I set out to write this brief article about deacons in the church because I think that the role of deacons is a neglected topic, or a topic not taught well, in the church. The other reason I wrote this article is because I am aware that churches differ on what kinds of servants are deacons in the church. What is shared here is the position of Free State Bible Church on what role deacons play, which may be somewhat controversial, or may help you to adopt or adapt some of what we see as the function of deacons in the church.
Basically, we believe deacons play a vital role in ensuring that the mission of the church flourishes. They act like pastors, but they are not pastors. We often note that, in 1 Timothy 3:8–13, deacons are required to bear the same qualities as pastors, save the preaching qualification. Ours is a view that deacons must be able to teach even though they will not carry the pastoral burden of preaching. They don’t teach in the pulpit but they are able to preach, hence we regard them as elder-like. This article shares with you our understanding of 1 Timothy 3:8–13 and how we apply it in the life of our church.
Paul begins 1 Timothy 3:1 by stating that if a man aspires to be an elder, he desires a noble task (1 Timothy 3:1). Deacons, in 3:8, harks back to 3:1, which indirectly notes that, likewise, if a man aspires to be a deacon, he desires a noble task. A noble task is a task of having the burden of deep care for the health of the church. The word for a “noble” (καλός) task is used by John to refer to Jesus as the “good” (καλός) shepherd who willingly lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11). The model for a pastor on how to lay down his life for the sheep is the Lord Jesus Christ, the Chief Shepherd. Likewise, the model for a deacon on how to deeply care for the health of the church, is the Lord Jesus Christ, the Chief Shepherd. If deacons take their model from the great Shepherd, they are going to function as though they are shepherds.
This is why our church believes that a deacon is a servant who ministers and cares for the needs of others, alongside the elders. The deacon understands the function of a pastor as if he is a pastor. If he is going to support the pastors to shepherd well, is it not logical that he should be well versed in the work that the pastors do? For us, our conviction is that deacons must understand the work of elders as if they are elders, so that when they put to practice what the elders ask them to do, they understand the reasons why they do what they do. It is for this reason we believe elders and deacons should, for example, sit together in elders’ and deacons’ meetings. Notwithstanding this, the deacon knows that they should not take pastoral decisions because there are functions that are the exclusive reserve of pastors in the church. There is no confusion of roles, just complementary roles.
In fact, if you carefully study the qualities of elders and deacons in 1 Timothy 3:1–13, you will notice that Paul does not tell us precisely how elders and deacons should function in different contexts. We can only deduce from these qualities what their roles and responsibilities are. A deacon does not hold a teaching office, but his life must be a sermon in application. The two offices are closely related, hence the same qualities are required of them to serve in these two respective offices. The well-known account of Acts 6 gives us a picture of matters that some believers perhaps thought were the responsibilities of the apostles, yet the apostles made it clear who is responsible for the role of preaching and prayer, and the deacons who should wait on tables (Acts 6:1–7).
In this instance, the deacons that were selected were meant to shield the preachers from attending to matters that are not within the scope of their responsibilities. These deacons had to understand what it takes to prepare and preach a sermon. They understood the importance of the preacher devoting themselves to prayer for the advancement of the kingdom. Perhaps most importantly, the deacons in Acts 6 had to maintain peace and unity and to ensure that the complaint raised by one group against the other would not result in causing the word of God not to spread, for disciples not to be made, and for new converts not to be added to the church. A deacon may not preach from the pulpit, but they preach by acting out their role of being elder-like.
The Qualities of a Deacon
In our little church, we have a deacon that some members feel is qualified to be an elder. He is “able to teach,” but he is a deacon and will remain a deacon. My response to them was always along this line: “Is it not marvellous to have a quality man who looks like a pastor yet does the job of a deacon?” The duties and responsibilities of a deacon look like the pastors’ duties and responsibilities. He must be a spiritually mature man, like a pastor, and the qualities he bears demonstrate this fact. To ground this view on Scripture, let me outline what I see as essential qualities of well-serving deacons, those who will receive the deacon’s reward. I will not delve into this, but just as the pastors who serve well will receive the reward (1 Peter 5:4), Paul says deacons will acquire some special recognition for their noble service (1 Timothy 3:13).
In 1 Timothy 3:8–13, Paul begins by outlining the quality of personal restraint and personal relations a deacon must excel in. The deacon must be a man of dignity, worthy of respect. These qualification are defined by the rest of what follows in 1 Timothy 3:8, all beginning with the word “not.” First, he must not be a double talker. He practices what he believes. He does not say one thing to one person then a different thing to another. He is a trustworthy man. He chooses his words carefully and you can trust him with personal, confidential, sensitive things. Pastors can trust the deacon when they share sensitive things with him, as Proverbs 11:13 & 3 say: “A gossip betrays a confidence, whoever goes around slandering reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered.”
Second, he is not a drunkard. He is not a man who spends too much time with his wine. He is not a worshipper of wine.
Thirdly, he is not fond of disgraceful gain. He is not drunk on the love of money to the extent that the love of money controls him. He is not addicted to wine, nor is he addicted to money.
Further, in verse 9 we see that the deacon must hold on to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. He thinks and lives Scripture. He is not only informed of the truths of the gospel, but those truths transform his life. The deacon is a man of conviction. His conscience is not tainted with the guilt of unrepentant sin. This means that a deacon must understand the gospel and how the gospel affects his life. When he goes about doing daily ministry duties, he links those duties to the gospel and the lives of the members of the church. Even though the role of teaching is of the pastor, the deacon applies the truths of the gospel like a skilled teacher of the gospel. He knows the truths of the gospel like the pastor does.
“He holds the mystery of the gospel with a clear conscience” (1 Timothy 3:9). He understands the mystery of redemptive history in such a way that they understand why the gospel demands of them to expend their energy on the health of the church. They are able to make the connection between God’s redemptive plan in history, how it applies in the lives of believers in the church, and how if they ensure the elders attend to the ministry of the word, the gospel will save the lost. They understand that they have given themselves to this worthy cause.
This is why v. 10 says that deacons “must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach.” In the preceding section (vv. 1–7), Paul does not explicitly mention that we should test the pastors, but he does here for the deacon. We are to scrutinise deacons and pastors because they hold offices that require them to live life at a high standard of morality, above reproach.
I will return to vv. 11–12a. In 12b, Paul tells us that the deacon must prove himself to be a good manager of his home and children. A deacon must have submissive children. How he leads his family is shown in how he serves in the church. This speaks more about doing things the right way rather than emphasising the results. This implies if the children disrespect the deacon while he is being faithful in bringing them up in the fear and admonition of the Lord, he is still qualified.
Now, v. 11. Why is it such a technical issue? I will only mention what the critical and technical issues are with this verse. The Greek word γυνὴ can mean both wife or woman. So, the verse can read “women” likewise must be, or “wives” likewise must be. If it is women, which women, and can women serve as deacons in the church? If wives, whose wives, and which qualities does Paul say they should bear?
I will not state what the position of our church is on this verse, except to mention that our deacon is a husband. If he is a husband, it seems non contentious that Paul says a deacon’s household should be managed well. He should have a complementary wife and be a one woman at a time man. He is to be faithful to his wife and govern his children well.
If you take γυνὴ as the deacon’s wife, then the text says a deacon’s wife must have four qualities. According to 1 Timothy 3:11 a deacon’s wife must be dignified. She should lead an honourable life, worthy of respect. One person put it this way: “The deacon’s wife is the closest and direct outpouring of the deacon’s faithful work at home. Her conduct is a deep reflection of the deacon’s management of his household.” This does not mean this character of hers is made by her husband. Both are made so by Christ’s grace. In addition, she must not be a slanderer. The Greek literally says she must not be a diabolos (διαβόλους). She must not be a wicked woman, having the devil’s characteristics. To expand further, she must be clear minded. She must be able to restrain herself. This is the same word Paul used of the pastor in v. 2, who must have self-control. She must be sober at all times and clear minded in her judgements. Lastly, she must be faithful in all things. She must be a person you can depend on. She does not say one thing to her husband but does another when he is not there.
In v. 12, Paul returns to the deacons’ qualities, and remarks that a deacon must be the husband of only one wife. When you look at his life, are there women he has set his eye on that are not his wife? Can you find a significant reason why he is not a man devoted to one wife at a time? Is his marriage exemplary? Is his marriage pleasing to God, a relationship that other people in the church can emulate?
When you examines these qualities of the leaders in the life of church leaders, you should bear in mind that Paul is not giving an exhaustive list of what characterises those in leadership should bear. He is giving us just enough to evaluate a man, and if he is above reproach in these areas, he can serve. Paul is not saying a man must be perfect. When he says he must not be a drunkard, he does not mean that he must not have gotten drunk ever in his life. When he says he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, he does not mean a man must not have been on the wrong side of the community’s morals. When he says a man must be the husband of one wife, he does not mean a man must only have been married to one woman his entire life.
He may have fallen in these areas, lost self-control, became quarrelsome, and sinned greatly but, as you look at his life now, over a significant period of time, is it characterised by godliness in these areas? Is he a godly man of God, above reproach? If so, let us practice appointing deacons, marvellous pastor-like servants in our churches.