1 Timothy 3:8-13

Perhaps you have heard about the old deacon who used to pray every Wednesday evening at prayer meeting. Invariably, he would conclude every prayer in the same way: “And, Lord, clean all the cobwebs out of my life.” For him, the cobwebs symbolized those things which ought not be there but nonetheless had gathered during the week.

The repetition became too much for one other gentleman who was present for every prayer meeting service. One evening, when the deacon closed his prayer with the traditional ending, the other man jumped to his feet and shouted: “Lord, Lord, don’t do it! Kill the spider once and for all!”
As you are aware, there are almost as many anecdotes about deacons as there are about ministers. This particular story, however, is especially useful in illustrating the essence of the biblical teaching about deacons.
Aside from the brief job description given in Acts 6 for the deacons in the church in Jerusalem, no definition of deacon’s duties is given anywhere else in Scripture. In contrast, most discussions about deacons in the contemporary church focus upon the tasks of deacons.
Most often, Christians talk about what deacons do, don’t do, should do, need to do, used to do, or want to do. Yet the Bible gives little specific help with regard to the work of the deacon. Perhaps that explains why there is so much confusion and such wide diversity of opinion with regard to the deacon.
On the other hand, the clear focus of the biblical teaching is on the character of deacons. Scripture is more concerned with who they are, what they are made of, the kind of people they ought to be and must be in order to honorably serve the cause of Christ. In other words, Scripture would suggest that if deacons are made of the right stuff, they can be trusted to do the right thing.
Charles William Eliot, once president of Harvard University, said: “There is not much difference between men but the little difference there is makes all the difference in the world.” There is not much difference between a deacon and other Christians, but the little difference there is makes all the difference in the church.
Seven tests are given in the text which underscore the unique character of the deacon.
Test No. 1: The deacon should be serious, or “grave” according to the King James Version (1 Timothy 3:8).
Perhaps the best way to describe what is meant is to define first precisely what is not meant. The writer does not mean to imply that deacons are to be gloomy, or characterized by a forbidding security. Nor are they to be persons who have lost all zest in life.
“Rejoice in the Lord” (Philippians 3:1) is a typical New Testament admonition. The deacon should be one who demonstrates that joy in living. Certainly the deacon should have no less joy in life than other Christians.
Neither does the admonition mean to suggest that the deacon should be a person of judgmental spirit. Matthew Arnold was known for his constant complaining and critically-condemning attitude toward others. When he died, a neighbor said about him: “Poor Matthew. He won’t like God.” Too many deacons and other Christian leaders have shared Arnold’s reputation.
A person is serious when there is about him or her a certain attitude or behavior which indicates that his is a well-disciplined life; that is, a life under control. There is a tone established by the presence of a “serious” person which indicates that his or her standard of life has been determined by a higher purpose, a distinctive calling. The deacon’s life calls forth respect because of its consistent reflection of God.
Test No. 2: The deacon should not be double tongued; i.e., saying one thing and meaning another or, saying one thing to one person and another thing to another person (1 Timothy 2:8). The Moffat translation reads: “They are not to be tale-bearers.”
Leaders in the church, whether laypersons or professional ministers, are entrusted with the knowledge of the personal affairs of many congregational members. Such information must be kept in the strictest confidence. The leader cannot be too accessible and certainly not free with information.
Deacons cannot be itinerant gossips, moving from one person or group to another within the congregation, divulging their knowledge of the intimate affairs of others.
Perhaps it is too much to expect that a deacon should keep all such matters strictly confidential, even from their spouse. That, of course, is the ideal toward which leaders should always strive. However, assuming that most deacons do share with their spouses information which comes to them in their role as spiritual leaders of the church, extreme care should be given to selecting those persons whose spouses are also not given to gossip, tale-bearing, double talking. In fact, v. 11 repeats these first two tests for the deacon’s spouse. Due heed should be given to this double reminder!
Test No. 3: The deacon should not be given to much wine (1 Timothy 3:8).
The Christian should not ever develop a dependency of any form upon wine. A Christian should not rely upon alcohol to get him or her through the day, or through some social event, or even to secure a sale or promotion. Nothing should dictate the Christian’s decision to consume alcoholic beverages.
A second principle is the concern with creating a stumbling block for another person. There can be little argument with the clarity of the scriptural position: “… it is not right to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble” (Romans 14:21). Although that may seem to be too narrow and too demanding for many, such a teaching is firmly rooted in our Lord’s demand for the practice of self-denial (see Mark 8:34-35).
Test No. 4: The deacon should not be greedy of filthy lucre (KJV) or, not greedy for gain (RSV, 1 Timothy 3:8). Other translations suggest that the meaning could also mean that the deacon should not be self-serving; i.e., should not accept the office if he or she has any other agenda except to serve the cause of Christ.
Certainly the text suggests that the deacon should not have dollar signs where pupils of the eyes are found on normal people. Obviously, that refers to the deacon’s personal life.
Subtle temptations abound for all of us, suggesting ways which are less than honest by which we may gain financial advantage. There are plenty of opportunities each day to be careless with the truth in buying or selling; to practice legal, but nonetheless questionable, methods of getting something for nothing; to expect special privileges or favors not given to others. Plenty of opportunity is available to pay less for services rendered than they are worth, or to demand more for services given than they deserve; to ignore the credit due when the customer has mistakenly made an overpayment, or to slander the competitor.
Church leaders — in fact, all Christians — should always be above question in such matters. These are simply fundamental principles upon which any civilized society must be built.
Furthermore, the deacon should not have dollar signs in his eyes when it comes to a consideration of the Lord’s work. Deacons should be extravagant in their generosity. The tithe should be the minimum level of their support of God’s work.
Additionally, the deacon should be more concerned about the number of people who can be reached by a new program, position, or facility than how much it will cost. That does not mean that we are to be careless in our stewardship of the Lord’s money. However, the Lord condemned the servant who did nothing but sit on the resources he had been given (see Matthew 25:14-30).
Money usually yields money when invested wisely, except in the kingdom of God. In that realm, money invested always yields the souls of men: the only kind of treasure which can be stored up in heaven.
Test No. 5: The deacon should hold the “mystery of the faith with a good conscience” (1 Timothy 3:9). The NIV translation reads: “Deacons must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience.”
A dual thrust seems to be implied here. First, there is the urgency of keeping hold of the faith, implying a whole-hearted faith, a faith which is conviction (not mere obstinacy), a tenacity for the Christian faith which will not let go.
In thick and thin, dark and light, good and bad, solitude or public eye, worship center or work place, the deacon is to be known as one who holds to his faith.
The other thrust underscores the deep truths inherent in the faith. All Christians would do well to note the New Testament’s recurrent emphasis upon the mysterious nature of the gospel. Far from being so simplistic and so clear as the nose on your face, the gospel has confounded the wise and caused many to stumble.
To simplify the gospel is to prostitute it. We would do well to realize that bumper sticker theology, refrigerator magnet truth, cross stitch platitudes can never adequately express the full depth of what God has profoundly accomplished on our behalf through Jesus Christ.
Test No. 6: The deacon should be tested first (1 Timothy 3:10). Certainly this does not refer to a formal examination, but has reference to the general judgment of the Christian community. Perhaps 1 Timothy 5:22 lends additional insight into the meaning of this test: “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands.”
Possibly the contrasting images of the marathon runner and sprinter would help illustrate what is meant. The deacon should be a marathon runner: one who can hold out, who has demonstrated the capacity to endure; one who has an honorable record of service.
The sprinter, on the other hand, is one who starts with a sudden burst of speed and runs rapidly, but only for a short distance. The church and the cause of Christ clearly need the marathon runner.
In other words, the deacon should be one who is now active, faithful, loyal, involved, and participating in the life of the church. The Bible knows nothing of the practice of nominating or electing persons to positions of spiritual leadership who have dropped out as a way of enticing them to drop back in on the congregation.
Henry David Thoreau was once thrown in prison for refusing to pay his taxes because a portion went to support the Mexican War. Ralph Waldo Emerson went to see him in jail and said: “Thoreau, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied: “Waldo, what are you doing out there?”
The church of Jesus Christ does not need leaders who cannot go the distance and who are now on the outside looking in, no matter why they are out there. This text is a character test and a person’s lack of involvement witnesses to a flaw in their Christian character and commitment. A deacon certainly should be allowed time to demonstrate that capacity to persevere.
Test No. 7: The deacon should live in a Christian family (1 Timothy 3:12).
This verse is the foundation passage for many Christians who insist that the deacon must always be a man. The argument is that only a man can be the husband of one wife.
However, if equal weight were given to the literal interpretation of the entire verse, a person could serve as a deacon only if: a) the deacon were a male; b) the deacon had never been remarried, even if he had been widowed; c) the deacon had children still living at home; and, d) his family demonstrated his skills in effective family management.
Clearly, the primary thrust of the verse cannot be disputed: the deacon must be able to rely upon family support. Service as a deacon is not a task which can be accomplished apart from the sensitive, affirming support of a strong family structure.
The spouse must also reflect the same character traits demanded of the deacon. Otherwise, the deacon will likely not succeed in serving the cause of Christ.
Because the family setting is the most difficult arena to live out the Christian faith, the church desperately needs to see the Christian family modelled by its leadership.
Upon reflection, it is apparent that what this passage sets forth is standard Christian character. All of God’s people should demonstrate the kind of personal strength and integrity demanded of the deacon.
Have you seen yourself in this passage? Have you seen the person you used to be; the person you might have become; the person you might yet be if you truly give yourself to the lordship of Jesus Christ?

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