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Ever wonder how some things got started?

Consider Romans 16:1. The word generally translated as “those who serve or minister” in English, transliterates from the Greek as diakonos. This is where we get the Romanized word deacon. Diakonos identifies a household servant and by itself carries no further distinction. Generically, it is used of any such servant. However, specifically and in context, it is found in the NT used of men serving local congregations elected to the office of deacon or servant, as that office is identified in Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:8 and 12, and elsewhere.

How did this distinction blur to include women being elected to the office of the deacon? To see is to know. It is telling to look carefully beginning with the anglicized ancient versions to identify how some distinctions were drawn over time.

Wyclif’s translation of 1384: “And I commende to you feben oure sister, whiche is in the seruyse of the chirche, that is at Cencris.”

Tyndale’s (1534): “I commende vnto you Phebe oure sister (which is a minister of the congregacion of Cenchrea).”

We read much the same in the common King James modern English Version originally dated to 1611: “I commend unto you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea.”

Challoner’s Rheims revision of 1749: “and I commend to you Phebe our sister, who is in the ministry of the church that is in Cenchre.”

The ESV: “I commend you to Phoebe a servant of the church at Cenchrea…” The note for the word “servant” states: “or deaconess.” The HCSB notes this – “Others interpret this term in a technical sense: deacon, or deaconess, or minister.”

The RSV and New Jerusalem Versions use the word deaconess in the text.

So, over time we have Phoebe mentioned as a servant, a minister and a deaconess. Different word usage means different things to different ears at different times. Though it occurs only in a footnote in most modern versions, the word deaconess is a fabricated word, an anglicized Romanism, if you will; and there is no liguistic authority for the distinction drawn by feminizing it.

The scholars for the RSV and others are blatant in their use of the word deaconess; while it appears that the scholars over at the ESV and HCSB, as do others, seek only to add a subtle distinction, or simply to note it. But, through scholarly ambivalence, these things can contribute to either misdirect or allow a reader’s choice where none would be warranted. Romans 16:1 is the only occurrence in the NT where a woman is described using this term. As I understand things, in the Greek language there exist only singular or plural forms for the word describing a servant, with no distinction drawn for distinguishing gender except through contextual considerations. English is certainly no different.

Phoebe was serving the church in Cenchrea in some capacity; that is simple and accurate. By using the word deaconess, scholars may be seen as sowing uncertainty, or at the least to imply a distinction. Thereby they serve to offer more than what is present in the original. This is exactly how the Douay Bible came to display error, even while the text is mainly sound. Its notes are replete with digressions included to promote doctrines peculiar to Roman Catholicism.

Consider this portion of Acts 14:23. …and when they had ordained elders in every church…

Wyclif’s: …whanne they had ordeyned preetis to hem bi al citees…

Tyndale’s: …and when they had ordened them elders by eleccion in every congregacion…

Rheims (1582): …and vvhen they had ordained to them priests in euery church…

Challoner’s Rheims revision: …and when they had ordained to them priests in every church…

Notice how some of these men avoided certain Romanisms, while others brought some in, as they left others off. Not much has changed.

The deacon becomes a deaconess or minister. The elder becomes a priest. And why should we wonder how it is that some churches allow women into the office of the deacon, or to serve as an evangelist now typically called a minister; or men to serve in some unknown office of priestly service, with women as elders, all in a clear contrast to the teaching found in the Word of God?

I know that whatever God does shall be forever. Nothing can be put to it, and nothing taken from it. And God does so that men should reverence him. (Eccl. 3:14)