What did Paul mean by using διάκονος in Rom 16:1? Well, the broad "definitions" in either the Greek or English do not help much (see bottom of answer). I find the most valuable clue comes from Paul:
- Phoebe was a servant of the church in Cenchrea,
- Paul clearly trusted Phoebe, not just to deliver the letter, but possibly also to explain much of it to the Romans. This was apparently part of the duties of the courier (see "Letter writing in Greco-Roman antiquity", Stanley Stowers, 1986),
- Paul requested the Romans honour her by serving her needs as she saw fit.
We should also note that Paul described Jesus as a διάκονος in Rom 15:8, and he certainly wasn't meaning deacon as an ecclesiastical office bearer. Phoebe is in good company.
Regardless of Phoebe's formal office in Cenchrea, Paul had a very high regard and trust for her, and not simply because she may have been a patron. Especially given the very high importance of this letter (his apostolic message to Rome in lieu of a visit - in case he was detained or worse in Jerusalem), I would suggest Phoebe equals or exceeds the criteria in 1 Tim 3:8-10 ...
"In the same way, deacons must be well respected and have integrity. They must not be heavy drinkers or dishonest with money. They must be committed to the mystery of the faith now revealed and must live with a clear conscience. Before they are appointed as deacons, let them be closely examined. If they pass the test, then let them serve as deacons." (NLT)
As for the NLT ... The translation "servant" is also uneasy, as it could legitimately be used to translate many Greek words (eg, λειτουργός, δοῦλος, οἰκέτης, μισθωτός), each with their own nuances in meaning. Perhaps, by using deacon, the NLT was seeking to give the well-informed English readers a clear clue of Paul's Greek. Also, they convey a sense that was a servant, but a highly respected servant, worthy of an officially appointed deacon.
A "διάκονος" in the Greek, as it applied to male or female, did cover a range of meanings. In the basic sense: assistant, servant, and even courier!
"one who serves as an intermediary in a transaction, agent, intermediary, courier" and/or "one who gets something done, at the behest of a superior, assistant to someone" (Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 230). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.).
The 7 men appointed to wait on tables in Acts 6 were appointed to διακονέω.
The English word "deacon" also carries a range, though not as broad. From the Cambridge Dictionary:
- In some churches, an official, either male or female, who is below a priest in rank and who performs some of the duties of a priest.
- In some churches, a lay person (= an ordinary person without religious training) who helps with the running and organization of the church.