1 Timothy 3:8-13 – “Deacons: The Church’s Faithful Servants”
“Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain, but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach. Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things. Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households. For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.”
Here Paul transitions from laying out the good and high calling of the overseer to explaining the qualifications of the deacon. There are a few questions that come to mind that I think we must address. Questions like: What is a deacon? What do deacons do? Who can be a deacon? These questions are necessary because I am convinced that most churches do not sufficiently understand the role and purpose of deacons. This is extremely ironic, because while there are many churches that ignore the office of overseer/elders (many churches in the United States simply don’t have elders/overseers), almost all churches have deacons. But do they understand the office?
What is a Deacon?
Our word deacon is simply a transliteration (using our letters to bring a foreign word into our vocabulary) of the Greek διάκονος. Literally translated it means servant. The word is used of a typical household servant like a butler, housekeeper, gardener, chauffeur, etc. Broken down to its basic components, it indicates one who makes dust. The idea being that this individual is active in their service; not idle but stirs up dust in their active service.
Most people trace the NT concept of deacon back to Acts 6:
Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” – Acts 6:1-4 NASB
There was a legitimate need within the early church that could not be ignored. But that need could not take away from the primary obligation of preaching and praying. The solution was a simple one: select honest and godly men to serve the people in this manner, thus freeing the overseers to pursue their primary task (i.e. preaching and praying). The deacon then is a servant, but also an assistant to those who are charged with the spiritual oversight and leadership of the church (overseers).
This model was adopted by all the early churches as indicated by Paul’s letter to the Philippians: Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons. – Philippians 1:1 NASB
The office of deacon/servant/assistant had become commonplace by the second decade of the church’s existence. This point is necessary to understand because, like the overseers, Paul is not commanding Timothy to put deacons in place but is simply making crystal clear the standard by which these men must be measured. A deacon is more than someone willing to clean the church and cut the grass. As far back as Act 6 these individuals were to be men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom. If this is an office within the bride of Christ, then those who hold the office must be Christ-like. Just like the overseers, deacons must be qualified.
Moral Qualifications (v. 8)
“Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain”
These moral qualifications clearly imitate the moral qualifications of the overseer (vv. 1-3). In reality there is but one qualification here: dignity. The three disqualifications that follow are simply explanations of what a dignified man is not.
I am thankful for the NASB and its choice to translate this word as dignity because it helps the English reader draw a parallel between this verse and v. 4. There we saw that the overseer was to rule over his household and keep his children under control. But he was to engage in that endeavor with all dignity. The same word is used here again. The word conveys the idea of respectable, noble, worthy of admiration. Just as the overseer rules (yes, rules) over his household in a manner that is commendable and noble, the deacon must be a man who embodies that same attribute. But that implies that there are several things that cannot be said of the deacon.
This is a very literal translation of the Greek διλόγους (two-tongued). The word paints the picture of a man who says one thing to one party, but then says something else to another party. If the two parties in question ever sat down and compared notes they would notice obvious discrepancies. The deacon cannot pacify one party at the expense of the truth.
Something to consider here is the relationship between the qualifications of the office and the function of the office. A look back at vv. 1-7 clearly indicates the qualities that are necessary of overseers who rule for, teach about, and model Christ. Their function is connected to their qualifications. The same is true here. In other words, deacons deal with people and thus the way they interact with people must be sincere. They cannot be those who speak with two tongues.
Or addicted to much wine
This is a similar prohibition as the one placed upon the overseer back in v. 3 (not addicted to wine). The wording in the Greek is a little different (μὴ πάροινον (v. 3) = does not sit long at wine VS. μὴ οῖνῳ πολλῷ προσέχοντας (v. 8) = not given to/concerned about/caring for much wine) but the emphasis is the same. The deacon cannot be one who is controlled by outside influence, namely wine. This is not a prohibition against alcohol, but a prohibition against controlling influences. That line of thinking continues into the next prohibition.
Or fond of sordid gain
Greed is the clear reference here. Deacons must not be tempted by the love of money. They must not be like Judas, who frequently dipped into the purse. The common thread here is that a man who is dignified is not easily manipulated. One speaks with two tongues because he’s easily manipulated to gain favor. One who loves his drink is manipulated by that drink. One who loves money is easily bought and is controlled/manipulated by his love. Deacons must be dignified. They cannot be bought/controlled by outside influences no matter what form they come in.
Spiritually Qualifications (v. 9)
“But holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience”
“The mystery of the faith” does not speak of something that is unknown, but something that must be revealed. Christianity is not a mystery cult like the Mormons of today or ancient Gnosticism of the 1&2 century. There’s no mental or spiritual ladder to climb before we let you look behind the curtain. The mystery refers to something that must be revealed. “The faith” (i.e. Christianity and the gospel) is revealed by God’s Holy Word, as well as His Spirit who indwells those whom He has redeemed. What seems absurd to the reprobate is made clear to the redeemed.
To put it very plainly: deacons must tightly latch on to the revelation of faith, i.e. the Scripture with a clear conscience. But that requires deacons who know the Scripture and live the Scripture. You cannot hold fast to something that is utterly foreign to you. Granted, deacons are not called to be teachers. But they cannot function as assistance to the overseers as they visit, care for, take care of, and minister to the sheep unless they know their Bibles. Deacons cannot be men with strong backs yet weak convictions. They must hold fast to Scripture with a clear conscience.
Those with the clearest conscience are those with the strongest theology. Show me a man who is uncertain and I’ll show you a man who has a weak theology. The world is black and white. God’s Word is black and white. The deacon must live and view the world in black and white. There is no room within the church’s leadership for those who dabble in nonexistent gray areas.
Clearly there is a standard by which to measure deacons. But who can be a deacon? How does a church go about recruiting deacons?
Tested Men (v. 10)
“These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach.”
This “testing” does not indicate a specific oral or written exam. In fact the very verb tense must be understood as an ongoing process rather than a specific moment in time. The idea is that these men are to be observed over a period of time in order to see if they exhibit the qualities necessary of the office. One obvious implication is that the church must not place into the office of deacon one who does not cut the mustard. His service is completely contingent on passing the prolonged testing/observation of those who oversee the church. In other words, it would be absurd to place one who has potential but does not meet the basic standard of dignity and hold fast to the faith. Only after testing (and passing that testing) will one serve as a deacon.
Qualified Women (v. 11)
“Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.”
The very simple meaning of this verse has been clouded with bias, poor exegesis, and shabby translation. The NKJV and the ESV address this verse to their [the deacons’] wives. Yet a straightforward reading of the Greek (γυναῖκας) only says women. This leaves us, the interpreters, only three possibilities:
First, this verse is directed generally to women within the congregation.
Second, because the Greek γυνή can also indicate a wife, this verse dictates the obligations of the deacon’s wife.
Third, this verse opens up a third office commonly referred to as the deaconess or female deacon.
The first possibility makes the least amount of sense within the context. Paul has already addressed women in general back in 2:11-15. Men and women in general were addressed before that in 2:8-10. Ever since 3:1 the leadership within the church has been under the microscope. The discussion of the deacon and leadership in general will resume in vv. 12-13. It would make very little sense in the very logical mind of Paul to plop down a random verse about the female members of the congregation in the midst of this discussion.
Side bar: By leadership we must stress that we do not include deacons as those who rule over the church. The overseers alone rule the church as they rule their families. To lead does not necessitate authority, but assumes the ability to model and lead by example. In this sense only do we include deacons as church leaders. The office of deacon therefore is indeed an office of leadership but one that does not assume command or authority.
The second possibility is a very difficult position to hold when one examines the original text. To understand the Greek γυνή as meaning “wives” instead of the generic “women” means that we must ascertain whose wives are being discussed. But nowhere in the Greek can we find the necessary possessive pronoun (their) to associate these “wives” with their husbands. The plural γυναῖκας must stand on its own as “women.”
Another problem is the demand that this interpretation makes upon the wives of deacons. Is she to be roped into the role of deacon along with her husband? What if she has small children that are in need of her care at home? Is she to forsake them in order to serve alongside her husband? Are there only to be teams of deacons (husband and wife) in the church? All of these questions come to mind along with a much more obvious one. Why would Paul demand a qualified wife of the deacon and yet make no such demand upon the wife of the overseer when that office is clearly much more demanding? To translate γυναῖκας as “wives” frankly creates more questions than answers.
The third option is the best for several reasons. First, it seems obvious from the text that Paul is introducing a third office here. The adverb likewise (ὡσαύτως) was used in v. 8 to introduce the deacons. This word looks back to the phrase he must be/it is necessary that he be (δεῖ...εῖναι) in v. 2 and transfers that emphasis to the deacon. That same adverb introduces the women here in v. 11.
Second, we should notice that the same qualification given of the overseers in regard to the manner in which they rule over their household and the first qualification given of deacons is here repeated of the women. They are to be dignified just as the overseers and deacons are to be dignified. This also fits the pattern of Paul introducing a third group to the text rather than a subgroup of deacons.
Third, the qualifications mentioned here mirror both the overseers and the deacons. Just as the deacons’ speech defines his dignity, the same is true of the deaconess. She is not to be a malicious gossip, or more literally a slanderer (διαβόλους – devil = slanderer). The deacon must not be Mr. Two-Tongue and the deaconess must not be a she-devil. Also notice that word temperate used here also describes the overseer in v. 2. She must also be steady and stable, not easily flustered, frustrated, or frazzled.
Fourth, the same predominant quality of the women is the same predominate quality demanded of the overseers and the deacons, namely faithfulness. She must be faithful in everything. Not only in her role as a wife/mother, but in all aspects of her life. She must likewise (just as overseers and deacons) demonstrate fidelity in things little and things large.
Fifth, we know from the pages of Scripture that women did indeed serve as deacons. Romans 16:1 mentions a woman, Phoebe, as a deacon serving in the church in Rome.
Sixth, we know from church history that women served as deacons as early as the 1st and 2nd centuries. Their duties included home visitations, caring for the poor and ill, preparing the Lord’s Supper, as well as attending to women about to be baptized.
Seventh, female deacons are perfectly suited for the task of assisting the overseers. If the church is indeed built upon the foundation already established by God in the family (and it is), and if the overseers function as the spiritual fathers, ruling and teaching Christ’s bride until He comes again for her (and they are), then who better to assist the elders/overseers than mature women who are divinely designed to assist and help (Gen. 2:18)?
If we properly understand the office of deacon as leading through service and example rather than leading with authority, there is no legitimate reason to exclude women from this noble office. In fact, there is every reason to include them. But not without distinction.
The Demand for Fidelity (v. 12)
“Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households”
This is a concluding statement. The NABS translates an imperative here (must be). This verse no longer reaches back to the statement in v. 2 but begins its own concluding thought. That final thought is a stress on faithfulness.
The demand for deacons to be one-woman men and to rule over their own households is identical to the demand placed upon the overseer, with one major difference. There is no implication given that equates the ruling of the home to the ruling of the church. Why? The answer is simple: because deacons don’t rule. They assist, serve, and help the overseers who do rule.
The main point here is faithfulness. A deacon must be faithful to his wife and faithful to his children. The work of service is not a glamorous one. The work done is usually behind the scenes and is seldom recognized. The same is true of the faithfulness to one’s family. Nobody is going to give out an award to the husband who faithfully shepherds his wife or the father who diligently teaches and models the scriptures to his children. But if he cannot demonstrate the most basic level of faithfulness, why would he be placed in an office that demands constant, consistent, and unrecognized faithfulness in the church?
The Servant’s Reward (v. 13)
“For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.”
Literally the text simply says, “For those who have served well” without the added emphasis on the deacons. It is possible that this verse concludes the entire section of church leadership and extends to the overseer as well. Those who diligently and faithfully serve the Lord Jesus Christ by caring for His bride obtain two things: a high standing and great confidence.
The reward of leadership within the church has nothing to do with the office itself. The high standing mentioned here is not a platform from which to glorify yourself. This is not an “I’m the king of the world!” sort of moment. This high standing (lit. a step or pedestal) is a place to model from. The faithful servant is set forth as a model of Jesus Christ from which the congregation can observe and begin to pattern their lives after. Church leaders (model servants, not necessarily those in authority) all get the privilege of modeling Christ! And as such, they have obtained the judgment of “Well done, My good and faithful servant.”
With such a standing comes confidence. Not in his or her own ability, for that would be naked pride (thus condemned in vv. 6-7). They stand in the knowledge that they are what they are by the grace of Christ alone. They stand as models of Christ for the body because it is Christ within them who enables them to stand. What great confidence this brings!
Deacons must be understood as servants who assist and help the overseers as they faithfully care for the bride of Christ. Their leadership is in service and in example, not in authority or rule. These men and women are necessary within the church, a blessing to the church, and a model for the church. Just as the family was designed by God to be ruled by a man with his wife as his helper, so too the church is to be ruled by the overseers (under Christ) and assisted by the deacons.