In 1 Timothy, 3:8-13, Paul follow-up his teaching to Timothy about qualification for elders with an explanation of the qualifications for deacon. Paul writes:
Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
The characteristics Paul lists should sound familiar because they’re very similar to those that he listed for elders:
- Respectable = Dignified
- Not a drunkard = not addicted to wine
- Not a lover of money = not greedy
- Husband of one wife = husband of one wife
- Manage household = manage household
- Manage children = manage children
- Not a new convert = tested first
The two positions have similar character qualities of managing themselves well, maintaining good relationships and maturity. The only significant differences are the requirements to be in control over mind/body and not be violent/quarrelsome are mentioned for elders, but not for deacons. However, someone who fell short in these areas would not be put in a deacon role, so the real differences are the elder requirements of hospitality and the ability to teach. In essence, deacons should be held to the same character standards as elders.
Beyond these 1 Timothy verses about character qualities, nothing else in the New Testament explains the role of deacons or how they should function. The office of deacon is referenced in Philippians 1:1 when Paul addresses the letter to both elders and deacons, but that’s the only other mention of the office. Titus 1 helps to clarify the nature of an elder’s teaching responsibility from 1 Timothy 3, but for deacons we don’t have the luxury of finding a clearly passage to allow Scripture interpret Scripture.
How should the position be understood with such limited information? For one thing, care should be taken to not be dogmatic about the role. No one can go beyond what Paul is telling us here with any definitive conclusion. Without the clarity of other texts, the next best option is to look deeper at the nature of the word used for deacon to understand what it describes in other contexts.
The root word for deacon is sprinkled throughout the New Testament. When the word is used elsewhere, it’s frequently translated as servants and sometimes ministers. For example, the passage from Matthew (20:26) where Jesus says “the greatest among you shall be your servant” is from the same root word as deacon.
The idea of service, in Greek as diakonous, provides the best direction about the role of deacons. Jesus tells his disciples to be great servants and there is also verse upon verse where service is highlighted:
- What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each (1 Corinthians 3:5)
- For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake (2 Corinthians 4:5)
- Through love serve one another (Galatians 5:13)
In essence, the deacon (or deaconess) is the model servant among all servants. He or she removes the administrative weight from the elders, so that they are freed up to teach.
Based on the limited information about deacons, Paul is purely focused on the character qualities and his or her willingness to serve rather than a specific expertise in children’s ministry, financial management or another responsibility of the church. While it would be imprudent to allow someone incompetent in any area, given the choice between an expert in finance with questionable character and someone with basic skills and good character, you should choose the later.
With the limits of the text, it is also clear what a deacon is not. Paul does not say that the role is a precursor or step to becoming an elder. The character requirements are very similar with the most significant difference being the ability to teach. John Owen argues that far from being a “stepping-stone” to the eldership, diaconal responsibilities actually hinder one from being in a position to move to an elder role. He says that deacons responsibilities, “lies wholly in the providing and disposal of earthly things, in a serving of tables of the church, and those private, of the poor; but preparation for the ministry consists in a man’s giving himself unto study, prayer, and meditation.” (Beeke, A Puritan Theology – Location 24,432)
To reiterate the difference in church offices, an elder is a model for us with specific gifts of communicating the faith while a deacon is a model of service that everyone should seek to emulate. Everyone is called to serve, so there’s no reason everyone cannot aspire to serve as a deacon.