In our series on 1Timothy 1-3, we’ve considered the nature of the church as “the household of God.” As a household, it has its own, internal economy – a certain “home economics,” if you will. But this domestic economy is driven by the kingdom of heaven itself, “the economy of God” (1Tim.1:4). The church has been empowered with a divine charge, producing a people of “love from a pure heart, a clear conscience and sincere faith,” (1:5). In becoming such a community – marked by love, goodness, beauty and truth – the church progressively embodies the gospel of God as “a pillar and buttress of the truth” in the world, visibly demonstrating the invisible glory of God unveiled in Jesus, and so commends the truth of God to outsiders.
In other words, the great purpose of this humble household is to promote on earth the economy of heaven.
But if the church is to promote the heavenly economy, it must of course be itself ordered accordingly. It must be stewarded – that is to say, structured and administered – according to God’s will. And so Paul writes to Timothy: “I am writing these things so that if I delay, you may know how one ought to conduct themselves in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth,” (3:14-15). These “home economics” address not only the character of the church’s corporate life (2:1-15), but also its organization and leadership (3:1-13).
In chapter 3, Paul delineates the qualifications for two offices of the church: overseers (3:1-7) [or elders, see 1Tim.5:17; Titus 1:5, 7; Acts 20:17, 28] and deacons (3:8-13). It would appear that Paul expected these officers in general – and the overseers/elders in particular – to ensure that the charge of Christ and the apostles entrusted to the church continued to be faithfully discharged over time (see 1Tim.1:18; 2Tim.1:13-14; 2:2; Titus 1:5-9). That is to say, these officers were appointed in order to steward the household of faith according to the economy of God. As the early church father, Clement of Rome testifies:
The apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ was sent forth from God. So then Christ is from God, and the apostles are from Christ. Both therefore came from God according to their appointed order. Having therefore received a charge … they went forth preaching of the gospel of the kingdom of God to come. So preaching in both town and country, they appointed their first-fruits, when they had proved them by the Spirit, to be overseers and deacons among them that would come to believe… And our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife over the office of overseer. For this reason they appointed the aforesaid persons, and afterwards they provided a continuance, that if these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed to their ministration. These were appointed by them, or afterward by other men of repute with the consent of the whole Church…
Unfortunately, the apostle gives precious little by way of job descriptions. However, if we read 1Timothy (and Titus) closely, we are able to discern that overseers were expected to manage/govern the church (1Tim.3:4-5, 5:17a), as their title might suggest, as well as teach (5:17b; Titus 1:9). Given the strikingly similar qualifications for deacons and overseers, it is especially conspicuous that the task of governing or leading (cf. 3:5 and 3:12) and the ability to teach (3:2) are unmentioned in the case of deacons. This strongly suggests that deacons did not exercise authority in the church either in ruling/governing or formally teaching (cf. 1Tim.2:12).
For this reason, we don’t feel compelled to conclude that the women addressed in 1Timothy 3:11 must be deacons’ wives rather than women deacons (or, at the very least, deaconal assistants of some official capacity), which appears to be the straightforward reading of the text. Moreover, the witness of ancient Christianity overwhelmingly corroborates the existence of female deacons from the earliest period of the church.
So what did deacons do?
In our first sermon on deacons, we discussed the Greek term diakonos as having both a broad, general meaning (“servant,” or literally “table waiter”) and an official or titular application (“the diaconate”). Most of the instances of diakonos in the New Testament have the broader sense. But in places like Philippians 1:1 and 1Timothy 3:8 (and perhaps Romans 16:1) we have a more technical use of the word, referring to the office of deacon.
We considered the possibility that, just as “overseer” was descriptive of the function of elders, so “servant” was peculiarly descriptive of the tasks of deacons. We turned to Acts 6:1-7 to observe the division of labor between what some scholars have called the “proto-deaconate” (6:5-6) and the apostles: deaconing tables (6:1, 2) on the one hand, and deaconing the Word of God and prayer on the other (6:4). As most of the church has done throughout its history, we concluded that this division of labors is suggestive of the respective roles of deacons and overseers/elders. As we considered Acts 6, we concluded that deacons appear to play three significant roles: (1) support the ministry of the Word and prayer, (2) unite the church under pressure – some have called them “shock absorbers” – and (3) care for the needy. Synthesizing all of this, Mark Dever writes, “the New Testament would seem to bring together the three aspects of deacon ministry that we’ve noted in Acts 6 – care for physical needs to the end of uniting the Body under the ministers of the Word.” In an excellent overview of the office of deacons, Bob Thune summarizes:
Based on the primacy of eldership and the apostolic pattern in Acts 6, it seems that the job of a deacon is to serve as a “pastoral assistant” under the oversight and direction of the elders. As the Apostles delegated practical ministry tasks to the Seven, so the elders delegate practical ministry to the deacons as the size and needs of the church increase. This is certainly the way the early church understood the office of deacon: “Deacons… are to be honorable and sincere in performing the duties assigned to them by the presbyters [elders],” wrote Theodore of Mopsuestia.
In light of this, we concluded in our second sermon that deacons at Riverside Community Church would serve to coordinate ministries under the oversight of the elders. Specifically, they would provide material and logistical support to the ministry of the Word and prayer by practically caring for members of our congregation and community with the aim of promoting the unity and mission of the church. Below is the chart of the proposed deaconal roles/teams, including the names of candidates for those positions.
Please note that those without names indicate that these roles are “open,” and that we are currently asking God to raise up deacon-servants to fulfill them. Also, note that the teams coordinated by the respective deacons (e.g., Grounds Crew, Parking Team, Benevolence Team), though not currently deaconal roles, are seeking volunteers to assist them. Having said that, “Deacon Team” does indicate a team of (two or more) deacons who in turn coordinate teams of volunteers.
If you want to learn more about our candidates – Stephen Justice for deacon of buildings and grounds, Ross Skjold for deacon of hospitality, Erica Kimrey for deacon of children’s ministry and youth, Martin Graham for deacon of global missions, and Josh Park and Dorothy Moore for deacons-at-large – church members can find their information on Realm.
We will be voting to affirm these candidates at our first Family Meeting of the year on March 13th. In the meantime, please (1) get to know the candidates and ask us any questions or concerns you may have, (2) pray for this process, the candidates, and for future deacons to fill the outstanding roles, as well as volunteers for the various teams, and, finally (3) consider what role you might play, either as a future deacon or volunteer. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren,” (Life Together, p.109).
 Some doubt that deacons were officers, but posit instead that they were merely ad hoc functions. I admit I find the distinction somewhat tenuous, as such functions must have been formally recognized by the congregation in a rite that effectually commissioned the acknowledged members to such roles. But at any rate, I’ve found Bob Thune’s summary of the issue compelling: “First, in both Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3, deacons are mentioned in close connection with the elders. There is no doubt that the New Testament sees eldership as a formal office, instituted by the apostles to provide doctrinal oversight and shepherding care to the churches (see Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-3; Titus 1:9). Barnabas and Paul “appointed elders… in every church” (Acts 14:23). Paul commanded Titus to “appoint elders in every town” on the island of Crete (Titus 1:5). Scripture clearly lists qualifications that every potential elder must meet (Titus 1; 1 Timothy 3). But right after the list of elder criteria in 1 Timothy, we read, “Deacons, likewise…” The mention of deacons in such tight connection with eldership and the fact that deacons must meet a list of qualifications in order to serve strongly suggest that deacon, like elder, was a formal office in the New Testament churches. Second, Acts 6:1-4 shows an apostolically authorized division of labor in the church that lays the groundwork for the offices of elder and deacon,” Deacons: A Theological Study, p.4 (http://bobthune.s3.amazonaws.com/Deacons_%20A_Theological_Study.pdf).
 Clement of Alexandria (c. A.D. 150-220) speaks of “women deacons” or “ministering women,” and of “fellow deacons” who travelled with the apostles “not as wives but as sisters.” Origen declares “with the authority of the Apostle that even women are instituted deacons in the Church. This is the function that was exercised in the church of Cenchreae by Phoebe. Origen goes on to write, “there are … women deacons in the Church … Women, who by their good works deserve to be praised by the Apostle, ought to be accepted in the diaconate.” Fourth-century Fathers of the church, such as Epiphanius of Salamis, Basil of Caesarea, John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa acknowledge the ministry of women as ordained deacons. In Chrysostom’s message on 1Timothy 3:11, he declares: “Some have thought that this is said of women generally, but it is not so, for why should he introduce anything about women to interfere with his subject? He is speaking of those who hold the rank of Deaconesses.” Secular evidence from the early 2nd century confirms this. In a letter, Pliny the Younger attests to the role of female deacons in the early church. He refers to “two maid-servants,” whom he captures and tortures to find out more about the Christians, as “deaconesses” (in Latin the term is the female form of “ministers”). This would appear to establish the existence of the office of the deaconesses in parts of the eastern Roman Empire from the earliest times. The great Presbyterian theologian, B.B. Warfield concluded from Pliney’s letter that these women, “constituted a female diaconate similar to and of like standing with the board of deacons which, in the New Testament, we find in every church.”