The Noble Task of Diaconal Ministry

Last week we focused on Paul’s instructions about one of two offices in the church. We the office of pastor. Pastors are overseers are elders, and their task is shepherd-like and priest-like. Pastors are called to oversee and care for the flock of God by 1) teaching the word of God with divine authority, 2) zealously guarding the doctrine and worship of the church (like the Levites and Phinehas), and 3) organizing and mobilizing the church for mission, (equipping the saints for the work of ministry). Pastors must be above reproach, faithful to their wives, sober-minded, self-controlled, level-headed and wise, hospitable, and skillful in teaching, not enslaved to alcohol or greedy, not violent and quarrelsome, but gentle (since their task will call them to both tenderly care for the sheep and violently resist wolves). They must be good leaders in their home, mature and tested in the faith, and have a good reputation among outsiders. 

This week we’ll explore the office of deacon, but before we do, I want to highlight a connection between 1 Timothy 2, 1 Timothy 3, and the relationship between nature, Scripture, and culture that I highlighted at the beginning of this series. Let me give a carefully worded statements that the pastors have worked on over the last few weeks:

The structuring and ordering of God's household, the church, is based on a wise and prudent application of God’s design in creation, as expressed and clarified by the word of God, and is designed to both protect and advance the gospel of Jesus, to the glory of God.

That sentence has two key elements in terms of the structure of God’s house—a basis (which we’ve explored the last few weeks) and a purpose (which we’ll explore in a few weeks). So look at the three element in the basis or foundation of the order and structure of the church. Wise and prudent application = culture. God’s design in creation = nature. Expressed and clarified in the word of God = Scripture. God has built the world in a particular way, creating men and women for his mission, but doing so in a particular order and with a mutual dependence. God’s design in creation is a pattern, and that pattern is clarified and expressed in various ways in the Bible, as the biblical authors authoritatively apply that creation pattern to a variety of situations. And then the pattern and the Scripture and the application are the basis for our own applications in our cultural context. So notice that in 1 Timothy 2, Paul appeals directly to the order of creation (Adam was made first, then Eve), and the subversion of that order in the Fall (Eve was deceived and not Adam) in order to explain why those who teach and exercise authority in the church must be men. The order of creation is the pattern for Paul’s exhortation about the structuring of the church in the Bible, and all of that (God’s design in creation, the application in the first-century by the apostle, as it is expressed and clarified in Scripture) becomes the basis for our own efforts to structure the church today. 

And I stress this point because one of the things that we’re attempting to do in this series is to communicate not only what the Bible teaches, but the rationale and logic that lies beneath it. We don’t just want to obey Bible verses; we want to follow biblical logic. We want you to understand the reasons beneath the rules. To put it negatively, we don’t want to be like churches that say, “We don’t know why God would identify men as his chosen instruments as leaders in the home and the church. The reasons are not apparent to us. Why one and not the other? Instead, we’ll obey the rules and submit to Scripture, but without understanding the reasons beneath.” We don’t want to be like that. There are purposes of God that are mysterious to us. We don’t always know why he does what he does. But when it comes to the ordering and structuring of the home and the church and the relationships between men and women, he hasn’t left us in the dark. And if we don’t press into the reasons, we’ll miss God’s goodness. If we treat the biblical commands as arbitrary, as a coin flip that we don’t understand, we’ll miss out on the blessing of understanding the wisdom and goodness of God in how he made the world. Now if you don’t understand why, trust God and obey the Bible anyway. It’s better to obey than to disobey. But it’s better to obey and understand and love God’s reasons than it is to merely obey because God said so. 

The Diaconal Task

With that as the backdrop, let’s talk about deacons. The structure is simple. 1) What’s the diaconal task? 2) What are the qualifications for the office? 3) How do we understand 3:11 and the reference to “wives” or “women” in the passage? Let’s begin with the diaconal task. Deacon is just the word for servant. It has a somewhat broad meaning in the ancient world; it could refer to an intermediary or agent (someone who acts on behalf of another); it could refer to an assistant, someone who helps a superior in a particular task; it could refer more narrowly to a domestic servant of some kind (like a butler). In the New Testament, it is often translated as servant (“The greatest among you must be a servant/deacon” (Matthew 23:11), or as “minister,” when it refers to anyone engaged in Christian ministry: the apostles are ministers/deacons of the new covenant (2 Cor 3:6); Paul is a minister/deacon of the gospel (Ephesians 3:7); Tychicus and Epaphras are missionaries or “ministers/deacons” of Christ. So in the broadest sense, it could refer to all Christians, as servants of Christ. Or it could narrow and refer to anyone engaged in formal ministry (I.e. Missionaries, pastors, and deacons would all be ministers/servants). Or, it could refer to a subset of ministers as an office, as it seems to here in 1 Timothy 3 and in Philippians. 

In the narrower sense, some have thought that deacons only do practical ministry in the church—caring for the poor, caring for widows, and managing finances. This is usually based on the pattern for deacons established in Acts 6, where the apostles (the authoritative teachers in the church) appoint seven men to address a practical issue in the distribution of food to widows, so that they can maintain their focus on preaching the word (Acts 6:1-6). Additionally, one of the key differences in qualifications for pastors and deacons is the pastors must be skillful to teach, whereas deacons don’t have to be. However, at Cities we think that there’s no reason to restrict diaconal tasks to meeting practical needs, since even in the book of Acts, some of the deacons (like Stephen and Philip) have fruitful ministries involving the word. The appointment of the proto-deacons establishes a pattern that we lean on in considering the structuring of our church. And the reason for requiring skillfulness in teaching for elders and not deacons is that while all elders should be able to teach, not all deacons must. So at Cities, deacons assist the pastors in caring for the church by accomplishing specific tasks as assigned by the pastors, and approved by the congregation. That includes some church-wide tasks like managing finances, assisting in implementing childcare, and hospitality, and it includes narrower tasks, like leading community groups, which often includes some form of teaching and leadership in a subset of the church. We see the diaconal role as a flexible one that can be designed to meet the needs of a congregation at various stages of its life. In fact, that may be one reason why we only see the office of deacon mentioned in 1 Timothy and not in Titus. Both Timothy and Titus have instructions about pastors, but only the letter to Timothy mentions deacons. This may be because the church in Ephesus is more established, whereas the church in Crete is just getting started. Paul first encourages his missionary partners to establish elders, who will manage and lead and guard God’s household, and then, as the church matures and grows, the church can appoint deacons as needs arise. 

 In sum, deacons assist the pastors in caring for the church by accomplishing specific tasks at the pastors’ direction. 

Diaconal Qualifications

The diaconal qualifications are very similar to the pastor qualifications that we saw last week. Deacons must be dignified (which is similar to respectable in 3:2). They must not be double-tongued or insincere, nor addicted to wine, nor greedy for money (which is similar to the negative commands in 3:3). While deacons are not required to be skillful in teaching (since not all deacons will engage in formal teaching), all deacons must hold the faith with a clear conscience. So even if they may not have the aptitude to teach God’s word, they must understand and love sound doctrine. That’s why both our pastors and deacons must wholeheartedly affirm the Leadership Affirmation of Faith at our church. They also must be tested first and be found blameless before they do their deaconing, just as pastors should not be new converts. That’s why some of our Community Group leaders are not yet deacons; they are undergoing a period of training and testing before being formally appointed. As Paul will say later in 1 Timothy 5:22, “Don’t be hasty in the laying on of hands; give time for sins and issues to come to light before you formally put someone in a church office. The word “blameless” in 3:10 is a close synonym for “above reproach” (see Titus 1:6-7, where the word “blameless” is used for pastor qualifications), which means that like pastors, deacons must be exemplary Christians and models of maturity. Finally, like pastors, deacons must be faithful to their wives (one-woman man) and manage their children and their households well. Their leadership in the home is a qualification for their role in the church, and if they deacon well, they gain a good standing, a reputation as a godly example, as well as confidence and assurance in their faith. 

Key Clarifications

Before moving to look at 3:11, let me make one important clarification that sets our church apart from many Baptist churches. In many Baptist churches, there is the senior pastor (and maybe some assistant pastors) and then a board of deacons who oversee many of the church affairs. This deacon board is a governing body in the church that oversees everything from finances to building maintenance to committees in the church to the pastoral search process. In our view, such deacon boards are basically functioning as pastors or elders. They’re exercising the kind of authority that the Bible assigns to elders; they’re often called deacons because some of the men on that board can’t teach. In other words, churches like that are separating the teaching office from the authoritative office. And we think that’s a mistake. So at Cities, there is no board of deacons; there is a team of pastors. Deacons, as I said a minute ago, are appointed by the pastors and approved by the congregation to assist the pastors and serve the church in specific and defined tasks. That will be important in a moment.

What About Deaconesses?

So in the midst of describing the qualifications for deacons, Paul does something that he doesn’t do in his discussion of pastors or overseers. He gives a short list of qualifications for “wives” or “women.” And so Christians often wonder and debate what Paul has in mind here. A big part of the reason is that Paul simply says, “Likewise gunaikas…” which is the word for women (2:11) and is the word for wife (3:2, 3:12). And so it’s not clear who Paul has in mind. And there are two main views (with some sub-divisions within them). The first, which is reflected in the ESV translation, is that Paul is referring to the wives of deacons in 3:11. The second is that Paul is referring to deaconesses, women who also serve in the church in some capacity. On the first view, the reason that Paul mentions deacon wives (and not elder wives) is owing to the fact that, because deacons don’t oversee the church as a whole, but instead serve in particular ways, their wives will often serve alongside them (like Priscilla and Aquila, the husband-wife team in the book of Acts). And so, because the wives will be assisting their husbands in the diaconal task, Paul gives qualifications for the wives as well. (One variation of this view argues that the qualifications for wives applies to the wives of both pastors and deacons, but Paul simply includes it here). Let me give four brief arguments for this view.

  1. The word “likewise” indicates that Paul is talking about an additional category of person, not a subset within the office of deacon. The word “likewise” in v. 8 signals that Paul is shifting from pastors to deacons, and so the word “likewise” in v. 11 signals that Paul is shifting from the office of deacon to some other category, namely the wives.

  2. Paul says that a deacon must be a “one-woman man,” but doesn’t give the equivalent for these women. And this is particularly striking because he does use the phrase a “one man woman” later in the book to refer to widows who have been the wife of one husband (5:9). So Paul is capable of using that phrase, but doesn’t use it here. And he doesn’t because it’s clear that he’s talking about the wives of the deacons. 

  3. Paul uses the word gunaikas, which is used twice in chapter 3 to refer to wives, and therefore the most likely meaning in 3:11 is also “wives.” Put another way, Paul doesn’t use the feminine form of the word deacon. He could have said, “Male deacons (diakonoi) must be X” and then “Likewise “Female deacons (diakonai) must be Y.” But he doesn’t. 

  4. Finally, while he does give some character qualifications (dignified, not slanderers, sober-minded, faithful in all things), he doesn’t establish that they be tested first or be able to manage their household well in order to be a deaconess, which is odd if church officers must first prove themselves in their own homes before taking an official role in the household of God. 

So there are four reasons for interpreting 3:11 to refer to deacon (and perhaps) elder wives, and not to the office of deaconess.

On the other hand, there are a number of arguments for seeing 3:11 as a reference to deaconesses.

  1. If Paul intended to refer to wives, why does he not give requirements for the wives of pastors? Presumably the character of the pastor’s wife matters for his ministry as well. Paul doesn’t give requirements for pastors’ wives because he’s not referring to wives at all, but to women who serve as deacons in the church. 

  2. Because the role of deacon is a role of service and not governing, it’s fitting and appropriate for women to fill it. The reason that only qualified men can be pastors is because pastors lead and teach the church as a whole. Deacons don’t, and thus there’s no reason to restrict the office to men. 

  3. The qualifications for these women are bookended by references to deacons (3:8 and 3:12). Paul doesn’t leave the subject of deacons, he simply focuses on women who fulfill the task, and therefore comes right back to the diaconal qualifications in 3:12. 

  4. Finally, an argument from outside of this passage is that in Romans 16, Paul refers to Phoebe as a deaconess of the church in Cenchreae. He uses the feminine form of the word “deacon” and thus we have a New Testament example of a deaconess, and Paul gives the qualifications for such a woman here in 1 Timothy. 

Where Do We Land?

So where do the pastors of this church land? The truth is, we don’t all agree. Some of us believe that Paul is talking about deacon wives; others believe that he is talking about deaconesses. And no matter which side we come down on, none of us are 100% certain. We’re like 60/40 or 70/30 in our confidence level. We all recognize that this is a difficult passage to interpret.

At the same time, there are a number of factors outside of this passage that we do agree on.

  1. Phoebe is mentioned in the New Testament. And while it is possible that Paul simply means that she’s a servant in the general sense that all Christians are servants, the fact that he says that she’s a deaconess of a particular church seems to imply something more specific and formal than simply she’s a faithful Christian. He doesn’t say, “She’s a servant of Christ,” but that’s she’s “a servant of the church at Cenchreae.”

  2. In the post-apostolic era (after the New Testament), there does seem to be evidence of women serving as ministra(which is a Latin term that is a possible translation for deaconess). These women would shepherd and catechize women and children in the church, would serve widows, and would assist with tasks that men could not (such as helping with the baptism of women). 

  3. We already have a woman in an official role in our church. We just use the word “coordinator.” So some of our questions have been about titles. Would deaconess or minister for women’s discipleship be a fitting title for Erica? And if so, should she receive congregational approval, in a similar way to deacons?

  4. As we consider the role of deacon at Cities, we know that we don’t have a deacon board that exercises authority in the church, but that deacons assist the pastors in caring for the church in task-specific ways. And we know from Genesis 2, that while Adam was created first (and is therefore the head of his family), Eve was created as a helper, as someone who has made to assist Adam in their joint task. And thus that pattern in Genesis 2 influences how we think about an official role for qualified women. 

And so here’s the bottom-line: while the pastors may not agree on the exegesis of 1 Timothy 3, we do agree on the value and goodness of an official role for qualified women in the church to serve in task-specific ways. We already have that, and preaching through 1 Timothy and seeing where we are as a church now has led us to recognize the need for more qualified women to assist the pastors in serving the church in task-specific ways. And so that’s where we’re moving as a team. We want to shepherd the church well, and we think identifying godly women to formally serve the church in specific ways will enable us to better accomplish our mission.

And there are still many questions. Like, “What are the specific tasks that we have in mind that would be better accomplished in an official capacity?” Because many of you, both men and women, serve this church in countless ways. And you don’t have titles or office. And you weren’t put forward by the elders and formally approved by the congregation. You’re simply serving the church. And we want lots of that, across the board. But there are tasks in which that kind of formal title and official stamp of pastoral and congregational approval is helpful. And so we need to identify which tasks those are.

And this is where the principle that I identified at the beginning of the sermon becomes relevant. Here it is again:

The structuring and ordering of God's household, the church, is based on a wise and prudent application of God’s design in creation, as expressed and clarified by the word of God, and is designed to both protect and advance the gospel of Jesus, to the glory of God.

This means that as we move forward, God’s design and order in creation, as expressed and clarified in Scripture, still forms the basis of our attempt to wisely and prudently put God’s house in order. Certain tasks for qualified women are obvious to us. For example, the kind of Titus 2 ministry to women that Erica is currently leading is one that we’d like to expand and is a prime candidate for raising up women to lead and teach in that capacity. On the other hand, there are certain tasks in the church that we assign male deacons to do that would be inappropriate for us to assign deaconesses or women ministers to do, most notably, Community Group leadership. Because Community Group leaders organize and mobilize groups within the church for mission, because they teach and lead both men and women, it is fitting and appropriate, in light of God’s design in creation as expressed and clarified by the word of God, for Community Group leaders to be qualified men. Meanwhile, there are other tasks in the church that could be filled by qualified men or qualified women or both. So that principle of nature, Scripture, and culture resolves some questions, but not others. For some questions, it gives the answer. For other questions about other tasks, it’s a starting point, and we must keep it in mind, but we need to actually press deeper in seeking God’s wisdom to wisely structure the church for God’s glory. 

And then there are other questions like, “What’s the best title for this type of role? Is it deacon? Is it deaconess? Is it minister?” Different terms communicate different things, and so we want to be wise in choosing the best one. Or “What’s the process for identifying, testing, equipping, and appointing women for such roles?” We have a formal process for identifying pastoral candidates and diaconal candidates. To have some kind of official role for women means that we need something like that process, though it may not be identical. Does such a process require changes to our constitution? If so, such changes requires congregational approval at a formal meeting and that process takes time.

The Table

All of this will require wisdom. As we’ve seen today, the biblical questions are not easy. The application questions are not easy. It’s all very complicated. And that brings us to the Table. This Table is a table of rest. It’s a table of gospel comfort. Jesus invites his household, the church of the living God, to dine with him. All of us—older men and older women, younger men and younger women, church officers and lay people—all of us are welcome at his table. All of us are partakers of his grace. Come and welcome to Jesus Christ. 

Joe Rigney