For the past two weeks we’ve been studying 1 Timothy chapter 3 which speaks about the two offices or positions within the church of overseer and deacon. This is an important passage in the New Testament for many reasons, and one of those reasons is that it really does away with the idea that the early church a loose-flowing free-for-all where people just hung out with each other and did whatever they feel led to in the moment.
When many people think of a New Testament church, they think of an environment without structure. And 1 Timothy just pops that bubble. Because what do we see here, especially in chapter 3? We see structure. There are definite offices and definite requirements for those offices.
And what this pushes us to see is that structure isn’t a bad thing. It doesn’t stifle the life of a church—it actually enables it.
A way of thinking about this is to picture the church as a vine. Jesus told us that we are branches off of Himself, the great vine. But those of you who garden know that if you plant a vine, and just let it grow by itself, it’s just going to form a big pile on the ground and stifle itself and never grow past a certain point.
A vine needs structure to grow on: a trellis, or a tomato cage. And that structure allows the vine to get air and sunlight and to grow flourish.
So it is with the church. We are a living entity, like a vine, growing together as we grow to be more like Jesus.
And yet this vine will just collapse on itself and choke itself out without a trellis. And so we have the structure of bylaws and budgets, policies and programs. These are not our focus, but they are the structure that allows the vine to grow. 1I’m indebted to Colin Marshall and Tony Payne for this excellent illustration, found in their book The Trellis and the Vine.
And a key part of this structure is the clearly defined offices or positions that we read about here in 1 Timothy 3. Last week, elders, and this week, deacons.
Deacons in Acts 6
And we see this idea even more clearly when we consider the origin story for the office of deacon, which we find in Acts chapter 6. This is in the earliest days of the New Testament church, when you had all of these Christians from all over the world living in Jerusalem and sharing all of their possessions with each other. The vine had grown really fast but that was starting to create problems.
Acts 6:1 says, “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.”
In this daily distribution of food, there’s been an administrative breakdown somewhere. And it needs to be dealt with. So here’s what happened next:
“And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’ And what they said pleased the whole gathering…” (Acts 6:2–5a).
Notice a few things here. First of all, I hope you see this beautiful example of congregational government. The Twelve Apostles are leading the church and they are the ones who come up with this plan. But what do they do with is next? They assemble the whole church, present the idea, and tell the church to pick out these seven men. This is just a golden example of how the leadership and the congregation work together.
Second, notice that the Apostles understand that they can’t do everything. There were twelve of them, but this was a huge church with thousands of members. And their priority as spiritual leaders was to preach the word of God, like verse 2 says, and to pray for people, like verse 4 says. It would have been wrong for them to get sidetracked by these other concerns.
Third, notice that even though the Apostles knew they couldn’t focus on this work, they still understood that it was an important concern that needed to be dealt with. It was a vital part of the church’s ministry and it couldn’t be ignored.
Fourth, notice that the Apostles didn’t say, “Let’s pray about this and ask God to fix it.” I’m sure they did pray about that, but the solution to this problem was to create an administrative structure. It was to build a section of trellis, creating an official office within the church where these seven men would be trusted to figure out and execute a solution to this problem.
Fifth, I hope you can see that they didn’t just say “find some guys who look bored and give them something to do.” This task of serving tables was important and a key part of the ministry of the church and so the people who performed it needed to be “men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” as verse 3 says.
And so a group of officially appointed servants took responsibility for the administrative and practical needs in the church so that the spiritual leaders could focus on their pastoral work of preaching and teaching and prayer and so on. And together, with each team focusing on their area of specialty, the church’s ministry moved forward.
The Office of Deacon
And from what we can tell, this became the pattern that persisted in the practice of the early church. The spiritual leaders were known as elders or overseers or pastors, and the official servants were known as deacons. We see this in Philippians 1:1, where Paul wrote “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons” (Philippians 1:1).
And we see it here in Timothy 3. A team of shepherds or overseers or elders served the church through leadership and preaching and teaching and pastoral care, and a team of deacons were appointed to serve and administer the practical needs of the church.
This will make more sense when we understand that the word “deacon” just means “servant.” It comes from the Greek work “διακονος,” and most of the time it is translated as “servant” or “minister.”
Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). That’s the word “διακονος.” The same root word is used twice in Mark 10:45: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
1 Corinthians 3:5 says, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.” Same word.
So this is really important for us to understand. We are all, at one level, deacons, in that we are servants. And in serving, we follow the example of the greatest Servant ever, our Lord Jesus Christ. No Christian, no matter how great they think they are, is exempted from serving. Because in fact it’s the greatest among us who will be the greatest servants.
And yet, even though “deacon” in a general sense means “servant,” the word came to take on a technical meaning as it referred to this specific position of official servants within the church.
Requirements for Deacons
And what we see in 1 Timothy 3:8-12 is a list of requirements for those who wanted to serve the church in this official capacity. This is who they had to be.
This list is shorter than the list of requirements for overseers, but it’s still similar in many ways. Notice that verse 8 says that deacons “likewise must be dignified.” They must be worthy of respect. This is similar to the overseers, who needed to be “above reproach” and “well thought of by outsiders” (1 Timothy 3:2, 7).
This positive statement is followed up by three negative statements, showing us who a deacon must not be. They must not be “double-tongued,” who tell you what you want to hear to your face, but say another thing behind your back. They also could not be “addicted to much wine.” Just like elders, they can’t be under the influence of alcohol.
And verse 8 finishes up by saying they can’t be “greedy for dishonest gain.” Again, this is a similar statement to the overseers, who needed to not be lovers of money. And I hope it’s not hard to see how greediness would totally corrupt the ministry of a deacon.
So verse 8 really sums up in broad strokes what we learned about overseers in last week’s passage: they need to be people of character, which is to say, Christians who are being transformed by the Holy Spirit and who are proving it with their lives.
“Holding the Mystery”
There is one significant difference between overseers and deacons, though. The overseers needed to be “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2), because they were the ones responsible for teaching the church. But the same is not true of the deacons. And so we shouldn’t be surprised that the ability to teach is not found on this list.
However, as exemplary Christians, they did need to properly understood and absorb and believe the teaching that they received from their pastors. And that’s what verse 9 points to in the fifth requirement for deacons: “They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.”
“Mystery” in the New Testament doesn’t refer to something that’s hard to understand or put together, like a Hardy Boys mystery. Instead, it speaks about something that we can’t figure out on our own, and so which was hidden, but which God has now revealed to us. In other words, it refers to the gospel. The truth about Jesus that was hidden in plain sight for thousands of years but has now been brought out into the open through the preaching of the Apostles.
And those who serve as deacons need to hold on to this gospel message with a clear conscience. In other words, they believe it with genuine faith and their life is transformed as a result. Or, we could say, they are living in accordance with the faith that they profess.
So they don’t need to be able to teach. But they do need to understand and believe and follow what is taught.
Verse 10 tells us the sixth requirement for deacons: they had to be proven. “And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless” (1 Timothy 3:10).
This statement is roughly parallel to verse 6, which said that elders could not be recent converts. They needed to have a proven track record of following Jesus and growing in Christian maturity.
Because deacons are not spiritual leaders, this same stipulation isn’t given. It’s possible that a newer Christian could serve as a deacon. But once again, you couldn’t just push any person into this role. They had to be tested first, and could only serve as a deacon if they proved themselves.
Now so far, we’ve seen six requirements for who a deacon must be. They are similar to the requirements for elders, and they underscore again that this was a significant ministry role, and care had to be given to who could serve in it.
But now we get to verse 11. And this verse is one of the more difficult verses in this passage to understand. It says, “Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things” (1 Timothy 3:11).
And if we take that in a straightforward way, we would read this verse to say that the deacons’ wives also had to meet certain requirements in order for a deacon to be qualified for ministry. This might suggest that the deacon’s wife was involved in the ministry with him—perhaps they were expected to serve as a couple team. Or it could be saying that unqualified wife would have such a negative effect on the deacon’s ministry that it would rule him out completely.
And all of that is possible. This could be what this verse means. But I’m not convinced. I have questions, like, “Why are there no requirements for the wives of elders or overseers? As the pastors of the church, wouldn’t their wives need to meet certain requirements more so than the deacons’ wives?”
And then I notice something. If you have an ESV Bible, you might see a little next letter or a number beside the word “likewise.” And if you look at the bottom of the page, you’ll see a note that says “Or Wives likewise or Women likewise.”
There’s some uncertainly here, because the Greek language did not have a separate word for “wife” or “woman.” They just had one word. And whether it meant “wife” or “woman” depended on the context.
So if you heard a guy say that he was going home to have supper with his woman, that didn’t sound rude or funny. You understood that he meant his wife. But if the word was used on its own, it could mean either a wife or a woman.
So in verse 11, the “women” could be the deacon’s wives. But it also could just be saying “Women, likewise…” which would suggest that this group of deacons included women, serving as their assistants or even as deaconesses.
And I’m going to be honest with you: after reading pages and pages of commentaries, I’m not sure. There’s really good reasons to take it both ways. The featured library book this week is called “40 Questions about Elders and Deacons,” and it has a whole chapter on why this verse refers to female deacons, and a whole chapter on why this does not refer to female deacons. It seems hard to be certain.
We do know that the earliest interpreters of this passage, the church fathers, understood verse 11 as referring to deaconesses. And there is a possible confirmation of this in Romans 16:1, which says, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae,” (Romans 16:1). That could be translated, “a deacon of the church at Cenchreae.” It’s possible, but again, it’s hard to be 100% certain.
1) But here’s two things we can say with certainty. First, when you are evaluating someone for a ministry position, it is always wise and prudent to evaluate their spouse. This should just go without saying. A spouse will have an effect on someone’s ministry, for good or for bad.
When I was being evaluated for this position, the search committee wanted me to bring Aimee along, and frankly I wanted to bring Aimee along, because she makes me look good.
The search committee understood that Aimee didn’t need to be able to do my job, but she did needs to be the kind of woman who wouldn’t keep me from doing my job. And far from holding me back, Aimee is one of the greatest assets in this ministry that we’re really in on together.
So if a deacon had a wife who was undignified, a known slanderer, the opposite of sober-minded, and unfaithful in all things, it’s not hard to see that this would be a big liability and could really drag his ministry down.
2) The second statement we can make is that, even if verse 11 is speaking about deacons’ wives, there is nothing here that prohibits a woman from serving in the role of deaconess.
The office of shepherd or overseer or elder is reserved for men because 1 Timothy 2:12 says that a woman is not to teach or have authority over a man. Those heavy loads are to be carried by the elders or overseers or pastors.
But deacons don’t need to teach. And they don’t necessarily have authority over other people, and certainly not over the gathered church. And so as long as 1 Timothy 2:12 is held to, there’s nothing there that would prohibit a woman from serving as a deaconess.
And the way that our church practices this, with deaconesses who care for the women in our church and other practical needs, is a really good example of how to do this biblically.
So even if it’s hard to be 100% certain of who verse 11 refers to, we have enough other material to proceed with a fair amount of confidence.
And let’s not forget the context here. If women serve as female deacons or deaconessesm they need to meet all of the standards in this passage—the ones we’ve just read and the ones here in verse 11. They need to be dignified and not be slanderers but clear thinkers who are faithful in all things.
Faithfulness in the Home
Verse 12 gives us two more requirements for the deacons, and seems to be pointing back to men here when it says that they must “be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well.” That first phrase once again speaks to marital faithfulness, and the second reinforces the idea that the home is a testing ground for ministry.
Deacons weren’t responsible to oversee the whole church, and so Paul doesn’t go into as much detail here as he did with overseers in verses 4 and 5, but the same basic principle exists. A deacon can’t lead a double life, being one person at home and another out in public or with God’s people. And his responsibilities at home are a testing ground for ministry.
The Prize of Being Tested
And this is all so important, because, as verse 13 tells us, there is much on the line in a deacons’ faithful service. “For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 3:13).
Please notice that deacons should want to serve well. There’s no place for mediocrity or sloppiness in the church.
And when someone serves the church as a deacon and does it well, they “gain a good standing for themselves.” They gain a good reputation, a good name. Respect.
Does this idea of “gaining a good standing” sound a little dangerous to you? People walking around earning good names for themselves, gaining good standing based on their own performance. Sounds like that could easily lead to pride and self-confidence, doesn’t it?
And that’s where the second half of the verse comes in. As they gain a good standing for themselves, with that comes “great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.” Not great confidence in themselves. But great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
Which means that the “faith that is in Christ Jesus” must have played an instrumental role in helping them serve well as deacons. It’s like if I said, “I drove safely all the way through the snowstorm, and that gave me a lot of confidence in my new snow tires.” The snow tires obviously played a role in making you be safe.
And so serving well as a deacon gives you great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus, because it’s only by and through and in that faith that they served well in the first place. They served well by relying on Jesus.
And that really helps us think in a big picture way about these requirements as a whole. Because it would be tempting to read these requirements and think that overseers and deacons need to be perfect. And we might even ask if there’s any room for forgiveness and growth here, or if these standards are just impossibly high.
And the answer is that the church is not a place for perfect people. It is a place for sinful people who have found their Saviour and are growing in faith and by faith to be more like Him. We want to welcome broken people who are figuring out how to put their lives together.
Those of you who have spent time with me know that I come from a family that was a mess and I have quite a high tolerance for messiness in people’s lives. You can come into my office and tell me your story and even tell me what you did yesterday and it will not phase me or make me look at you any differently.
As a church, we welcome messy people. But we want to help them, slowly but surely, clean up their mess. Like the phrase goes, it’s ok to not be ok, but it’s not ok to stay there. And the elders and deacons, as those who hold official positions within the church, need to set an example of where we should be headed in our walk with Jesus, and what we should be aiming for.
It’s not that they are perfect. Elders and deacons need a saviour every day. They walk by faith in Christ, not their own strength. They are still growing.
And we should recognize just how much room for growth is represented here in these qualifications. Aren’t you glad we don’t read, “an overseer must never ever have a moment where they feel ungrateful”? Or, “a deacon must never, ever have an unkind thought towards someone else”?
These requirements in chapter 3 don’t demand perfection and they leave lots of room for growth. But what they do identify are some key, public traits which prove that growth is happening.
If the Holy Spirit has brought you to a place where you are dignified and not double tongued and free from addictions and not greedy, then you’re on a trajectory. You have obviously grown, and if you stay the course you’re going to keep on growing. And in so doing, you’re going to be setting an example to others of what the Holy Spirit can do for them as well.
So we’ve covered a lot of ground this morning. But there’s still a lot we haven’t talked about. There’s specific questions about what some of this means for us here at EBC. And we are planning to have a time where you can ask questions about this whole idea of elders and deacons next Sunday evening at our congregational meeting.
But I just want to end this morning with two encouragements. First, I want to encourage the many of you who faithfully serve this church. You are servants even if you don’t carry the title of “deacon.” And the Lord sees you. He knows what you do. And it’s not in vain.
So keep serving well. Keep walking by faith and growing in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. Your reward will be great.
Second, wherever you are in this journey of becoming Christ-like, don’t give up. Keep growing. Keep walking by the Spirit. If your life is messy right now, get help. Talk to someone you trust, or talk to me or one of the other leaders here. We want to help you grow to be more like Jesus.
This is not a place for perfect people. But it is a place for broken people to help each other know Jesus and become like Him for the sake of His glory. So let’s press in to do that together again this week.
And let’s come ready next week to hear from Ephesians chapter 4. We’re going to take a break from 1 Timothy for a week or two because I don’t want any of us to get the impression that the overseers and deacons are the ones who take care of ministry in the church so that everybody else can chill out. Ephesians 4, which was written to this same church that Timothy was in, tells us that we’ve all been called to ministry. So what does that look like? And what does that have to do with the elders and the deacons? We’re going to explore that next week, and I’m so looking forward to that.