RPM, Volume 11, Number 30, July 26 to August 1 2009

1 Timothy 3:8-13

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

In anticipation of our upcoming, first-ever Deacons' elections, we are taking a break from our study of the Gospel of John here on Sunday mornings and returning to Paul's first letter to Timothy, chapter 3:8-13.

If you are unfamiliar with this little letter, then let me simply say, by way of summary, that Paul's overall purpose in this letter is to encourage and support Timothy. And the way that Paul is going about providing that encouragement is by writing this letter which is designed to promote the good order and functioning of the church where Timothy is pastoring - which was the Church in Ephesus.

In pursuing that noble goal, Paul began his letter by dealing with the matter of false teaching and false teachers, wanting to reign both of these in and so guard and protect the Ephesian congregation. After dealing with that issue, Paul shifted his attention to the whole matter of their corporate gatherings - i.e., when they came together - and how they should approach and think about these things. Within that discussion, Paul spent some time talking about men and women and what roles were and were not appropriate to each in the context of the church community.

In chapter 3 of the letter Paul continues dealing with the matter of roles in the church, outlining for Timothy and the Ephesians what sorts of things they ought to be looking for as they consider the question of who should be set apart for particular positions of leadership and ministry within the congregation.

In the passage immediately preceding the one we are looking at this morning, Paul provided Timothy and his congregation with a list of qualifications for elders. In using such a list Paul hoped to provide some concrete guidelines which the Ephesians could then take and "try on", so to speak, the various men in the congregation, to see how they measured up and thus to know whether or not God was setting apart certain persons as elders.

You see, you have to remember that, the first elders in each of the early churches, were set apart by the Apostles themselves. The book of Acts records these things for us. But now the time has come for the church to set apart and recognize its own elders - and to get used to doing it because that fact is that the apostles are not going to be with them forever. As a result, they needed to be taught how to do this and what particular things they would need to be looking for when it came time to set apart more leaders.

Even further, in so many of the early churches there was a huge problem, as we've already seen, with false teachers that were going around and confusing everyone. As a result, because of this additional challenge, it was a great benefit and blessing to have some clear instructions to guide them in this very important matter.

In the verses before us this morning, verses 8-13, Paul shifts from discussing the qualifications for elders - which is one group of leaders within the church - to discussing the qualifications for deacons - which is another group of leaders in the church. Again, he does this because his overall goal is to encourage Timothy through promoting the good order and functioning of the church.

And, let me tell you, few things will more quickly discourage a pastor, or create as much heartache and grief in a local church as will having inappropriate, unqualified people serving as church officers. So, Paul wanted to prevent that from happening in the Ephesian church. And it is up to you to prevent that from happening in this church. So pay attention. That's our subject for this morning. Before we look at that in further detail, let's take a moment to ask God, the Holy Spirit, to come and be our teacher....

Father in Heaven, You are the Author of Life, the Author of OUR life and our NEW life, and the Author of this book. Please take and apply these words - YOUR WORDS - to our individual hearts in a way which makes us different people and which communicates to us the realities that YOU wanted communicated when you determined to not only WRITE these words, but also to PRESERVE them for us. Here we are, Father, in this moment that you have orchestrated. Make it useful - for your sake - Amen.

(Read 1 Timothy 3:8-13)

Continuing in the pattern of verses 1-7, where Paul assembled a list of certain qualities which were to characterize those who aspired to the eldership, Paul here puts together a similar such list for those who would be deacons in God's church. Now we'll think about that list in a little bit but first we need to answer the question: What exactly is a deacon? What IS this role and how is it meant to function in the church?

Well, I can tell you that asking the question is a lot easier than answering it. For starters, the immediate context does not really help all that much since Paul does not attempt here to provide a description of the deacons' responsibilities. Just as he has done with the office of elder, Paul has only concerned himself with outlining the qualifications for these offices - not with describing the duties specific to each.

So, although we can draw some conclusions from the qualifications themselves, it would seem from Paul's manner of writing that he is assuming that his readers already have some sort of working knowledge of what elders and deacons were all about. Clearly, there were already some people functioning in these roles in the Ephesian church.

Now, that's all fine and good for the Ephesians, but it doesn't help you and me very much. And so, in order to know what deacons are all about, we have to look outside of 1st Timothy. And, unfortunately, when you do so, you discover that there is a surprising dearth of information on this subject. At least with the elders you have a number of other passages which do give us some important insights into the elders' role.

But not so with deacons. Outside of Paul's words here, the only other fairly indisputable reference to deacons, as an office, can be found in Philippians 1:1 where Paul addresses elders and deacons together. In only one other passage, Romans 16:1, there is a reference to a woman named Phoebe which might be referring to her as a deacon or deaconess, but it is just as likely that it is simply referring to her as a servant of the Gospel. It is difficult to make a convincing argument one way or the other on this since the Greek word used there is identical to that which is used in other places where the context is clearly NOT talking about someone who is functioning in an official capacity as a deacon amongst God's people. And there is nothing in the passage itself that pushes you more toward one view than the other.

But all of that aside, these references, as meager as they are, say nothing about the specific duties and responsibilities of deacons in the church. What we are left with, then, is a passage which writers on this subject will usually take and use as the centerpiece for discussions of the duties and responsibilities of the diaconate - and that passage is Acts 6:1-6.

In Acts 6 we see how, in the early days of the NT church, a problem arose - probably racially motivated - in which there was some discrimination going on within the church such that certain widows were being overlooked in the daily distributions of food. Now, from the beginning of the NT church, the apostles had been personally overseeing this whole enterprise but it was now taking so much time dealing with all these sort of house-keeping details that it was taking away from time that they might have spent in prayer and from time used for the preparation and teaching of God's Word to His people.

So, the apostles addressed this situation by having the disciples set apart seven men from among them who would take care of the widow/food distribution problem. They were to exercise oversight of that sub-set of the church's overall ministry while the apostles devoted more time to prayer and the ministry of the Word. And I assume that "prayer" here is talking about prayer with the people - in other words, pastoral care - not just time in a prayer closet or something like that.

This, as the case is typically made, is a picture of the creation of the first diaconate, even though Stephen and the others are never actually referred to as deacons in the passage. Now, that conclusion may be right. We may be witnessing here the creation of the office of deacon and, if so, we get some important clues about the purpose and responsibilities of that office. That would be a legitimate conclusion to draw from these verses - although, it must be acknowledged, it is not an inescapable conclusion.

I say all this simply to point out that in determining that Acts 6 is talking about the creation of the diaconate you do have to make a little bit of a leap which I think, in the end, is probably legitimate, but the leap still needs to be acknowledged. However, if we are going to regard this passage - and its immediate context - as being pivotal for understanding what is the role and responsibility of the diaconate then, to be fair, we need to be prepared to deal with the evidence of the passage as a whole, and not just select portions of it, which I don't think, historically speaking, has always been the case. Let me expand on that a little bit.

Assuming that Acts 6 is describing the early development of the diaconal role in the church, then what does this passage, and what follows from it, tell us about diaconal roles and responsibilities in the early church?

Well, for starters, we see in the Acts 6 passage two different groups - the apostles on one side and Stephen and the other six disciples who have been set apart on the other. Both of these groups have differing emphases in their ministry and yet the reality is that they both need each other, and they need to work in a complementary fashion. We see here that there is a willingness on the part of Stephen and Co. to take upon themselves certain responsibilities and engage in sacrificial ministry, not only for the good of those who would directly benefit from their ministry - in this instance the neglected widows - but also for the good of the church as a whole which would indirectly benefit as a result of the apostles being freed up to more fully devote themselves to the ministry of the word and prayer. In short, their attention to the personal and physical needs of the people would free up the apostles to address their spiritual needs.

This sort of sacrificial, complementary perspective on ministry is one which the church in our own day would also benefit greatly from - namely, learning to see that our individual ministries are valuable, not only for what they are and what they immediately accomplish, but also because when they are done well, the effect is to free others to more fully devote themselves to their roles within the Body of Christ, with the result that the whole body benefits. This applies to believers generally, not just to this particular matter of how elders and deacons work with and beside one another. See 1st Corinthians 12 and Romans 12.

So, if we were to try and summarize the ministry of Stephen and his colleagues, we might say it this way: The role of Stephen - and the others set apart with him - was to oversee the personal, pastoral and practical aspects of the church's ministries, including its ministries of mercy, in order that needs might be met and so that those who are given primarily to looking after peoples' spiritual needs might be able to more fully devote themselves to those things - for the greater benefit of the church and the glory of God.

Well, so far, I think that's a good first attempt at describing what the deacons role is all about. But more needs to be said here. Our definition is not yet complete. We must be sure to notice - and this is where taking into account the whole of this section of Acts comes in - but we must notice that while it was part of Stephen and Co.'s role to protect the apostles' ministry of the word and prayer this did not mean that Stephen and Co were NOT to have their own ministry of word and prayer themselves.

Indeed, it is instructive to note that almost as soon as he has been set apart for this "diaconal" ministry Stephen is shown to be performing signs and wonders among the people and then he goes on to deliver the longest recorded sermon in the book of Acts! Even longer than Peter's! Indeed, Stephen's ministry of the word is so challenging and powerful that he is ultimately martyred because of it. Then, after Stephen is gone, we see a further example of this sort of on-going ministry in the life and work of Philip the Evangelist in Acts 8 - who was also among those set apart in Acts 6.

So, again, while one might characterize the work of Stephen and Co as being one of mercy and service and assistance to the apostles to enhance their ministry of the word - this did not mean that these "deacons" were not to have any sort of word ministry themselves. And it seems to me that this is a crucial observation to make since, in my experience, there is sometimes a radical disjunction drawn between the work of elders and deacons in our own day - as if there is not a great deal of overlap between the two and, in particular, as if the ministry of word and prayer is the exclusive activity of one group, but not the concern of the other.

I'm sorry, but that is just not biblically correct.

And one consequence of this, at times, has been to see the diaconate as a kind of second - class office whose standards are not as high or as significant as those of elders. And please keep in mind that I am only speaking here from within our Presbyterian circles. I understand that others - for example our Baptist brethren - approach the office of deacon in a different fashion - which has its own issues. But at least in Presy circles, the radical disjunction between the two offices has sometimes had some unhelpful consequences, including a lowering of expectations and a definition of the role that is somewhat artificial and which seems to be more restrictive than the evidence of Scripture would warrant.

In the New Testament, if indeed Stephen and Co are the first "deacons" then they are deacons who are quite active, not just in practical ministries, but in ministering the word to others through teaching and personal evangelism as well as through deeds of love and mercy. And so, if we carry that expectation into our current practices with regard to deacons then we might see a much-needed "raising of the bar" and a more fuller view and practice of diaconal ministry in our congregations.

To be sure the ministry of deacons is a practical ministry. But it is not merely practical - it is deeply personal and interpersonal. It is concerned with meeting real needs within the Body of Christ. It is concerned with working cooperatively and strategically alongside others in the congregation - especially the elders so that the ministry of the Word and prayer can be enhanced.

And yet it does not see the ministry of word and prayer as the exclusive domain of the elders - or even of deacons for that matter (but that's another sermon for another day) but rather seeks to incorporate the word and prayer into its every interaction with others - showing and telling God's truth even as ministry is happening. That, I submit to you, is what the ministry of deacons is all about.

Now, with all of that in mind, we can turn now to briefly consider the qualifications that Paul has listed here for those who would serve in this capacity. As you look at the list here you will notice that there is a great deal of overlap between the things said here and the things said just before about elders.

For example, Paul says elders are to be "respectable" and that deacons are to be "dignified". Now the sort of "dignity" being talked about here is not concerned with how one might be regarded by polite society or whether a person possessed certain social graces. Rather it is concerned with personal integrity, and, specifically, with a person's self-mastery. In fact, probably the best way to define what Paul means by "dignified" is to look at what immediately follows in verse 8. By "dignified" he means someone who is not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, and not greedy for dishonest gain. Now what do these things mean?

Well, "not being double-tongued" is a reference to a person's speech, obviously. In our own day we refer to double-tongued people as people who "speak out of both sides of their mouth" - i.e., people who say one thing to one person and something else to another. A deacon must not be like that. He must be consistent in his speech. He must not be someone who is a people-pleaser and, as a result, caters his speech to whatever will cause him to be well regarded by the person in front of him - regardless of whether his words are entirely true or whether they are consistent with other things said to other people on the same subject. In short, the deacon must be someone who tries to be a "straight shooter" with everyone.

When you think about the sort of ministry that deacons are meant to have - this kind of qualification makes a great deal of sense, doesn't it? A deacon who is deeply involved in the lives of persons in the church, as well as the community, and especially persons who are undergoing some sort of hardship - a deacon in those situations can be an agent of help and healing but he can also be an agent of chaos and division and destruction. He is in a perfect position to use his words to take advantage of and manipulate persons and situations, if he so chooses. Which is why deacons need to be people who are sincere - and especially so with regard to their speech.

Another aspect of being "dignified" involves the deacons self-control in the area of alcohol. The deacon must be someone who knows when enough is enough. It is not a requirement that he be a teetotaler. To be sure, that is the choice that some church officers make - and they are free to make that choice. They are not free, however, to impose that choice on others. But if the deacon enjoys wine, etc. he must do so in a way which is self-controlled and which is not itself the consequence and expression of an addiction which - by definition - is a loss of self-control.

A third component of being "dignified" involves the deacon's attitude toward money. The deacon must not be greedy for dishonest gain. He must not be a "lover of money", a person who is captivated by the material things of this world. He must not be a person who struggles a great deal with this particular sort of idolatry.

This too makes sense as you think about what it is that deacons will be doing and the sorts of things that they will concern themselves with in their role. They will frequently be involved with monies and with material goods as they are collected and distributed to those in need. They will have access to the church's financial resources which may, at times, be quite considerable and which would, therefore, prove to be a great temptation to those who were particularly challenged in this area of their heart.

So one area of qualification for the deacons is clustered around this idea of dignity, as a function of a person's self mastery - in the areas of speech, alcohol, and money.

Another qualification that stands out here is found in verse 9 - "they must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience". Now the word "mystery" here is Paul's technical word for the great mystery of God's plan to save his people through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He calls it a "mystery" because even though the prophets had spoken of it, still, no one had any clear understanding of precisely how God's purposes were going to be worked out - until Jesus came and God actually did it. And so what Paul is saying is that deacons need to be sound, biblically-grounded, solid people who have a deep understanding of the Gospel and its implications for life and ministry.

Again, when you think about the sort of ministry that deacons are supposed to be involved in then this kind of qualification makes a great deal of sense, doesn't it? A person who is engaged in practical, day to day, interpersonal ministry - who is with people when they are hurting and needy - that person will have a great opportunity to talk with others and will be in a unique position to help people see their life and circumstances - as messy as they can sometimes be - in the light of the Gospel. A person in those situations will sometimes get hit with some pretty difficult theological questions. A deacon needs to be prepared for that.

So it is vitally important that your deacons are deeply spiritual persons who are willing and able to carry on this sort of ministry with people even as they address very practical needs - pointing people again and again back to the sufficiency of Christ and praying with and for them that they might see and believe that sufficiency is truly their possession - now - in and through the Gospel.

A third qualification that stands out here is found in verse 10 when Paul says that deacons must first be "tested" before they are set apart for their duties. They are to be scrutinized carefully before they are named as deacons in any official capacity.

Now, interestingly, Paul does not explicitly say that elders must be tested although I think the necessity of testing is certainly implied by the requirements themselves. But one may wonder why the statement is explicitly made for deacons when it is not for elders.

I think the reason for this is not to say that deacons must be tested and elders should not but to insure that the deacons, as much as the elders, should also be tested. That is, the effect of Paul's words here would only reinforce the truth that the position of deacon is not some sort of second-string job that just about anybody is qualified for. On the contrary, as a function of the Body of Christ, it is no less significant than the eldership and Paul does not want Timothy to back off one bit in upholding a very high standard for the office of deacon.

Now, in looking at what Paul has to say here about the qualifications for deacons, perhaps the most difficult verse to grapple with is verse 11 - the translation of which depends a great deal upon which way you go. The reason for the difficulty is related to the ambiguity of the passage itself and then how it relates to what has already been said about elders in verses 1-7, as well as its relation to Paul's teaching in chapter 2, verses 11-15. And, since our time is short, I would simply like to draw your attention to the two major ways in which this verse has been approached and then leave you to decide for yourself where you stand on these things.

One way that this verse has been understood is reflected in both the NIV and the ESV translation where, in the midst of talking about the qualifications of deacons, it adds verse 11, simply as an additional qualification - that the wives of deacons are to be women who are dignified, worthy of respect, not malicious talkers or slanderers but temperate and trustworthy in all things.

Now, as we have seen already, the wisdom of this sort of requirement seems obvious when you think about what it is that deacons DO. They will become mixed up in the lives of all sorts of people and will, as a result, come to know a great deal about people - good, bad and otherwise. And even though they may be very careful in their ministry and exercise discretion and maintain confidences - the reality is that their wives will, invariably, become aware - to some extent - of what is going on with people or, at the very least, that things are going on with certain people.

So, in the light of that reality, it is crucial that the deacons' wife is someone who will be responsible with that knowledge, someone who is herself respectable, who has self-mastery with regard to her own speech and will not make malicious or slanderous use of these matters of which she will, inevitably, become aware. That is one way that these verses have been taken.

The other way that this verse is sometimes translated, as in the NRSV translation, is to render verse 11 as, "Women, likewise....". And the implication is that Paul is shifting gears here in order to address women who might also serve as deacons or deaconesses in the local congregation, with the qualifications applying to them in the same sort of way.

Those are the two major views on this verse. One says that verse 11 is merely addressing the wives of those deacons who are married, as a further qualification for the office. The other says it is addressing women who, while prohibited from serving as elders, might very well serve as deacons in the local church. What are the major arguments for and against each of these? Let me quickly list them for you. The arguments in favor of seeing this as an endorsement of female deacons are mainly two:

1) Firstly, in the Greek manuscripts upon which this translation is based, there is no explicit phrase for "their wives" but simply the word "gunaikos" which can mean "wives" but can also mean "women". Translating verse 11 here as "Women, likewise..." would follow the Greek more literally and would match more precisely the pattern seen before in verse 8, which also starts out, "Deacons, likewise...." Now, to be sure, the Greek does NOT say "women deacons..." but simply says "women..." and so, even if translated in this way, it could be argued that this still does not mean it is addressing women deacons. But it certainly does open up the possibility that this is what the verse is getting at.

2) The second, and stronger, argument, in my judgment, is to ask the very legitimate question as to why Paul would address the wives of deacons but be silent about the wives of elders, in the verses just preceding. That is a good question and I have not really heard a compelling answer to it. Maybe you have, and if so, please share it with me afterwards.

But those are the main arguments for seeing this as an endorsement of female deacons. There are other ones which could be made, which are more theological in nature and I think more difficult to be convincing about, but these are the main exegetical considerations. On the other side, the arguments for seeing this simply as addressing the wives of deacons are:
1) Paul talked in 2:11-15 about how women are not to teach or have authority over a man and, if we have understood the nature of diaconal ministry rightly, such ministry involves some measure of both oversight and ministering the word from some sort of "official" standing within the church. In other words, all that the deacon does is done as an officer, and so bears the imprimatur of that authority. And so functioning as a female deacon might lead to some confusion at this point. Not necessarily, but it might.

2) The other major argument is this: To take the view that verse 11 is talking about female deacons interrupts the flow and is not the most natural reading of the passage. In other words, it seems a little artificial to be going along, talking about male deacons in verses 8, 9 and 10 - then to interrupt that talk by shifting to address female deacons in verse 11 - only to come back to addressing male deacons in verse 12. It is far more natural to see that the whole section is simply addressing men who might be considered for the diaconate.

Additionally, one must ask why, if this view is correct, Paul does not say in verse 12, "...and she must be the wife of one husband" or something like that. In other words, the fact that he jumps right back to addressing male deacons - and refers to their being monogamous - without saying anything about the women - seems very strange. The strangeness disappears, however, I you take the view that throughout this section Paul is simply speaking as if he only has men in mind.

Now, again, there are other things that could be said on both sides of this issue and it is one which the church needs to continue to look at. Currently within our own denomination the position is that Paul has in view here a male diaconate serving alongside the eldership. However, there are some not insignificant voices around that believe otherwise and my own view is that the unanswered exegetical questions related to this passage make it difficult to be absolutely dogmatic about one's position. And so, I would uphold and affirm our denomination's position on this matter but, at the same time, I think we need to look harder at this because it may be that our position is not right. But the way to deal with that is not to whip this up to be the issue upon which all of Christendom rests but to work hard and to encourage study, prayer and change from within, if it is necessary. And until that happens, we have to keep reminding ourselves that while there may be some restrictions with regard to who may take up a diaconal office, there are NO restrictions as to who may engage in diaconal SERVICE.

Finally, beyond verse 11 we have verse 12 which, as with the elders' qualifications, is one which says, basically, that when it comes to those who will take the lead in the "household of God" - you are looking for people who, in their own households, are demonstrating responsible leadership - with regard to their relationships with their wives, with regard to their children - if indeed they have them, and with regard to the general oversight of their households.

Those are the qualifications, and areas of qualification, that Paul puts before the congregation at Ephesus, and they are before you and me this morning. And our response to these things ought to be the same as was our response to the elders' qualifications several years ago, when it came time for us to set apart elders.

Some of you will remember our approach back then and was to say that, just as the "prince" in Cinderella went around trying on a certain slipper with every woman in the kingdom, looking for a good fit - we must do the same sort of thing with Paul's qualifications here. We must prayerfully and thoughtfully consider those whom God has placed amongst us and who have been set apart to this task of diaconal ministry - who most likely have been and are already serving in this capacity. And we are to mentally take these things - and "try these qualifications on for size", with regard to the men who have been found eligible for nomination, so that, when the day comes to officially set these men apart by means of an election and ordination process - we will be ready and able to do so, with no mental reservation.

So let me encourage you to do that over the next couple of weeks as you consider those who are eligible for nomination to this office at SBRPC, and then for a further couple weeks as we consider those nominated and whether they should be formally set apart in this capacity, to serve among us. Let's pray together......

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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