Accessing the Work of John Collins for Current LCMS Discussions[1]

By Richard Gahl

Whenever an ecclesiastical office is discussed in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod it is customary to turn to Scripture to ascertain if/how such an office or function is described.  The intent of this essay is to bring to the discussion some recent findings by the Australian New Testament scholar, John Collins. His 1990 book, DIAKONIA, Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources, brought about a complete re-writing of the diakon– entries in the third edition of Bauer’s A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament.[2] A later work by Collins, Deacons in the Church, describes the directions that New Testament study of the diakon– words has taken after 1990.[3] This brief essay seeks to summarize Collins’ work and identify ways for his insights to inform current LCMS conversations.

Before jumping in to the details it will be wise to keep in mind Wayne Meeks’ caution not to read back into the pages of the New Testament developments that took place in the second, third, and fourth centuries.[4]

Translations have been all over the place with diakon– words in recent years.  “Deacon,” “deaconess” (for a clearly masculine noun), “ministry,” “waiting on tables,” “serving”—each of these has been frequently used with little evident rhyme or reason. Gordon Lathrop’s recent work, Four Gospels on Sunday, gives the word family a clear social ministry flavor – “helping the poor and needy.” [5]  God’s Word to the Nations has been the only translation to admit difficulty in bringing “deacon” into English. This version of the Bible contains six identical footnotes, each of which states: “English equivalent difficult.”[6]

Collins contends that New Testament scholarship has since the nineteenth century, for the most part, gone down the wrong path in understanding diakonia in its noun and verb forms. This was due to the influence of the Lutheran Deaconess movement. He credits Wilhelm Loehe with translating diakonia as “service to the poor.”[7]  Wilhelm Brandt, who was influenced by the Kaiserworth community of deaconesses, continued down this wrong track in his 1930 Ph.d. thesis. His work received classic support in Hermann W. Beyer’s article on “diakoneo, diakonia, diakonos” in Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.[8] Collins concludes that the titles “deacon” and “deaconess” were adopted in the nineteenth century because of the mistaken understanding that the apostolic deaconate was essentially the same as “works of mercy.”[9]

To re-interpret the ancient sources Collins studied some 370 instances of the use of the diakon– family of words between 500 BC and 300 CE.  He also identified 20 inscriptions and 30 papyri that made use of the word family.[10] The results are readily seen by comparing the entry for “diakonia” in the second and third editions of BDAG.

Second Edition, BDAG (1979):

1. Wait on someone at table;

2. Serve-services of any kind;

3. Care for, take care of;

4. Help, support someone;

5. Ecclesiastical office, serves as deacon


Third Edition, BDAG (2000):

1. Function as an intermediary, act as a go-between, agent;

2. Perform obligations; includes meals;

3. Meet an immediate need;

4. Carry out official duties; minister in a cultic context;

5. Acts 6:2 poses a special problem; care for, take care of, with dative of thing.


The reader will note that the primary meaning has changed from waiting on tables to functioning as an intermediary or agent. Danker credits Collins with this change in the notes at the end of the lexicon entry.

Collins begins his 2002 book with a thorough examination of Mark 10:45.  He notes that it is customary to treat the text as a simple contrast between “being served” and “to serve.” The diakoinia word is found in both parts of the verse.  This leads somewhat naturally to a table serving setting.  However, Collins insists that the phrase “to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” is epexegetical, i.e. the second phrase explains the first.  The point then is that Jesus is carrying out his assignment from the Father.

The diakonia of Jesus, as dramatically contextualized by Mark in chapter 10, at the end of the Galilean mission and on the road to Jerusalem, was to serve the One whose voice called to him at his baptism, and the Son of Man would perform this service by carrying out the mission to which the voice has consecrated him.[11]

In the letters of Paul ten individuals are identified with the term diakonos: Apollos, Ephaphras, Phoebe, Stephanus, Timothy, Tychicus, Mark, Fortunatus, Erastus, and Paul himself.  In addition, in 2 Corinthians reference is made to the diakonos of Satan. I Corinthians 3:5 identified both Paul and Apollos in the role of diakonos.  Divisions within the house churches of that community had led some to place Apollos in a leading role, while others did the same with Paul. The diakonos word, by its use in Greek culture, would suggest “that Paul and Apollos belonged to a god, that they had been entrusted with the god’s message, that they have the duty to pass it on and the right to be heard and believed, and that their rights and duties were equal.”[12]  Diakonos thus signals delegation or assignment.  Each of the remaining deacons should be seen in the same light.  It is of interest then that Phoebe is not to be termed a deaconess, as she is so designated by Beyer but she is the delegate from Cenchrea, she is their representative to the house churches in Rome.[13]  In an introductory note to his 2002 book Collins states that while his study does not specifically address gender issues, “the ancient language of ministry, namely, diakonia, is inclusive.  Accordingly, every implication that arises for ministry today that arise from the considerations presented in the following pages is equally applicable to men and to women.”[14]

Collins characterizes the diakonoi of Satan in 2 Corinthians 11:15 as a parallel that “arises from the notion of delivering a message from an unworldly realm and requires us to read the latter term as a designation of spokesmen.”[15]

The cultic use of the diakon– words in Greek literature, from the period that Collins studied, is far from a characterization of menial service.  Collins notes the religious character of the use of the word in accounts of banquets and festivals.[16] Slaves were never servers at banquets that had a religious character, rather “young sons of free men would pour the wine.”[17] This customary Greek language usage can readily be seen to provide background for the role of deacons in the Eucharistic services in the second and third century CE.

The appointment of the seven deacons in acts has traditionally been seen as growing out of the human care needs of the Hellenistic widows who were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.  What has been somewhat puzzling about this explanation of the role of deacons is the observance that both Stephen and Philip left behind their assigned food ministry for preaching the Gospel.  Collins’ proposal is to trace the use of diaconia beginning with Acts 1:17.  Here Peter states the need to fill Judas’ share in this ministry (diakonia).  In Acts 1:25 the use of diakonia is parallel to apostolos.  In Acts 20:24 Paul describes himself as carrying out the diaknoia he received from the Lord and reports to James in Acts 21:19 on how he carried out this diakonia to the nations.  Collins concludes that the word diakonia is a code word for the special apostolic mission to take the Word of God abroad.[18]  Since Acts 6:40 also references diakonia with the Word of God, Collins goes on to state:

What does this make of the Seven?  It makes of the Seven a new group of preachers, directed at first to the needs of the Hellenists – note how happily the story ends at 6:7: the Word of God continued to spread; the number of disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem.[19]

The Greek-speaking widows were overlooked in the daily preaching of the word.  Daily the word was proclaimed in the temple in the language of the Jews.  But being Greek-speaking the widows were not able to understand the proclamation.  They needed preachers who could teach them in their own language.  So the Seven are selected to preach the word.  This was their diaconia, their mission.

In preparations for preaching on a Sunday when 2 Corinthians 6 was one of the readings for the day the subject of co-workers caught this writer’s attention in verse 1: “Since we are God’s co-workers…”  Digging back into chapter 5 Paul wrote “whoever is a believer in Christ is a new creation…a new way of living has come into existence…God has done all this. He has restored our relationship with him through Jesus Christ, and has given us this ministry of restoring relationships” (vv. 17-18).  By now the reader might surmise that the word “ministry“ is diakonia. This makes restoring relationships the assignment, or mission of the people of God.


[1] This essay is a revision of an earlier work that was published by Crossings.org in its Thursday Theology blog for June 21, 2012.  Used with permission.

[2] See John N. Collins, KOINONIA, Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). See the entries for “diakonia” and “diakonos” in A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature [BDAG], 3rd ed., ed. Walter Bauer, ed. and trans. Frederick William Danker, William F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 230-31. Note that a portion of the 1947 LCMS Centennial thank offering was directed to the translation and revision of the first edition of this lexicon, which was published in 1957. The second edition was published in 1979. The LCMS Committee on Scholarly Research has provided funds for all three editions. Danker’s foreword to the third edition quotes from Arndt’s and Gingrich’s foreword to the first edition: “This dictionary in its English dress constitutes a gift of the LCMS to the English-speaking world, presented in the hope that the work may assist in the interpretation and dissemination of the Divine Word which lives and abides forever” (William Arndt and F. W. Gingrich, Foreword to the first edition, as quoted by Frederick W. Danker in his Foreword to the third edition, BDAG, vi-vii).

[3] John N. Collins, Deacons and the Church, Making Connections Between Old and New (Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 2002).

[4] Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians, 2d. ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

[5] Gordon W. Lathrop, Four Gospels on Sunday: The New Testament and the Reform of Christian Worship (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2012), 46, 73, and 184.

[6] God’s Word (Grand Rapids: World Publishing, 1995). This footnote occurs at Romans 16, Ephesians 6, Philippians 1, Colossians 1 & 4, and First Timothy 3.

[7] Collins, KOINONIA, 10

[8] Hermann W. Beyer, “diakoneo, diakonia, diakonos,” in The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [TDNT], 10 vols., ed. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964-74), 2:81-93 (here 2:93).

[9] Collins, KOINONIA, 7.

[10] Collins, KOINONIA, 74.

[11] Collins, Deacons and the Church, 33.

[12] Collins, KOINONIA, 196.

[13] Beyer, “diakoneo, diakonia, diakonos,” TDNT 2:93.

[14] Collins, Deacons and the Church, note after viii.

[15] Collins, KOINONIA, 202.

[16] Collins, KOINONIA, 156.

[17] Collins, KOINONIA, 158.

[18] Collins, Deacons and the Church, 54.

[19] Collins, Deacons and the Church, 58.

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One thought on “DIAKONIA

  1. Thanks for that promo, Richard. Try Paul Avis online also (St John’s College, Durham, UK: theology and ministry, April 2014). A little surprised to come across it after all these years. (You’ve probably noticed that fate had its foot in the door: KOINONIA in the footnotes instead of DIAKONIA.) There is no doubt there remains much to discuss together. But further perspectives of mine – plus more on the story of my work – are included in my recent DIAKONIA STUDIES: CRITICAL ISSUES IN MINISTRY (New York: OUP, July 2014). Instead of a launch of the book here in Melbourne, I have requested a colloquium with a dozen or so theologians: to happen in December. Regards – John

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