Qualifications for Deacons | 1 Timothy 3:8-13

Today we are continuing in 1st Timothy chapter 3. Last week we saw Paul lay out for Timothy the qualifications to elder, or pastor. And today, we move on to qualifications for deacons. I’m going to ask Ben Thompson, one of our bearded deacons, to come and read for us. After he reads, we’ll take a little road trip through the history of deacons in the New Testament, and of course, look specifically at Paul’s words here. 1st Timothy 3:8-13. If you’re able, please join me in standing for the reading of God’s Word. 

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. 10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13 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.

This is the Word of the Living God, amen? You may be seated. 

Throughout the history of the Christian church, there has been much confusion about leadership within the church. In particular when it comes to the two biblical offices we see in the New Testament. Those are the office of elder, or pastor, and the office of deacon. How these two offices function has been a major source for confusion. That’s true now in modern times as well. There’s a lot of confusion out there. For those of us who grew up in the church, there’s a good chance there’s quite the variety of experiences we’ve had with deacons and what they do in the church. 

But here’s how to put it very simply: The primary job and responsibility of a deacon is to serve God’s church. In fact, that’s what the word “deacon” means. The Greek is “diakonos.” That’s literally where we get the word deacon. It’s just transliterated: “That sounds like ‘deacon,’ let’s go with that.” So, deacon means servant. In a very real sense, we are all to be deacons. Because we’re followers of Jesus! And guess what Jesus said about himself? 

He said in Matthew 20:28, “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” He did not come to diakonēthēnai, but to diakonēsai. It’s the same word! So, as followers of Christ, we’re all to do the same. We serve others. So, if we’re all deacons, what’s the deal with these special deacons? If you’re a deacon in our church, or have ever served as a deacon before, would you stand up right now where you are? 

Everyone look around. If you know any of these men, you likely know them to be Godly-servant-hearted men in our church. There is no doubt. But there are also many other men and women in our church who are Godly and servant hearted. And since we’re all called to be that way, why then is there an official “office” for deacon, according to the New Testament. Well let’s take a little road trip back to the first establishment of deacons. Turn with me to Acts chapter 6. 

Acts 6:1-7. This is where the apostles’ respond to one of very first problems in the church at Jerusalem. I think it’s fair to say that this is where we see the very first deacons in the early church. Acts 6, starting in verse 1: 

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

So, what’s happening here? The church in Jerusalem is growing, and so a big problem arises. There are widows being overlooked. They were being forgotten. And so, what do the apostles do? They appoint seven Godly men to make sure that that doesn’t happen. 

That one part we read may sound a bit weird, when the apostles said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.” At first, that may sound like they thought they were too good to help make sure that the widows were getting food. Or that they were above that somehow. But that’s not their goal here at all. They’re not trying to get out of serving people. What they’re doing is recognizing their own limitations. 

Let me just tell you: I’m sure there are some pastors and elders out there who don’t recognize their own limitations. I’m sure they are out there. But the vast majority of pastors I know realize they are limited. They can’t do it all. And if they tried to do everything themselves, God’s church would not be served well. That doesn’t mean pastors should never be involved with caring for the church. Obviously, pastors are to do that. They can care for God’s people, but their main calling is to preach God’s Word and shepherd God’s church. 

A major part of my job as a pastor is to be a theologian. I’m to study, learn, and present to you truth that I know is truth. On Sundays, in small groups, in counseling, and even in just spending time with you. Pastors are to answer questions and help guide you to the truth. Let me just tell you: that takes a lot of time. Preaching and teaching and praying for you—it takes time. 

And it’d be easy, in the midst of everything going on—when problems come up, because there’s always something. When people have needs, which is always the case. It’d be easy to try and jump in and do everything ourselves as pastors. But what would happen if we did that? We might neglect our time in the Word. We wouldn’t mean to, but that’s what we’d do. We might neglect our time getting ready to preach and teach God’s Word. We might neglect our time in shepherding the church and developing leaders and discerning God’s will for the direction of the church. 

The pastors’ job, according to Ephesians 4:12 is to equip the people for the work of ministry. And we cannot do that without the crucial role of deacons. Did you know that? Pastors and elders cannot be successful in what God has called them to do without deacons. Deacons help serve by caring for the practical needs of the church. That can mean a lot of different things and every church is a little bit different. In fact, we have a few examples in the New Testament, but there isn’t a whole lot of specific direction for the specific tasks of deacons—other than serving especially so that both pastors and deacons can serve the church well. But let me give you a few examples of the kinds of things that deacons can do in a local church: 

Anything and everything you can possibly do to serve the church, so that people are cared for and so that your pastors can be devoted to God’s Word and to leading God’s church. That’s the deacon’s charge. Again, most simply put: the primary role and responsibility of deacon is to serve the church. 

So, what qualifications are there for deacons? What should we be looking for? That’s where we come to today’s text. Three qualifications I’m going to give that summarize what Paul says in 1st Timothy 3:8-13. First:

  1. A Dignified Life

Now, dignified is the positive trait given in verse 8, with three negatives to go along with it. Paul writes they must be dignified, which means worthy of respect. And then he gives three examples of things not worthy of respect. Not “double-tongued,” meaning sincere, doesn’t say one thing and do another. Not “addicted to much wine.” You can see already how these parallel the qualifications for elders. God gave us rational minds, and we’re not to do anything to hinder our ability to think rationally. And certainly, drunkenness hinders that. 

Then “not greedy for dishonest gain.” This is the parallel for “not a lover of money,” which is what we see in verse 3 for elders. And this probably because sometimes deacons, especially historically, would deal with some of the finances of the church. Those are three examples of what it means to be dignified. 

You can see that, much like the qualifications for elders, God is more concerned with character than with accomplishments. Just like last week, we see nothing about superior intellect, or worldly success, or political influence. Nothing of that sort! God cares about character. And so, we know how important character is, remember back to the selection of the seven men back in Acts chapter 6. They chose “seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” That’s a pretty high standard for men serving the church. 

And that goes to show us that deacons are not lesser than elders. Deacons and elders serve different functions, but as you can see already with these qualifications given by Paul, the office of deacon was no trivial matter. And you can read in Acts 6 and 7 the incredible example of Stephen, one of those first seven deacons, who so boldly called out the Sanhedrin even while being stoned to death. That brings us to our second qualification, summarizing verses 9 and 10: 

2. A Consistent Faith

Verses 9-10 again: “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.” Now, this “mystery” we see in verse 9, that’s not a mystery as in something we’re still trying to figure out. This mystery is something that used to be hidden but now has been revealed. 

In fact, I want to read Romans 16:25-27. It’s actually a beautiful doxology. Paul is just taking a moment to praise God, and in the middle of this moment, Paul writes about this mystery of the gospel: “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.” 

So, you see, the gospel of Jesus Christ has been revealed. So, a deacon is to hold fast to this gospel with a clear conscience. In other words, he has sound doctrine. All the most crucial beliefs of the faith, he believes without hesitation. He affirms historic orthodoxy, and his life proves that he is a true, consistent believer in Christ. That’s why verse 10 is the parallel with elders, in which elders should not be new converts, new Christians. Well, deacons should be “tested first.” Meaning also not a brand-new Christian, but someone who has a proven track record. 

This makes sense, right? Because deacons don’t have the authority of elders, but they certainly still have great influence in the church. These are men who will be serving physical and spiritual needs of people in the church. These need to be people with sound doctrine, and with consistent, reliable faith. The third summary qualification, from verses 11 and 12: 

3. A Stable Family

Verses 11 and 12: “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.” One thing to talk about, at least briefly, is the translation here for “their wives.” 

There is much disagreement about whether verse 11 refers to the wives of deacons, or deaconesses, women deacons. For most of us in the room, you may think, “it says ‘their wives’ in our Bibles. Where’s the confusion?” The confusion, however, is due to there only being one word in the Greek to refer to both wives and women. So, the word used there for wives is also used for women. So, it’s not impossible that this is referring to deacons who are woman. In fact, if you study the text in-depth, there is some evidence that that could be what Paul is referring to here. 

The word “likewise” in both verses 8 and 11 seem to indicate a new office, or separate designation, not just the spouses of deacons. If Paul meant to say wives here, instead of women, we might expect “their wives” to be written in the Greek. But it doesn’t technically say “their wives,” but instead just “wives”, or of course, “women.” Again, there are some legitimate arguments for this possibly being a reference to deaconesses. And that’s not to mention a few examples of women in the New Testament who do seem to hold a position more formal than simply servants—like Dorcas and Phoebe. 

However, I don’t think that’s what Paul is getting at here. The most basic reason is because if Paul meant deaconesses, he could have said so. To use the word “woman” here doesn’t seem to designate another office in the church, like deaconess. “Woman” was an extremely common term. And think about it: the same word for wives or women is in the very next verse, and in context it clearly means wife there in that verse. “The husband of one wife.” And then there’s just too many things that don’t quite make sense, like only having one verse for qualifications for deaconess. 

I think these women being singled out shows that their ministry is unique from that of deacon. There are unique ways in which wives of deacons can be involved in the ministry of their husbands, and therefore Paul feels the need to be sure that they have a certain standard of character as well. 

Here’s the thing, though: no matter how we understand this—wives of deacons, women deacons, or even women helpers—clearly women have a crucial role in the ministry of the church. And of course, add on top of that the examples of Dorcas and Phoebe and Tryphena. Clearly, God used and still uses women in his church for many areas of ministry, other than teaching and the role of elder or pastor. 

So, all that to say, a potential deacon must have a stable family. But don’t misunderstand that. This doesn’t mean a perfect family. This means that he has shown himself a worthy manager of his own household. Not only is his wife dignified like him (or worthy of respect), and not a gossip, but sober-minded and faithful. But also, he’s faithful to his wife. And he manages his children and household well. Much like last week with elders, even just practically speaking, if there are big problems at home in his own household, a potential deacon needs to focus on that anyway. And not worry about filling a biblical office of the church, at least for now. 


And here’s the beauty of serving as a deacon; there is a promise of sorts in verse 13: “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.” In other words, God is pleased with deacons who serve well. And part of serving Christ in any capacity is growing in our assurance of our faith. 

That’s one of the things I’ve always encouraged Christians when they struggle with assurance: serve Christ wholeheartedly; your assurance will grow. Philip Ryken put it this way: “Assurance of faith does not come through introspection, but through service. Those who labor for the Lord most actively love him most confidently.”

If you think about it, in the life of a deacon serving well, we see perhaps the clearest picture of Christ than any other human example. To bring us back again to Matthew chapter 20: “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

We would all do well to pursue these attributes given by Paul. And most certainly, the hope for any deacon is that, even behind the scenes, we are sound examples of Christ. Jesus Christ served us first by giving his life for us. We now serve others, especially Christ’s church. Let me close with a quote from T.F. Torrance:

It is only in this Jesus that we learn what diakonia really is, the loving service in mercy that looks for no reward beyond the knowledge that we do what is commanded of us and looks for no thanks from those to whom mercy is extended, but it is only because this Jesus has made our cause His very own, sharing our existence in servitude and sharing with us His own life of love, that we may and can engage in this kind of diakonia in Him. 

In other words, it’s only because of Christ that we can wholeheartedly serve His church.