Sermon: The Role of the Deacon

I invite you to open your Bibles with me to 1 Timothy, chapter 3, beginning in verse 8. 1 Timothy 3, beginning in verse 8. 1 Timothy is toward the end of the New Testament, tucked between Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians and his letter to Titus. It is the first of two letters Paul wrote to his young protege, Timothy, instructing and encouraging him in his role as a pastor. It is the first of a series of letters in the New Testament called the ‘pastoral letters’ – named because Paul is writing to individual pastors instead of whole churches.

And we have been listening to the third chapter of 1 Timothy, because as part of his encouragement on life and ministry in the church, Paul speaks about the character of leaders in the church – elders and deacons.

We started two weeks ago by imprinting the image of the body in our minds. All y’all are the body of Christ. Each of us who belongs to Christ is part of the church and has gifts to for service to God. All of us. With that image in mind, we are zooming in to look at two particular parts of the body. Last week, we heard about the elders. Elders are those people charged with spiritual direction and discernment for the church, they are to teach God’s word and lead the people by their example. As Pastor Olga put it last week, elders not only know the truth, they are called to live it out for us to see.

And this week, we will be listening to what God’s word has to say about the role of deacons in the life of the church. But before we hear God’s word this morning, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

These are the very words of God from the book that we love:

In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. They must first be tested, and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.

In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers, but temperate and trustworthy in everything.

A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well. Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.

This is the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

If we took a moment and jumped back a couple verses to the beginning of the chapter and looked again at the description of the elder, we would find that much of what Paul says about deacons he also says about elders. Much of what is asked of them is the same.

Like elders, deacons are to be worthy of respect. They are to be people of strong, godly character.

Like elders, they are to temperate and trustworthy in everything. Not flying off the handle, they are patiently, faithfully, and diligently to do the work entrusted to them.

Like elders, a deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well. Character and faithfulness to God begins at home. If we cannot be trusted to be faithful and wise in these crucial relationships, how can we be expected to be faithful and wise with our friends and strangers.

All these are the same for elders and deacons, in fact, for all of us who belong to Christ and walk as his disciples. Maybe this isn’t all that surprising. Paul begins this section with in the same way. In the same way as the elders, so also the deacons. We might expect this. We might expect that godly character, faithfulness, and trustworthiness would be hallmarks of all who serve in leadership in the church. We might expect that a proper relationship to wine and money would need to serve in either role. We might expect these virtues to be same for both.

But there are differences between what Paul says about elders and what he says about deacons. And this morning, we are going to pay attention to these differences. Not because the rest of it is any less important. It’s not. But we are paying attention to the differences in order to help us see what is distinctive about the role of the deacon. It is in the contrasts that the unique call of the deacon will hopefully become clear.

But before we do that, just a quick caveat. Some of you might be wondering, what are ‘the women’ doing in this passage? Why is Paul addressing them specifically and does this say anything about whether women can serve in positions of leadership?

This is a large and controversial topic. If you have questions, concerns, or just want to talk more about what scripture has to say about women in leadership, I would really enjoy having a conversation with you. So please talk to me. However, I will put my cards on the table. I believe that God’s word, including this passage, supports women serving in office in the church. I want to note quickly a couple things about this and then we will head back into the roles of elder and deacon. Let’s note grammar, context, and practice all point toward women in office.

First, grammar. Paul repeats in the same way as he talks about the role of these women. This serves to connect women to the office of elder and deacon. At the very least, this refers to women doing the same work as the deacons and elders. In light of other texts in scripture, as well as the fact that Paul is basically repeating the same advice to the women, I believe Paul is including the women in leadership, not excluding them.

Then why does Paul address the women at all? He could have just said ‘men and women’ in some other part and saved us all the trouble, right? The reason he addresses women specifically, I believe, has to do with the context. Remember that last week Pastor Olga told us that Timothy was serving in Ephesus. Ephesus was the home of the cult of Artemis – a very aggressive and militant feminist religious group in the ancient world. Overall, the gospel was liberating and freeing for women, but Paul might have been concerned that in their newfound freedom, these women might take it too far and hurt themselves, the church, and its witness. So he takes the time to address them specifically and caution them with the same admonitions he gives the men.

The last thing to note is practice. There were women in leadership in the New Testament church. Paul says that a woman named Phoebe was a deacon, that a husband-wife team of Priscilla and Aquila were his co-workers in the gospel. Junia was a female apostle. Women of means hosted churches in their homes, and other women serves as prophets in the church. Paul’s own letters seem to indicate that there were women serving in leadership in the early church.

This isn’t meant to answer every question, but I wanted to take a moment to at least address the presence of the language about women here and suggest that it should be seen as including their leadership, not excluding it. If I lost you for a moment, forgive me, but now we’re back. In our passage this morning, much of what it said is similar to what is said about elders, but there are a few key differences. Our hope is that in examining these differences, we can better see the role of the deacon and what that might have to say to all of us.

The first difference is in what is not said, what is not included in the role of deacon. In 1 Timothy 3:2, we hear, Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach. Among other things, elders are called to teach the truths of the Christian faith. But that is not part of the role of the deacon. Instead, Paul says in verse 9: They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. Deacons, like all Christians, are called to know the truth, to hold it with deep and firm conviction. But not to teach it. I don’t believe this means that deacons cannot teach, but that the role of the elder is to teach the word of God and that is not required for being a deacon.

And there is a reason for this. It goes back to the origin of the office of deacon itself. Let me tell you a story:

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

That was Acts 6:1-6. The office of deacon arose because of a need. A need for mercy and compassion for those in need. The apostles were devoted to teaching God’s word and to prayer. And through them God was bringing many people to know Christ. The number of disciples was increasing, it says. But in all this good work, some of the poor, particularly those widows who were not from Jewish backgrounds, had fallen through the cracks.

In their zeal for proclaiming God’s word, those in need had become neglected. Realizing the problem, instead of dividing the people between two jobs, they divided the responsibilities between two groups of people. Those who proclaim the word – the apostles in this case – and the deacons, those who serve the poor.

This didn’t stop one group from ever doing work in another area – Peter and Paul healed the sick and collected money for those in need, Stephen – a deacon – powerfully proclaimed God’s word and was stoned to death for it. But the primary role of the deacon was not to teach, but to be agents of God’s mercy on those in need.

The deacon was to care for the downtrodden, to take the resources God had provided to care for the widows, the orphans, and the alien. It was the homeless, the weak, the hurting, and the destitute who were under the special care of the deacons. The elders would preach of God’s love and care, and the deacons would show it by making sure there was food on the table and clothes on the backs. God’s provision for the poor through the church was done through the deacons.

This is the origin of the office of deacon – an origin assumed by Paul in 1 Timothy. This is why he does not include the call to teach, but instead says, They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. It is out of the deep, biblical convictions that deacons act with mercy for those in need.

This is the first key difference, hidden in what is not said. Elders are called to teach God’s word, and deacons are called to a ministry of mercy for those in need.

The second key difference is in what is said. Twice in this short section, Paul says that those serving as deacons need to control their tongues. In verse 8, we hear, In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. The phrase translated ‘sincere’ is literally, ‘not double-tongued’ or ‘not two-worded.’ In verse 11, it says, In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers, but temperate and trustworthy in everything. Both of these are phrases included specifically in the description of the deacons.

Not double-tongued, not two-worded, not malicious talkers. Somehow, this injunction is specifically directed at those who serve as deacons. What is it about the role of the deacon that makes this command all the more necessary.

Remember, at their origins, deacons are tasked with mercy toward the poor. Not only collecting money and furnishing budgets, but specifically care for those on the margins. Perhaps, it is in this task itself that the control of our tongue is needed. We can be easily tempted, particularly those of us who belong to the middle class, who work hard to pay our bills and provide for our families, we can easily to be tempted to serve the poor with our hands, but judge them in our hearts. We can be easily tempted to be two-worded – to have one message with our hands – loving the poor, caring for those on the margins – and another in our hearts – judgment, frustration, accusations.

A deacon is not to be double-tongued, they are to be sincere. Their hearts should beat for the weak just as their hands serve them. Mercy should be a full-body experience – mind, heart, soul, hands. This should be true for all of us who follow Christ. God has shown mercy to us in our poverty, in our need, and we should imitate him by showing mercy to others. This full-bodied mercy should be in all of us, but especially in the deacons. I say especially in the deacons because Paul includes it especially here, but also because the deacons are leaders. Deacons set the tone for the ministry of mercy for the whole congregation. If our deacons don’t have hearts for the poor, if our deacons speak graciously to the needy when standing in front of them but harshly when they are not around, how will this affect us as a congregation? If our leaders are double-tongued, that sets an example for all of us.

Deacons, from the very beginning, are to be leaders in mercy. From the outset, they were called to care for the poor and the outcast. And to lead in this kind of work, Scripture says, requires a particular type of character:

In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. They must first be tested, and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.

In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers, but temperate and trustworthy in everything.

A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well. Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.

Mercy for the poor, for the widow, the orphan, and the alien is a calling for all of us, but the deacons lead the way. May our deacons serve well, may they gain excellent standing in this community, and may their faith in Christ Jesus deepen through their service. And may we follow their lead in showing mercy to all. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

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