John Neil Collins and a Paradigm Shift

By Rev. Assoc. Prof. Anthony Gooley, 15 September 2022

This is part 3 of a series. First, Anthony looked at Acts 6:1-7 the story of Deacons, then Adding food and funds to Acts 6. Thanks, Anthony!

This is the third in a series of contributions to this blog. I am sharing some basic information about how we developed a theology of diaconate which I call the “servant myth”. This myth, in various forms states that the essential nature of diaconate and deacons is characterised by terms like servant, service, humble care for the poor and marginalised and similar ideas. Caring for the poor and marginalised is good work, and it is great if deacons and others do these things in response to the Gospel. My point is that they are not essentially diaconal. The idea that they do represent the essential nature of diaconate emerged from a case of misidentification of the Greek diacon word group with such ideas.

John N Collins is an Australian Biblical scholar. In the 1970’s he undertook doctoral studies in New Testament. His thesis was an exploration of a single verse in the Gospel of Mark, 10:45. Two words from the Greek diacon group appear in that verse. The verse is frequently translated as, “The son of man came not to be served but to serve, giving his life as a ransom for many.” The italicised words are the Greek diacon words. The diacon word group give us our English words deacon, diaconate, ministry, to minister and ministerial.

John asked a very simple question. What did the original audience for this text understand the diacon words to mean? What kind of service was intended? To answer this question, he explored as many uses as he could find of this word group in the Bible, in non-biblical sources, like plays, poetry, legal documents, funerary inscriptions and many other everyday things covering hundreds of years. He developed the first scholarly profile of the diacon word group. He discovered that such words never conveyed any sense of concern for another and their welfare or needs or had any connection with lowly and menial service. No connection at all with ideas like waiters at tables and those kinds of servants or that kind of service. Nor did the words have any association with lowliness or humbleness.

The diacon word group is attached to sacred things and duties and services for another that were highly esteemed and attached to persons of high standing. These were words attached to ambassadors, legates of the emperor and court officials delivering messages and rulings from governors and emperors. The god Hermes was described as a diaconos (deacon) because he delivered messages for the gods and relayed replies. He was a go between. The kind of service represented by diacon words was a commission received from another to fulfil a task. The direction of service, the one who was served through the act of service, was the one who commission the deacon. This word had such high value and association with sacred tasks in the ancient Greek world that it was a natural fit for the early Church to adopt as its main word group for minister, to do ministry and of course for the one loan word from Greek applied to a Christian minister-deacon.

As an aside it is worth noting that the outer vestment deacons wear at Mass is called a dalmatic. This robe with its distinctive stripes was only assigned to high-ranking officials in the Roman Empire. People like legates and magistrates were allowed to wear this robe. In choosing this as a vestment for deacons they ancient Church wanted to communicate something about their place within the order of the Church.

Once John had developed this semantic profile of the diacon word group he was able to return to Mark 10:45. He realised that so often we truncate the sentence and quote the “son of man came to serve and not be served,” without the rest of the text to give it meaning. That is, we have to indicate who is being served and what is the service being performed. When we translate the verse with the correct diacon semantic profile in mind it would read something like this, “The son of man came not to be served, but to serve the Father, by giving his life as a ransom for many.” This is a unique service that only Jesus as son can perform. From it we cannot develop a generalised theology of servant leadership. It is the Christological and salvation perspectives that give meaning to a unique and unrepeatable service that only Jesus can render to God.

John published his work in 1990 under the title, Diakonia: Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources. After its publication the whole section of the New Testament dictionary on the diacon word group which was based on Brandt’s non-scholarly definition (see previous blog post), was replaced by this newly recovered and scholarly profile. It marked a complete paradigm shift in the meaning of the diacon words and it should have provoked a major revision of our theology of diaconate, of ministry and ecclesiology. Very few scholars writing in the field of the theology of ministry or diaconate have considered their work in relation to the recovered profile. Some perhaps because they are unaware of it but others because they reject his work.

Those who reject John’s conclusions about the diacon words and the implications of this for their theology of ministry and diaconate, generally do not do so on the basis that his methods or conclusions were wrong. They do so because of their prior commitment and investment in maintaining the “servant myth”. The only way to properly reject or critique John would be to retrace his steps and study the several hundred years of sources that he considers and prove that he has misunderstood the word group. None of these scholars, bishops, deacons or lay people who maintain the “servant myth’ have done this.

One scholar, however, has retraced John’s steps and has done so independently of John’s work. Anni Hentschel in Germany researched this word group for her doctoral thesis. Her focus was on women in ministry in the early Church. She published her study of the same group of words in 2006 and her semantic profile of the word group aligns completely with that of John. In scientific terms we would say that independent verification is a gold standard for the validation of results from a previous study. There is no reason to reject John’s findings. We have only to ask how these can inform our emerging theology of the diaconate and of ministry generally.

The paradigm shifts that John’s work has accomplished is on a scale comparable to that of two other Australians who did work in the field of medicine. Warren and Marshall received the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Human Physiology when they discovered that the most common forms of stomach ulcers were not the result of diet or spicey foods but the presence of Heliobacter pylori, a bacterial infection that could be treated simply with a short course of antibiotics. Everything that had ever been taught in medical training about these ulcers and everything that had been said about treatment changed because of this paradigm shift.

A similar paradigm shift is yet to happen with our theology of diaconate and of ministry following John’s work. This shift, when it finally comes, will expand our understanding of the diaconate and open up new scope. It will not shut down the good charitable works many deacons do but will expand the horizons of this ministry for the Church and perhaps provide new energy for evangelisation and diocesan wide ministries. The link between bishop and deacon and local Church (diocese) will become clearer. I explore some of the potential of this in my book Deacons Today: New Wine, New Wineskins. Coventry Press. Bishop Shawn McKnight also begins to explore the possibilities opened by the new paradigm in his book, Understanding the Diaconate: Historical, Theological and Sociological Foundations. You may find both worth reading if you are interested in exploring the meaning of diaconate.

One thought on “John Neil Collins and a Paradigm Shift

  1. Like like the way John has researched the word stem of deaconate and the fact that it has been confirmed by Anni. That makes it a very sound proposition, scientifically. Well done.


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