A Noble Task (1 Timothy 3:1-13 - Part 2)

In our journey through 1 Timothy so far, we've seen Paul encouraging the younger pastor in a number of ways. Paul has referred to Timothy as his true son in the faith. He has reminded him of the importance of staying true to the faith and using the law correctly. He has focused on prayer for the leaders in society and the role they play in helping or hindering the spread of the gospel. And then in the last chapter or so that we've covered, he has focused on how the church should operate from day to day.

In chapter 3, the focus has been particularly on the leaders of the church – first the bishops or elders in vss 1-7 and now in v8-13 deacons and their wives. It's important to note at the outset this evening that these are not optional qualifications. We highlighted the fact last time in regard to elders, but it also applies here. You see, that “in the same way” at the start of v8 ties what is going to be said about deacons back to the 'must' that was applied to elders in v2.

But that's not the only link. The content of these verses also matches strongly what is required of elders. Where elders are required to be blameless, deacons are required to be both reverent (v8) and blameless (v10) – which is not to say that elders shouldn't be reverent too! There's no exact match for being double tongued in the list of elders qualifications, but it would surely be included in the eldership requirement for “good behaviour”. “Not given to much wine” and “not being greedy for money” match perfectly with “not given to much wine” and “not coveteous” in the previous list. (Remember that we said 'not greedy for money' back there is probably the result of a mistake in copying manuscripts). Like elders, deacons must be the husband of one wife – a one woman man, like elders – and rule well over their children and their household in general. Where elders are required to be able to teach, deacons must “hold the mystery of the faith” with a pure conscience – that is, know and understand the gospel in their heads, and live it in every aspect of their lives. So there is much in common between the qualifications for elders and those for deacons.

There is not even a hint of the idea that we seem to often have today, that the bar for the deaconate is somehow lower; that people who don't make the grade as elders – whether in the area of ability to teach or other aspects - can serve as deacons instead.

What is a deacon? The Greek word translated deacon is quite common in the scriptures, but only gets translated as 'deacon' a small number of times. It is far more common for it to be rendered as servant, helper, or minister, depending on the context. In Mark 1, angels act as deacons to Jesus, caring for Him after the wilderness temptations. In a parable, our Lord talks about a king having attendants – deacons. Those who take care of the hungry, the thirsty, strangers and those needing clothes are deacons to them in Matthew 25. Jesus says in Mark 10:45 that he did not come to be deaconed to but to himself deacon and to give his life as a ransom for many. Finally, the word of Paul, Timothy and others in preaching the gospel makes them deacons of the gospel. So we can see that the word at its core speaks of labouring for the welfare of others, often in the area of physical needs such as food and clothing, but also in our need for God's grace and favour. It's a reflection of the fact that when Cain asked “Am I my brother's keeper”, the answer was and still is an uneqiovocal “Yes”. Human beings are not supposed to live isolated existences. We're supposed to care for and protect one another, and this applies even more strongly when we're both members of the household of God.

Interestingly, we're never told in the Scriptures exactly what deacons are supposed to do. We usually view the institution of the office as being Acts 6, when problems arose with people being neglected in the daily distribution of food and a group of men were chosen by the congregation to serve in the more practical matters, but the word 'deacons' isn't actually used there. Nevertheless, there is certainly a good match between what they did and what we've said about deacons so far, and the requirements for these men in Acts 6 match 1 Timothy 3 – they were to be “men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom”.

The other aspect to mention in regard to them is that their role is explicitly established so that the apostles can “give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word”.

The overall picture of the role of a deacon, then, is that they serve in the area of providing day to day care for the members of the congregation in particular. They do what is necessary to help the elders keep focusing on the ministry of the word and prayer, so that those things are not neglected.

This brings us to consider verse 11. In this middle of this section on deacons, Paul does something strange – he suddenly adds a brief mention of women, before making an explicit jump back to the deacons group he mentioned in verse 8. Verse 11 gets interpreted in a number of ways because a woodenly literal translation is “likewise, women must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things.” There's no “their”, which is why the word might be italicised in the Bibles you're looking at, and the word 'women' can be translated 'wives', but it can also simply be 'women'. This leads to a number of possible interpretations:

First, Paul could be talking about the wives of deacons, as the New King James takes it. Second, he could be introducing another office, women whose work is related but distinct – deaconesses, we might say. Third, the women could be inherently part of the deacons, but addressed separately here, and fourthly, they could be female assistants to the deacons.

In considering the options, I consulted a number of commentaries. It's interesting to note that some simply give an opinion with little or no justification. One commentary that I'd like to mention as especially helpful was the New International Greek Testament Commentary, written by George W Knight the third. So then, how should we understand verse 11?

The first thing to note is that word 'Likewise'. In considering the start of verse 8, we said that the 'Likewise' there linked the requirements for deacons with those for elders. So here, we cannot escape the fact that grammatically, this word pushes us to think that we are beginning to consider a third class of people, whose qualifications are nevertheless related to those for elders and for deacons. This idea is only strengthened by the fact that the requirements mirror the earlier requirements. Reverence was also the first qualification for a deacon. Not slanderers focuses on speech in an echo of deacons not being double tongued, and temperate was also a qualification for elders. “Faithful in all things” matches with “holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience”. If these women were already being addressed by what is said to deacons, there would be unnecessary repetition that is uncharacteristic of Paul. These women must be a separate group to the deacons, ruling out the idea of them being deaconesses or inherently part of the deacons.

But they're also closely related. Why else would Paul stop addressing deacons, focus on this group, and then return to the deacons?

We're left with them either being wives or assistants. George Knight makes the argument, which makes sense to me, that wives is the better way to go. Notice that where Paul talked about the need for martial faithfulness for both elders and deacons, nothing is said here for this third group. This would be completely understandable if the women spoken of here are related to the men who were just addressed by marriage. He also points out that the return to deacons in verse 12 begins with a focus on fidelity, completing what is then a picture of family life beginning in verse 11 and going through to verse 12.

It's worth mentioning in this context that some people take the mention of Phoebe in Romans 16 as proof of an office of deaconess. But nothing in that context hints at, let alone demands such a view. Phoebe can simply be “a servant of church in Cenchrea” - as the New King James rightly puts it.

So why would Paul make special mention of deacon's wives? He didn't mention elders' wives! The answer must surely come from the different role deacons have – the work they do involves not talking and discussing so much as giving and helping. It will be more likely to involve the deacon's wife, whether explicitly or in the background. And so there will be an even greater need for the deacon's wife to be a model of godliness, to be wise in what she says and doesn't say.

Wives, is this a description of you? Elder's wives, you may not be explicitly mentioned, but you're not off the hook!

In verse 13, Paul gives some encouragement to the potential deacon. He says that whose who have served well obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus. It's hard to know exactly what Paul means by “a good standing”. The Greek word occurs only here in the New Testament, and is used in another sense in the Septuigant, simply to refer to physical steps. The meaning seems to be not reputation but growth in maturity in the faith. You take a “step up”, by serving as an elder, as it were. This matches well with the boldness that is mentioned next, for as we learn more and mature in the faith, by God's grace, we increase in confidence.

Is this something you're doing? Is this something you and I are seeking?