Having observed the ordination of the first seven deacons in our previous study, we constructed a biblical portrait of what deacons’ responsibilities are in the church, namely that they are servants, ministers, and guardians of church unity. As we did with elders, we now proceed to study what the qualifications are for being a deacon. We will begin by looking at five overall qualifications, then we will address the topic of women deacons, and we will end by viewing the reward for being a faithful deacon in the LORD.
OF GOOD REPUTE // ACTS 6:3
For our first two qualifications for the deaconate, we return to the text of our previous study, Acts 6. Here in verse 3, the apostles told the congregation of Jerusalem to choose seven men for the overseeing the duty of food distribution to the widows. But they did not say to choose any men; rather, they must be men of good repute and full of the Spirit and wisdom.
What does it mean to be of good repute? The Greek word used here is the same word from which martyr originates. Since a martyr is a witness or one who testifies, its most common translation in the New Testament is to bear witness or to testify, particularly of Christ. But that is not the meaning here. This usage means that they are men of good reputation, people can testify to their godly conduct and character. The largest implication is that these first deacons (and all deacons afterward) need to be known by their congregation to be men who bear witness to Christ with their lives. The object of recognizing a life of repute flows directly into our next qualification.
FULL OF THE SPIRIT & OF WISDOM // ACTS 6:3
For the Christian, possessing a life of good repute will only be possible if we are full of the Spirit and of wisdom. What does it mean to be full of the Spirit? Doesn’t every Christian have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit? If so, how can someone be full of the Spirit? Yes, the Spirit indwells all followers of Christ. We pray to God as our Father only by the Spirit (Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15). “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16). Furthermore, the Spirit is our guarantee of our future glorification (Ephesian 1:14). We, therefore, need the Holy Spirit to simply be a Christian.
Nevertheless, we can also be more or less full of the Spirit, as evidenced by this passage. A greater literal portion of the Holy Spirit is not likely; instead, full is probably used to figuratively describe someone’s submission to the Spirit. Take Stephen for example. Because Stephen was a man who was full of the Spirit, he was a man who gave the Spirit control over himself. He was submissive to God’s will, desiring to be used as an instrument for God’s glory. In essence, John the Baptist’s prayer was coming true in his life: he was decreasing, while Christ was increasing (John 3:30).
Note also that being full of the Spirit is tied to being full of wisdom. Because wisdom is living according to God’s design, true wisdom can only come from the Holy Spirit. Solomon repeatedly urged in Proverbs to heed the instructions of wisdom found in God’s Word. But men of God wrote the wisdom found in God’s Word “as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). We cannot, therefore, separate wisdom from the Spirit.
But how can we recognize someone who is full of the Spirit and of wisdom? Jesus said that we could recognize false teachers by the fruit their lives bear (Matthew 6:15-20). Likewise, the Spirit-filled are also known by their fruit. Galatians 5:22-23 fortunately puts these fruits into list-form: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Spirit-filled and wisdom-filled deacons are those who exemplify the fruits of the Spirit.
HAVE GODLY CHARACTER // VERSE 8
For the third qualification, we move over to our primary text for this study. Verse 8 picks up where we concluded studying the qualifications of elders, which is evidenced by the word likewise. Likewise connects this passage to the previous seven verses, but particularly it connects back to verse 1 in which Paul describes aspiring to the office of overseer as a noble task. The implication of likewise is that 1) deacon is also an office within the church, 2) the office of deacon is also a noble task, and 3) it is also noble to aspire to be a deacon. Elders and deacons obviously have different responsibilities within the church, but the qualifications for both offices are quite similar.
I have grouped the four statements of verse 8 under the umbrella term of having godly character because that is the overall aim. First, deacons must be dignified. This word will be repeated in verse 11 for deaconesses or deacon’s wives, and Philippians 4:8 translates it as honorable. To be dignified is to be worthy of respect.
Second, deacons must not be double-tongued. The word here is literally two-words. Our English idiom two-faced carries the same meaning: someone who says one thing to one person but another to someone else. Being double-tongued is cast as being the exact opposite of dignified.
Third, deacons must not be addicted to wine. As mentioned with elders, the overconsumption of alcohol is a breeding ground for ungodly behavior; however, Paul is not placing a blanket prohibition on alcohol for deacons. Rather, if deacons drink alcohol, they should model the Spirit’s fruit of self-control.
Fourth, deacons must not be greedy for dishonest gain. As with elders, greed has no place in the heart of a deacon. The threat of greedy preachers is all too real with the wide reach of prosperity theology, but few consider its ramifications within the deaconate. Because deacons are serving ministers of the church, they often come into contact with church members at their most needy and most vulnerable, such as the widows of Acts 6. Deacons, therefore, must guard themselves against any greed that might lead them to exploit their fellow church members.
BE FIRM IN THE FAITH // VERSE 9
Next, Paul tells us that deacons “must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.” We should first note that Paul is using the word faith here to describe the entire Christian belief-system, not simply faith at an individual level. Generally, faith describes the act of placing our confidence in something, but here it describes the very idea that we are placing our confidence in. The mystery of our faith is described by Paul later in this chapter as being the work of Christ: “He [Jesus] was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believe on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Timothy 16-17). The gospel of Jesus is a mystery in the sense of it being an eternal and secret plan that God has finally revealed to humanity. This mysterious nature of the gospel also makes it majestic and glorious, a truth too magnificent for mortal ears.
Deacons hold firm to the glories of the gospel. They must be individuals who are enraptured in, and molded by, the good news of Jesus Christ. The New Testament does not know a deacon who does not know the gospel. But deacons must not merely know the gospel cognitively; their lives must reflect the gospel. Strauch describes this well:
A Christian can’t hold to the faith with a pure conscience and live in sexual immorality, pilfer money, hate a brother, divorce a Christian spouse, or mix falsehood with the gospel. The New Testament never allows people to separate life and doctrine. Whenever we knowingly act in a way that is contrary to God’s Word and do not seek His forgiveness, we defile our conscience. Every time we violate our conscience, we weaken its convicting power and make sin and hypocrisy easier to commit. Therefore, a Christian whose inconsistent, hypocritical life belies biblical truth can’t be a deacon. (100)
BE TESTED & BLAMELESS // VERSE 10
The next qualification for being a deacon is a period of testing to see if they are blameless. The word blameless here is also translated as above reproach in Titus 1:6-7. As mentioned regarding elders, this means being above blame, criticism, or accusations. All Christians must strive for this degree of holiness, but deacons, like elders, should model growth in godliness. They must also be examples of godly repentance when in sin.
This blameless conduct is discovered through a period of testing. What exactly does Paul mean by testing deacons? Commentator George Knight III provides an insightful answer:
How this is to be done is not specified. The letter itself makes the requirements public and [1 Timothy] 5:22ff. indicates that time must be given to appraise a person’s life. From this we can conclude that the testing is to be a thoughtful and careful evaluation of a man’s life by a congregation aware of these needed qualifications. (170)
FAMILY SHEPHERDS // VERSE 12
Verse 12 provides us with our final qualification for deacons. Like elders, deacons must also be shepherds of their own families. The rationality of verse 5 is also implied here. Although deacons are not shepherds of the entire church, they are tasked with leading ministries that care for members of the church; therefore, they must also be able to properly care for their families.
The thoughts expressed of elders regarding being the husband of one wife and managing children well hold true here as well. Being a one-woman man means that the deacon is not a polygamist, an adulterer, or addicted to pornography. Single men, provided they are celibate, should not be prohibited, since Paul encouraged singleness for the purpose of having a less distracted devotion to the kingdom. Potential deacons who are divorced should be handled with much wisdom and prayer. Likewise, as those who hold firm the mystery of the faith, deacons must manage their children well, leading and guiding them in the truth of the gospel. Deacons are not given the same motive of being responsible for the care of the church, but as ministry leaders, they should also be leaders in their own homes.
DEACONSESSES? // VERSE 11
Having now covered the major qualifications of being a deacon, we now return to verse 11, which we passed over. This verse is less controversial than 1 Timothy 2:12, but there seems to be more interpretational disagreement within the evangelical camp over this verse than that one. Paul is obviously talking about women here and has sandwiched the discussion in between qualifications for the office of deacon, so that leaves us asking a few questions. Is Paul now giving qualifications for deacons’ wives? Or is Paul opening up the office of deacon to women as well as men? Let’s address the evidence.
First, the matter is complicated by the Greek text. The ESV translates their wives, but no possessive pronoun exists in the Greek. The word is simply wives, which in Greek is the same word for women. A more literal translation, therefore, would be either wives likewise or women likewise. In this, the NASB furthers its reputation for being the most literal English translation. The answer, then, is not as simple as the ESV makes it seem.
With the word their absent in the Greek, this verse is probably not referencing the wives of deacons, but rather female deacons, or deaconesses. First, it seems unlikely that Paul would provide qualifications for deacons’ wives, while not mentioning any for elders’ wives. Second, the use of the word likewise is used in the same manner as it was for male deacons in verse 8, designating similarity to a new group, which Paul also does twice in Titus (2:3, 6). If this is true then, Paul is asserting that deaconess is 1) an office of the church, 2) a noble task, and 3) a noble aspiration for women.
Of course, one of the main difficulties for this verse referencing deaconesses is why Paul would place qualifications for deaconesses in the middle of qualifications for deacons, especially when the very next verse states that a deacon must the husband of one wife. Allison answers this question as follows:
This could also explain why Paul “interrupts” the natural flow of his presentation at this point: he first covers the qualifications that apply generally for men deacons (1 Tim. 3:8-10), then switches to his discussion of women deacons (v. 11). He next addresses a specific qualification for men deacons: they must be “the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well” (v. 12). Obviously, this qualification would not apply to women deacons; thus, Paul places this specific qualification after his discussion of the general qualifications for both groups. (245 continue the quote on a more comfortable computer)
Next is the issue of title. Why would Paul say women instead of deaconess? Allison observes that a feminine version of deacon did not exist in Paul’s day (246). Therefore, Paul could only use the word women in order to distinguish deaconesses from their male counterparts. Strauch argues against deaconesses (favoring the wife interpretation) by asking why Paul includes this verse about women deacons if they are a part of the same office. “Why after listing five qualifications for “deacons” that could include males or females, does Paul in verse 11 repeat nearly the same qualifications for women deacons? That would be like saying that all nurses must attend four years of college and then singling out male nurse and repeating that male nurse must attend four years of college with a slightly different terminology” (117). I would argue, however, that Paul specifically points out women in contrast to their being excluded from the office of elder. Although women are biblical prohibited from being pastors, Paul is clarifying that they may serve as deacons.
Another argument for deaconesses is found in Romans 16:1, where Paul refers to “Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae.” Servant in this verse is the Greek word for deacon. Some argue that Paul was merely calling Phoebe a servant in general, but when deacon is used generally, it is typically attached to the phrase in the Lord or of Christ. Colossians 1:7 calls Epaphras a minister of Christ, and Colossians 4:7 calls Tychicus a minister in the Lord. Yet Paul does not use these general phrases of Phoebe; instead, he calls her a servant of a particular church, namely the church at Cenchreae. It is likely then that Phoebe was a deaconess of Cenchreae’s church.
For all of these reasons, Paul is likely referring to female deacons, or deaconesses, in verse 11. But does having deaconesses contradict 1 Timothy 2:12? Allison answers this concern by saying that “Like their male counterparts, deaconesses do not have responsibilities to teach, lead, pray for the sick, and shepherd the church; those are the primary responsibilities of the elders. Accordingly deaconesses do not violate the Pauline prohibitions in 1 Timothy 2:12” (247). Of course, as we discussed in our last study, many churches have a board of deacons who function in many ways as lay elders in the church. Under that structure, it makes sense why deaconesses are not ordained within the church; they would be violating 1 Timothy 2:12. However, under the biblical responsibilities of deacons, there is reason why women should be withheld from the office of deacon.
If Paul is not referring to deaconesses here, the only other viable option seems to be an emphasis on the importance of deacon’s wives in their ministry. As said earlier, mentioning deacon’s wives but not elder’s wives is quite odd. However, if that interpretation is correct, deacon’s wives have a specially, and biblically, designated role in the ministry of their husbands that elder’s wives do not possess. Once again, I do not think this is the best interpretation, but other than deaconesses, this is the only interpretation that holds exegetical and hermeneutical water to me.
Whether this verse is referencing deaconesses or deacon’s wives, one clarity should stand: Paul is obviously giving these women an office of leadership within the church. That is the very purpose of this verse, even though it has often been ignored. That is why biblical organization is important. When we abandon the Scripture’s authority in one area, we will inevitably begin to forsake others as well. This verse gives us a glimpse of those two extremes. On one hand, many churches go beyond Scripture by ordaining women as pastors, while on the other hand, many churches forbid women from being deacons. Both are, I believe, unbiblical.
THE REWARD OF BEING A DEACON // VERSE 13
Paul concludes this section of Scripture with a promise of reward and blessing for those who serve as deacons. Just as Peter promises an unfading crown for elders (1 Peter 5:4) and Paul urges that elders who lead well are worthy of double honor (1 Timothy 5:17), so Paul assures there is much gain for deacons who serve well. What is the deacons’ reward? Paul lists two blessings.
First, deacons gain a good standing for themselves. This refers to having dignity, honor, and influence within the church. While deacons do not have church-wide authority like elders, they are still authoritative and influential leaders within the church. As model servants and ministry leaders, they are shapers of the church; therefore, as their heart for service is seen they will grow in standing before the congregation. For this reason, I believe elder-led churches should still have deacons’ meetings of some sort. If the churches’ deacons meet these biblical criteria, only wisdom can come from the elders seeking their thoughts and opinions.
Second, deacons gain a great confidence in the faith. Strauch suggests that confidence here might better be understood as boldness (150). As they serve as the hands and feet of Christ, ministering Jesus’ grace to those in need, deacons have a front row seat to witnessing God’s marvelous provision for His people.