Doulos and Diakonos: Dual Servanthood

Word of the Week

August 21, 2021

Doulos and Diakonos: Dual Servanthood


It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.

Matthew 20:26-27


“Nice guys finish last,” according to baseball manager Leo Durocher.  And nobody wants to finish last – right?

Certainly not the disciples of Jesus.  Peter, James and John repeatedly squabbled over their claim to cabinet positions in Christ’s kingdom.

And they were startled when He announced, “If you want to be great in my kingdom, you must become a servant.”

The concept of servant leadership was revolutionary.  The ancient Romans believed that they were born to rule, not serve.  And modern Americans aspire to lead, not follow.

Jesus used two different Greek words in His rebuke to the ambitious disciples.

To be great in the kingdom, you must become a diakonos, or servant (Matthew 20:26; 23:11; Mark 9:35; 10:43).

To be first in the kingdom, you must become a doulos or slave (Matthew 20:27; Mark 10:44).

We can comprehend a key to greatness by comparing the two terms.

  1. Doulos (used over 125 times) – Slave

The New Testament world was sharply split into slaves and free persons.  A doulos was a person owned by another.  There were millions of slaves, forming the foundation of the empire’s economy.  They were everywhere, and it is no surprise that local Christian congregations included many slaves.

Slavery took many shapes.  One slave might chop vegetables in the kitchen.  Another might be a scribe for a wealthy landowner.  Still others might be worked to death in a copper mine.  Their fate depended on the character of the master, because there was one central fact in the life of a slave:  You were the property of a master.

Doulos in the New Testament most often refers to a literal slave.  However, many passages use it to describe a spiritual relationship.

  • By nature, we are slaves of sin. But we come to Christ, we become slaves of righteousness (Romans 6:16-20).  We are obligated to obey one or the other.
  • Paul described himself as the doulos of Jesus (Romans 1:1; Galatians 1:10; Philippians 1:1) and of the gospel (Philippians 2:22). He belonged to the Lord.
  • Paul also described himself as a doulos of God’s people, not because they owned him, but because his Master had commissioned him to serve His people (2 Corinthians 4:5). This can be hard.  Being a servant sounds good until someone treats you like one!

Jesus, of course, is the perfect example.  He lowered Himself to take the position of a doulos, laying aside His personal interests to carry out the Father’s will (Philippians 2:7).

Bottom line:  Doulos emphasizes who you belong to. You don’t get to make independent choices about your life, because you belong to someone else.

  1. Diakonos (used about 30 times) – Servant

A diakonos is someone who carries out tasks for the benefit of someone else.  It originally described a waiter serving a meal, like the servants at the wedding at Cana (John 2:5, 9).  The idea broadened to include any kind of service, ranging from bakers to statesmen.  It could even include government authorities (Romans 13:4) or a king’s officials (Matthew 22:13).  The word emphasizes the work that a servant does, rather than his status as slave or free.

The ancient Greeks saw service as undignified.  They looked down on servants as inferior.  But Christianity completely reversed this attitude.

  • Paul was proud to call himself a servant of God (2 Corinthians 6:4), and a servant of the new covenant (2 Corinthians 3:6).
  • Jesus promised that the Father would honor any diakonos who would follow Him (John 12:26)
  • Diakonos even became the title for the church office of deacon, an honored position of leadership (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8, 12).

Bottom line:  Diakonos emphasizes what you do.  You are carrying out activities which benefit someone else.

If you want to stand out in Christ’s kingdom, aim to become both a diakonos and a doulos, a servant and a slave.

What you do is important.  Become a diakonos who takes action to carry out God’s will so that He can bless others through you.        .

Why you do it is even more important.  Become a doulos who lives in obedience to the One who owns you.


Study Hint:

When you study synonyms, always ask, “Should I emphasize the similarities or the differences?”  Both slaves and servants spend their time laboring for someone else.  Either word can convey that idea.  However, there are times when only one word will do.  A diakonos might be a church office, but I know of no church that allows you to run for the office of doulos!  Look carefully at the context of each verse and use common sense to decide how hard to push the distinctive flavor of each word.




Q – Could you comment on the word “helps our weakness” in Romans 8:26? It seems this word is rich not only in meaning but also in application.

A – It certainly is a rich word!  It is unusual in being constructed of three Greek words:  sun (together with) + anti (opposite, in place of) + lambanō (take, receive, take hold of).  The only other place it occurs is in Luke 10:40, where Martha urges Jesus, “Tell Mary to help me!”  In Romans 8, it pictures the Holy Spirit coming to help us when we are stymied in prayer because of our weaknesses.  When we are too feeble to lift the weight of proper prayer, He comes alongside us and grabs hold of the burden.  Together with Him, we can hoist the load!


Coming Up

One of our Word of the Week family has asked if we could look at some of the rich words in 1 Peter.  Next week we will take a tour of the verse.

©Ezra Project 2021

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