The Greek word diakonos is often translated as deacon. It is a New Testament term that refers to leaders or ministers in the local church body. This post is about how the term is translated in Romans 16:1, when it refers to the person of Phoebe.
Here’s the NIV translation of diakonos when referring to Phoebe: Romans 16:1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea.
Here’ the NIV translation of diakonos elsewhere when referring to a man: 1 Timothy 3:12 A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well.
I was curious how different English translations would handle these two passages, given the possible relevance to women in leadership. Here are the results:
Notice that in 1 Tim 3:12 diakonos is always translated as deacon. But in Romans 16:1 when it refers to Phoebe it is frequently translated as servant.
Servant does not at all convey the idea of leadership, while the word deacon does. We can’t be certain what Phoebe’s role was in the church in Cenchrea, however, I don’t believe that the word servant adequately conveys the leadership aspect of her role.
Specifically, I wonder if there is translation bias going on here. The translators who are suspicious of female leadership pick the word “servant”. The translators who advocate female leadership pick the word “deacon”.
The gender specific translations (ESV, NASB, NKJV) go with servant (which interestingly is also a gender neutral term). The usually more gender neutral translations (NRSV, TNIV, NLT) go with deacon. None go with the female specific term of deaconess, although the NIV and ESV do list that as a footnote alternative (to their credit).