Deacons

(1 Timothy 3.8-13)

Jason Procopio

I am so happy to have finally arrived at this passage! Up to now I have been the only “official” staff member at the church, and while everything has gone fine, I’ve always felt it would be better for the church if I were not the only one. On the other hand, officially electing people to fill roles of responsibility in the church is not the kind of thing you want to rush into, so I’ve taken several years to pray and study the Scripture, as well as to consult other pastors whom I trust, before making any steps to set up an official leadership structure. But now, I believe we’ve arrived at a point in the church where we can begin doing just that.

Last week we examined the criteria for being an elder in the church; in 1 Timothy 3.1-7 Paul gives a very exhaustive list of the character traits necessary for a man to become an elder, or an overseer or pastor. In this text, he moves on to the office of deacon. At the members’ meeting in three weeks, during which we’ll vote to confirm Paul and Arnaud as elders, we will also be voting to confirm a certain number of deacons in the church.

There are a couple of things we need to see before we get started. Firstly, today’s text bears remarkable similarities to last week’s text. Paul gives a list of criteria for deacons, and in many places this list actually overlaps with the list of criteria for elders. The word “deacon” is a word which in Greek meant simply “servant;” it is often used in the New Testament in just this way (cf. Matt. 20.26: But whoever would be great among you must be your servant). So we might be tempted to think that this word is talking about being a servant in the general sense. 

What keeps us from saying that is this list of criteria. If a person must be held to a certain standard according to which they are evaluated in order to be a “deacon,” then it’s clear that “deacon” is a role which fulfills a certain function in the church (otherwise Paul would never have needed to mention it). God commands us all to be servants of one another, and there is no special requirements to meet to be servants. (We’ll come back to this a little later.)

1) What do deacons do?

Secondly, we need to see what exactly deacons do. In Acts 6.1-4, we see what most commentators believe is the appointment of the first deacons in the church: Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 

So this was just one example: the Greek widows in the church were being neglected because they weren’t Jewish, and so the apostles commissioned the church to choose seven men to basically organize the distribution of food, to make sure everything was done equitably. Now, the word “deacon” isn’t used in this text; but I think there is sufficient reason to affirm that this was in fact the first group of deacons appointed. Firstly, if it was a new role that grew out of necessity, it’s quite normal that there wouldn’t be an official title for that role. Julie has been serving as ministry coordinator for over a year here, but we’ve still been unable to nail down one single word for what she does; it takes time. Secondly, in this text we see that qualifications are given: they are to be full of the Spirit and of wisdom. So clearly this wasn’t simple serving, but serving accompanied with responsibility—the people performing these tasks had to do so in a certain way, and they were to be judged able to do so before being given the task. Lastly, this text shows us why they are serving in this way: they are freeing up the leaders of the church to their primary mission, which is to preach the Word.

So this is, basically, what a deacon does. A deacon is responsible for making sure the various moving parts of a body of believers run smoothly, so that the church continues to function in a healthy way, and so that the elders of the church can devote themselves entirely to their main tasks without being distracted by practical matters that could be done by others.

That being said, it is incredibly telling that, like for the elders, Paul gives us a certain number of qualifications for being a deacon in the church; and, like for the elders, those criteria have nothing to do with their ability or their skills, but rather with their character. We’ll get into why these criteria are given a little later, but first let’s just go through them together. Since many of these qualifications overlap with those of the elders, we won’t go into as much detail about them as we did last week. John Stott very helpfully summarized the criteria for deacons into four categories, which I’m shamelessly borrowing today.

2) What are the qualifications for deacons? (v. 8-13)

“First, deacons must have self-mastery.” V. 8: Deacons likewise must be dignified, or literally, “worthy of respect.” Deacons should be men and women who are worthy of being imitated. They’re the kind of person who, if you’re speaking to a new Christian and trying to describe for them what it looks like to live a Christian life, you can say, “Watch this person. Observe them and imitate them.” They must not be double-tongued, or insincere—their “Yes” means yes and their “No” means no. They are not addicted to much wine—they are able to control their desires and not be addicted to outside influences. They must not be greedy for dishonest gain—this of course goes to the heart of their calling to be servants of others: their desire is not to further their own interests, but those of others.

Secondly, deacons must be mature Christians. V. 9: They must hold the mystery of the faith… “Mystery” in the New Testament refers to the truth of the Christian faith, that used to be hidden from men (thus, “mystery”), but which God has now revealed to us through Jesus Christ. So when Paul says that deacons must hold the mystery of the faith, he means they must have a good grasp of the gospel. They’re not required to get up in front of anyone and teach the gospel like I’m doing now (which is why the one criterion noticeably lacking from this list is “able to teach”), but they should have a good understanding of it. Not only that, but (again, v. 9) They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. In other words, the grasp they have of the gospel is useless if they don’t live it. The gospel should be present in their minds and in their hearts, and the gospel should be visible in their lives.

Which is why deacons, as well as elders, must assessed and approved to do the work they’re doing. V. 10: And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. So we see here the same thing as with the elders—deacons should be “tested” before being approved for their responsibility. Concretely, in our church this has meant that there have been a number of people who have taken on certain responsibilities in the church, and they have been serving in these capacities for a long time. As opposed to elders, who need to be approved and assessed before stepping into their roles, we have invited everyone in the church to serve wherever possible, and given them time to serve in those capacities, so that they might be put to the test and be observed by all.

Thirdly, they must have exemplary home lives. V. 12 (we’ll come back to v. 11 in a minute): Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. We talked about this last week, and it’s the same thing here: deacons should be faithful to their spouse, should manage their households well, and should be able to raise their children in keeping with the gospel. Like I said last week, I don’t believe this precludes a single person from being a deacon; but they must be this type of person; even if you’re not married yet, you should be preparing to be this type of spouse, this type of parent.

One example of how we could see this in a single person today would be that this person is able to cultivate a gospel culture in their home. (Some of you may have read the article on this subject posted to the church’s Facebook page this week.) Are they inviting? Do they open their homes to others? And what happens when they do? Do they merely have people over to hang out and have fun? or along with that fun, do they cultivate an atmosphere in their home that will drive people toward the gospel? What kinds of conversations take place in their home? How are Christians encouraged and edified when they spend time with them? A single Christian may not be able to show yet what kind of a spouse or parent they will be, but they can manifest a willingness to manage their own households well, by the way they feed the gospel into their home lives.

3) Questions

Now, there are many common questions people have on the subject of deacons, and two in particular come up nearly every time the subject is discussed. Fortunately, Paul actually answers these two questions in this text. The first (and most obvious) question is this: Can women be deacons? And we have the means to answer that question in v. 11, even if some interpretation is needed.

V. 11: Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Verse 11 is the subject of a lot of debate—the possessive pronoun (“their”) isn’t present in the Greek, which means that the word “wives” here could either mean “wives” or “women.” (The Greek reads, “Women likewise must be dignified…”) Truly, in the Greek, it could go either way. But it’s an important point, because the way you translate the verse will determine whether or not you believe women should be allowed to be deacons in the church. Let me briefly outline the two different readings and then tell you where I land, and why we’ll do things the way we do them here.

Those who believe this verse refers to the wives of deacons make note of the fact that the word for “deaconess” is not used here (as it is used, for example, in Romans 16 in reference to Phoebe), but the general word for women (which, in the context of v. 12, has to be translated wives). In addition, verse 11 is sandwiched between two verses which speak of deacons in the masculine form. If we accept that these verses speak about men (and not men and women together), imagining that Paul is speaking about wives here is fairly logical, especially given the fact that in v. 12 he says that deacons should be the husband of one wife. 

But there are problems with this interpretation. Firstly, the fact that a deacon must be the husband of one wife doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s only speaking about husbands throughout this entire passage. Since the Christian home and the Christian church are the two domains in this world where God calls men and women to certain responsibilities that are different, it’s natural that he would have different things to say to them concerning these domains, while he’d tell them the same things when speaking about deacons in general (in v. 8-10).

Secondly, it would be quite strange for Paul to give qualifications for deacons’ wives, but not for the wives of elders. (Since arguably the chances are good that an elder’s wife would potentially have heavier burden placed on her than a deacon’s wife.) Thirdly, we do know that there were deaconesses in the church: in Romans 16.1, Paul commends a sister named Phoebe to the church in Rome, and uses the same word for her as the word he uses here for “deacon,” diakonos. Fourthly, as we saw a couple of weeks ago, the only restriction that Paul places on women in the church (in 1 Tim. 2.12) is teaching with authority, which is one of the tasks of the elders. There is no inherent authority involved in the role of a deacon; deacons are all submitted to the leadership of the elders, so if a situation arises in which an authoritative decision needs to be made, it falls to the elders to make that decision.

We thought and prayed about this a long time before ever planting this church—we want to be rigorously faithful to the Bible where the Bible is clear, but we also want to operate in the freedom the gospel affords us in those areas which are not clear. We have no wish to put restrictions on the church if the Bible does not expressly put those restrictions forward. And this is why at Église Connexion we encourage everyone—men and women—to serve in whatever capacity we can, and when we confirm deacons at our members’ meeting in three weeks, there will be several women on that list.

The second question is, Does the office of deacon create two levels, or categories, of Christians? Someone actually asked me this question last week, because this person had read ahead and been a little bothered by what Paul says in v. 13: For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. What bothered the person who asked me this question was that when Paul says that those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves, it might seem as if Paul is using pride to motivate people to serve as deacons: “If you do this, everyone will think highly of you.”

As Stott notes, “It might mean here that to serve well in the diaconate is a step to the presbyterate, but concepts of ecclesiastical ‘preferment’ or ‘promotion’ are surely an anachronism. In this case the ‘standing’ will be spiritual, either a position of honour in the esteem of God and the church, or even ‘a “step” in the soul’s journey heavenward’ (BAGD).” 

Think of it this way. I was the first of three boys in my family; so when I was growing up my parents made it clear that part of my responsibility was to help them and protect them and be a good example for them. The fact that I was older and more mature than them didn’t mean that I was better; I wasn’t a higher grade of person than them, I was just further along the road than they were. In the same way, when I graduated from high school, my parents threw me a party to celebrate my graduation—it was a way to honor what they saw as an accomplishment. So at that point, I was held in a certain esteem, I received a certain honor, that my brothers didn’t—not because I was better than them, but simply because I’d gotten to that point in my life earlier. (They got a party too when they graduated!)

Here’s the point—this “good standing” isn’t meant to be exclusive. It’s not as if some Christians are inherently eligible for this role, while others aren’t and never will be. This “good standing” is not a different grade of Christian, but a standing to which we are all called to aspire! Yes, deacons who serve well are recognized by the church as being mature in their faith and serving well—but rather than feeding their pride, that recognition is meant to drive Christians who are younger in their faith to exactly that same kind of service! Someone who is not qualified to be a deacon today may well be tomorrow, as they grow in faith and Christlikeness. Every step in maturity is a step forward in Christlikeness; and the more like Christ we become, the more confident we become in the Spirit’s ability to change us.

3) Why does God ordain deacons?

Now when we look at this text, we see exactly the same thing that we saw last week—we see God ordaining an office in the church, and a list of qualifications to be eligible for that role. So clearly it’s no small matter; it’s an office that is important for the church. But why? Why does God ordain that deaconsbe assessed and elected in the church?

Firstly, God ordains deacons to help get things done! We shouldn’t shy away from a simple, human response here. When a church is small, it’s easy to get things done with little organization. We did it this way for a long time, and it’s worked fine. You have all stepped up and done what needed to be done. But as the church grows, it becomes more and more difficult to serve others well—there are simply too many people, too many moving parts. So just like any ordinary structure, some delegation and organization is necessary to make sure things run smoothly. But that can’t be the only reason—for if it were, Paul’s list of qualifications for deacons makes no sense. Like the qualifications for elders, none of the criteria for deacons have anything to do with capacity, but rather with character.

So the second answer to our question—not just “Why does God ordain deacons?” but rather, “Why does God ordain this kind of deacons, deacons for whom godly character is more important than skill?”—is this: God ordains deacons to model servant love for the church. One question Christians—especially young Christians—regularly ask themselves is, “What is God’s will for my life? What does God want me to do?” They’ll think and pray and wait for a very long time, hoping they have some kind of divine inspiration to guide them. And until they receive this divine inspiration, they’ll wait. They’ll sit and watch and wait, and not do much of anything until they “know” what God’s will for their life is. And if anyone asks them why they’re not more active in the life of the church, they’ll say, “I just haven’t found my place yet.”

I’m going to be frank with you, and please know that I’m saying this with all the love I have for you. It may be that some of you have grown up in a church that encouraged this kind of thinking, but if that is the case, you have been misled: that attitude is lazy, cowardly and prideful. God calls some of us to particular ministries, but he calls all of us to lovingly serve the local church. The old adage is unintentionally biblical: “Find the need and fill it!” No task is too small; no task is too big; no task is too far “below” us to merit our sacrifice; so sitting around and waiting to “find our place” is very often an excuse to not consider others as more important than ourselves (Philippians 2.3).

And the office of deacon should utterly destroy that impulse. Deacons will occasionally serve in ways that people tend to admire—things like playing in the worship band, or presiding over the service—but most of the time, they will serve in incredibly unflashy, unremarkable ways, ways that many people may not even see. In addition to helping things run smoothly, the office of deacon exists to show everyone that no service is too small to be considered important; no task is too menial to require our godliness and sacrifice. So when deacons are elected, the next time you feel content to sit back and do nothing while you try to “find your place,” remember your deacons, and rather than trying to find an area of service that fits your character, go to one of them and simply ask, “How can I serve?” No service is too small.

Lastly, God ordains deacons to model godly character for the church. Because they are officially recognized by the church, deacons will be observed. They will be scrutinized, perhaps more than other members will be. So even putting aside whatever it is they have the responsibility of doing, people will also observe how they are living; and God wants those people who are recognized by the church to be examples for others to follow.

4) Conclusion

I’d like to encourage you this morning—every office in the church, from elders to deacons, have at their heart sacrificial service. Elders serve the church by teaching the Word and caring for the congregations; deacons serve the church by freeing the elders to do their primary work, and by doing often thankless jobs which nevertheless allow the life of the church to flourish. Any man or woman who uses their office in the church as an opportunity to self-promote or push their own agenda forward is acting sinfully toward their brothers and sisters. The ultimate goal of the leadership structure of the church is that when people look at elders, when people look at deacons, they see Christ. They don’t see leaders, first and foremost; they see servants. And thus the way is paved for every Christian, from the newest Christian to the most mature, to follow their lead and serve one another. 

So please help us pray that as we seek to set up the structure of leadership the Bible calls us to, that the intended fruit is brought forth. Pray that the elders and deacons may serve well, and that the rest of the church may be encouraged and motivated to follow their example and serve others—inside and outside of the church