(I want to start by thanking 9Marks for some great articles that helped me put this together.)
Intro to Deacons
This week, however, I want to talk about something that I’ve never covered here before – the role of deacons in the church. This is both important and pertinent as the Nominating Committee is meeting to discuss who will be asked to stand for various positions around the church.
In our church, the deacons are asked to stand for the position by the Nominating Committee and, if they agree, are then voted on by the congregation. What I want to talk about today is where deacons came from in the Bible, and what their qualifications are.
Why is this important? Well, I think you can agree that the people who are elected to official positions in our church – or any church – are going to be people that have influence and help set the spiritual temperature of the church. Most of us have experienced or at least witnessed what happens when the wrong people gain influence in an organization. Whether it’s choosing a bus drive for your kids or the Prime Minister of the country, it’s important to be sure that the person is both called and qualified for the job.
God knows the importance of having the right people with the right heart, in the right places, and so He gives careful instruction to the church about the kind of people they should choose for the various positions within it. That includes pastors, teachers, servants, missionaries, deacons and more. God is very concerned that we choose the people that He has called for the job, and not place someone else in there. A lot of grief has happened in the church over the past couple thousand years because people weren’t listening to what God had to say about the character and qualifications of the people that are meant to lead and serve the church. We don’t want to replicate those problems, and we want to seek His blessing, so it’s important that we know what He wants.
The First Deacons
Let’s start by opening to Acts 6:1-6:
“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. 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. 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. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’ And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.”
Here we see the beginning of what would later become the office of Deacon. At this point, however, the seven men chosen here were not elected to a position that already existed, but were chosen to start something new as the result of a problem.
The Christian church, despite harsh opposition from all manner of different opponents, was growing rapidly. Thousands of people, in and around Jerusalem, were hearing the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and turning their lives over to Him. This brought them into the fellowship of believers that was led by His Apostles.
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about what this group looked like in Acts 2 – fellowshipping in homes, caring for each other’s needs, and worshipping in the temple – but now, not much time later, the church had grown into a much larger organization.
As we know from Acts 2, one of the things that God did at the birth of the church was to give people the temporary, special ability to share the Gospel in many different kinds of languages. That meant that as the Christian church grew, there would be a lot of languages and cultures that would need to work together under the banner of Christ. Just in the church in Jerusalem, there were Jewish Christians, Greek Christians, Samaritan Christians, Gentile Christians, and many more cultures and languages represented. And while that all sounds well and good, just wait until you try to get anything done.
There were language barriers, cultural differences, and perhaps, the beginnings of theological differences over how the Old Testament Law applied to New Testament Christians. These people loved Jesus, and loved each other, but these were some serious problems that were creating friction in the church.
One area this friction bubbled up was a problem with the distribution of help to the widows and orphans. One of the priorities Jesus gave the church was to care for the helpless, but as they were trying to do it, some people were being forgotten. The question was: Were they forgotten on purpose? Was it racism? Was it poor administration? This was obviously a big deal, was becoming a serious problem in the church, so the Apostles gathered to talk about it.
The Apostles realized that they were overrun with responsibilities and it was distracting them from their most important priorities – prayer and preaching.
Of course, charitable works were important, but not as important as talking to Jesus and teaching people about Jesus from the scriptures. Their calling, by Jesus, was to go, teach, and baptize new believes – not organize food drives. So what should they do? Let it go? Forget about the widows? No, it was still important, so they brought the problem to the church.
Look at verse 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.’”
This was a big meeting! There were practical issues that needed to be taken care of, and though it was the Apostles job to lead the church, it wasn’t their job to actually serve at the tables. So they brought the problem to the group: “Ok, folks, this is an issue. Charitable ministries are important, because Jesus says we are supposed to serve the helpless among us – especially widows and orphans. But here’s the thing; it would be wrong and disobedient of us to give up the ministries of prayer and preaching the word of God to organize all of this. So…”
Now look at verse 3-4:
“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. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
This wasn’t the Apostles punting the problem. This was them doing their God-given job and providing a solution to the practical problems of the church.
Shock Absorbers and Servants
These men would have an important role. They weren’t just administrators and servants, but were meant to be the shock absorbers for the rough road the church was going over. These seven men, chosen by the whole church because of their good reputation, devotion to Jesus, and wise living, would be the ones who would oversee the practical, charitable ministries of the church – but to be clear, their main task wasn’t to “wait tables” or organize the food drives. Their real job was to preserve unity at a time when administrative confusion was causing divisions in the church. They were the shock absorbers that would take the hits, do the hard work, and help everyone have a smoother ride as they bumped over this rough patch.
That’s why it was important that the church chose the right people. They weren’t supposed to be a group of bean counters and list makers. They were to be people of godly character and good reputation, folks that the whole church knew and trusted would have their best interests at heart. Everyone new that when Stephen, Philip, and the rest were at work, everything would be done in a fair and loving way. Their main job wasn’t about getting food to the widows and orphans, but doing a job that would restore unity to a fractured church by doing good administration in a godly way.
Qualifications of Deacons
So, as the Apostles and missionaries spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to new places, they would start a church and appoint Elders to care for the spiritual well-being of the new believers (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). Later, as these churches would grow, they would follow in the pattern of the Jerusalem church and choose from among themselves, deacons to organize care for the practical needs of the whole group.
The word Deacon, is not a special title, it’s literally the word “servant”. Greek people used the word to describe anyone who serves someone else, like a “waiter” in a restaurant. Deacons were chosen to be official servants of the church. They would handle the practical aspects that came with organizing help for a group of people. The Apostles, and later the Pastors, Teachers and Elders, were meant to devote their time to overseeing the spiritual health of the church, praying, and preaching the Word, while the Deacons were to ensure that the day-to-day needs of the believers were met. Deacons and Elders are partners in the leadership of the church.
And so, by the time we get around to AD 65, after 20-30 years of this pattern, Paul feels the need to write a list of qualifications for these groups, to his fellow church planters, Titus and Timothy.
Please turn to 1 Timothy 3:8-13 and let’s read the official qualifications for deacons as set forth by God through the Apostle Paul to Timothy. Remember, Timothy was Paul’s protégé and was left in Ephesus to take care of the church, deal with some false teachers, and fix some leadership issues.
Part of fixing those leadership issues was to make sure that everyone who had influence in the church was qualified to be there. Let’s read the list of qualifications for deacons:
“Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 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.” (1 Timothy 3:8-13)
The first thing I want you to notice is that that this list has no skills in it! It doesn’t say “good at managing money”, “successful in business”, or even “well organized”. This list is exclusively made up of spiritual and personal characteristics. The qualifications for deacon are very clear, and have little to do with a person’s skillset. They have everything to do with the person.
Remember the problem in Acts 6. Thousands of people were depending on a group of seven men to organize the distribution of food to widows and orphans. This was, potentially, a matter of life and death! People could starve if they got this wrong. Too much to one person, not enough to another, a family forgotten, could prove disastrous – not only for the needy person, but also for the spiritual life of that family, and the reputation of the church. They would need to figure out how to collect the food and money, divide it properly, and distribute it fairly. They would need to come up with rules as to who gets help and how much.
One would think that the first qualification for these people to be strong administrators, good financiers, type-A personalities, and good business men – but it wasn’t. The qualifications for the first seven deacons weren’t based on their skills or work-history, but on their reputations and their faith in God. And it’s the same with the qualifications for deacons in 1st Timothy. In fact, the qualifications for deacon and for elder are quite similar. Let’s go through them:
First, a deacon must be “dignified”, meaning they are honourable, have a good reputation, and are worthy of respect. It would be a bad thing for the church if the people they put in charge of administration in the church were undignified, dishonourable, had a poor reputation, and weren’t respected, right?
The second qualification for deacon is that they are “not double tongued”. In other words, they don’t manipulate people with their words. They don’t say one thing to one person, and then something different to someone else. They don’t say one thing and mean another. They are not two-faced. A deacon in Christ’s church must be someone who is trustworthy, consistent and careful with their words
The third qualification is that they are “not addicted to much wine”. Now, this doesn’t mean they can’t have some wine now and again, but that they are not to be an addict – and doesn’t just mean alcohol, but anything: gambling, food, internet, sex, drugs, work, shopping, video games. An addiction would mean that they lack self-control and discipline. If a deacon is in charge of the money and resources for the church, then an addiction will spill over into their work. They will not only do a poor job, but put themselves in a place they would be tempted to steal.
The fourth qualification of a deacon is “not greedy for dishonest gain”. If the person loves money, then they are going to be terrible at giving it away for charitable works! If the idol of money rules the person’s heart, then they will bow to it before they bow to Jesus. They will use the churches resources for financial profit and believe that the church’s security comes from money, rather than use it to help others and trust that God will provide.
The fifth qualification is that they “hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience”. In other words, they are convinced that God’s plan of salvation through Jesus Christ is true. They are not required to be able to teach, like an elder is, but they are required to have a good grasp of the gospel. To state it differently, they can be less mature in their walk with God than an elder, but they must be rock-solid in their faith that Jesus Christ as the only Lord and Saviour.
The sixth qualification is that they are “tested” and “prove themselves blameless”. This doesn’t mean perfect. No one is perfect. This means that they have been examined and no one has anything against them. Their background, reputation, and theological positions are already known. Deacons are people who have been vetted by not only the congregation, but by the Elders and by the Spirit of God. This keeps new Christians from being appointed as deacons, and protects the church from choosing someone who is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Deacons are people who have been “tested” and “proven”.
Wives or Deaconesses?
The next qualification is a little controversial because it’s hard to translate. If you look at your bible, it probably has a note on verse 11 that says there are a few ways to translate it. It either says, “Their wives likewise…” or “Women, likewise….” So this could either be a list of qualification for the wives of male deacons, or a list of qualifications for female deacons.
I don’t want to spend a lot of time taking this apart, but I’ll let you know where I stand. I’m sort of torn down the middle. There are people much smarter than I who would go either way! The word used there isn’t the word “Deaconess”, it’s simply the word “women”. It’s linguistically awkward to shoe-horn female deacons in there. This most naturally translates to be talking about the wives of the male deacons. It’s saying that their wife’s faith and reputation should be taken into account, just as the families of the overseers should be taken into account, while testing their qualifications.
Now, it’s not that there are no female deacons in scripture. We know that there were female deacons in the church. The Deaconess Phoebe is mentioned in Romans 16:1. But why would Paul single out the wives in this list? Well, contextually, it’s likely because the women of this church were being singled out for attack by the enemy. Paul talks a lot in this letter about specific problems with the women in the Ephesian church that had come about as a result of listening to false teachers. I don’t have time to go into that here, but read at chapters 2 and 5 to see how women were singled out and deceived by heretical teachers.
My personal leanings are that the whole list of qualifications for deacons applies to both male and female deacons, and that this section is specifically talking about deacons wives. I think that it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to extrapolate out that the faith and reputations of the husbands of the female deacons should be taken into account too – but it doesn’t say that. Paul was writing to a predominately male group that had serious issues among the leadership, and because of cultural issues and predatory false teachers, the women were especially effected. Therefore he was reminding the church them that the deacon’s wives needed to be just as qualified as they were – or else there was going to be more trouble in the church.
Notice that the list for the wives is almost a repeat of the list of qualifications for deacon:
- “Dignified” is repeated
- “not slanderers” is close to “doubled tongued”
- “sober minded” parallels “not given to much wine”
- and “faithful in all things” goes along with holding “the mystery of the faith” and being “blameless”.
It’s a repeat of the previous list, seemingly as a reminder to Timothy and the church to keep the reputations and attitudes of the spouses in mind as they were choosing their deacons. If the deacon doesn’t have a godly spouse, then that could lead to some serious problems.
The qualifications of deacons conclude with “the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well”, which basically means that the deacon must be faithful to their marriage and family. If their home life is a mess, then how can they be expected to take on the added responsibility of being a deacon? Signing up for any position in a church paints a spiritual target on your back – and it’s going to affect your home life.
If the deacon is having inappropriate physical or emotional relationships with people other than their spouse (including pornography, of course), then they are a danger to the church and disqualified from the position. If they cannot be faithful to their spouse, then they are not being faithful to God. If that cannot manage their own children, how will they be able to manage a larger group of people with even more diverse needs? As it says in the qualification for elders, if they can’t keep their household together, then how can they expect to “care for God’s church” (vs 5)?
Rewards for Good Deacons
Paul concludes this section with two promises to the deacons.
The first promise is that those who “serve well”, or literally, “deacon well”, will have the benefit of gaining for themselves a “good standing”. What does that mean? It means being a deacon is a tough job, but their hard work won’t go unrewarded. Others will see them and they will gain the trust and respect of their peers, but more importantly, God will see their work and will reward them in heaven
And the second reward is that those that serve as deacons will gain “great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.” This means that as they serve, they will grow closer to Jesus. Serving the people of the church will require that they pray more, seek God more, know Jesus more, and read the Word more. Their work will be hard, confusing and kick up a lot of spiritual dust – and will therefore drive them to their knees. That will grow their faith and confidence in Jesus. As the deacons serve, they will be tested and tried, and that will lead to their maturing in their faith in Jesus Christ.
I can assure you, and so can many here, that this is true. Being a servant in the church is a tough job, and often thankless. It’s heartwarming at times, and heartbreaking at others. But one thing is certain – it will test your faith as silver in a furnace. The weaknesses in your personality, your faith, your knowledge, your areas of temptation, your marriage, your discipline, will all come out. Whatever idols are in your life, will be exposed. But it’s when that happens that God can refine you.
Let me close with this: The role of deacon is one that is often misunderstood, but when it’s boiled down, a deacon is a godly servant. The church needs deacons to provide practical, administrative and material help to the church so that the congregation’s needs are met and the elders can concentrate on preaching the Word of God and prayer. A deacon may not always teach with their words, but they certainly teach with their actions. And so, my hope today is that you would do two things.
First, thank the deacons of our church. They have worked hard and been in their respective roles for a very long time. They’ve done so much over the past four years (since I’ve been here) and even more before that. I could give you a list, but it would take a long time. So please find and thank the deacons of this church for all they’ve done.
Second let me encourage you to ask yourself if you qualify as a deacon. And if not, why? What do you need to do in order to get your heart and life right with God to where you could serve him as a deacon? Remember, deacons aren’t specially gifted. They are simply people who believe in God with all their heart, listen to Him, serve His church, and are careful to live by His Word. That’s what we should all be trying to do, because that’s what Jesus did.
Matthew 20:28 says, “…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve [to deacon], and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Deacons give their time and lives in service to the church – to us – because they are following the pattern set by the ultimate servant, Jesus Christ, who served us on the cross.