God's Table Servants: Qualifications for Deacons

1 Timothy 3:8-15

 

Last month, we looked at the first half of 1 Timothy chapter 3, in which Paul tells Timothy the qualifications a man must demonstrate before he can be entrusted with leadership in the church as an overseer or elder. The second half of the chapter describes the qualifications for the other biblical officers of the Church-deacons.

The leadership of the early Church was based in discipleship-Christ poured Himself into the twelve who by the Spirit became His apostles, and they "entrust[ed His teachings] to faithful men…able to teach others also" (2 Tim. 2:2)-and this is reflected in the requirement that overseers be "able to teach" (1 Tim. 3:2). Paul does not attach that requirement to deacons, a distinction which is rooted in the origin of the office.

In the New Testament, it is somewhat assumed that there will be overseers, elders, or "shepherds" over each local church (and that if there are not, there should be, as Paul instructs in Titus 1:5), and most texts referring to these men focus on their qualifications for office. With deacons, however, we have recorded for us what I believe is the inauguration of this office in Acts chapter 6.

"Now 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. So 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. Therefore, 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. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:1-4).

This position of a church helper or "deacon" was created in response to this conflict in the early Church about the service of widows in which there appeared to be racial discrimination. For the good of the Church, the apostles established a new role designed to address the serving of those in the fellowship. For the record, even though the term "deacon" doesn't appear in English translations of this passage, the Greek diakonia (often translated as service or ministry) shows up in verses 1 and 4 (though there as the "ministry of the word"), and diakonein (the verb form, to serve or minister) is found in verse 2.

In 1 Timothy, Paul uses diakonous (servants) to describe those who serve in this capacity, and it is simply transliterated as "deacons". Some scholars doubt that Acts 6 makes a good foundation for the office of deacon because the title is not used. Still, there was a clear movement in this direction within the early Church, and we see by the time Paul wrote Philippians near the end of his ministry that it appears as an established office: "To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers (episkopoi) and deacons (diakonoi)" (Phil. 1:1).

What we see here is a fourfold rationale for the ministry of deacons. 1) There are services to be provided and conflicts to be resolved in order for the Church to function well and achieve its mission. 2) The apostles (and, by extension, elders) serve primarily as teachers and spiritual leaders, and this function requires prayer and focused study that deserves to be protected for the good of the Body. 3) Therefore, a separate office is needed which is specifically focused on the humble service of the physical needs of the Body ("table service") to preserve harmony and facilitate a focus on the mission. 4) Because this is a delicate and necessary service, those to whom it is entrusted should be carefully chosen according to their faithfulness and wisdom.

All this brings us back to the passage at hand, in which Paul outlines the qualifications for service as a deacon: "Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain, but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear-conscience. These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach." (3:8-10).

Much of this is very similar to the character qualifications for overseers listed previously. Those who would serve the church must be men of dignity, that is, of strong character, not thinking too highly of themselves, and willing to serve selflessly. They are to be honest, not double-tongued, in order to be trustworthy to handle sensitive situations within the Church with full integrity. Like overseers, they are not to be addicted to anything that would control them; their allegiance must be to Christ and His Church. They should not be fond of sordid gain; their honesty and diligence should be reflected in all their personal and business dealings.

Foundational to their character, deacons should hold to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. Paul's language here is in direct contrast to the wrong belief of the false teachers at Ephesus who are "straying from" (1:6) "a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1:5). This might seem an odd requirement for men who are called to be "table-servants", but Paul doesn't mince words that everyone who serves and represents the Church should have a clear understanding of the Gospel of Christ and trust in Him alone for salvation. A false convert can be just as damaging to the Church in the message he conveys through serving as a false teacher can be in proclaiming lies. Because of this, men must first be tested in order to serve as deacons-the congregation should know by their confession and the evidence of their speech and conduct that they are true believers and beyond reproach before they are called to serve.

Paul then addresses another group, presumably also serving in the Church: "Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things" (3:11). Some translations render this as "wives" (the Greek gunaikas can mean either wives or women in general), supposing that Paul would have been more specific if he had meant "deaconesses" (diakonon, as in Rom. 16:1). "Women who serve" seems to be the sense here, both because of the context and the fact that he does not include a similar statement about women or wives in his message on overseers.

Whether or not a church gives these women an office (in service, not leadership) every church I've ever know is served tirelessly in childcare, meals ministry, Sunday school, etc., by a host of faithful women. Similarly to the overseers and deacons, Paul lays out character qualities that should be evident in these serving women. Like deacons, they should be dignified. They should not be gossips, given to spreading untruth around the church (in contrast to the "busybodies" of 5:13). They should be temperate-that is, clear-headed, not allowing their emotions to determine their attitudes and decision-making. Like all who desire to minister in the Body of Christ, they should be faithful to their Savior, to their local church, to their families, and in their service.

Paul then returns to addressing the male deacons (almost as a "One more thing…"): "Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households" (3:12). Just like overseers, deacons are expected to be "one-woman men", faithful to their spouses and families, and effective leaders and peacemakers in their home. Paul rightly reasons that those who cannot serve those closest to them well have no business being ordained to serve publicly in the church.

Because of the strict requirements for their appointment and the hard work set before deacons, Paul reminds them of the honor that is theirs in service: "For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and a great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus" (3:13). Service and sacrifice in the name of Christ strengthens one's faith in the assurance of His indwelling power, without which none of us could be humbled to serve.

Paul goes on to explain to Timothy his reason for spelling out the character and behavior expected of faithful believers (chapter 2) and especially church leaders and servants (chapter 3). "I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth" (3:14-15). Paul clearly understood that, in order for the message of Gospel to be preserved and the mission of the Church to be continued, there needed to be an accountable, replicable structure to the Body. The Church itself is the means of accountability and edification for individual believers, and its leaders must both be held to the highest standards and hold the Church to its commission and to godliness.

From this, I believe we clearly see that the church polity modeled in the Early Church is one of leadership by a plurality of overseers or elders assisted by the servant role of deacons. These roles delineate between teaching of the Word and the physical service of the local church and provide for the faithful accomplishment of both tasks in a way that moves the whole church to fulfill its mission.

Unfortunately, this is not uniformly applied across churches. Perhaps you come from a church background that is very hierarchical, with layers of bishops who set policy and appoint pastors for local congregations. Perhaps you come from a tradition where the local church is autonomous and the pastor functions as a CEO with oversight from a group of men in the body called trustees or deacons. Perhaps you are most familiar with these two offices as named in Scripture, but those who hold them have not been held faithfully to the requirements Paul lays out here.

In whatever case, the misapplication of the biblical model can lead to frustration of the Church's mission. Without a plurality of faithful overseers, a local church's authority can be abused and its commitment to teaching sound doctrine can slip. Without committed, faithful deacons as servants, the needs of the local body can be overlooked or delegated to individuals and committees who are neither called by the whole church nor accordingly held accountable.

Obviously a biblically founded church polity will not, in itself, ensure the faithfulness and fruitfulness of any local church or denomination. Still, Scripture holds forth this model for church administration with good reason, and when it is set aside for any tradition of men (however venerable), we open the door to a host of brambles that threaten to choke out the effectiveness of our witness.

Justin Lonas is editor of Disciple Magazine for AMG International in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

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