“Deacon” for males and “deaconess” for females are words that appear in the Bible with two meanings. First, let’s say that this word is Greek and almost fully transliterated into English. Greek “diakonos” (διάκονος) for both males and females. The gender is distinguished by the articles as the Greek language has different articles for masculine, feminine and neuter words. While at it, let’s point out that, in Greek, even things can have genders, which makes Greek hard to learn. For example, the door is feminine while the wall of a house is masculine while the table used to be feminine but now is neuter.
In the newly established Christian era, it was bound eventually to appear the need for positions of work or authority. (Matthew 23:11) There is no other way to organise things. First, Christ Jesus himself named some of his disciples as “apostles”. (Luke 6:13) However, this was not a new word in Greek. It already meant anyone “who is sent on a mission”. So when “apostle” (απόστολος) appears in ancient writings, it doesn’t mean it is applied automatically to Jesus’ 12 Apostles. Other words followed suit. Presbyter (πρεσβύτερος), meaning “older man”, was used as a common word for older members of congregations as well as a title, usually translated in more modern translations as “elder”. The translator has the hard job to distinguish between the two meanings of “old man” and “elder”.
Another word was “deacon”, meaning “servant”. In Greek, this is a compound word made up of two components: dia+konis. “dia” means “through” and “konis” means “dust”. With the dirt roads of those days, a servant had to walk a lot “through the dust”. When the idea was applied to men, the word became “diakonos”. Congregations had elders (or overseers, or bishops) in the lead. (Philippians 1:1; Acts 14:23) They dealt with the spiritual matters of the congregations. But they needed help. Spiritual men were chosen from among the members of the congregations to help the elders.
These were called “deacons” and they wouldn’t be required to take the lead in teaching. The Bible reader will have to distinguish between the title and an ordinary servant. Cleverly, for the benefit of the reader, Jehovah’s Witnesses translate in their New World Translation of the Bible the title “deacon” as “ministerial servant”.
Phoebe was a Christian woman from the congregation in Cenchreae, near Corinth. The apostle Paul sent the letter to the Romans most likely with Phoebe, calling her a “deacon” (fem: deaconess). (Romans 16:1) The translator will have to choose whether this is a title or the ordinary meaning. Since there is nowhere evidence that women were ever appointed to such a capacity, there is no need to conclude that Phoebe was appointed as a “ministerial servant”, to quote the Witnesses. Many other women are mentioned in the Bible as working hard for the Lord, but none of them is given the title “deaconess”. Paul mentions, “Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord. Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord.”–Rom. 16:12. (NIV)
In some Christian denominations they appoint women as “deaconess” but, as one can understand from the above, this is a questionable practice.
(a) There are three other words that meant “servant” in Bible times. “ipire΄tis” (υπηρέτης) is the more general word. “dou΄los” (δούλος) actually meaning “slave” who was bought or served because they couldn’t repay a debt. “pais” (παίς, pronounced “pes”) which originally meant “young boy” but in the alexandrine (or, Koini Greek) language ended up meaning a “young boy servant”. “Deacon” meant a servant serving out of his own good will. There is a verb for this, meaning “acting as a servant out of my own will” and it is used for some women who were ministering to Jesus.–Luke 8:1-3.
(b) Phoebe is pronounced in Modern Greek as “Fi΄vi”.
(c) “Cenchreae” is pronounced “Se΄nkrie” and in Greek, well, just forget it!