The Lord's Day Morning

August 15, 2004

I Timothy 3:8-13

“What God Wants in Deacons”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to I Timothy, chapter three. We have been working our way through the Pastoral Epistles: First and Second Timothy, and Titus. We've just been in the book of First Timothy for the last few weeks, and last week we were looking at I Timothy 3:1-7, in which Paul gives us instructions for the qualifications for elders in the local congregation.

Over and over, we've said that Paul, writing to these congregations in Asia Minor (what we would call modern-day Turkey) almost two thousand years ago, wasn't just giving them wise advice and counsel for a local congregation. He was giving them God's vision for healthy life and ministry in the local congregation. And he was giving them instructions that were to be followed by all churches.

And so the matters that are before us are very practical, and they are very spiritually significant. Though the matter of elders and deacons and their qualifications may not seem to be the most scintillating subject, nevertheless Paul (and God) considers this to be very important for the health and for the growth of a local congregation. And so we pause to consider God's word here.

Let me ask you to look at First Timothy 3:8, and before we read it, let's go to the Lord in prayer.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. We ask that we would receive it as Your word, the very words of God to us. We pray that as we contemplate what Your vision is for godly deacons, what you want them to be like, that we will not simply sit and think of this message as something for someone else, but that by Your Spirit, You would apply the truth of this message to our hearts in such a way that we will glorify You with our lips and with our lives. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear God's word.

(8) “Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongues, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain, but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let these also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach. Women [and that word can be translated ‘wives’ as well, by the way, as a perfectly good translation] must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons 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.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

In this passage before us today, Paul describes for us the job of deacons; the qualification of deacons; how deacons are to work alongside of the women; and how the women of the congregation are to work alongside the deacons in the diaconal tasks. And he describes the reward of deacons. I'd like to talk about those four things with you.

But I'd also like to talk with you for a moment about the reason for deacons. Paul doesn't describe it per se in this passage, although the qualifications point to the job description and the job description points to the reason. But Luke, in Acts 6, does help us with the reason for deacons, and so in just a few moments I'd like to think with you about the reason for deacons; the job of deacons; the qualifications of deacons; how the women work with deacons; and the reward of deacons in the local church.

I. God invented deacons in order that the Church might really reflect the unity of the Spirit in the bond of love.

Let's start with the reason for deacons. On the night that Jesus Christ was betrayed, He and His disciples had made their way from Bethany to Jerusalem to the upper room where they were going to celebrate the last Passover of the Old Covenant and the first-ever Lord's Supper. It was a long dusty road, and when they arrived at the upper room, it would have been customary for the host to provide a servant who would have gone about the menial, but very practical, task of washing their feet. When they arrived, there was no servant there. One can imagine the disciples looking nervously at one another. Is Matthew going to do it? Is Peter going to do it? Is John going to do it? While they were casting furtive glances at one another, Jesus took His clothes off, stripped down to the loincloth and wrapped a long towel around His waist in the manner of an Oriental slave. And He knelt down, and one by one He began to wash the dirty feet of people that John has already told us He knew were going to abandon Him that night, including the man who was going to betray Him.

After He finished washing the disciples’ feet, at the end of John 13, John tells us that He looked at the disciples and He said, “This new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you. By this the world [all men] will know that you are My disciples, as you love one another.” Jesus was saying to His disciples that His service to them in His whole life and ministry, in that symbolic act that night–and certainly in what he was going to do the next day in dying for their sins–was an example to them as to how they were to tangibly love one another. As He had served them tangibly, they were to serve one another.

Now, that's very important, because as you know, the gospels tell us that the disciples were having a conversation on the way to the upper room that night. You remember what it was about? It wasn't about the Five Points of Calvinism; it wasn't about the order of the decrees; it wasn't about infant baptism. It was about which one of them was the greatest. And Jesus had washed all of their feet, and then said, “You treat one another like I've treated you.”

Now you’re saying to yourself, “What does this have to do with deacons and the reason for deacons?” Well, it has a lot, because God invented deacons to enflesh the example of Christ in tangibly and concretely loving and serving the congregation in our midst. Deacons are to embody Christ's own service of His people, especially as they administer mercy in the life of the local congregation.

Let me prove that to you. Turn in your Bibles to Acts, chapter six, and look at the first seven verses. A dispute has arisen in the Christian church in Jerusalem. Good things are happening there. The church is growing, and the church is very active in caring for people in need, especially widows. You remember that the godly Jewish people of old and the early Christians were very concerned about widows and orphans and those who are in need who are part of the believing community. They were deeply concerned to minister to them. And the Christian church in Jerusalem was apparently doing a pretty good job.

But a controversy arose. There were some Jewish-Christian widows in the church who spoke Aramaic, or Hebrew. And there were others who spoke Greek. And the Greek-speaking Jewish-Christian widows thought that perhaps the Hebrew- or Aramaic-speaking Jewish-Christian widows were getting a little more attention. After all, they were in Jerusalem. The natives there spoke Aramaic or Hebrew, and maybe they felt that because they weren't from Jerusalem and didn't speak the same language, that they were being overlooked.

And the Apostles–the elders–do something very interesting. They don't say, “It's so important that we are committed to the ministry of the word and prayer that we're just going to forget this mercy ministry to widows. Forget it.” Nor do they say, “You know, mercy ministry to widows is so important that we're going to forget all this praying and teaching and reading our Bibles and leading the congregation in discipleship in the word.” No, the Apostles and elders, at God's leading say, “We’re going to appoint deacons.” Acts 6:1-7 is the appointment of the first deacons in the New Testament.

The reason is because Christ's love needs to be tangibly manifest in the congregation. And the elders cannot fail to devote themselves to the shepherding work of teaching and praying and leading the congregation in discipleship. So, the elders–the apostles–say to the people, “Look, here are the qualifications for the men that are going to lead in the mercy ministry in our congregation. Now you pick some men that meet those qualifications.”

The congregation looks at those qualifications, and they look at the men in the congregation, and they say, “We've got seven men there that meet those qualifications.” And so the Apostles appoint those men as the first deacons of the church, because Jesus, you remember, has told the disciples that their witness to the world will depend on the way that they tangibly love and serve one another. “The world will know that you are My disciples as you love one another.”

And so what is the reason for deacons? So that the ministry of the word and prayer can flourish under the direction of the elders, and the elders can devote themselves to that; and so that the ministry of mercy and tangible love can flourish in the local congregation under the leadership and exhortation and example of the deacons.

You remember John, who was there when Jesus gave His great new commandment in John 13, in the upper room. In I John 3:18, John says to us: “Brothers, let us not love in word, but in deed.” And so deacons are given to the church as a gift so that the church will love in both word and deed, so that the truth will be ministered in the congregation and so that mercy will be ministered in the congregation. The gospel ministry is a ministry of word and deed, and neither must be neglected. And so it is for the church's well being to have two classes of officers that are devoted to fostering both of these aspects of the ministry of the church. The deacons’ work is to complement the elders’ ministry of the word and prayer, and the deacon is to lead in the local congregation's ministry of mercy to those who are in need in the local congregation. It is an office of service and deed. It embodies Jesus’ example. So there's the reason for deacons.

Well, what about the job of deacons? What is the job of deacons? There are many misconceptions about what that job is. Some people think of deacons as elders. Many of us have come to First Presbyterian Church, and joined First Presbyterian Church out of congregational backgrounds–Baptist churches, Bible churches and others. And many of those churches didn't have elders. They only had deacons. And in those churches, those deacons did many of the things that the elders do here, and so they come to First Presbyterian Church and they’re a little confused. They think of deacons as elders, but deacons aren't elders.

Sometimes people think of deacons as administrators–spiritual administrators, but administrators nevertheless. They’re in charge of the operational and maintenance aspect of the church budget, and they’re in charge of the material property of the church and making repairs. And they think of deacons in those terms. Now, our deacons have to do those things, but they only do those things because they love you. What they really want to do is something else, and it's the something else described in Acts, chapter six, and then in First Timothy three, and in Romans, chapter twelve, and in First Corinthians twelve. No, deacons are not simply administrators.

Sometimes people view deacons as social services directors. They think that the deacons’ job is to really get out into the community and for the church to do community services. But in the New Testament, the focus of the deacon is always in leading the congregation in ministering to the congregation of Christians, and other Christians in need, and not setting up some sort of a community social services. Deacons are not social services directors. No, none of these things is what deacons are.

II. God wants men who want to serve, men who want-concretely and tangibly-to show the love of Christ in the body.

What are deacons? Well, Paul tells you in verses ten and thirteen: “Let them serve as deacons,” he says in verse ten. And then he speaks of “those who have served well as deacons” in verse thirteen.

Now, we use the word serve oftentimes as a synonym for hold office. So we talk about a man serving as governor, or serving as president, or serving as chairman of the board of this or that. But Paul isn't just using the term “serve” in that sort of a formal way here. Paul really means “serve.”

For Paul, the deacon–his job description–is that of a man who wants to concretely and tangibly show the love of Christ in the body of Christ. He wants to serve. The office of deacon is emphatically an office of service, not just in some generic sense, but really and specifically. The deacon is not out for power or prestige: he is a man who wants to serve, he wants to help when the people of God are hurting, and he wants to aid them. When the people of God are in need, he wants to comfort and assist them. He wants to make the Christian claims of love tangible.

Paul doesn't describe the office in any kind of great detail in I Timothy 3. But in Acts, chapter six, and in I Corinthians 12:27,28 (where Paul talks about the gift of helping and the gift of administering), and in Romans 12:6,7 (when he talks about the gift of service, or ‘in serving’), Paul indicates that the office of deacon is not the office of elder-in-training; it's not the office of janitor; it's not the office of “one day I’ll grow up and be an elder.” It is the office of service in the church.

When men are elected to the diaconate who are approved by God, their desire is to serve the flock in the ministry of mercy. Very often men are elected to the diaconate who are never elected elders. That doesn't mean that they haven't made the grade or moved up in rank. The two offices are distinct, and some are given the gifts for one, and the desire and calling for one, and some are given the gifts and desire and calling to another office. And we want men in the diaconate who exude that kind of a desire: to serve the flock. They love serving the Lord's people in time of need.

III. God wants men who are godly and self-controlled, qualified by their desire to serve, their embrace of the faith, and their proven character.

Now what's their qualification? We've looked at the reason for them; we've looked a little bit at the job, or the job description. What's the qualification for this office? Well, you see it in verses eight to ten, and in verses twelve and thirteen: “Deacons must likewise 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 be first tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach. They must be husbands of only one wife, and good mangers of their children and of their own households.

Notice that just like with elders, Paul's list of qualifications is primarily moral. He doesn't give a long list of abilities, sort of “native abilities” that these men have to have. No, they have to have the desire to serve, and they have to have the character quality of a man who is going to faithfully minister in the Lord's church.

Notice several parallels. For one thing, deacons, just like elders, are asked to be good family spiritual leaders. It's vital that if they’re going to spiritually serve the congregation that they know how to spiritually serve their own families.

Notice also that they are to be tested. Look at verse ten. It says this: “Let these also first be tested….” Now that also is important, because it indicates that the elders are also to be tested before they are to be appointed as elders. And that's exactly what we do at First Presbyterian Church. Ever wonder why we have an extensive time of officer training, where we check the character and the calling and the theological commitments, and the ministry desires of the men who are going to be put before you to be elected to serve as officers in this church? We do that because of First Timothy 3:10. It says that these men are also to be tested before they are set apart for this particular work. And so the elders of the church are very careful in screening so that you are able to choose from men who meet these qualifications.

Notice also in this passage that the moral qualifications for office basically fall into three categories. First of all, notice that the deacon is to have self-control in speech. Think of how important that is. A deacon, if he's doing his work, is going to find out things about the life of families of the church that could be hurtful to them and divisive to the fellowship if he were to share. He has to be a man who can keep his lips tight, even when he finds out about a lot of things going on in the lives of needy people in the congregation. He needs to be a person who's trustworthy, and so he is to be one who has self-control in his tongue. He is not double-tongued.

Notice also that he has self-control in the area of drink. He's not addicted to much wine. This is a person who manifests in his own carriage self-control with regard to those things which are intoxicating or addictive, and thus it inspires confidence that when money is entrusted to him for mercy ministry it won't be misspent.

Notice also, he is not to be fond of sordid gain. He's got self-control in the area of money. Now again, if, as he's described in Acts, chapter six, he's in charge of taking all those alms, all those benevolence gifts that you gave, and making sure that they get in the hands of the people who really need them, then he needs to be a man that you can trust with money. And so those character qualifications are given.

But notice the larger picture of qualifications that's given in this passage. Deacons are to basically have these three qualifications: they desire to serve; they’re orthodox; and they have outstanding moral character. Where do I get that from? Well, you see the moral character in verse eight; you see the orthodoxy in verse nine; and you see the desire to serve in Paul's words about them in verse ten and in verse thirteen. They long to serve, and what does he say in verse nine? “They hold to the mystery of faith with a clear conscience.”

Isn't that an interesting distinction? Elders are required to be able to teach. Deacons are not required to be able to teach, but they are required to hold to historic, faithful, biblical Christian orthodoxy with a clear conscience. They have no doubt about the truth of God's word. Notice how God wants mercy to be tangibly ministered by people who really believe the word. So often in the last hundred years we have seen the people that are most interested in mercy be least interested in doctrine. And God wants the people that are ministering mercy in a local congregation to be sound and committed theologically.

And then he wants them to be of upstanding moral character: men of dignity; husbands of one wife; good managers of their children and households. Again, his pattern is to point to fundamental godliness as the qualification for the office of deacon.

Now, what about verse eleven? It's puzzled many people, and we don't have time to do it justice this morning. What does it mean? Is Paul talking about wives of deacons in verse eleven? Is he talking about female deacons, or deaconesses, in verse eleven? Or is he talking about the women who serve with the deacons, doing mercy ministry in the local church?

Well, we can't go through all the pros and cons of this, but if you look at chapter five, much of chapter five, especially the first sixteen verses, is about the women who serve with the deacons in the local church; that is, women who come alongside the deacons and help administer pastoral care. You can imagine, especially in Paul's day, the need to have women who could go in and minister to women in certain circumstances that would have gotten men in trouble had they attempted to go in and minister in those circumstances. And so Paul is speaking of significant involvement of women helping the deacons of the church do their diaconal work of mercy ministry.

And I must say (and I don't think the deacons would be offended by that) that the women of our congregation have pushed us along to embrace this tangible expression of Christian love, and are now working very effectively (the Women In the Church) alongside of the deacons in ministering both short- and long-term care; in providing meals in times of need; in reaching out in pastoral care to make sure that people aren't falling through the cracks; in significant issues of life. And the women of our congregation are actively involved in that part of the diaconal process.

IV. God wants men who only seek the “well done” of Jesus in their service of the Church.

Finally, if you look at verse thirteen, Paul speaks to the whole issue of the reward of the deacon. “Those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and a great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.” Remember Jesus’ words that “The last shall be first”? Paul's just echoing that truth. Paul is saying that those who serve in this often quiet, behind the scenes work of deacons, they will be rewarded with high standing. Though they may be last in the eyes of the world, and even some in the church, they will be made first. They will be given high standing. They will hear the “well done, my good and faithful servant” from their Master.

And he goes on to say that they will have great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. They will have great assurance and courage and boldness and freedom. We see this pattern happening all the time in the Christian church. Those who most give themselves away, and most die to their own selves–their own desires, their own agendas–are the ones who live with the most freedom and joy and satisfaction and fulfillment. And so as these deacons give themselves away in washing the feet of the brethren, in serving them in mercy ministry, they attain high standing and great confidence in the Lord.

You remember Jesus said to His disciples that no one would give a cup of cold water to one of His disciples in His name who would be forgotten. Everyone who gave even a cup of cold water to His disciples would be rewarded. And the deacons, you see, are doing just that. They are about that ministry of mercy to Christ's sheep who may be overlooked by others in the midst of our hustle and bustle.

But deacons, my friend, are also an example to us, because the deacon does by duty what all of us ought to do by love. That is, not to say “be warm and be filled” to our brothers and sisters in need, but to say to them, “I will come alongside and minister to you tangibly and concretely, as best as we can.” And just as holiness is necessary for the witness of the world–you remember what Jesus says in John 13? That as the world sees us love one another in this way, the world will know that we are God's disciples. We are Christ's disciples. And so the work of the deacon, just like the work of the elder, is vital for the evangelistic witness of the church. As we love one another in this way, the world sees God's presence in our midst, and the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

May God help us to love like that. Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, we thank You for this truth of Your word. It's easy to say and speak, to talk about: it's harder to do. Loving one another tangibly is a wonderful thing to aspire to, but in the midst of the busy-ness of our schedules and our self-preoccupation we often put our brothers and sisters and their needs and their own situations second to our own concerns. Give us the spirit of Christ, the spirit that is willing to wash the disciples’ feet and serve. Bless our deacons as they serve us, as they give us a model of service, and as they exhort us to service. Bless our dear friend and minister, Billy Joseph, as he works alongside the deacons, encouraging them in love and good deeds. Bless the Women In the Church as they work to give total congregational care alongside of the deacons, to this great fellowship of friends. We pray, heavenly Father, that You would use this as a witness to our neighbors and to our community, that You really have done a work of grace in our midst, and that this attitude would overflow in the way we relate as individuals to our community. We ask these things in Jesus' name. Amen.