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DiakoniaRe-Interpreting the Ancient Sources$

John N Collins

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780195396027

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195396027.001.0001

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(p.335) Appendix I

(p.335) Appendix I

Meanings of the Greek Words for Ministry

Oxford University Press

1.0 The words occur in contexts of three kinds:

  1. i. message;

  2. ii. agency;

  3. iii. attendance upon a person or in a household.

2.0 The underlying notion in these three areas is of activity of an in-between kind; thus

  1. i. in the area of message:

    [common noun] go-between; spokesperson; courier;

    [verb] to be a go-between; to perform an errand; to deliver;

    [abstract noun] errand;

  2. ii. in the area of agency:

    agent; instrument; medium;

    to effect; to officiate; to mediate;

    commission; execution of task; mediation;

  3. iii. in the area of attendance:


    to attend; to fetch; to go away to do something;

    act of attendance; performance of a task; task; staff (collectively).

2.1 These meanings are approximate. Modern languages do not seem to possess single equivalent terms. In English “minister,” “to administer,” “ministry,” “ministration,” etc., are more satifactory than “servant,” “to serve,” etc. In almost all instances a special nuance is present by reason of context (see 3 below).

2.2 In the long history of the usage there is no evidence of any change in meanings except in the case of the Christian designation “deacon” (see 5 below).

2.3 The meaning “to wait at table” is not basic (the German “Grundbedeutung”) but is merely one expression of the general notion of “go-between”—that is, the table attendant goes between diner and kitchen.

2.4 The words speak of a mode of activity rather than of the status of the person performing the activity. Thus they are not expressing notions of lowliness or servitude, nor in Christian usage did the idea of doing a benevolent action accrue to the idea of ministering.

(p.336) 2.5 The words are thus equally applicable to positions of authority and dignity and to those of lowly esteem: a Roman procurator “effects” the will of the emperor, a general “prosecutes” a war, etc.

3.0 The context in which the words are used is as significant for an understanding of their uses as are the preceding descriptions of their field of meaning.

3.1 By reason of their connotations the words also contribute to the context.

3.2 The words are comparatively rare, occurring in the more formal types of literature— poetry, oratory, speculative and moral philosophy, religious discourse and prayer— or may be used to grace less formal types like historical narrative and high romance.

3.3 In accord with this the words also occur in commemorative inscriptions.

3.4 It thus appears that the words were not part of the vernacular or everyday language and did not have an ordinary or unadorned meaning.

3.5 An exhaustive study of usage in the papyri supports this conclusion.

3.6 By virtue of their formal quality the words occur in passages of a profoundly religious nature.

4.0 Christian usage is indistinguishable from non-Christian except in the instance of the designation “deacon” (see 5 below).

4.1 christians used the words because of their currency in religious, ethical, and philosophical discourse.

4.2 In christian sources the words refer mainly to:

  1. i. message from heaven;

  2. ii. message between churches;

  3. iii. commissions within a church.

4.3 Examination of usage in Paul and Acts establishes that “ministry of the word” is a prerogative of the apostle and of those whom the apostle commissions.

4.4 Paul's conviction that “ministering the word” is to expose the hearer to the immediacy of God's revelatory and reconciling activity is at times explicit and is basic to his exposition of apostleship by means of these terms.

4.5 The distinction between an apostolic or evangelistic commission and a commission from the community is clearly discernible.

4.6 Whether the words apply to message or to another type of commission, they necessarily convey the idea of mandated authority from God, apostle, or church.

4.7 Thus the main reference in Christian literature is to “ministry under God,” and the notion of “service to fellow human beings” as a benevolent activity does not enter. The latter is true in particular of:

  1. i. the Son of man at Mark 10:45, whose “ministry” is a commission under God “to give his life as a ransom”; and

  2. ii. the terms as applied by Paul to the collection for the Christians in Jerusalem (e.g., Rom. 15:25); this was a “commission” in the name of the Asian churches involving an “errand” from Asia, and because the churches were assemblies of God, the commission was a “sacred task,” for this reason being designated by these terms from religious language.

4.8 In the gospels the words occur in:

  1. i. ethical maxims;

  2. ii. parables; and

  3. iii. gospel narrative.

In all instances the usage conforms to non-Christian literary convention, and the incidence of the words here cannot be taken as a sign of an intention to inculcate a distinctively Christian style of social behaviour. (See comment on, for example, Matt. 25:44 and Luke 22:27.)

(p.337) 5.0 The designation “deacon” does not derive from attendance at table but from attendance on a person.

5.1 This person is not the needy person or the congregation or community but the episkopos (the later “bishop”), whose “agent” the “deacon” is.

5.2 The word was chosen as a title of this Christian officer because the word had currency in religious language.

5.3 The title is not derived directly from non-Christian religious guilds, in which this common noun designated ceremonial “waiters,” but is an original Christian designation for an “agent in sacred affairs.”

5.4 The title probably originated in cult.