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Lesson 14: Are You a Deacon? (1 Timothy 3:8-13; Acts 6:1-6)

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July 16, 2017

An Episcopal Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has a hand-lettered sign over the only door into the sanctuary that reads, “Servants’ Entrance.” You can’t enter or leave that church except through the “servants’ door” (Christianity Today [9/16/91], p. 42). That sign states an important truth: If you know Christ as Savior, you’re His servant. It’s not optional; it’s mandatory.

How we serve Christ will vary according to the spiritual gifts that He has given us and the opportunities that come our way. But every Christian should have the mindset, “I am a servant (or a slave) of Jesus Christ.” There’s a difference between those terms, and yet Jesus used them interchangeably when He told His disciples (Mark 10:42-45):

“You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

Serving Christ is not volunteering, where you give a few hours now and then to help out. It’s a 24-7 calling. Whatever you’re doing or wherever you’re at, you’re a servant of the Lord who rescued you from eternal judgment. He saved you to serve Him always.

But in the structure of the local church, some are called to be “official servants,” or “deacons.” “Deacon” is a transliteration of a Greek word meaning, “servant.” In more than 100 New Testament uses of that word and its cognates, almost all refer either to Christ or to His followers. Only a few refer to the office of deacon in the church (J. Stam, Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible [Zon­dervan], ed. by Merrill C. Tenney, 2:48-49). So in our study of the church, we need to understand the role of all Christians as servants, but also what it means to be an official servant, or deacon.

All Christians are servants of Christ; some should be “official servants.”

1. All Christians are servants of Christ.

There are no exceptions. If a person is a follower of Jesus Christ, he or she is Christ’s servant. That’s so because ...

A. Christ is our supreme example of servanthood.

As we just saw (Mark 10:45), Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” It’s amazing that when God took on human flesh and came to this earth, He came as He did! God could have chosen for His Son to be born in Herod’s palace, where He would have had the best of every worldly comfort. Instead He chose a poor carpenter and his wife! The Son of God grew up in a modest home where He learned the trade of His earthly father. His hands were not the soft hands of royalty, but the rough, callused hands of a carpenter.

It took the disciples a while to understand that Jesus the Messiah did not come at first to conquer all His enemies and establish His throne, with each of them sharing His power and glory. So throughout the Gospels, we see them jockeying for power. James and John used their mother to ask Jesus that in His kingdom they might sit one on His right hand and one on His left. This caused the other disciples to grow indignant (Matt. 20:20, 24).

Even at the Last Supper, as Jesus was burdened about His approaching death, the disciples were still arguing about which of them was the greatest (Luke 22:23-24). We don’t know whether the argument erupted before or after Jesus took the basin and washed their feet (probably before), but Jesus repeated the lesson about the greatest being the servant and then added (Luke 22:27), “For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.”

You would think that after Jesus comes in His glory and everyone is subject to His rule, He would shed the servant’s role and demand that everyone serve Him. But when Jesus comes again, He says that He will have His followers recline at the table and He will wait on them (Luke 12:37)! So throughout eternity, Jesus is our supreme example of servanthood! Thus,

B. Christlikeness means being a servant.

After washing the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, Jesus said (John 13:14-17):

“If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

We all know that Christlikeness means being a servant, but the question is, do you do it? Do you wash dirty feet? Do you do the unpleasant servant jobs? The word “servant” originally referred to those who served tables (John 2:5, 9; Acts 6:2). In that culture, such lowly tasks were thought to be undignified (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology [Baker], ed. by Walter Elwell, p. 296; Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [Eerdmans], ed. by Gerhard Kittel, 2:83). But Jesus set the counter-cultural example and calls us to follow Him.

It’s important that you serve the Lord for the right motives. Sometimes people serve because they like the praise that they get for doing it. Or, it makes them feel important or even superior to meet others’ needs. But the right reason to serve is to please the Lord who saved you when you were His enemy and deserved His judgment. A businessman once asked Lorne Sanny, President of the Navigators, how he could know when he had a servant attitude. Sanny replied, “By how you act when you are treated like one.” If you know Christ and you want to be like Him, you have to serve Him by serving others. But …

C. The Holy Spirit has gifted some especially to serve.

Paul mentions the spiritual gift of “helps” (1 Cor. 12:28) or “service” (Rom. 12:7). Peter says that we are to use whatever gifts we have “in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Pet. 4:10). While all Christians must serve in various ways, God specially gifts some for service in supportive, practical, and often behind-the-scenes ways. Those with the gift of service are like the linemen on a football team. They don’t usually share the limelight with the quarterback, but without their hard work, the quarterback couldn’t begin to do his job.

But whether service is your gift or not, all Christians are the Lord’s servants. That means helping with jobs that need to be done. Do you see trash on the floor at church? Pick it up and throw it away. Does the trash can need to be emptied? Carry it to the dumpster and put in a clean bag. Did someone dirty the rest room sink? Grab a paper towel and wipe it clean. Are they shorthanded at cleaning up after a church social? Pitch in and help. At home, does your wife need help? Get up and help her! But beyond the service that we all are to render …

2. Some Christians should serve in an official capacity.

As the New Testament church developed, the office of “deacon” (= “servant”) became official. Note four things:

A. The office of deacon is recognized in Scripture.

Most scholars agree that the office of “deacon” finds its roots in Acts 6:1-6. The church in Jerusalem had grown considerably. Apparently, many who had visited Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost and were converted stayed on to grow in their new faith in Christ. This created many material needs and led to the temporary arrangement of pooling resources to meet the needs (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35). Many widows in the church without sufficient income were served daily meals.

But a problem arose when the Greek-speaking Jews felt that their widows were being neglected in favor of the native Hebrews. The apostles didn’t want to get distracted dealing with the situation, so they told the church to select seven faithful men whom they could put in charge of the task. We don’t know why they stipulated seven men. Perhaps they decided that seven men could take care of the job. Although the word “deacon” is not used in Acts 6, it is usually agreed that these seven were the prototype deacons. They were officially recognized and ordained for the job (Acts 6:6). They assisted the apostles by serving in the practical matter of distributing the food fairly so that the apostles could focus on prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4).

Later, when Paul wrote to the Philippian church, he addressed his letter to the overseers and deacons (Phil. 1:1). He probably mentioned the deacons because of their help with the financial gift that the church had sent to Paul. In 1 Timothy 3, Paul also mentions the offices of elders and deacons. In his letter to Titus, he mentions elders, but not deacons, perhaps indicating that the office of deacon is not mandatory for every church, but rather should emerge as the need arises. As a church grows, the elders will need help with administration and other matters so that they can concentrate on shepherding the flock. At that point, deacons can be officially recognized. So, how do we choose deacons?

B. The qualifications for deacons are that they must be above reproach in their character and their home life.

We sometimes get the erroneous notion that the qualifications for deacons are not as high as those for elders. But in Acts 6:3, the men had to be “of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” Except for being able to teach, the qualifications for deacons in 1 Timothy 3 are comparable to those for elders. They must be spiritually mature men and women.

1) Male deacons must be above reproach in their character and in their home life.

In 1 Timothy 3, Paul lists six character qualifications: First, a deacon must be a man of dignity. The word is the opposite of being a goof-off. A deacon should have a seriousness of purpose about him, so that those he serves sense that he is concerned for them, so that they trust and respect him.

Second, a deacon must not be double-tongued. He cannot tell one person one thing, but another person the opposite in an attempt to please everyone. Since the deacon was involved in handling church finances, he had to be a man of his word.

Third, a deacon must not be addicted to much wine. Since wine was commonly served as a gesture of hospitality, it was important for a deacon, making his rounds from house to house, to exercise control or else he could become a drunkard.

Fourth a deacon must not be fond of sordid gain. The ESV translates, “not greedy for dishonest gain.” This is also a qualification for elders (Titus 1:7). Since a deacon’s duties often involved the distribution of money and gifts to the needy, there was always the temptation for embezzlement. A deacon could not be a man who would pursue dishonest gain.

Fifth, a deacon must hold to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. The NIV’s “deep truths of the faith” is misleading. The “mystery of the faith” is Paul’s term for Christian truth, especially the gospel. Mystery refers to that which once was hidden, but now has been revealed in Christ. A deacon must be a man of conviction regarding the central truths of the Christian faith. Paul’s reference to “a clear conscience” probably is in contrast to the false teachers in Ephesus, who had not kept a good conscience and thus had suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith (1 Tim. 1:19).

Sixth, a deacon must first be tested and found to be above reproach. “Above reproach” is used in Titus 1:6, 7 as a qualification for elders (the Greek word in 1 Tim. 3:2 is a close synonym). It means, literally, “not called to account.” No legitimate charges could be brought against him. This is to be determined by “testing,” which does not refer to a period of probation after he becomes a deacon. Rather, it means that a man has an observed track record before he is put into office. You don’t put a man into office and then test him to see if he’s trustworthy. Test him first and then recognize him.

Then Paul lists two ways male deacons must be above reproach in their home life. First, (1 Tim. 3:12): “Deacons must be husbands of only one wife ….” This is the same as the requirement for elders, literally, “a one-woman man” (1 Tim. 3:2; I don’t know why the NASB translators added “only” here). As we saw in the case of elders, the term refers to a man of moral purity. A deacon often ministers to widows and single women, and so it’s especially important for him to be a man who is pure in thought and deed.

Second (1 Tim. 3:12): “Deacons must be … good managers of their children and their own households.” This is also the same as the requirement for elders (1 Tim. 3:4). The principle is the same: if a man can’t manage matters in his home, don’t promote him to manage matters in the church.

2) Female deacons must be godly and faithful in all things.

In the middle of his discussion about deacons, Paul inserts a verse about “women” (1 Tim.3:11). Then he returns to his discussion about deacons. The question is, does this refer to deacons’ wives (NIV, ESV, HCSB) or to women deacons (or deaconesses)? In favor of the view that he is referring to the wives of deacons is the fact that the reference is sandwiched between the qualifications for deacon. It would seem that he would finish with one group before moving on to the next. But against that view is the fact that Paul doesn’t mention any qualifications for elders’ wives. Why would he do this only for deacons’ wives?

In favor of the view that Paul is referring to women deacons is the word “likewise” (parallel to 1 Tim. 3:8, pointing to a third group after elders and deacons). Also, in Romans 16:1, Phoebe is called a deacon (“servant”) of the church. Women deacons could have been married to men deacons, or to elders or to any men, assuming that they had time to serve. Or they could have been widows or single women devoted to serving the Lord (1 Tim. 5:3-16). They probably assisted the deacons in their duties, especially in ministering to women in the church (Titus 2:2-5).

Paul mentions four qualifications: First, they must be dignified. This is the same word used for male deacons (1 Tim. 3:8). They couldn’t be goof-offs.

Second, they cannot be malicious gossips. If they went from house to house with juicy tidbits of private information, they could quickly ruin a church. They must be able to control their tongues.

Third, they must be temperate (the same as for elders in 1 Tim. 3:2). The word means, able to make sound judgments. It refers to someone who does not live by emotions, but by obedience to God’s Word. If a woman is swayed by her emotions, she will not be able to point needy women to God’s truth, which is the only source of true healing for their problems. A woman needs to be able to discern truth from error if she is to serve effectively.

Fourth, they must be “faithful in all things.” They must follow through on assigned tasks. If an elder knows of a family that needs care of some kind, and assigns it to a deaconess, he needs to be able to trust her to follow through.

What do deacons do in the church?

C. The job of deacons is to serve the elders and the church in practical needs.

Paul never specifically mentions what deacons were supposed to do. But assuming that the seven men in Acts 6 were prototype deacons, we can see some ways that they served. Their main job was to free up the apostles from administrating the distribution of food to the Hellenistic widows so that the apostles could devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word. So a main function of deacons is to take care of administrative or other tasks to free up the elders for prayer, teaching, and shepherding the flock.

A second task of the deacons in Acts 6 was to care for the physical needs of the poor and needy in the church. Probably they assessed whether the needs were legitimate or not. They made sure that the help given was equitable.

Currently at FCF, we have deacons of women’s ministries, youth, missions, outreach, technology, and facilities. Our deacons also serve with our elders on the nominating committee when we need to call a new pastor. There are others who serve in various ways who probably should be recognized officially as deacons. And there are plenty of other ministry needs that could use help. So if the Lord is putting it on your heart to serve, talk to one of the elders. We want to see each person serving the Lord in line with his or her spiritual gifts, whether unofficially or officially as deacons.

D. The reward for deacons is a high standing and great confidence in the faith.

After listing the qualifications for those who serve in an official capacity, Paul lists the rewards (1 Tim. 3:13): “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.”

“A high standing” probably refers to respect in the church along with good standing in God’s sight. Jesus humbled Himself by becoming a servant, and God highly exalted Him (Phil. 2:5-11). The Lord promised that all who serve Him will be rewarded, both in this life and in eternity (Matt. 10:42; 19:27-30). He said (Matt. 23:12), “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” The Lord will reward the person who humbles himself and serves faithfully as a deacon. Even if the church doesn’t notice, God does.

“Great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus” could refer both to confidence before God and before people. A faithful servant can go boldly before the Lord in prayer, knowing that he has a clear conscience and is doing God’s will. Also, such a person can have a quiet confidence in dealing with people, knowing firsthand the reality of the Christian faith.

Conclusion

But be forewarned: A lot of people have gotten involved serving the Lord only to get hurt! Maybe someone criticized them or, people didn’t appreciate what they were doing. So, they quit serving the Lord. In some cases, they dropped out of church altogether.

I’ve shared this story with you before, but it’s one I’ve never forgotten. At a pastors’ conference, Bill Mills told about a time when he was speaking to some missionaries in South America. On the last evening, he had dinner with the director and his wife. They shared how they had spent twenty years translating the Bible into a tribal language. During the process, they were teaching the Scriptures and a new church emerged among the tribe. But as they came toward the end of the translation project, the tribal people had become more and more involved in selling their crops for the drug trade and less and less interested in the Scriptures. When they finally finished the translation of the New Testament and held a dedication service, not even one person came!

The missionary wife was angry and bitter. She had given twenty years of her life so that these people could have the Scriptures, but they didn’t even care! But through Bill’s ministry that week, she had begun to see things from God’s perspective. She realized that she hadn’t spent all those years primarily serving those people, but rather, serving the Lord. She came to see, “We did it for the Lord!” All of our service should be first and foremost for the Lord.

If the Lord has saved you, then you’re His servant (= deacon), either unofficially or officially. If people appreciate your service, that’s gratifying! But even if they don’t, keep serving. You’re not doing it ultimately for them, but for the Lord who came to serve and give His life as a ransom for you.

Application Questions

  1. How can we promote a servant mentality in the church instead of “here I am, serve me”?
  2. What is the difference between being a volunteer in the church versus being a servant? Why is this distinction important?
  3. How can a Christian discover his or her spiritual gift(s)? Is this helpful? How?
  4. Should we be motivated by rewards? How so?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life