What is a deacon?
In the early church, there emerged two offices: elders (or overseers) and deacons. Paul addresses both in his letter to the Philippians: “Paul . . . to all the saints which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (1:1). Both offices functioned in the church at Ephesus, and thus Paul specifies the qualifications of both. Having laid out the credentials for eldership, Paul now moves to the diaconate.
It isn’t entirely clear what the deacons actually did; the New Testament does not tell us their duties. The passage before us lists their qualifications, not their function. However, it is generally agreed that deacons served the physical and material needs of the church. Mounce writes in his commentary on this text, “It may be surmised that a deacon was responsible for the daily serving required in the church. Deacons probably had daily contact with the people in visitation and disbursement of the funds for the poor.” There are two reasons why we think this was the job of the diaconate.
First, the name “deacon” in Greek means “table waiter.” It referred to someone who waited on the needs of others. More generally, both the noun and verb forms denote service of any kind. What kind of service is involved in the office of deacon? Since the overseer is clearly primarily responsible for the spiritual leadership of the church, and the deacon is distinct from the elder, his sphere of responsibility must lie in those types of service not covered by the office of elder. The most logical conclusion would be that their duties lay in ministering to the physical and daily needs of the congregation.
Second, we have a clue as to their role in Acts 6, when the Jerusalem church chose seven men to oversee the distribution of food to the widows of the church. Though these men are not technically called “deacons,” their job description is given in 6:2, when the apostles tell the church that “It is not reason that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.” The last two words in the Greek are diakonein trapezais, and the verbal form of the word corresponding to “deacon” is used here. This is not conclusive evidence, but this seems to be the formation of a proto-diaconate. Since the early church emanated from the Jerusalem church, it would not be surprising if the other churches in the first century world took their cue from them as to the formation of a recognizable body of men who would minister and serve the physical needs of the congregation, as the elders did for the spiritual needs of the church.
Deacon and Deaconess?
It is often asserted that Paul is referring to both male and female “deacons” in this text, for in verse 11, Paul says, “Even so must their wives be grave….” The word for “wives” in the Greek could also be translated more generally as “women,” and thus it is claimed that Paul is not referring to the wives of the deacons, but to women who serve in the role of deacon just as their male counterparts do.
This is a possible interpretation, and its plausibility is buttressed by the fact that Paul does not refer to the wives of elders in the list above. If Paul is referring to the wives of deacons, why did he not refer to the wives of overseers? Furthermore, in Romans 16:1, Phebe is described as “our sister, which is a servant [Greek: “deacon” – same word Paul uses here] of the church which is at Cenchrea.” Here, it is claimed, is a clear example in the early church of a woman functioning in the role of deacon.
However, it is improbable that Paul is in fact referring to deaconesses in verse 11. The main reason is that Paul returns in verses 12-13 to the qualifications and rewards of male deacons: “Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife….” It is improbable to suppose that Paul gives the qualifications of male deacons, switches abruptly to deaconesses, and then back again to male deacons when there is no clue in verse 12 that the topic has changed. It seems that verse 11 is actually a part of the qualifications of men who serve in the role of deacon: they must have wives who are “faithful in all things” (ver. 11) as well as being one-woman men and “ruling their children and their own houses well” (ver. 12). Moreover, in verse 12 Paul uses the same word for "wife" as he does for "wives" in verse 11. The word in verse 12 is indisputably a reference to the deacon's wife; it would be strange to think that Paul meant something else in the previous verse.
As to the problem of Paul referring to wives of deacons but not of elders, we must remember that this is not a formal but an ad hoc list that Paul is giving to Timothy to address a very specific situation in the church at Ephesus. We do not know all the details and it could very well be that the situation at Ephesus required Paul to address the wives of deacons but not of the elders. Further, as B.B. Warfield has noted, the absence of any reference to the wives of overseers can be “explained by the circumstance that women could take no part either in ruling or in teaching (ii. 12), which constituted the functions of the bishop.”
Warfield’s comment, and Paul’s argument in the text, however, is very revealing in another direction. The supposition that the wives of bishops are not mentioned because they could not function in such a role, suggests that since the wives of deacons are mentioned, they are mentioned precisely because they most likely assisted their husbands in their role as deacon. Thus, the husbands functioned officially in the role of deacon, but were assisted in that role by their wives. It would therefore not be without exegetical warrant to speak of husband-wife teams functioning as deacons. Thus, though I am not sure we can say the New Testament speaks of deaconesses in a formal sense (the reference to Phebe in Romans 16:1 is probably more general, and the KJV translates the word correctly as “servant” instead of “deaconess”), yet we can say from this text that Scripture does not forbid women assisting their husbands who are serving in the role of deacon (in fact, it would almost seem to require it!).
Paul mentions nine qualifications for serving in the office of a deacon in verse 8-12 and then ends this list in verse 13 with a note of encouragement to those who have faithfully served in such a role.
1. First, they (and their wives) must be “grave” (ver. 8, 11). The word means “dignified,” and suggests the ideas of one who is noble, worthy, and esteemed. Paul uses the same word in Philippians 4:8 as a descriptor of what the believer should think about: he/she should think on things that are “honest” (KJV). One commentator says that this word “refers to lofty things, majestic things, things that lift the mind from the cheap and tawdry to that which is noble and good and of moral worth.” Paul is absolutely insistent that those who occupy positions in the church are not just put there because no one else will do it, or just because they want to do it. They must be men who have the respect of those closest to them, both inside and outside the church.
2. They must be self-controlled with respect to their tongue: they must not be “double-tongued” (ver. 8). That is, they must not speak one thing to one person and another thing to someone else. They must be honest. They must be circumspect with respect to their language. They must not gossip. Similarly, their wives must not be “slanderers” (ver. 11). One’s heart is revealed by what comes out of their mouth (Luke 6:45), and so the profession of the purity of the deacon’s heart must be backed up by their tongue.
3. They must be self-controlled with respect to drink: they must not be “given to much wine” (ver. 8). He must not be a drunk. But I think this generalizes to the principle that he must not be addicted to anything that would warp his mind or judgment.
4. They must be self-controlled with respect to money: they must not be “greedy of filthy lucre” (ver. 8). Of course, no Christian should be characterized by greed, but those who hold public office should be pure even from the taint of such an accusation. Probably one of the reasons Paul makes this a qualification of the deacon is because they had access to the church’s funds in order to distribute it to those who had need. The temptation to use the money of others for one’s own use could be very tempting unless a man is absolutely so in love with Jesus that they are oblivious to its lure. That is the kind of man that Paul wants in the office of a deacon.
5. They must hold “the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience” (ver. 9). The phrase “mystery of the faith” is a reference to gospel. In the Bible, a “mystery” is not something you can’t know, but something that has to be revealed to you. In Christ, the gospel which could never have been discovered by unaided reason has been revealed to men. Therefore it is called a mystery. To this mystery the deacon must hold. Though deacons do not function in a teaching role in the church, yet they are required to understand the faith and be able to defend it to others. Moreover, their knowledge must not just be intellectual, but must be held “in a pure conscience.” Belief in the gospel spills over into their lives and produces holiness in their thoughts and affections and words and actions.
6. They must be examined: “And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless” (ver. 10). The qualifications that Paul lists here must be proved; their background must be known. As a novice could not enter into the role of elder, neither should an unproven believer serve the church in a public capacity in the role of deacon. Paul is concerned for the reputation of the church. The false teachers have been tearing it down by their lives and teaching. Paul wants to correct such abuses by putting men of respect in positions of leadership.
7. As we’ve already argued, in verse 11 Paul adds the qualification that the deacon’s wife must also be of blameless character. In particular, they must be “grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things.”
8. Moreover, the deacon must be a “one-woman man” (ver. 12). He must be sexually pure, faithful to his wife. This does not mean that something could not have happened in his past, but that as a believer he has proven the constancy of his integrity in loving his wife.
9. Finally, Paul says that the deacon must rule “their children and their own houses well” (ver. 12). They must have the respect and love of their children. They are in control, but rule their homes with a gentle firmness.
Paul ends in verse 13 with a note of encouragement: “For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.” A “good degree” means a “good standing” in the church. As they labor among believers, and serve others, they will enhance their reputation in the believing community and increase their confidence in representing the gospel before an unbelieving world. In other words, a deacon has two rewards in the here and now for his labor: (1) he is rewarded by the love and gratitude of the other believers that he is ministering to. That is what I think Paul means by “a good standing”. But that is not all, for he is (2) rewarded by the fact that such labors do not go unnoticed by the unbelieving world: “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another” (Jn. 13:34). As deacons serve in love, the world takes notice. And thus deacons become in some sense a platform for further advancements of the gospel among men. For “boldness in the faith” in Paul is often a reference to the advance of the gospel: “Praying . . . for me, that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel” (Eph. 6:19).
The Implications of the dual offices of elder and deacon
1. God cares for both the spiritual and physical needs of people.
It needs to be said that the office of deacon was not intended to be a stepping stone to the office of elder. This was a later development in the history of the church, and also brought with it the idea that deacons are meant to serve under the elders and bishops. In our text, deacons do not serve the elder. Rather, they serve the church. Elder and deacon are not two manifestations of the same office but two distinct offices with two distinct goals.
Elders are meant to provide overall direction and spiritual leadership. Deacons are meant to minister to the physical and material needs of the congregation. The fact that God provided both elders and deacons to the church means that he is concerned for the goals for which these offices have been provided. Thus, the fact that God provided elders for the church means that he wants his people to be shepherded – to be fed, protected, and guided by his Word though the means of men called to preach and teach it. The fact that God provided deacons for the church means that he wants his people to be provided for in very tangible, physical ways. In Acts 6, he led his apostles to ordain seven men to make sure that the widows in the church were taken care of and fed. In the diaconate, he continues with this concern. Through the bishops, God cares for his people spiritually. Through the diaconate, God cares for his people materially.
It is easy to think that God only cares for the soul. In fact, this gnostic belief has resurfaced again and again in history. Thus, some have equated spirituality with asceticism – the neglect of the body. On the other hand, some have taken this to mean that it does not matter what we do to the body; we can neglect it or we can abuse it through gluttony or immorality, and God doesn’t care. However, our text points to the fact that God does care about the body as he does about the soul. And coupled with the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, we can confidently say that God cares just as much for the body as he does for the soul. He has made both, and when Christ wrought redemption on the cross, he redeemed both.
This is illustrated in the life and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. What did Jesus do? Peter sums it up for us in Acts 10:38, when he described how “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed with the devil; for God was with him.” Jesus went about doing good – doing good to the sick and lame and blind and dead by healing and giving physical life, and doing good to sinners and harlots and tax collectors by healing their souls and forgiving their sins and giving them spiritual life (cf. Acts 10:43). Jesus did both; and often at the same time. He did not do one to the exclusion of the other, and when people flocked to Jesus only to eat bread, he turned them away with the words, “Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled. Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you” (John 6:27).
It is also illustrated in the way Jesus taught his disciples to pray. In Matthew 7:11, he says, “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” The context here demands that the “good things” we ask for include food and clothing (cf. 6:26-34; 7:9-10). On the other hand, in Luke 11:13, Jesus says, “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” Here Jesus specifies the Holy Spirit as the good gift we are to pray for. It is not one or the other; it is both.
Even when he was dying on the cross, working redemption for the lost, Jesus made sure that the physical and material needs of his mother would be provided for (John 19:25-27).
That is not to say that there are not priorities. Jesus clearly demanded the priority of the spiritual over the material; the next world over the present. We are to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and trust that God will provide for the other things of food and clothing (Mt. 6:33).
All this leads to the following observation.
2. We should care both for our body and soul and the spiritual and physical needs of others.
The elders and deacons are God’s expressions of concern for physical and spiritual need. But elders and deacons are not God; they are men. And this teaches us that God expects his concern for these two goals to be reflected in our own lives and hearts. As believers, we ought not only to be concerned about the spiritual needs to the exclusion of the physical, or vice versa. In fact, James tells us that “pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (Jm. 1:27). The reason why James underlined their responsibility to widows and orphans was because in that culture, these were the people who were most vulnerable. The first century world was a man’s world without a safety net, and a widow was not likely to find work to support herself. If she could not get remarried, she was likely to starve to death. The same was true of orphans. James therefore calls the church to care for them. In the same way, we as a church are obligated to care for those who cannot care for themselves. We are to be like the Good Samaritan and love our neighbor. And you know what? If we can’t do this, we’re not a church, because we’re not being like Jesus.
On the other hand, we need to resist the temptation of completely defining the role of the believer and the church in the world in terms of social justice. As Paul will explain to Timothy in the next few verses, the church is the “house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth,” and its mission is to proclaim the truth about Jesus (1 Tim. 3:14-16). If all a church does is fill empty stomachs without addressing empty souls, then we’re not a church, because we’re not being like Jesus and we’re not pointing people to Jesus. More than bread that meets the need of physical hunger and water that meets the need of physical thirst, people need the Bread of Life who meets the need of spiritual hunger and the Water of Life who meets the need of spiritual thirst. “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).
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