Choosing Qualified Deacons

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1 Timothy 3:8-13

INTRODUCTION: Please open your Bibles with me to the book of 1 Timothy. Our message series is called “Doing Church Together,” and we are in the middle of chapter 3 which discusses the topic of church leadership, and, more specifically, choosing qualified church leadership. There are two basic church offices we find in the Bible, elders and deacons. Last week we looked at 3:1-7 which discussed the qualifications for church elders. Today we will look at verse 8-13 which discusses the qualifications for deacons.

1 Timothy 3:8-13 8 Deacons, likewise, are to be men worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. 9 They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.
11 In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.
12 A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and his household well. 13 Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus. (NIV)

Last week we looked at the office of elder and saw that an elder’s basic function is to lead and to teach the church body. So what about this other office of deacon? How is a deacon different from an elder? What is the deacon’s function? The word “deacon” comes from a Greek word meaning “to minister or to serve.” And so the basic distinction is this. Elders provide the spiritual leadership and teaching for the church; deacons serve the church in more physical ways.

A similar distinction of ministry is found in the Old Testament where you had the priests and the Levites. The priests performed the sacrifices, while the Levites took care of the more physical details of worship in the temple. I sometimes joke with our Sunday morning set-up crew that they are like the Levites who broke down and set up the tabernacle in the wilderness.

Of course, we should not try to make a direct comparison of priest to pastor, and Levite to deacon. A pastor is not a priest serving as mediator between God and man. As we saw in 1 Timothy 2, there is only one mediator, Christ Jesus, and, according to the New Testament, all believers are considered priests before God. I only point out the priest and Levite connection because there was this similarity of spiritual service and physical service built into the Old Testament ministry as well.

We also find this two-fold distinction of ministry in Acts 6, way back in the early days of the church. In Acts 6, no missionary journeys had taken place. No churches had yet been planted, and so no elders had been installed. The church was still confined to Jerusalem where it was led and taught by the twelve apostles.

But as the church in Jerusalem grew, and the number of disciples increased, a problem arose between the Greek and Jewish believers. Apparently the Greek widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So, we read in Acts 6, the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:2-4)

The apostles were fulfilling the role of elders in the Jerusalem church. They were providing the spiritual leadership and teaching for the church. So when this problem arose, they had a choice. They could take on more work and responsibilities, or they could delegate this work to others. They chose to delegate. The word “wait” in verse 2, “wait on tables,” is the Greek word “diakoneo,” which means to minister or serve, and from which we get our word “deacon.”

This initial incident in the early days of the church set the pattern for church government to follow. The deacons would come alongside the elders to serve the church in more physical ways, so that the elders could give their attention to prayer and to the ministry of the word.

At our church the deacons do many things. They coordinate the Sunday School program, the preparation and serving of communion, preparing meals for the sick, caring for the needy, the set-up of the church on Sunday mornings, the printing of the bulletins, the counting of the money, the cleaning of the church offices, and many other tasks. Can you imagine if the elders were trying to do all these other things as well as lead and guide the church spiritually? We would be a mess!

So the elders focus on the spiritual ministry of the church, and the deacons more on the physical ministry of the church. Both are ministry, and both are vitally important. They are just different ways to serve. The elders serve by leading and teaching. The deacons serve in ways that free the elders to focus on the spiritual leadership of the church.

So, what are the qualifications for a deacon? Can anyone just serve as a deacon? No. A deacon is still fulfilling one of the two offices in the church. Even though they are not responsible for the spiritual leadership and oversight of the church, they are still leaders in the church. And so Paul outlines the qualifications for deacons in verses 8-13. You will notice some similar qualifications to elders that we saw last week, as well as some significant differences.

I. A deacon must exhibit godly character (verse 8 )

First of all, a deacon must exhibit godly character. Look at verse 8: “Deacons, likewise, are to be men worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain.” Just as with elders, the first qualification for deacons has to do with personal character. And the character traits are very similar to those for elder – worthy of respect, sincere in speech, exercising self-control when it comes to alcohol and to money.

If you jump back to Acts 6 for a minute, when the apostles were looking for men to assist them in the work of the ministry, what kind of men did they look for? Acts 6:3 – “Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.” (Acts 6:3) They did not choose just anyone, but they specifically chose men who were full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. They were looking for men of character, wisdom, and maturity.

II. A deacon must demonstrate maturity in the faith (verses 9-10)

And that brings us to our second qualification. A deacon must demonstrate maturity in the faith. Look at verse 9: “They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience.”

The word translated “deep truths” is the Greek word for “mystery.” In the New Testament a mystery is usually something that is hidden and cannot be discovered on your own. It must be revealed. So the idea here is that a prospective deacon must hold fast to the deep truths of the faith as revealed in the Scriptures. A deacon must be committed to Scripture. And the deacon must do this with a clear conscience. A person who has doubts about the Bible or about the clear teaching of Scripture should not serve as a deacon.

Paul goes on to say in verse 10: “They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.” That word “tested” means “examined and approved.” A prospective deacon should first be examined concerning his or her character and maturity of faith. Then if no one brings forth any charge against them, they may serve as deacons.

We take these verses very seriously at our church. When a person’s name is submitted as a potential deacon, the elders first examine that person as to their character and their maturity in the faith. If the elders are satisfied, we then submit the names of prospective deacons to the church body for a period of two weeks. If after that time, no one comes forth with any concerns, only then do we install the person as a deacon.

III. Men and women may both serve as deacons (verse 11)

Next we move on to verse 11. Verse 11 is a difficult verse to interpret, but I believe that it allows for both men and women to serve as deacons. Let’s take a closer look at the verse together: “In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.”

Now you might read that and say, “Wait a minute! It doesn’t say anything about women deacons, just the wives of deacons.” And you’re right – that is the way it reads in the English translation of the NIV. But that is not what it says in the original. As much as I like the NIV, and most of the time I think you get a good sense of the original meaning from the NIV, the translation here is a little confusing. Instead of directly translating from the original Greek, the translators have actually interpreted the verse for you. The phrase translated “their wives” here in the NIV is simply the word, “women,” in the original. Literally, this verse reads: “In the same way, women are to be worthy of respect, etc.”

So who are these women that Paul is talking about in verse 11? Is he talking about all women in the church? No, because the context is that of qualifications for deacons. So he is talking about a specific group of women in the church relating to the office of deacons.

So what are the possibilities? There are four main interpretations that have been put forth:

  1. Paul is talking about women deacons who serve along with the men deacons.
  2. Paul is talking about deaconesses, a separate office in the church from deacon.
  3. Paul is talking about women in the church who assist the deacons in their work.
  4. Paul is talking about the wives of deacons.

You see, number four is a possible interpretation, but the NIV has actually made it into their translation here, which means if you only read the NIV, you would only get one possible interpretation from the verse. This is why it is good when studying a particular passage to study it in several translations to get a broader feel for what the original text said.

So which of these four interpretations is the best? It is hard to say. Good arguments can be made for all four interpretations, and churches have to make their decisions accordingly. However, I believe that this verse, taken along with other Scriptures, allows for both men and women to serve as deacons.

For one thing, we have the example of Phoebe in the book of Romans. In Romans 16:1 Paul writes, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea.” That word translated “servant” is actually the word “deacon.” Although most Bible versions translate it as “servant,” it could be translated as deacon and would make perfect sense in the verse translated that way.

Another reason why I think 1 Timothy 3:11 allows for both men and women to serve as deacons is because the deacon’s function is different from the elder’s function. We saw last week that the office of elder is restricted to qualified men in the church. That is because the office of elder involves spiritual oversight and the authoritative teaching of doctrine, and God has given the responsibility for leadership in the home and in the church to men.

But the deacon is not required to teach. The deacon’s primary role is not oversight and teaching but rather physical service to the church. And therefore, whether you call them deacons, or deacons and deaconesses, Scripture would seem to say that both men and women may serve in this role.

So what qualifications does Paul give for women who serve as deacons in this verse? They are to be “women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.” Once again, the emphasis is on godly character, self-control, and faithfulness.

IV. A deacon must manage his family well (verse 12)

Paul goes on to say that a deacon must manage his family well. Look at verse 12 with me. “A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and his household well.” Just like the elder, the deacon must be a one-woman-man. If married, he must be faithful to his wife. If he has children, he must manage his children well. Once again, a man’s family becomes part of his resume for holding an office in the church..

V. A deacon who serves well will grow in standing and assurance in the faith (verse 13)

Finally, Paul says that a deacon who serves well will grow in standing and assurance in the faith. Look at verse 13: “Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.” There is great benefit for those who serve well as deacons. Notice you don’t get these benefits simply from being a deacon. These benefits are for those who serve well. It is not your position as a deacon that matters as much as your faithful service as a deacon.

In verse 13 Paul speaks of two benefits for the deacon who serves well. These two benefits have to do with the deacon’s standing and the deacon’s assurance. The word translated “standing” is a difficult word to understand in this context. It can be translated as “step” or “rank,” and probably refers either to the deacon’s standing within the congregation or their standing in their faith in Christ. There is an irony here. A deacon who serves well does not serve in order to gain status in the church. And yet we should still recognize and honor those deacons who do serve our church well.

The deacon who serves well also gains excellent assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus. The word translated “assurance” can also mean confidence or boldness. There is an irony here as well. The deacon must show a certain level of spiritual maturity before becoming a deacon, but those who serve well will grow even stronger in their faith through serving. It is a sacred responsibility, privilege and joy to serve your church as a deacon.

CONCLUSION: I am glad that when God gave instructions for the church, he did not leave out instructions for leadership. God’s plan was that each local church would be led by a group of godly elders and deacons who together would minister to the spiritual and physical needs of the church body. A church will only be as strong as its leadership. And so the church should choose its leadership carefully and wisely, choosing only qualified leaders to serve.

© Ray Fowler

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