Wendy Chiu ponders the implications of sitting at table and serving at table.
And wonders what conclusions we can draw from some very basic New Testament imagery

SINCE READING the two, articles by Elaine Bishop and Clare King on the diaconate and the role of women in the Church in the December 1998 and February 1999 issues of New Directions, I have been wondering whether I could offer a few more womanly observations about a vital, but neglected, aspect of this question.

These two writers drew attention to the desirability of reintroducing the permanent diaconate, and gave very scholarly and convincing reasons for this move. I concur with the essence of what they said, particularly their closing sentences:

“The renewal of the diaconate presents the Church with a challenge not only in the way it sees its ordained ministry, but also how it defines itself as a diaconal, a serving, community.” (Clare King)

“Luke 8 and Mary Magdalene are, I suggest, the proper starting points for development of a theology of women’s ministry, one quite distinct from the apostolic ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons.” (Elaine Bishop)

The Heights of Lowliness

I admire their theological prowess, which I shall not, however, attempt to emulate. What I should like to do, instead, is to start where they leave off and show how it might help their cause considerably if we understood better what the word “deacon” – “diakonos” really means as used in the NT, particularly by Jesus Himself.

We also need to clarify the difference between this and other words relating to the members of the Early Church, words translated into English variously, i.e. as ‘saints’, ‘elders’, ‘bishops’ as well to examine the words ‘ordain’ and ‘serve’.

The Greek words diakonos, diakonia and diakoneo occur in the New Testament many times. It is abundantly clear that Jesus went to great lengths to get His understanding of their meaning over to His disciples. How much did they take in, how much did they miss? It did register with them eventually, through the enlightenment of His Spirit, and also with the early Christians, especially with St Paul. The lives of the great Christian saints down the ages also witness to its survival.

It is with us still, but ironically, the words which should convey this meaning the most clearly are in fact the ones which most easily distort it. We might appreciate their full impact better if we could readily call to mind the association of ideas, the nuances of meaning, and the complex implications in the feet-washing incident at the Last Supper.

Peter was overwhelmed by the act alone – having His Lord and Master performing the most menial of tasks, doing what was regarded as the dirtiest of jobs, normally relegated to the lowest of slaves, for such an unworthy sinner as himself. No, no, no! He just couldn’t bear it.

How Jesus drove the point home, with the reasoning which accompanied this acted parable, had a special significance too. “I am your master, yes,” He said. “That is why I have to be your servant.” [John 13 vv 12-14]

” It is not the world’s way of doing things, quite the contrary. But it is My way, our way.” [Luke 12 vv24-26]

Then comes, in Luke’s next verse, what could be a play on words, which reinforces the message and resolves the paradox.

Jesus asks, “Who is greater, the one sitting at table, or the one serving?” In the Greek there is a slight assonance between the word for “sitting at table” – anakeimenos and that for serving diakonos, in the first two syllables. Unfortunately these two verbs do not belong to the same conjugation, or the endings could also sound the same. The Aramaic scholar Jeremias* suggests the punning is more noticeable in Hebrew, but between the words ‘greater’ and ‘sitting at table’, the similar sounding rabba and rab-a.

Can these subtleties be captured in an English translation? Anakeimenos means ‘lying down’ – ‘reclining’, as some translations have it, not ‘sitting’. As it is not our custom to eat in such a posture (common though it was throughout the Mediterranean region in Roman times), translators feel uncomfortable with a literal rendering, and leave us unaware of the difference. How can we highlight this, and get nearer the full implication of Jesus’ query?

“Who is greater, the one who is reclining or the one who serves?” Isn’t Jesus saying something like “Who is superior, the one supine, or the one upright – on his feet?” Or, to borrow terminology from heraldry…the one ‘couchant’ or the one ‘rampant’?” It sounds absurd, but it sounds out the truth.

A Word in Need of Servicing

These days it is eating that is often done on the run! And that is exactly what diakonia means: running about, running errands, along not nice clean pavements, but dirty, dusty streets – diakonia means “through the dust”.

Don’t get me wrong, a deacon is not a skivvy, a scullion, there’s nothing demoralising, dishonourable about it: you can, if you want, quite correctly think of your diakonos as a decently dressed waiter. Acts 6 v2 does give that impression. Usually he is in a perpetual rush, much more like the factotum Figaro!

One of the first things I had to learn and remember when I went to live in Asian society was to take off my shoes on entering the house, ours or anyone else’s. We still have friends from that part of the world who automatically remove their footwear when they come to visit us, the moment they come through the doorway. This act is not out of any belief in a supposed holiness of the home, although its omission would imply a lack of respect in anyone belonging to Eastern culture.

This age-old custom is a recognition that as our feet were walking through the streets they will have gathered up dust, dirt or mud, with which we would not want to sully human habitation. Only if you were carried from door to door, would you have an excuse to keep your slippers on.

The wearer of dirty boots has provided the name for members of the Christian Church on account of what they did inside them. The sort of job which did not always allow you to pick your way as delicately as you would wish. A job where there could always be some urgency as you beavered to and fro. It is difficult to find an equivalent description for an office which has virtually vanished.

A ‘blue-collar job’ is one where you expect to get your hands dirty. A diakonos – ‘deacon’ had to be prepared to get his feet dirty. There are some English terms, somewhat archaic now, which are nearer the mark: ‘footman’, or ‘lackey’, ‘henchman’, perhaps, or ‘flunkey’. Any current designations applicable? ‘tea-girl’, or ‘best-boy’? ‘dog’s body’, ‘goafer’? We have ‘couriers’, ‘delivery men’, ‘outriders’, but these do not have the right earthy contact. There is a word which fits this position well: it is of Portuguese origin, is to be found in the Oxford dictionary, and was commonly used in Singapore when we lived there, for exactly that sort of office-boy type: peon.

Word fashion, i.e. word usage, constantly changes. Inevitable; but is it not unfortunate, not to say disastrous, if we lose sight of what we as deacons, male or female, are supposed to be and do? If we turn the meaning of ‘deacon’ on its head? The same fate has befallen the word ‘office’, which comes from officere, the Latin for to serve. Nothing there to suggest rank, or distinction. As for the word ‘ordain’, the use we have made of it would really perplex those gospel writers. To them it merely meant ‘set in a certain place’ – here, not there. “The moon and stars which thou hast ordained…” doesn’t mean they have been promoted to some special status, but are simply where God put them. When Jesus uses it in His parable of the Vine – John 15 v16 – it is in this sense: where Christians are to be found is attached to Jesus, deriving from Him the strength and sustenance to bear His fruit.

“If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all” [Mark 9 v35]

“Whoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” [Matt 9 vv27-28.]

Jesus was pointing out, categorically, to His disciples, that they were to take their place at the bottom of the pecking order.

Worse for wear and why

If there was no kurieuousin, no ‘lording over’, no hierarchy, in the Early Church, because it had been so clearly prohibited by its Founder, how did it creep in?

Doesn’t the frequently-made claim – that it was there very early on, viz. the ‘appointment’ of ‘deacons’, ‘elders, and ‘bishops’ was already operational in NT times – depend, as I’ve tried to show, on a misunderstanding of these words? All Christians worthy of the name were deacons, and remained so, even if they became overseers as well. St Paul talks about his co-deacons, co-workers, co-slaves, in this all-embracing sense. That he looked for certain Christians, understandably the older and wiser ones, to keep a watchful eye, to be “in charge”, “overseeing” the local Christian community, was because he couldn’t be everywhere at the same time. He had to move on; he was called to preach “among the nations”. The fact that he, and others laid hands on these deputies, simply means that they prayed for them in the customary way before departing – and leaving them to get on with it.

Another suggestion – human weakness – for its inevitability, may in some places, have been true: witness the imperfections of some of the Seven Churches addressed by the writer of Revelation. But perhaps they had missed out on St Paul’s fatherly guidance, his Christ-like example? We have no letters from him to any of them, except the church in Ephesus. He always tried to take a positive, conciliatory line, dwelling on excellence rather than shortcomings, gently exhorting Christians to keep their sights on where they were going. To the faithful, humility and loving service would have been not only more appealing but common sense. As long as the Church was not universally accepted, even those less faithful could have been deterred from self-assertive leadership.

It is much more likely that the rot set in as the Church became not only more widely recognised and promulgated, but also more politicised. History shows how the breakdown of the Roman Empire threw Church elders into the public arena, where there was often no other organisation able to maintain social order. That this compromise was countenanced, and Christians eventually diverted to adopt worldly procedures of discipline, pomp and ceremony, following their own devices, is a warning of what happens once we take our eyes off the Cross.

At the double

Where does this leave women deacons? Are they foot-sloggers too? At the end of his letter to the Romans, [16 v2], Paul commends to them one of the church members from Cenchrae, not because she was a diakonos, (hopefully they all were: the vicar of one of our working-class Chinese congregations in Singapore once told me that all his congregation contributed some service to the Church) but for being such a help and comfort to him, a prostati.

Clare King gives four different translations for this word: ‘chief, ‘president’, ‘champion’, ‘patron’; they are not simply synonyms. Phoebe could possibly have matched up to all of them, but the sense as it is used here is more likely to be that of ‘patroness’. I see her as someone who had been a warm, kindly, generous hostess to Paul, keeping his pecker up, sensitive and responsive to his varying needs. Like the women in Luke 8 v3, who freely and lovingly dieekonoun = ministered’ to Jesus according to ‘their up arx outon = ‘what was theirs to offer’.

The men around Jesus did not always approve of what women brought or offered to Him. These tributes were often an embarrassment, misunderstood, seen as an intrusion, as lacking in decorum, not quite the done thing, unbefitting the niceties of social intercourse. But He welcomed women’s service. He recognised its value and purpose. He did not expect women to be men’s doubles – that would have been inappropriate.

What He did desire for them was that they should realise the very special place ordained for them in God’s kingdom. In His Divine Majesty’s Service, their ministry was intrinsic, an essential accompaniment, to His own down-to-earth diakonia.

*Joachim Jeremias New Testament Theology Vol 1 page 293

Wendy Chiu is the wife of a former Bishop of Singapore. She now lives in Dorset.