In our last chapter we talked about the meaning of the word "deacon," how it relates to the work of the church and how this role is different from that of elder, different words for elder, bishop, pastor.
I said that the word deacon is a transliterated word from the Greek, diakonos, which refers to an attendant or a waiter. In the church, it refers to men who are chosen to do certain tasks based on their qualifications and their experience.
They serve the church under the direction of the elders. They are different from elders in that their main tasks are service-related as opposed to teaching or direction of the assembly. They are selected by the church, and we will take a look at that later on, and they are appointed or ordained, which means pretty much the same thing, or commended, by the elders or the evangelist, based on certain qualifications laid out by Paul in Acts 6, also Philippians 1 and I Timothy 3.
So in our lesson today we're going to look at these passages that talk about the deacons.
The First Deacons
There are only three places in the New Testament where deacons are referred to and what we know about their qualifications and work are drawn from these passages, so we are just going to go through these.
1Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. 2So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, "It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. 3Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. 4But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." 5The statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch. 6And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them.
- Acts 6:1-6
Here the term deacon is not used but the verb describing their work and from which their name would come is used. The church is growing quickly and along with it, the responsibility for benevolence. Some feel neglected in the distribution and so a complaint which threatens the unity of the church arises. The Apostles settle the matter by calling for diakonos, (serving or waitering) which was not their calling. Their job was to teach and pray and not to distribute food.
The Apostles establish basic criteria for these servants:
A. They establish a limited number. I do not know why, other than 7 was a significant number in Jewish numerology. Or maybe it was based on the work at hand.
B. They were selected by the congregation from among the congregation. Unlike elders who are selected by the evangelist or by other leaders.
C. They were to be men, not women. Peter specifies males, yet there were women who qualified in the other areas (full of the Spirit and of wisdom). It would be a natural place for women to serve, but Peter specifies males.
D. They were to have charge or to be appointed over the task. The Apostles did it before but could no longer carry the burden of it so they gave charge of the task to others. The mistake we make in the church is that we give the work to the deacons but not the charge over the work. Once the guidelines were established the work was in the hands of these men and not of the Apostles.
E. The task was singular. These men were chosen for this task and not to be Apostle assistants at large (if this would have been the case, they would have had 12 deacons and not 7). Deacons were the servants of the church, assisted the church, not the Apostles, in carrying out this particular task. This is why they were chosen among the brethren by the brethren because they were the servants of the brethren.
F. They had specific qualifications.
- Good reputation - speaks for itself.
- Full of the Spirit - all Christian men have the Holy Spirit but some demonstrate more "fruit" of the Spirit as they are growing in Christ.
- Full of wisdom - as deacons they also needed particular wisdom or understanding in practical ways.
- In the Old Testament, God filled men with wisdom as artisans, painters or builders to build the temple.
- In the New Testament, He still gives men gifts and wisdom to carry out the work of the church in various areas (building, administration, service, giving, etc.).
- People who can take charge - if you are given charge, you have to be one who can take charge and get things done.
There were no further complaints about food, meaning that these seven were able to take care of this problem.
G. They can be different kinds of men. The list of deacons includes Stephen, a Jew; Nicolas, a Gentile convert to Judaism who became a Jew, who then became a Christian.
H. They were ordained, commended. People say that everybody is a deacon, or what makes it a special service or role? The fact that one is chosen by one's peers based on specific qualifications and then approved by a leadership is what makes a role or a service separate and apart.
Deacons have a special and separate role from elders, preachers and saints, by virtue of their qualifications, selection and commendation.
The second passage that mentions deacons and the first that actually refers to them as such is:
Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons...
- Philippians 1:1
Here Paul greets the entire church as a whole (the saints) and then those who have a special role of responsibility and service within that body, the elders and the deacons.
There are not many references to deacons in the New Testament but from the first two that we have looked at, we can conclude several things about them:
- They are men who are spiritually mature that use their particular talents in special service to the church aside from the ministry of the Word. The ministry or service of the Word is that of elders and preachers; the work of deacons permits elders and preachers to concentrate on their ministry. This does not mean that deacons cannot teach or preach (Stephen was very eloquent) but they are chosen as deacons for the other services they render.
- They are selected by the congregation from the congregation for service to the congregation and commended or ordained by the leaders (the elders).
- Their leadership or authority is connected to the accomplishing of their task. They have charge over their ministry once it is defined by the elders (for example, to build).
- There are no deacons without specific tasks. Since the word and the context refer to the one who does a specific job, when there is no job, there is no deacon. However, a deacon can be given charge over a small task and still be a deacon (for example, counting, cleaning an area, etc.) What determines the office is the qualification of the man, his choice and his confirmation and the fact that he has a job to do. A congregation can have 20 deacons so long as they qualify and have work to do.
- They constitute no authority as individuals nor as a group within the church. They are neither a committee nor a lobby; they are servants with a specific task. We do not hear them speak in the New Testament when matters are discussed (Acts 15:1-ff).
Let us examine a final passage of Scripture regarding deacons.
I Timothy 3:8-13
This passage gives us some insight as to the basic qualifications necessary to be considered for this role as well as their standing in the body, and how they were chosen.
- Vs. 1-7 - Paul has outlined the basic qualifications for elders in the Lord's church. He immediately follows with qualifications for deacons.
- Vs. 8
8 Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain,
Insofar as character, deacons are to resemble the elders: "likewise". The term "must" means that there is no question about the need to be strict in requiring these qualifications for this role.
- Mean of dignity or "grave" signifies a man who is respected, not flippant or coarse.
- Double-tongued refers to one who is a hypocrite, insincere, talking behind other people's back.
- Not given too much wine, sober, not a brawler. Moderation in the use of wine as it was consumed in that time:
- Mixed water with wine
- Drank low alcohol content.
- Moderate drinking would not produce drunkenness.
- These were not moderate "social" drinkers. They drank wine as their primary drink and had to be careful not to let it lead to drunkenness.
- Fond of sordid gain. In the original context, this expression meant a person who earned a living in a sordid or unclean way: gambling, prostitution, stealing or cheating, any way which is shameful as a Christian, also people who liked thy type of living (e.g. grifters).
9 but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.
- The mystery of the faith is the gospel. The way people were to be saved was a mystery that no one knew until Christ came and revealed it (Romans 16:25-26)
- Men who are able to believe and practice their faith with a clear conscience (not undignified, hypocritical, drunken, impure and greedy). Some believe the mystery but do not act like they do. Deacons believe and their actions demonstrate this.
10 These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach.
- Deacons are to have proven that they are qualified before they are appointed. The church will choose a man they see doing the work, living a good Christian life, long before he is appointed as deacon. I Timothy 5:22 warns against being too quick in appointing elders or deacons lest in their failure the evangelist or elders bear a burden of blame.
- When Paul says, "also", he is saying that this period of testing is also required for elders. Men who are not already providing leadership, service, holy lives, should not be appointed as elders or deacons.
11 Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.
- This verse has been used to suggest that women should also be appointed to be deacons (deaconesses) in the church. The arguments for this are as follows:
- The term woman can mean "wives" as in wives of deacons or "women" as in deaconesses or servants of the church.
- In Romans 16:1, Paul commends Phoebe, a servant, or diakonos of the church.
- There are some early writings that suggest that women served in this capacity.
- The arguments against are as follows:
- Paul does not use the term deaconess here but just a word that means wives or can be interpreted as women. Had he used the term deaconess, there would be no confusion.
- The context of this passage is a list of qualifications for men as deacons and this reference to wives would seem natural as instruction to the wives of not only deacons but elders as well. The wives would be involved with people and the work and so their character and conduct had to be above reproach as well. (He lists elders and deacons and then the women or wives of these men).
The only examples that we have of deacons doing the work shows the men doing it. Acts 6:1-6 sees the Apostles specifying men to be selected.
* Two opportunities by two different Apostles to establish women in this role but both times Peter and Paul specify men.
** Stronger evidence for men...
- What we do see, however, in the New Testament, are women serving, diakonosing (waitering) in a variety of ways:
- Women supporting Jesus' ministry - Luke 8:3
- Women praying in the upper room - Acts 1
- Dorcas making clothing for the poor - Acts 9
- Mary the mother of Mark offering her home as a meeting place for the Apostles - Acts 12
- Lydia offering hospitality to Paul - Acts 16
- Priscilla offering her house to Paul and along with this, her husband having a Bible study with Apollos - Acts 18
- Phoebe delivering a letter to Paul in Rome - Romans 16:1 (Here the Greek word diakonos is used in its "messenger" sense).
Women, therefore, are not among those chosen by the church and set before the leadership and appointed as deacons.
On the other hand, there are many men who serve in a variety of ways at different times also, but not all of them are set forth as deacons either.
The point here is this:
- All Christians, men and women, serve; they all waiter, take messages, work on behalf of the body.
- Only some of the men who are qualified are chosen by the church and appointed by the elders to be responsible for certain tasks.
In the verse we are considering (vs. 11), I believe Paul refers to the wives of deacons and he says that as wives of deacons they also must:
- Be dignified (same as deacon)
- Not malicious gossips. It is never okay to be a gossip but a deacon's wife must especially have a handle on this problem since she, through her husband, is involved with many areas of the work and people in the church.
- Temperate - sober, sober-minded, not easily carried away by emotion, arguments, strife.
- Faithful as a general rule: in the faith especially, but also in service, marriage, friendship. She is a trustworthy person.
12Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households.
Same qualifications as elders.
That no matter what his marital status - first and only marriage; widower; divorced; former polygamist. Now as a Christian he is a "one-women" man. He is exclusively faithful to his wife. It is his "attitude" Paul is referring to. Other women feel comfortable and confident around him - no question about his fidelity to his wife. He must be a good manager in his home.
- If deacons cannot manage and care for their families (too busy, too lazy, too selfish or immature) how will they be able to manage the affairs and the work of the church?
A man's home and family says a lot about the man himself.
13For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus
Paul mentions the reward for those deacons who do a good job in their roles of servants in the church.
- Increased measure and confidence in their faith concerning Christ Jesus.
- Serving well re-affirms one's faith and strengthens a person's confidence in salvation, God's care, the hope of heaven.
Notice that the more you serve, the more you give, the more you sacrifice, the stronger your faith is? Stronger faith produces peace of mind, a joyful heart, a greater intimacy with God.
If this is the type of reward that comes with service to God, imagine the blessings on deacons and their wives who are officially appointed to service in the Lord's church?
This ends the section on special servants in the church. In our next lesson, we will finish the chapter and see why Paul has written this letter in the first place.