Topic: Default Passage: Acts 6:1–6, 1 Timothy 3:8–13
We’ll be taking a break from our journey through Genesis this morning and looking instead at two passages of Scripture. The first is Acts 6:1-6. It says,
1 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. 2 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. 3 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. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
The second passage is 1 Timothy 3:8-13. It says,
8 Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. 9 They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13 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.
May God bless the reading of his Word.
Let’s pray: Father, we’re taught that the heavens and earth will pass away but that your words will never pass away. They’re eternally true, eternally relevant, and eternally powerful. So, help us to see the truth of this text and understand its relevance and experience its power. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
One of the ways I often like to view the Bible is as an owner’s manual for our lives. As you know, the point of an owner’s manual is to teach us how to operate or maintain a certain product in the best possible way. For example, at our church’s free Oil Change Event that we had a couple of Saturdays ago, I’d assume that the volunteers doing the oil changes looked at the owner’s manuals of those vehicles in order to determine how much oil to put into them. Because each vehicle takes a specific amount of oil, and it’s not good for the vehicle to put too much or too little oil into it. So, whenever you’re doing something like that, it’s always a good idea to follow the owner’s manual—because things just work out better when you do what the owner’s manual says.
And, as I said, the Bible’s a lot like an owner’s manual for our lives. Life just works better when we live the way God’s told us to live in the pages of Scripture. Just think about marriage, for example. How can you have a marriage that’s healthy and harmonious and happy? By following the principles for marriage and for relationships that God lays out in the Bible. Or take mental wellness. I’m not saying we won’t ever struggle with mental health issues if we follow the Bible, but generally speaking, living as God instructs us to live helps us to have a greater sense of joy and peace and comfort and fulfillment in our lives—even in the midst of challenging circumstances. So, things generally work out better in every aspect of life when we follow the owner’s manual.
And what’s true of our lives individually is also true of the church. Things work best in the church when we follow the owner’s manual and seek to organize the church according to the pattern we find in the New Testament. And one of the features of the New Testament church is that it had two offices. The first office was elders—also known as pastors—who were responsible for being the primary leaders and teachers in the church. Yet, there was also a second office as well—one that we haven’t yet officially established here at Redeeming Grace. And that is the office of deacons.
The Greek word translated as “deacon” is διάκονος and simply means “servant.” It was a very general term that could be used to refer to any servant in any part of ancient society, but it could also be used in a more particular way to refer to a specific office in the church. Today, we might compare it to the term “white house.” In one sense, there are a lot of houses that could accurately be described as “white houses.” You might live in a white house or at least have one on your street. Yet, we also understand that there’s only one official “White House”—the one in Washington D.C. Similarly, in the New Testament, the word διάκονος is sometimes used in a general way to refer to any servant in society. But, in other instances, it’s used a particular way to refer to an official servant—or a designated model servant, we might say—in the church.
So, since the New Testament church had deacons, and since our young church here doesn’t yet have deacons, we’ve been thinking that maybe we should appoint some. So, that’s why we’re taking a break from our journey through Genesis and I’m preaching this message.
As we look at the New Testament, it seems as though deacon ministry originated not long after the church itself was born in the book of Acts. In Acts 6, we read about a challenging situation the early church encountered. Verse 1 tells us, “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.” So, basically, a certain group of widows in the church was being overlooked and neglected in the church’s food distribution ministry.
So, how did the leaders of the church respond? Look at verses 2-6: 2 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. 3 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. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
Now, one thing to understand about this passage is that the noun διάκονος, from which we get the word “deacon,” is never applied to these seven men or used in the passage at all. However, the corresponding verb διακονέω is applied to what they do. The apostles state in verse 2, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve [διακονέω] tables.” So, these seven men aren’t called “deacons,” but the text does state that they’ll engage in “deaconing” or “serving” in the church. In addition, we also have to remember that all of this was very early on in the life of the church. Things were incredibly fluid at this point, and almost everything was in the process of being developed. So, I believe it’s best to think of these men in Acts 6 not as deacons per say, but simply as men who engaged in a deacon-type ministry—“proto-deacons,” if you will.
And that’s significant because it means that there’s not really a specific job description for deacons in the New Testament. Now, if we did view these men in Acts 6 as deacons, we might be more likely to conclude that deacons should be focused on mercy ministry. But since I’m not really convinced that what we see in Acts 6 is a mature deacon ministry, I believe the New Testament leaves the question of what deacons should do pretty open. Basically, it’s appropriate for deacons to serve in whatever ways the congregation—and specifically the elders—need them to serve.
It might be a food distribution ministry like we see here in Acts 6 or literally any other ministry that’s needed in the church. One principle that I really appreciate from Acts 6 is that the church is free to organize things in whatever way seems most beneficial and to make the most sense given the situation of that particular church in that particular season. As John MacArthur writes in his commentary on this passage, “Biblical church organization always responds to needs and to what the [Holy] Spirit is already doing….Organization is never an end in itself but only a means to facilitate what the Lord is doing in His church.” So, it seems that deacon ministry in the New Testament is meant to be an incredibly flexible ministry that churches are free to utilize and structure as they see fit to meet the needs that they currently have.
Then, later on in the New Testament, once deacon ministry had taken on a more mature form, the Apostle Paul lists the qualifications for deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-12. He writes, 8 Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. 9 They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well.
Now, one notable feature of these qualifications that should immediately stick out to us is that these qualifications focus on a person’s character rather than on their giftedness. Character is front and center when it comes to the question of who should be appointed to deacon ministry. By the way, there’s a very important principle in that for all of us. God cares way more about the kind of person you are than about the kinds of things you’re able to do. He cares way more about you having godly character than he does about you having impressive abilities. In addition, as we go through these qualifications, keep in mind that, although these are presented as qualifications for deacons, they’re also qualities we should all seek to exhibit. The kind of person described here is a model of what all of us should seek to be.
So, the first qualification is that deacons be “dignified”—or “worthy of respect,” as some translations say. This means they should show a certain level of seriousness in their devotion to the Lord. People should to be able to look up to them as model servants. In addition, Paul says deacons can’t be “double-tongued.” They can’t say one thing to one person and then something different and contradictory to another person. Instead, they should be truthful and trustworthy in all of their interactions. I really like the way one commentator elaborates on this qualification. He says that a deacon shouldn’t be “afraid to sell the family parrot to the town gossip.” That’s a rather memorable way to describe it.
Moreover, deacons mustn’t be “addicted to much wine.” That doesn’t mean they can’t drink alcohol at all, but it does mean they shouldn’t be controlled by it or get drunk on any occasion. Instead, they should be self-controlled, not only in that aspect of life but in every aspect of life. Paul then states that they shouldn’t be “greedy for dishonest gain.”
Instead, Paul says in verse 9, “They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.” The “mystery of the faith” is a phrase Paul uses in numerous places in his letters to refer to the gospel—the message of who Jesus is and what he’s done in his death on the cross to redeem us from our sins. Deacons have to genuinely believe all of the core teachings of that gospel message. Even though they aren’t required to be “able to teach” as elders are, they still need to have a solid grasp of gospel truths.
Paul then says in verse 10 that they should also be tested first and only be allowed to serve if they show themselves blameless. He then says in verse 12 that deacons need to relate to their family in an exemplary way. That involves being faithful to their wife and also managing their children well. By the way, I don’t believe that means they have to be married or that they have to have children. Instead, Paul’s simply assuming here that most deacons in the church will be married and will have children. So, he’s assuming it but not requiring it.
And, believe it or not, these two passages—Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 3—represent most of the data in the New Testament about deacons. There are a couple of other passing references to deacons in the New Testament, but there isn’t any other substantive teaching about deacons that we’re given. So, based on the limited amount of information we have about deacons, here’s what I believe we can say about them. If you’re taking notes, feel free to write this down as our main idea. Deacons in the New Testament functioned as model servants who assisted the elders with various forms of practical ministry. Again, deacons in the New Testament functioned as model servants who assisted the elders with various forms of practical ministry.
Basically, the elders delegate certain responsibilities to deacons—usually responsibilities that are of a more practical nature—so that the elders themselves are freed up to focus the majority of their attention on more foundational ministries such as prayer and Bible teaching. As the church elders say in Acts 6:4, “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” So, the role of deacons is to take care of any responsibility in the life of the church that threatens to distract the elders from their primary responsibility of looking after the church’s spiritual welfare. In that sense, deacons are kind of like offensive linemen whose job is to protect the quarterback. Without deacons, the elders would be overwhelmed with all kinds of different responsibilities and demands on their time that would, in a manner of speaking, sack them and prevent them from engaging in the ministry God’s given them.
And that really wouldn’t be good for anyone. The elders of the church need to be able to focus their attention on the things that are most foundational, like prayer and Bible teaching. Because, just like with a physical building, if the foundation’s not right, nothing else in that building is going to be right. The whole structure will be unsound if the foundation isn’t laid properly. So, it’s the job of the elders to continuously make sure that the church is being built on a solid biblical foundation as a means of facilitating all of the other practical things that take place.
So, deacons have a critical ministry in the church. And, as I mentioned, the New Testament seems to be deliberately vague about what exact responsibilities deacons are supposed to have, so that churches are free to utilize deacons in whatever ways make the most sense for that particular church in that particular season. And, for our church, we as elders are still ironing out what exactly we’d like deacons to do. Some of it will be determined by who we end up appointing as deacons. But a few of the positions we’re considering as possibilities would be a Deacon of Building & Grounds, a Deacon of Hospitality, a Deacon of Finance, a Deacon of Guest Experiences, a Deacon of Congregational Care, a Deacon of Benevolence, and a few additional possibilities as well.
And, as we consider specific positions like these, one question that often comes up is whether women can be deacons as well—or what we might more accurately call “deaconesses.” You should know that there are different views about that, even among those we’d consider to be faithful, Bible-believing Christians. And, as we think about that question, we have to acknowledge that there’s just not a lot of data in the New Testament to go off of. So, I’m not sure there’s conclusive proof either way.
However, I’d like to argue that the burden of proof is on those who’d say that the office of deacon should be off limits to women. They’re the ones who have to prove their position. And that goes for any ministry in the church. If you want to say that any ministry is off limits to women or to any other group, for that matter, then it’s on you to demonstrate that from Scripture. For example, if you said that women shouldn’t be allowed to, I don’t know, operate PowerPoint in the worship service, then it would be on you to prove your case from the Bible. Otherwise, any prohibition would be legalism. Trying to enforce rules that aren’t clear in Scripture is actually a form of legalism. So, unless there’s clear evidence in the Bible that the office of deacon should be limited to men, I believe it would be inappropriate for us to prohibit women from serving in that role. And, by the way, that’s not just my view personally but the view that all of the elders in this church hold unanimously.
Now, in the case of the office of elder, it’s different—because we do believe there’s clear biblical evidence that prohibits women from serving in that role. Paul clearly says in 1 Timothy 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man”—with the implied context of a local church. So, in that case, it’s not legalistic for us to limit the office of elder to qualified men because there’s clear biblical evidence for that. However, it would be legalistic for us limit the office of deacon to men since there isn’t any biblical evidence for that limitation.
By the way, for anyone who might be wondering whether Paul’s prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12 of women exercising authority over men in the church would mean that women couldn’t be deacons, I don’t think that’s the case. Strictly speaking, deacons don’t exercise authority. Rather, they simply coordinate and administrate ministry initiatives under the authority of the elders. So, the elders are the ones exercising authority, while the role of deacons or deaconesses is limited to the implementing the directives they’ve received from the elders. So, even now, if any of you men are helping a woman carry in some snacks that she’s brought for our after-church fellowship time and she asks you to put the dish over there, don’t worry about it, brother. She’s not exercising authority over you. You’re clear to put the dish where she tells you to in good conscience. And the same goes for female deacons as well. There’s nothing in Scripture that prohibits them from coordinating and administrating ministry efforts as deaconesses with the understanding that the authority lies in the elders.
In fact, not only is there a lack of teaching in the Bible that women should be prohibited from the office of deacon, I believe there are actually some subtle indications that there were female deacons in the New Testament church. You may have noticed that, as we were going through the qualifications for deacons in 1 Timothy 3, we skipped verse 11. In verse 11, in the middle of Paul’s list of deacon qualifications, he says something about women. And the ESV, somewhat unfortunately, translates it in this way: “Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.” However, it’s important to understand that the Greek word translated “wives” is γυνή, which is just the generic term for an adult woman. So a more literal translation would be the way the NASB translates the verse, which is that “Women must likewise be dignified….” And that, of course, could refer either to women who were the wives of deacons or to women where deacons—or deaconesses—themselves. The word γυνή is simply a generic word referring to adult women and could easily be interpreted either way.
So, what do we do? Well, we look at the context. And, as we look at the context, I believe it’s very likely that γυνή here is indeed a reference not to the wives of deacons but to deaconesses. Because you’ll notice that, in the previous passage, as Paul was listing the qualifications for elders, he didn’t talk at all about elders’ wives. So, if the office of elders is, in one sense, the higher office in the church and Paul didn’t mention anything about elders’ wives, why would he mention something about deacons’ wives? It would be very strange for him to require something for the wives of deacons that he didn’t require for the wives of elders.
In addition, a widely respected New Testament scholar named Tom Schreiner points out that the word γυνή in verse 11 lacks any possessive pronoun. Even though translations like the ESV insert the possessive pronoun “their” at the beginning of the sentence so that it reads more smoothly, that word actually isn’t present at all in the Greek manuscripts. Verse 11 in the original Greek doesn’t say, “their women” but simply “women.” Now, if Paul had, in fact, wanted to talk about the wives of deacons, we’d expect him to talk about “their wives.” That would be the more natural way of referring to them. That’s why the ESV puts it in there—because it’s so natural. However, Paul doesn’t do that. He just starts talking about “women” without any grammatical attempt to specify that he’s referring to the wives of deacons.
Furthermore, it’s also worth noting that, in Romans 16:1, Paul refers to a woman named Phoebe as a “διάκονος of the church at Cenchreae.” Even though the ESV translates διάκονος as “servant,” we’ve already discussed how διάκονος often has a more particular meaning in the New Testament and often refers to the office of deacon. So, translated literally, Paul refers to Phoebe as a “deacon of the church at Cenchreae”—without any caveat or attempt to keep people from misunderstanding Phoebe’s position.
So, again, just to sum up: I realize that none of these arguments prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Apostle Paul supported female deacons. I believe that what we have in the New Testament are simply some subtle indications that there were probably female deacons rather than any definitive proof that there were. However, as I mentioned, I don’t think I need to give definitive proof. I don’t believe the burden of proof is on those who would allow female deacons but rather on those who wish to prohibit them.
So, I pray that the Lord would raise up faithful men and women to be deacons here at Redeeming Grace. And, as an encouragement for those whom God may be calling to serve in such a role, let me remind you of what Paul says right after listing the qualifications of deacons in 1 Timothy 3. He states in verse 13, “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.”
You know, it’s true that most of the things involved in deacon ministry are behind-the-scenes kinds of things that usually aren’t very glamorous. But deacons can take heart at this promise Paul gives. It has two components. First, you’ll obtain “a good standing” in the church. You’ll be respected and appreciated in the church for the ministry you do. Also, Paul says, you’ll gain “great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.” In other words, your faithful service in the church gives you greater assurance that your faith in Jesus is genuine and that you’ll one day enjoy immense heavenly rewards. So, even though deacon ministry may not glamorous, there’s certainly a sense in which it’s glorious.
In addition, one thing for all of us to remember is that we’re never more like Jesus than when we’re serving other people. You’ll never be more like Jesus than when you’re serving other people—whether it’s in the official capacity of deacon or in any other capacity. Listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 20:25-28. His disciples were jockeying amongst themselves for a high position. So, he tells them, 25 …“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
So, Jesus observes how “Gentiles”—which, in this context, refers to people who aren’t Christians—are often filled with selfish ambition and love to be exalted over other people. They want glory, they want power, they want others to serve them. And that’s probably true for all of us. Even if we don’t secretly desire to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or the next President of the United States, I can just about guarantee that we like the idea of other people serving us. That’s one of the things that makes a nice hotel so nice, right? We like to be pampered. We usually enjoy having other people make our beds, clean our rooms, and cook our food. It’s wonderful! Yet, Jesus says, that’s not the mentality we should have for our regular day-to-day lives. Instead of seeking to exalt ourselves and have other people serve us, we should seek to serve them. That’s what true greatness looks like.
And the model for that is Jesus himself. Jesus “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” So, the ultimate servant is Jesus, and the ultimate act of service is his death on the cross to pay for our sins. When we were condemned in our sins and enslaved to our sinful desires and thoroughly wretched and vile and deserving of God’s punishment, Jesus died in our place. In reality, we should have been the ones to suffer the penalty for our sins, but Jesus stood in our place and suffered God’s wrath on the cross so we wouldn’t have to. He then resurrected from the dead as a demonstration of the fact that God the Father had indeed accepted his sacrifice as payment for sin. And the result is that Jesus now stands ready to save everyone who will turn away from their sin and put their trust in him as their only and sufficient Savior. He’s got his arms wide open inviting us to do that.
So, the ultimate model for deacon ministry is Jesus himself. Of course, Jesus could have come to this earth demanding that we serve him. That would have been entirely appropriate since he is, after all, the Lord of this universe. Yet he didn’t do that. Amazingly, Jesus came, as he says, “not to be served but to serve.” And, yes, the Greek word behind the words “served” and “serve” there is indeed διακονέω. So, we could translate this verse as saying that Jesus “came not to be deaconed but to deacon.” So, deacon ministry in the church is modeled after Jesus himself. He was the church’s first and greatest deacon, and deacon ministry today is all about imitating his example.
And, of course, we could say the same thing about all of the ways in which people serve in the church. Even if you don’t have a deacon title, God still invites you to imitate Jesus by serving others in meaningful ways—whether it’s through Children’s Ministry or helping to clean the church or discipling someone or whatever it is. Most of these positions usually aren’t very glamorous, but they are eternally significant as expressions of worship to God and love for others. So, hopefully we can all make it our ambition to serve one another—again, with the understanding that we’re never more like Jesus than when we’re serving other people.