The Role and Work of Deacons
In the previous lesson I said that in New Testament society deacons were table attendants and messengers. They were "willing" servants as opposed to bondslaves or forced labor.
The writers of the New Testament chose this word to describe the role of a particular servant of the church. The description and qualifications for this role is limited to three places in the Bible, and from two of these we have been able to put together a profile of these people and their work:
- They were men who were selected by the congregation from among themselves.
- They were chosen primarily for their spiritual maturity and skill in various areas of service.
- They were approved by the leaders and given charge over their work. Once confirmed by the Apostles, they were responsible for their own particular work. They were in charge of the task and making sure that it was carried out well.
- As deacons they held no authority as a group. They were chosen from the church, by the church in order to serve the church in some way, but were not responsible for its direction.
- You could have many deacons doing small tasks so long as they were qualified and appointed.
In this chapter I will examine the final passage of Scripture regarding deacons.
I Timothy 3:8-13
Acts 6:1-6 reveals the work and spiritual maturity of the servants of the church and how they were selected. Philippians 1:1 confirms the fact that they were recognized as having a specific role within the church, apart from elders and preachers. I Timothy 3:8-13 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.
1It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. 2An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. 4He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity 5(but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), 6and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. 7And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.
Paul outlined the basic qualifications for elders in the Lord's church. He immediately follows this with qualifications for deacons.
8Deacons 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.
- Men 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 drunkard. 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:
- Questionable business practices.
- Stealing or cheating.
- Any way which is shameful as a Christian.
- Also people who liked this type of living.
9but 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). Deacons were to be men who were able to believe and practice their faith with a clear conscience (not undignified, hypocritical, drunken, impure or greedy) not simply pretending to be faithful.
Some believe the mystery but do not act like they do. Deacons believe and their actions demonstrate this.
10These 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, etc. 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/elders bear the burden of blame.
In saying "also," Paul is saying that this period of testing is required for elders as well.
Men who are not already providing leadership, service and holy lives should not be appointed as elders or deacons. A common error to avoid is to offer the role to encourage someone to "start" serving.
11Women 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 women can mean "wives" as in wives of deacons or "women" as in deaconesses or servants of the church.
- In Romans 16:1 Paul commands Phoebe, a servant or "diakonos" of the church.
- There are some early writings that suggest that women served in this capacity, but these were non-inspired writers long after the apostolic age.
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.
- The context of this passage is a list of qualifications for men as deacons, and this reference to wives would seem natural as instructions to the wives of not only deacons but the elders as well. The wives would be involved in this work with their husbands so their character and conduct had to be above reproach as well. Paul lists elders and deacons, and then the women/wives of these men.
- The only biblical examples that we have of deacons doing the work shows that men are the ones doing it. Acts 1:1-6 sees the Apostles specifying that men are to be selected. Here we have two opportunities by two different Apostles to establish women in this role, but in each case Peter and Paul specify men for this position.
What we do see, however, in the New Testament are women serving, "dialeonosing" (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 her house to Paul (Acts 16).
- Pricilla offering her house to Paul, and along with her husband, having a Bible study with the Apostles (Acts 18).
- Phoebe delivering a letter (Romans) to Paul. Here the Greek word diakonos used in its "messenger" sense (Romans 16).
However, they are not among those chosen by the church and set before the leadership in order to be 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 is this: all Christians, men and women, serve. They all waiter, take messages, work on behalf of the body. However, 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 (verse 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 deacons).
- Not malicious gossips. It is never ok 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 emotions, arguments and strife.
- Faithful as a general rule in the faith, in service, in marriage, friendship, etc.
12Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households. 13 For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
We return to the issue of the married state of this person. Notice he specifies men here, not women.
There have been a variety of ways to interpret this passage:
- It may mean that the man has only ever had one wife in his life.
- It may mean a man who may have had more than one wife (widowed, divorced, practiced polygamy) but he now has only one wife, the one he is currently married to, and he is faithful to her (not a runaround).
There are all kinds of arguments to support positions in between these two:
- Widowers are ok, divorcees are not.
- Widowers and divorcees ok, polygamists not, etc.
The one position that is absolutely sure and biblical that no one will dispute is the man who has been married to the same woman all his life. He definitely does qualify. In choosing this man the elders are sure of the biblical soundness of their choice.
Paul finishes the qualifications of the deacons by stating that part of the testing they must pass is the fact that they manage their homes and families well. If a man cannot take proper care of his house and personal affairs, can he better care for the meeting place and the affairs of the family of God?
In the final verse he talks about the deacons' reward and standing. I will discuss this as well as the idea of "the laying on of hands" in the next chapter.
For now, let us summarize several key ideas as far as deacons are concerned:
- Deacons are servants chosen by their congregation according to specific qualifications that they have, and appointed by the elders to carry out specific tasks.
- Although women served in specific ways and still do, there is no teaching or clear example in the New Testament to suggest that they were appointed by elders to serve in the role of deacons as men do.
- The New Testament does not prohibit men (or women) who have been married before from being members of the church, participating in worship and serving the body, but in order to be selected as an elder or deacon the man must be the husband of only one wife. That is not condemning to others; it merely creates a standard that will protect elders and deacons from criticism and division (should there be a question over a person's previous marriage).
We should not impose this view on other congregations, but accept the decision on this matter for our own congregations by our elders.
Thanks be to God, however, that the requirements for membership in the Lord's church are a sincere repentant heart, a belief that Jesus is the Son of God and a willingness to obey Him in baptism. These are requirements that rule no one out from salvation.
- What is the significance of Paul's use of "likewise" in I Timothy 3:8 and what are the specific similarities between elders and deacons?
- Summarize the qualifications of deacons as given in I Timothy 3:8-13 and explain their meaning.
- Why is it important for a deacon to be married?
- How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?