This past Sunday, we continued our sermon series called "Church Leadership: Understanding God's Plan for God's People." Specifically, we looked at the office and function of deacons in a local church by asking three questions.
Let's answer again briefly. First, what is a deacon? A deacon is a servant...one who works for the benefit of others, who comes to the aid of those in need. The Greek words translated "serve" or "servant" are used in a variety of ways about a variety of people. And while all Christians are called on to serve one another (1 Peter 4:10), the Bible makes it clear that God has ordained that there be an office of deacon in the church (1 Timothy 3:8-13).
Second, what do deacons do? Here was the sentence we extracted from our understanding of the foreshadowed picture of deacon ministry in Acts 6:1-7. Deacons support the ministry of pastors by caring for physical needs in the church, to promote the unity of the church and the ministry of the Word. John Piper worded it this way: "From our study it would seem that the office of deacon exists to assist the leadership of the church by relieving elders of distractions and pressures that would divert them from the ministry of the word and prayer and the general, visionary oversight of the church" (quoted in Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, by John S. Hammett).
Third, who should be a deacon? The character qualifications are laid out in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. While the list is shorter for deacons than for pastors, the deacon must still be blameless. He must be above reproach in his family life, in his personal life, and in his relationships. The thing that most distinguishes the pastors' list from the deacons' list (apart from the length) is that deacons must not "be able to teach." This doesn't forbid them from teaching, but it is not required of those who serve as deacons.
With similar character qualifications, we must still be careful to distinguish between the roles of pastors and deacons. Mark Dever put it helpfully in his booklet called "A Display of God's Glory." There, he writes, "In one sense both elders and deacons are involved in 'deaconing,' but that service takes on two very different forms...deaconing - of the Word (elders) and of tables (deacons)...Churches should neither neglect the preaching of the Word, nor the practical care for the members that helps to foster unity and that fills out their duties to love one another" (pp. 6-7).
One portion of this "who should be a deacon?" discussion was left out on Sunday morning, due to time restraints. We did not consider women and the role of deacon. So, what I want to do is give some interpretive information for your further consideration.
- When we look at 1 Timothy 3:11, where the ESV reads "their wives," it is important to note three things about this translation. First, there is no possessive pronoun in the Greek, so "their" is literally "the." Second, the word "wives" is a generic word that can actually be translated "women." So, Paul is either trying to convey "the wives" or "the women." Third, the ESV translates it "their wives" because the translators made an interpretive choice about what they believe Paul meant.
- Whether this word should be understood as "women" or "wives," the necessity of godly character is understandable.
- If Paul means "women," then he is saying that women can serve in the role of deacon (i.e.- what has been called 'deaconess'). This makes sense of why Paul does not address the character of pastor's wives in the first part of the chapter. If Paul means to include women in formal service as deaconesses, then they must have godly character for the same reasons that men would. They must be dignified, even as the men are. And Paul goes on to mention a few other key qualifications, maybe specifically addressing issues in the Ephesian church where Timothy is serving.
- If Paul means "wives," then he is not saying that women are permitted to serve as deacons, but rather, he is speaking about the wives of married deacons. The character of these women matters, too, because their husbands will face situations in which their wives will play an integral role (e.g.- in serving the physical needs of widows, single moms, etc.). If Paul means "wives," then why is there no mention of the character of pastor's wives? Unlike a pastor's wife, who would not share in her husband's ministry of feeding, leading, and protecting the congregation, a deacon's wife can and should share in the service of others...not just as a helper to her husband but also because all Christians should serve.
- While 1 Timothy 3 and Philippians 1 are the only undisputed places where the office of deacon is mentioned, we do have a disputed place in Romans 16:1. I emphasize "disputed" because the word for "servant" here is the Greek word for deacon. This, in itself, does not mean that Phoebe held the office of deaconess. However, it does not just say she was a "deacon/servant" but a "deacon/servant of the church at Cenchreae." This does make one believe it could be an official office, and early church history records that there were women who held this office. In Vincent's Word Studies, we read that their "duties were to take care of the sick and poor, to minister to martyrs and confessors in prison, to instruct catechumens, to assist at the baptism of women, and to exercise a general supervision over the female church-members." Vincent also suggests that Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis (Rom. 16:12) may have held this position as well.
- In the New Testament, it is clear that deacons must not "be able to teach," so we can safely conclude that the duties of the office of deacon do not include teaching. We also see no instance in which deacons are exerting authority over the congregation; rather, they are servants who focus on meeting physical needs in the congregation. This means that if a church chooses to include women as deaconesses, there is no disobedience of Paul's clear instruction that he doesn't "permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man" (1 Tim. 2:12a). So, we should not think a church is in error simply for utilizing deaconesses, given that deacons are functioning as the Bible instructs.
- Finally, I want to specifically address the way we do things at Gray Road. Currently, only men serve as deacons. Because there is still pastor-like authority entrusted to the body of deacons by our constitution, this is a good thing. Even as we look forward to restoring the biblical role of deacon and establishing a plurality of pastors, it is our plan to continue with this methodology for now. However, this does not mean that women are unimportant
in our church's ministry...far from it. In fact, I think you could look around our church and see women performing biblically diaconal kinds of service...not exerting spiritual authority over the congregation, but working to meet physical needs in the congregation. Let me give three brief examples.
First, we have two women who lead the way in serving through our Quiet Time Cafe. They make sure it is staffed and runs smoothly. Second, we have women who work hard so that physical preparations for our members' meetings and banquets come together, and these women also make sure to provide funeral dinners when needed. Third, we have a woman who leads the way in staffing a ministry that has served needs in just about every family at Gray Road...in our nursery. I use these examples because, apart from these women, the ministries mentioned would not be happening as they are, and we should praise God for them. However, thinking biblically, these do fit the Bible's description of deacon ministry.