Deacons Who Serve Well
Passage: 1 Timothy 3:8-10
I’d like us all to think for a moment about what qualities are essential to building a healthy church? To put it in very practical terms, if you were to move into a new community and needed to find a church, what would you look for? Hopefully, you would look for certain theological and philosophical benchmarks that are given in the NT, things like right doctrine, Word-centered teaching and preaching, biblical worship, or a commitment to evangelism and missions. You might also have special concerns related to your family. Maybe children and teen ministries, or seniors’ ministry is very important to you. All of those things are very important, as are many other things. But one critical element to the health of a church that oftentimes is overlooked but which is crucial to its effectiveness is that it must have a large number of mature saints who are highly engaged in ministry to one another. A healthy church must have a people-centered approach to ministry, not a pastor-centered or program-centered approach. Of course there are a lot of practical, managerial reasons why a church will be more effective if it has more ministers. But the basic reason why we need people-centered ministry is because programs don’t make disciples. People do. I believe very strongly that if Life Point is going to be as effective as possible, it will only happen as lots of people, not just the pastors, are growing in their faith and investing in the people of the church. We should pray for and pursue the multiplication of ministers so that as Ephesians 4:12 states, all of the saints are busy building the body of Christ.
Acts 6 records how the apostles recognized almost immediately that the church is most effective when the ministry is spread out and this led to the appointment of the first deacons. We’ll be talking about deacons because the next paragraph of 1 Timothy lists the qualifications for deacons, and it provides us with a great opportunity to talk about the significant role that deacons and by extension all Christians should play in the ministry of the church (Read).
This morning, I am planning to cover vv. 8–10, but before we do so, I’d like to take us on a quick journey through the NT teaching regarding the office of deacon.
The Office of Deacon:
The key text regarding the creation of the office and its function is Acts 6.
Verse 1 tells us that a problem developed in the early days of the church. The Jerusalem church was growing rapidly; as a result, the apostles fell behind in caring for the widows. These women were heavily dependent on the church because there were no government programs or retirement accounts in place. Acts 4 tells us that some wealthy saints had sold property for the purpose of providing for the poor. Therefore, it seems that the church was managing a fairly significant amount of financial resources to help these widows as well as others with financial need. But the money wasn’t making it to some of these ladies. This put them in a financial crisis, but it also threatened to pull the church apart because for whatever reason, the Greek-speaking widows were being especially neglected. You can imagine how divisive charges of cultural favoritism would have been in this newly formed church. However, the apostles recognized that for them to keep up with this ministry, they would have to neglect their primary duties of prayer and the ministry of the Word.
Therefore, they called the church together and proposed that the church appoint 7 men to manage the care of these widows. They were spreading the ministry out so that everyone could receive the ministry they needed and so that the apostles could give themselves to the Word-centered ministry they were uniquely qualified to fill. It wasn’t that caring for widows was below them; rather, it was a matter of strategic priorities and maximizing spiritual gifts. And so their solution was to create deacons. Now, it’s true that the tile deacon is not used in Acts 6; however, there are such striking parallels between this role and the work of deacons that we should see this chapter as describing the creation of the office.
The Character Required:
Notice what they required of these men (v. 3). They needed to have a good reputation (which is important in our text), and they needed to be godly and wise. They weren’t just looking for minions or grunt laborers. It’s true that deacon means servant, but the apostles were clearly looking for more than just that. They wanted spiritual leaders who could wisely manage a significant benevolence fund. The fact that they were creating an office of spiritual leadership is apparent in v. 6, since the apostles laid hands on them.
And notice the effect in v. 7. The church was healthy and continued its rapid growth. At the beginning of the chapter, unrest and division threatened the church, but multiplying ministers allowed everyone’s needs to be met. It brought health and unity, and the church increased its capacity to fulfill its mission.
This verse only briefly mentions the office of deacon; however, it is significant because this is the earliest mention of the title deacon. The Greek term diaconos occurs 29 times in the NT. It originally meant to “wait on tables,” but by NT times it was a general term for service. In most of the 29 NT uses, it specifically refers to Christians using their spiritual gifts to serve in the church. An important example of this is Ephesians 4:11–12. Paul says that a major duty of pastors is to equip all the saints for the “work of ministry.” Ministry is diaconia, and this is the normal way this family of terms is used. But again Philippians 1:1 is the first time it is used in the NT as a title for an office. It implies that it was regularly used as a title. As well, this verse is significant because it only names two permanent offices in the church—overseers and deacons. This is important because we can infer from this greeting that the Philippian church was organized under these two offices. Therefore, even though deacons are rarely mentioned in the NT, it’s apparent that the churches had them.
The only other place where the title is used is in our text.
1 Timothy 3:
Notice that just as he did in Philippians 1, Paul assumes in 1 Timothy 3 that the church has two offices. He gives the qualifications for overseers, and the qualifications for deacons. We can learn a lot about what deacons are to be by comparing and contrasting the qualifications for an overseer with the qualifications for deacons. In particular, two major items from the qualifications for pastors are not included in the qualifications for deacons. First, deacons are not required to be able to teach. That’s not to say that they can’t. Two of the first deacons, Stephen and Phillip were very gifted and effective teachers. However teaching and preaching are not necessary responsibilities of deacons. Second, a major emphasis in vv. 1–7 is that pastors must be good rulers or managers. This emphasis is inherent in the title overseer, and vv. 4–5 also state that a pastor must be a good ruler or manager of the church. In contrast, the title deacon means servant, and while v. 12 says that deacons must manage their homes well, Paul doesn’t draw the same conclusion about ruling as he did for pastors.
I’d like to mention three basic conclusions regarding the office.
Conclusions: The primary purpose of deacons is to minister to the congregation and to free the pastors for their primary duties.
Acts 6 is very clear about this fact. Deacons are to help care for the practical needs of the church. They are to be engaged in the lives of the members, and they are particularly responsible to care for those in need. But Acts 6 implies that their ministry can extend to any area that could potentially keep the pastors from their primary spiritual duties. What that looks like can vary depending on the gifts and passions of the deacon. All our deacons are heavily involved in the ministry of our church, but their involvement differs based on their giftedness. But I would say that we need to grow in how we are using them to minister to individual spiritual and practical needs. One of my goals for 2017 is to come up with a plan to better facilitate that.
Conclusion: Deacons are servants, but they are also spiritual leaders in the church.
I’ve already said this, but I think it needs emphasizing. Some churches emphasize the “servant” side of deacon ministry to the point that it’s the only thing. Choosing deacons basically comes down to just picking the guy that is doing the most. The problem with this is that Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 3 require a lot more of prospective deacons than just a busy schedule. They must have a good reputation, and they must be godly and wise. Of course other churches only emphasize the leadership aspect. The deacons are primarily a ruling board, and they don’t do much serving. This isn’t a biblical model either. It’s important that we expect deacons to both be servants and models of godliness.
Conclusion: Deacons serve under the pastors; pastors and deacons are not rivals.
I bring this up because we sometimes struggle with transposing our understanding of political government on the church. We can assume that the pastor is the President, and the deacons are Congress. There are churches that operate that way, and typically the tension between the pastors and deacons isn’t a lot different from the tension in Washington. Everyone is focused on pushing his or her narrow agenda vs. working together for God’s purpose. It’s good for all of us to remember often that the fragmentation of American politics should not take place in the church. We must be unified around God’s mission, not our personal agenda. I want to be clear that we do not have this problem at Life Point. Our deacons have been very supportive of me. They push back regularly, but in an edifying way. I also want to be clear that pastors shouldn’t be dictators. They are also servants of the church. All of us need to pray for and pursue the kind of unified vision for God’s purpose that Jesus said will make it apparent to the world that we aren’t a typical human organization.
We are Christ’s disciples. All that being said, let’s dive into our text. Verses 8–9 list 5…
Qualifications for Deacons (vv. 8–9)
Paul just used this term in v. 4 where he said that pastors must keep their children in submission with “all reverence.” The idea behind the term is dignity or respectability. Verse 8 is saying that a deacon must have a reputation of having strong character and a serious mind. There must be a consistency to his life that earns him the respect of others. Of course, Paul also began his list of pastoral qualifications by mentioning his testimony or reputation. It’s very clear that God expects church officers to be men with a strong reputation. And it should be equally clear that God expects the same from all Christians. Christians must be known for holiness, obedience, and a consistent, disciplined manner of life. That’s not to say that we don’t experience highs and lows, but a major aspect of spiritual growth is bring our emotions and passions under the control of the Spirit. If anger or despair consistently clouds your judgment or if you are a slave to temporal lusts, you lack self-control. And others can see it, and they will not trust your judgment or respect you. Strive to live a disciplined life of dignity and respect.
There’s some debate over what this term means. The Greek term literally means “two sayings,” but it could mean several things. It could refer to saying one thing while thinking another. It could mean saying one thing in one context and something else in another. Both of those meanings would have to do with honesty and sincerity. Or it could mean speaking freely about things that ought to be kept private, which would be gossip. Of course all of these things are important, and Paul may not have had one of them in particular in mind. Regardless, a deacon must be careful and sincere in his speech. He must speak truthfully, and he must guard confidential information carefully. Folks, this is a characteristic that sometimes gets overlooked, but Paul says that if a man is not careful with his speech, he is not qualified to be a deacon. Of course this means that all of us should be very careful to guard our speech. Are you careful to guard what comes out of your mouth or what you type in a text, or do you just say whatever you feel or whatever comes to mind? Are you careful to avoid useless speculation or gossip? James 3 warns us that the tongue is a small thing but it has tremendous power, and so guard your tongue very carefully.
Not Given to Much Wine:
This phrase forbids drunkenness. The point of “much wine” is not to say he can be a slave of some wine, but to paint a picture of someone who drinks a lot, and alcohol dominates his life. Of course, this qualification also came up in v. 3 for pastors, and Paul mentions it again in his list of pastoral qualifications in Titus 1. This probably means that it was a problem for some. Of course, they didn’t have modern water purification systems back then, and so it was normal to use wine to make the water drinkable. The temptation would be to use more wine than was really necessary leading to drunkenness and alcohol abuse. But Paul is abundantly clear that drunkenness has no place among church leaders, and the NT is clear that it has no place in the lives of Christians. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that alcohol is dangerous and destructive. It should not be taken lightly and so don’t play around with it. Take heed to the warnings of Scripture.
Not Greedy for Money:
Verse 3 said that pastors must not love money, but in v. 8 he says in even stronger terms that deacons must not be greedy for money. The term Paul uses in v. 8 particularly highlights dishonesty with money. It’s a compound word that combines the words for shameful and gain. This was an important qualification for deacons, since they managed benevolent money for widows and others in need. In a cash only society without banks, the deacons probably kept these funds at home. They were given a great deal of trust to be honest. It was very important that the church could trust them not to dip into the bag selfishly, not only for the sake of the church and widows but also because stealing is wicked. I hope that all of us are in clear unity on that one, but the fact is that temptations arise very often to be dishonest with money. Tax season is just around the corner, and you might be tempted to fudge some numbers to keep your liability down. Some of you handle money at work, and there may be times when you could get by with keeping some extra. But Paul is very clear. God demands complete honesty and integrity in how we handle finances. And you must not tolerate anything less in yourself.
Committed to Right Doctrine and Godly Living:
We know very clearly that this qualification was tied to problems at Ephesus (1:19–20). Some leaders in the church had stopped believing fundamental doctrines and had stopped maintaining a good conscience by obeying God’s commands. Therefore, Paul says that deacons must be committed to “the mystery of the faith.” Paul frequently describes the gospel and other NT truths as a mystery that was previously unknown. Therefore, in v. 9, the mystery of the faith is simply Christian doctrine. In particular it is the gospel and its implications for the church. Paul says that deacons must hold tightly to this truth. A man who is wavering in his belief in right doctrine is not qualified to serve. But it’s not enough for him to believe right doctrine; he must also have a “pure conscience.” This is a reference to a pure life in obedience to Scripture. He’s not saying that a deacon needs to be perfect, but his life must be free of dominating sins, and he must strive to live according to God’s Word. This qualification is a good reminder that the first thing we always ought to look for in a church leaders is not for how gifted he is or how charismatic his personality is; rather, the first thing we should look for is godliness. None of the other stuff matters if godliness is lacking. This qualification indicates that right doctrine and godly living ought to be a priority for all of us. Sadly many churches don’t put a premium on sound doctrine. If someone is sincere and communicates a religious devotion, churches will sometimes overlook serious theological error. We better not make that mistake. Doctrine matters, but so does godliness. Do you have a pure conscience today? I’m not asking if you are perfect because none of us are. Rather, are you tolerating pockets of sin in your life where you are refusing to obey Christ or call your sin what it is. We all must understand that God demands all our being, not just the parts that are convenient. We need to be sensitive to his commands, we need to confess sin when it happens, and we need to strive to obey everything God has told us to do. Don’t tolerate anything less.
Paul gives these five qualifications, and more are to come. But in v. 10, he speaks about…
The Process for Choosing Deacons (v. 10):
Paul says that…
Prospective deacons must be tested.
Specifically, he says they must be tested to see if they are found blameless. The testing that Paul has in mind probably involves a few things. Based on v. 9, it would involve a doctrinal exam, and it would also involve examining his life based on the qualifications in this passage. Later in the book, Paul seems to indicate that this examination involves observation over a period of time (5:22–25). Paul seems to be warning Timothy that things are not always what they first appear to be. But over time, we can gain a better sense of where someone is at. Consistency over a period time is far more significant than a burst of godliness in the short term. Paul is clear that leaders should not be chosen haphazardly or even quickly. Only time can really prove if a man is cut out to be a deacon.
But if a man proves himself to be worthy of the office he should “serve as a deacon.”
Deacons serve the church.
They should get busy helping bear the load of ministry. The church is always filled with needs. There are all sorts of practical and spiritual needs in the body, and that’s why God gave deacons to the church, to help fill those needs.
I started today by talking about the fact that the church is healthiest when many people are sharing the ministry load. This is why the office of deacon was created, and it’s why Ephesians 4 says that one of a pastor’s main duties is to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry. I hope that all of us have a passion to serve the church because church is not a spectator sport. It’s an interdependent community. If you feel like you need equipping or direction to serve, I hope you will talk with me because we have needs that all of you can fulfill. And then I hope that all of us will get busy building our body into the image of Christ.