
The one that we have to keep coming back to over and over again as we talk about ministry in the New Testament is that the greatest in the Kingdom are those who serve. Because Jesus is a King who became Lord by laying down His life, He invites us to greatness through the laying down of our own lives.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that one of the roles described in the New Testament that function in the church is the servant. You haven’t heard of it? Let me explain.
If you’re reading this blog, you most likely speak English. Our English translations suffer from a problem known as transliteration. Transliteration is a phenomenon where a translator copies a word from one language to another (in this case, Greek to English) without translating the word. A great example is baptism. Baptism comes from the Greek work “baptizo,” which literally translated means “to immerse or dunk under water.” Translators chose to render the word “baptize” instead of “immerse under water” because it wasn’t politically smart to call into question a king’s sprinkle baptism.
In much the same way, the church has handled the role of “servant*.” You’re probably more familiar with the transliterated word we use more often: “deacon.” But in many places throughout the New Testament, you could essentially switch the word servant out with deacon and be talking about the same thing.
Why is this important? Well, there are two reasons: 1) In some traditions, deacons hold positions of power and authority. They are the ones calling the shots in the body of Christ. But according to their actual name, they aren’t designed to be in control. They are designed to serve. 2) In at least one church I was part of (and a number of others I’m aware of) the deacons were more of a sanctified volunteer team. They were patterned after the seven described in Acts 6 and did no more than help with physical needs that cropped up at the church. While this is a form of service, servants are called to more than just ministering to random needs that pop up.
Probably the best way to describe a Servant is to show some prominent examples of them from throughout the New Testament.
Paul- (Colossians 1:23, but see also 1 Corinthians 3:5, 1 Corinthians 4:1, 2 Corinthians 6:4, 2 Corinthians 11:23, Ephesians 3:7.) My point in bringing up Paul’s multiple uses of this word to refer to himself is not to say that he wasn’t an apostle–clearly he was! But that maybe, just maybe, Paul considered his apostolic calling a function of his place in the body as a Servant. Is it possible that we shrunk down the role of Servants within the body? Is it possible that they are truly greater in the Kingdom like Jesus said, instead of just ministers in training that tend to physical (and in our minds, less important) needs? Also, we’ll find as we go that it’s difficult to find a Servant stuck in one place for very long.
Phoebe– (Romans 16:1) Depending on which translation you read, this verse may or may not be translated as “deacon.” (NLT does, for example.) Regardless, Phoebe was a Servant of the church who was likely entrusted to deliver the book of Romans to the church in Rome. We don’t get much insight into how, but Paul describes her as someone who helped the church at large, but especially him. It was common to have itinerants who brought letters such as Romans from one place to another who also encouraged believers as they went. What’s rare here is that Phoebe is a woman. Interestingly, where Paul gives instructions for Servants in 1 Timothy 3, there is a section devoted to Servant’s “wives,” but that word can also be translated “women.”
Stephen-(Acts 6:1-5) I’m sure many of you have been waiting for me to get to Acts 6. I don’t like starting here because this is where we draw all our images from. Stephen and six other men were entrusted with the “diakonia” or the “service of the food.” Much of our current theology for Servants comes from this passage. But look where Stephen goes from here: Quickly he becomes a bright light in the church, preaching the Gospel and performing amazing signs and wonders among the people. He was such a threat to the religious establishment, he became the first martyr after Jesus. My point in showcasing Stephen is that he transcends what we think of when we think of Servants.
Phillip- (Acts 6:1-5, Acts 8:4-40, Acts 21:8) Again, Phillip is never called a Servant in scripture, but he was one of the seven that was trusted early on with the “diakonia” or service of distributing the food. After the stoning of Stephen, Phillip became a raving evangelist, breaking open territory for the Gospel among the Samaritans and the Ethiopians. We know that he won many people to Jesus because he’s the only man in the New Testament that is called an evangelist. Again, even though he started serving as part of the food program, he did much more than that. We’re tempted to think it was a promotion. In reality every part of his ministry was a function of him taking on the role of a Servant.
What am I trying to say by pointing out what the New Testament says about Servants? A few things:
1) Our assumptions about this role are usually wrong. This isn’t a position of power or privilege, nor is it a junior ministry position. Rather, it’s willingly laying down our lives to serve Christ and His body.
2) There is enough evidence in the New Testament that this role had women operating in it that we should probably be comfortable with both genders operating in it.
3) Paul the apostle, Stephen the first martyr, and Phillip the Evangelist were all Servants. Whatever our thoughts about “deacons” or Servants are, we need to be careful not to minimize the place of becoming a recognized Servant. I believe in the age to come, it won’t be the titles of apostle or prophet or teacher that will be appeal to us. It will be the title of Servant.
If that’s the case, wouldn’t it be better if we adopt that title now?
*In training our house churches on this subject, I’ve chosen never to use the word deacon. That’s a personal choice, but Deacon comes with so much baggage, it’s easier for me to use a totally new word that says exactly what it means.