Deacons: Those who serve the church.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 January

As described in the scriptures, the church’s workers—whether we give ’em the title or not.

DEACON /'di.kən/ n. Minister. Might be the leader of a particular ministry, but not the leader of a church: Deacons are nearly always subordinate to the pastor or priest.
[Diaconal /di'ak.(ə.)nəl/ adj., less properly deaconal /di'kən.əl/ adj.]

The word diákonos/“deacon” originally meant “runner,” like someone who runs errands. You know, someone we’d nowadays call a gofer—as in “go fer coffee,” or run any other errands. Deacon first shows up in the bible when Jesus said if we wanna become great, we need to be everyone’s servant. Mk 10.43 Or when he said if anyone serves him, the Father values them. Jn 12.26

Deacon is used to describe the folks appointed to run the early church’s food ministry. Ac 6.1-6 The Twelve didn’t give them any more responsibility than that. But they picked mature Christians, and as a result people recognized these servants as leaders in their own right. Stephen and Philip did some very notable things in Acts.

A deacon means any minister in your church who’s officially or formally in charge of something. Not the volunteers who pitch in from time to time, who run one fundraiser, taught one Sunday school class once, or pitched in on the church’s work day. Deacons are actually in charge of stuff and people. They run the small groups. Lead the evangelism team. Lead the prayer team. Greet visitors weekly. Serve as ushers during the services. Handle the bookkeeping. Clean the building. Answer phones. Teach the classes. Run the kitchen. Preach sermons. Lead the singing. Run the website. Anything and everything: Deacons have duties.

True, many churches have made “deacon” an official title—and the only “deacons” are on the church’s board of directors. Yeah, board members do fit the scriptures’ definition of deacons. But in the scriptures, deacon is hardly limited to board members. Nor is it interchangeable with elders, even though deacons had better be mature Christians. Elders aren’t necessarily put in charge of things. Deacons are.

Diaconal requirements.

Paul defined deacons’ requirements to Timothy this way.

1 Timothy 3.8-13 KWL
8 Deacons likewise must be: Well-regarded. Not two-faced. Not a huge fan of alcohol.
Not greedy for success. 9 Committed to the mysteries of the faith.
Clean in conscience— 10 check them out first, and have those who pass, serve.
11 Spouses likewise: Well-regarded. Not opposing their spouse’s duties.
Not mixed up with alcohol. Faithful in all things.
12 Deacons must be monogamous, with good, well-behaved kids, and their own homes.
13 Those who serve well, in good standing, gain along with that more confident faith in Christ Jesus.

I should point out Paul used masculine terms throughout. But since deacons can of course be female, Ro 16.1 I translated it gender-neutral—hence I used “spouses” for gynaíkas/“women.” Paul wasn’t repeating the same rules for women deacons; he was requiring deacons to have spouses who were also mature Christians, lest their spouses drag ’em down or lead them astray. As, in my experience, happens all the time whenever a mature Christian leader has an immature Christian spouse.

You’ll notice Paul’s requirements weren’t educational, theological, or technical. They were entirely based on character. Figuring out how to do a job isn’t all that complicated. (Getting qualified too.) But most organizations foolishly overlook character flaws, hire people based on their skillset, and get burned when the character flaws invariably get in the way of the job. Loveable rogues make entertaining TV, but they’re hell to work with. Often they ruin the organization, ’cause people don’t sue over a bad job anywhere near as much as they sue over bad behavior. And if you make ’em deacons, they’ll drive Christians out of your church—and sometimes away from Jesus.

Some of these qualifications are the same as those for pastors. I’ll go through them.

WELL-REGARDED (Greek semnús). Never appoint a deacon whom the people of your church don’t respect. Heck, the people of your city—if they have a terrible public reputation, it guarantees people are gonna think less of your church, and mock it instead of attend.

Of course, lots of churches violate Paul’s rule by putting newbies in positions of responsibility long before they’re ready. The pastor’s family members are obvious examples: His wife is put in charge of the women’s ministries, but she’s a gossip and drunk. His daughter is put in charge of the children’s classes, but she’s unreliable and doesn’t even like kids. His son gets to lead worship, but everybody knows he’s nailing every girl he can talk into bed. The assumption is these people will grow into their jobs, but the reality is far different: The power goes to their heads, and they just get worse. Sometimes they even use it to justify their misbehavior: “It’s okay if I tell you all these juicy secrets; I am the pastor’s wife after all.”

Maturity is the result of obedience, not leadership. Immature Christians need to be kept far, far away from leadership roles till they’ve proven themselves.

NOT TWO-FACED (mi dilógus/“not double-tongued”). Never appoint a hypocrite. Never a suck-up, who treats leaders with respect, but everybody else with contempt or dismissal—everyone they figure are “beneath them.” Never someone who’s friendly to Christians, but awful to pagans or sinners, or Christians whom they don’t agree with or approve of. Never someone who plays Christian at church, but acts pagan elsewhere. If they can’t be trusted to be the same consistent person in all places, at all times, they’re not yet mature.

NOT A HUGE FAN OF ALCOHOL (mi oíno polló prosékhontas/“not much paying attention to wine”). Of course this applies to alcoholics, but also to problem drinkers. Ministers shouldn’t need “liquid courage” before they can preach, before they interact with difficult people. Nor should they figure, as young people so often do, that once the job’s over, they can go to the pub and get sloppy. People love to use the excuse, “The minister does it; why can’t I?” Part of being mature, and a leader, is that we curtail our Christian freedoms for the sake of immature Christians.

NOT GREEDY FOR SUCCESS (mi aiskhrokerdeís/“not embarrassing gain”). A lot of people covet success, however they define it: They want money, possessions, power, titles, positions, and to get ahead. And some folks aren’t satisfied with being a deacon: They wanna be the most popular deacon. Or the head deacon. Or carry more weight than the pastor. Or they want that duty because it looks nice on their résumé, and could care less about the church.

Or they want it to look like they’re doing a spectacular job, but they’re actually doing nothing. Like when evangelists claim, “We had 20 people come forward!” and make it sound like they converted the whole room. But those 20 came forward because the preacher told everybody to come forward; none of them actually repented. You know, fraudulent stuff like that. Bluntly, these “slight exaggerations” are lies. You don’t want a liar, or anyone unethical, in church leadership.

COMMITTED TO THE MYSTERIES OF THE FAITH (ékhontas to mystírion tis písteos). Deacons need to not just know their Christianity: They need to be committed to it.

They don’t need to be fully trained theologians and seminary graduates, but they do need to know the basics: Your church’s statement of faith. That Jesus’s death frees us from sin, and what God’s kingdom is. They should be prayerful. They oughta read their bibles regularly. Attend church regularly. Be generally religious about their relationships with Jesus.

We can’t have deacons who slide in heretic directions. Like a deacon who believes in God, but isn’t so sure about Jesus. Or doubts whether prayer works. Or believes in neither miracles nor resurrection, nor trusts the scriptures. These problem areas will come out, and become a huge problem.

CLEAN IN CONSCIENCE (en kathará synidísi). In other words, transparent: Deacons need to serve their churches without any hidden doubts or sins.

This doesn’t mean they aren’t ever allowed to doubt. Doubt is normal. But they need to confess and challenge their doubts, not stuff them or hide them or turn into hypocrites who teach doubt instead of faith. Too many young Christian leaders minister in spite of their doubts, and eventually these doubts boil over and cause them to lie, cheat, and get into ever-escalating sins. That’s why Paul told Timothy to test his diaconal candidates: Check them out, and not just put ’em in charge because they look good.

Family requirements.

Since neither Paul nor Jesus were married, marriage obviously can’t be a requirement for Christian leadership. But for those who are married, or have kids, the spouse and children add some considerations.

WELL-REGARDED SPOUSES (gyníkas semnás/“women, well-regarded”). Spouses shouldn’t be a drag or drain on one’s ministry. If you’re married to an unrepentant sinner, a hypocrite, a pagan, or even a new Christian, it automatically disqualifies you from leadership.

No it’s not fair. Their immaturity is not your immaturity. Their sins are not your sins. But every Christian’s first duty is to minister to their family members. And if your family obviously needs work, you have no business ditching them to serve the church. Being a deacon is often a really big job. It requires your family’s support—not just their grudging consent. So the family’s gotta be mature enough too.

A lot of pastors and deacons try to get around this requirement. And a lot of churches let them. We often figure, “Well, they can’t help where their family members are.” Hey, sometimes these family members are dealing with mental illness or addiction; how on earth could they be any help? But often the problem is not so difficult. Often these Christian leaders can and should help, and step down from their church responsibilities to do so. But we let ’em keep their positions, give them an excuse to avoid their family duties, and that’s wrong. We’re enabling them to abandon and ruin their families.

I’ve known more than one pastor whose spouses weren’t mature enough to support them. One whose wife was mentally unstable, and she was expected to fulfill the traditional roles a pastor’s wife would—but she couldn’t, because she’d create chaos wherever she went. Another whose wife absolutely refused to go to his church; she liked their old church better, and resented him for taking his job there.

I’ve known more than one deacon with the same problem. A church secretary whose husband was jealous because the church meant more to her than he did. A youth leader whose wife gossiped about everyone (even the kids!) whom he worked with. Churches who’d never let their pastors have such messy family lives, often have no problem making deacons of people with even messier lives.

(SPOUSES) NOT OPPOSING (mi diavólos/“not devils”). Seriously, that’s the word Paul used: Diavólos. Devils. A deacon’s spouse shouldn’t be the devil.

No, he didn’t mean someone who’s possessed by a demon. But sometimes a spouse is gonna oppose a ministry so much, they’re gonna become the deacon’s adversary. They’re gonna actively fight it. Or passive-aggressively undermine it. If that’s your situation, you can’t take the position: You’re creating an enemy for the church. You’re siccing the devil on everybody.

Often bibles translate this as “not slanderers” (KJV) or “not accusatory.” But I think that underplays just how big a problem such a spouse will be.

(SPOUSES) NOT MIXED UP WITH ALCOHOL (nifalíus/“unmixed with wine”). Same as the deacon, spouses shouldn’t be focused on alcohol or greed. Since the deacon has to give up certain things for the sake of ministry, you don’t want them constantly tempted by a spouse who feels they shouldn’t have to give up anything—who offers only vocal support, but no lifestyle support. Talk is cheap. True support is more than talk.

Arguably, nifalíus could be a metaphor for how spouses shouldn’t have divided loyalties: They need to fully support the deacons, and not just halfway. You know, like the husband who doesn’t understand why his wife spends so many nights at church, or the wife who’s annoyed her husband can’t get every other Sunday morning free.

(SPOUSES) FAITHFUL IN ALL THINGS (pistás en pásin/“faith in all”). Divided loyalties are kinda covered in “faithful in all things”: Spouses must recognize the purpose of being a deacon is to serve, and service requires sacrifice on our part. And on the spouses’ part.

DEACONS MUST BE MONOGAMOUS (miás gynikós ándra/“one-woman men”). Sex is a powerful temptation for everyone, and not just ministers. Just about every church has undergone a sex scandal. If yours hasn’t, thank God… but then again, maybe it has, and you don’t know about it, ’cause the leaders managed to successfully hide it from you. Or they dismissed it because it was only a deacon involved in the scandal: “Only the usher,” or “only the secretary,” or “only the janitor.” Nobody that high up the totem pole. Nobody official.

In Paul’s day, in both Jewish and Roman culture, polygamy was allowed. Thanks to Roman influence, it was frowned upon. But Paul’s statement isn’t so much an endorsement of Roman-style monogamy, even though plenty of Christians have chosen to take it that way… and avoid his point. It’s a reminder of the fact many polygamists are always on the lookout for another spouse. Can you really trust ’em to impartially serve the women of their churches, when they’re really trying to hook up with them? Not really. (And that’s something to bear in mind about single deacons as well.)

GOOD, WELL-BEHAVED KIDS (téknon kalós proistámeni/“children well managed”). Arguably this can mean “well cared-for”: We’re not dealing with a deadbeat parent who’s never home, never pays child support, who has no idea what the kids are doing. But if the kids are little hellions, there’s a pretty good chance the parent is absent. Remember, every Christian’s first priority is their own family.

Téknon means Paul wasn’t writing about adult children. You could do everything right, but your adult children might still decide to have nothing to do with Christ. If that happens, it sucks, but that’s life. But your minor children are still your responsibility, and if a deacon doesn’t manage their minor children properly, how does this demonstrate their ability to manage God’s church? It doesn’t.

(DEACONS WITH) THEIR OWN HOMES (ton idíon oíkon/“their own house”). As you know, neither Jesus nor Paul had their own home, so having or renting one isn’t a requirement for ministry. But if you have a spouse and kids, you need to provide them a place to live. And that needs to be taken care of before you take on the duties of a deacon.

Often this is translated together with the previous clause: “And must manage his children and his household well,” as the NIV puts it. But the Greek text makes this two clauses: Well-ordered kids, and one’s own home.

Whether it’s a clean or messy house is kinda up to you, though clean implies better things than messy.

Extra requirements?

I’ve been criticized before for saying this, but I’m still gonna say it: Churches have every right to add qualifications to Paul’s lists, if and when they feel the need.

There are many Christians who insist churches have no business adding to the scriptures. They don’t want their churches forbidding them from alcohol, tobacco, movies with questionable content, makeup, certain styles of clothing, certain items from popular culture, being alone in a room or car with someone of the opposite sex, and all sorts of cultural limitations which we find in conservative churches. They want their freedoms in Christ.

I don’t blame them. But again: Sometimes we gotta curtail our freedoms for the sake of immature Christians. Let’s say your church ministers to a lot of recovering alcoholics. Or your church has just been through a really awful sex scandal. Stands to reason the church will be more sensitive than usual, with the rules about such matters much stricter than usual. No, these extra rules don’t come from the bible. They come from the needs of that church. And if you can’t minister to your church’s needs, don’t take the position.

If they aren’t actually the needs of the church, go ahead and prove your case to the leadership. If you can’t prove it, conform. If you can but they refuse to listen, you shouldn’t minister there anyway. And if you take a leadership position, then break the rules because you don’t agree with them, that’s sin: You promised before God to follow the rules, and violated that promise. Repent.

But once you meet your church’s requirements, get to serving. Help ’em grow God’s kingdom.