THE QUALIFICATIONS OF A DEACON

The diaconal office, like the office of elders, is a perpetual and ordinary office in the New Testament; and thus, just as there are biblical qualifications for elders, there are also biblical qualifications for deacons. These qualifications are given in Acts 6:3 and 1 Timothy 3:8–12. But before we discuss these qualifications, we must note three things:

Firstly, unlike in the case of the qualifications for elders, every of the qualifications for deacons are what should be expected of every believer. That is, where we fail in any of these areas, we fail the Lord and sin against Him. But, of course, what may be tolerated by the church when found in ordinary members, ought not to be tolerated in office bearers.

Secondly, since ordination does not impart any grace or gift, it follows that when the church ordains anyone to an office, she merely recognises or ratifies the call of Christ to the individual to serve in the church. This call of Christ is indicated to the church by the Lord, with an endowment upon the individuals, of a greater than usual measure of gifts and fruits of the Spirit necessary for the office. This personal call of Christ, though objective to Christ, He being omniscient, must be regarded by the church as subjective until the church elects and ordains the person into office.

But thirdly, it follows that the biblical qualifications for the office are not to be taken as entry requirements but as qualifications for life, seeing the office is for life. Thus, for example, a man might be ordained to be a deacon because at the time of election, he appeared to have met the qualifications given in the Word of God. But suppose after a few years, it is discovered that he is “greedy of filthy lucre,” then this deacon, if he does not repent, ought to remove from office by deposition. Otherwise, the name of Christ would be greatly dishonoured, the standard of godliness in church would be lowered as the members of the church are discouraged by the conduct of the office bearers and the church; and the church may poise herself for chastisement for tolerating scandal. Remember that what may not be regarded as scandalous for ordinary members of the church may be scandalous for office bearers, because a higher standard is required of them.

With these in mind, let us look at the qualifications for deacons:

Reputation

When the diaconal office was first instituted by the Apostles for the service of tables and the daily ministration of the church (Acts 6:1–2), the very first qualifications which they required of the seven men to be appointed as deacons were that they be “men of honest report” (Acts 6:3). Actually, the Greek is a participle (Grk: marturoumenous, Pres. Pas. Ptc., msc. pl. acc. of martureô) which, when translated literally, would be “men who are being witnessed.” In other words, they must be men who are seen and known by others and have a good reputation or testimony.

Although, we are not told whether the Apostles were referring to having a good reputation of all including those outside the church, we can safely infer this to be the case. A deacon is an officer of the church. If he has a bad reputation among unbelievers, then whatever reputation he has among the brethren, his being in office would bring dishonour to the name of Christ. Moreover, the Apostle Peter tells us that as believers, we must have our “conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against [us] as evildoers, they may by [our] good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Pet 2:12). If this is required of ordinary members of the church, how much more should we expect the same for the officers of the church (see also 1 Tim 3:7).

This being the case, all who would be ordained as deacons must be “proved” (Grk: dokimazô) or tested, and appointed to the office only if “found blameless” (Grk: anegklêtos, 1 Timothy 3:10). He must not be quickly elevated to office because he is found to be very enthusiastic with a few things he was appointed to do. A deacon should have a consistent zeal that is grounded upon a mature love for Christ, and is therefore lasting and unfazed by difficulties. A lately observed burst of enthusiasm coupled with testimonies of God’s grace, could be the beginning of a lifetime of committed service to the Lord. But it could also be due to a fleeting emotional surge founded upon other reasons, and thus it is always dangerous to elevate anyone to office too quickly.

A deacon should be ordained to office only after there is sufficient time for the church to observe his spiritual maturity and Christian conduct, and he is found blameless or beyond reproach. Again, this does not mean that he must be sinless or flawless, which is impossible in this life. What it means is that there should not be any glaring inconsistencies or faults in his life and conduct which, if found in an office bearer, could bring dishonour to Christ and embarrassment to His Church.

It is exceedingly sad to hear of powerful deacons being defended by their pastors and elders when a significant proportion of the congregation have strong reservations about their character and conduct. This qualification of blamelessness requires that any deacon (or elder) who is suspected of wrong-doings and moral failures, even if it is by two or three members of the congregation (Mt 18:16; 1 Tim 5:19) to be tried, and deposed if he cannot be exonerated satisfactorily.

Mental and Spiritual Qualifications

The second qualification given by the Apostles in Jerusalem, for deacons, is that they must be “full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom” (Acts 6:3). How do we know if a person is full of the Holy Ghost? Perhaps in those days when the sign gifts had not been withdrawn, they could be identified by the extraordinary gifts they possessed. But what about today? I would suggest, we may identify him not only by the way he prays, but also by the evident presence in his life of the fruit of the Spirit, namely: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, [and] temperance” (Gal 5:22–23).

Wisdom, on the other hand, may be identified through casual conversations, especially when the discussion enters realms where subjective spiritual judgements are called for, because there is no immediate right or wrong answer. For instance, one such issue would be: “Should the church be involved in helping the poor and destitute who are unbelievers, who are also receiving helps from the pagan temples?” In such a controversial issue, wisdom may be seen and recognised regardless of one’s opinion, so long as intelligent probing questions are asked and scriptural knowledge is brought to bear on the issue.

Knowledge and faith are, of course, important. The deacon must be “holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience” (1 Tim 3:9). The phrase “mystery of the faith” has been the subject of much scholarly debates as to what it means, but I believe Calvin is right when he says it refers to the “sum of Christian doctrine” which is “to be embraced with the deepest reverence” (com. in loc.).

A deacon holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience, believes the core verities of the Christian faith without mental reservations and without any glaring inconsistencies in his conduct which would contradict his profession of faith. Why is this qualification necessary for deacons, though they are not called to teach? Calvin gives an excellent pastoral answer:

… although they do not hold the office of teaching, yet it would be exceedingly absurd to hold a public office in the Church, while they were ill informed in the Christian faith, more especially since they must frequently be laid under the necessity of administering advice and consolation, if they do not choose to neglect their duties (Ibid.).

Note how Calvin refers to the Christian Faith rather than the Confession of Faith of the church. Today, we usually make a distinction between the two terms: the first being more general, whereas the second would include specific interpretations and distinctives of the church. But it is very probable that, for Calvin, the two terms were more or less synonymous. This is because in those days, there were not so many different expressions of Christianity claiming to be evangelical and biblical, and so nothing in the Confession of Faith could not be undisputedly given the appellation: “Christian Faith.” In any case, some believe that Calvin would agree that this qualification of Paul requires that deacons must, together with the elders, fully subscribe to the Confession of Faith of the church. Calvin is of course not infallible, though greatly respected because of his experience and spiritual insights.

I believe full subscription to the Confession be an ideal situation in the case where the church is quite established and members have been well-taught as to the biblical basis of the Confession of Faith. However, in the case of a reforming church where a significant part of the congregation is still learning or studying the biblical basis of the Confession, then prudence may dictate a less stringent requirement for the diaconate while the church waits upon the Lord to grow in unity of faith.

Domestic Qualifications

Deacons must be “husbands of one wife” (Grk: mias gunaikos andres, 1 Timothy 3:12). This qualification is the same as for elders. Some believe that this means all deacons must be married, others believe that deacons should not be polygamous, while others hold that deacons should not be divorced and re-married, especially if the divorce was on unbiblical ground. After weighing the various meanings, it appears that a combination of the latter two is most likely correct. But beyond that, a deacon (or an elder) must be faithful to his wife. We must remember that the Greek, rendered “husbands of one wife,” may also be rendered more literally: “one-woman men.” A man may not be polygamous or divorced and remarried, but fail to be a “one-woman man” because of marital infidelity.

Deacons must also be found “ruling their children and their own houses well” (1 Tim 3:12). The word rendered “ruling” (Grk: proistêmi), may also be translated “managing,” “maintaining,” and “leading.” As deacons are called not only to the ministry of mercy and stewardship, but also to manage the temporal affairs of the church as assistants to the elders, it is needful, if they are married, that they be well able to manage their own homes: not only in the spiritual aspects, but in the financial and logistical aspects as well. What is said of elders may also be said of deacons: “For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?” (1 Tim 3:5).

Moreover, while the wives of elders should not be prominent in the church, so as not to give occasions for any implicit claim or attribution of authority to women, which is forbidden in the Word of God (1 Tim 2:11–12), the wives of deacons may often be required to lend a hand to support their husbands in their assigned tasks. As such, the Apostle Paul includes the character of the deacons’ wives under the qualification of deacons. Their wives must be “grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things” (1 Tim 3:11). This qualification of the wives, not only guard against disrepute to the diaconal office through the behaviour of their wives, but also ensure that the deacons’ efforts at fulfilling their duties be not undermined by their wives. The deacon and his wife should be one in godliness and love for Christ and His people. Otherwise, it would be extremely discouraging and frustrating for both of them as the diaconal office will often require the deacon to spend so much time in the work of the church, that there is little time for leisure.

Personality Qualifications

“Likewise must the deacons be grave” (1 Tim 3:8). This does not mean that deacons must be constantly serious faced, aloft and unsmiling. No, the word “grave” (Grk: semnos) means “worthy of respect or honour, noble, dignified, serious” (BAGD). No deacon should be elected into office simply because he is a popular person. Neither should a deacon be respected only because he holds an office. He must be respected by the members of the church even before he is called to the office. He must have an orderly, self-discipline life, and a serious and dignified demeanour, which emanates of warmth and love that makes him worthy of respect by the members of the church.

At the same time, a deacon must “not [be] double-tongued” (1 Tim 3:8). To be “double-tongued” (Grk: dilogos) is to be insincere, or to say one thing to one person, and another thing to another person. A double-tongued person, for example, may give the impression that he approves of what is said by someone in front of the person, but behind the person, he may strongly disagree with what was said. A deacon ought rather to be straightforward, open and honest. Though it may sometimes be painful to reveal the truth, it is far better to do so in love than to give a wrong impression. An atmosphere of politicking and suspicion in the church often occur when office bearers and members of the church fail to say what they mean and to mean what they say.

Habitual Qualifications

A deacon must “not [be] given to much wine” (1 Tim 3:8). Paul is not saying that deacons must not drink at all. It would be legalism to think there is anything sinful with drinking wine per se. But at the same time, we must think that Paul is only prohibiting anyone who is addicted to alcohol (cf. NASB) from the office. The word rendered “given to” (Grk: prosechô) is translated elsewhere as “take heed” (Mt 6:1), “give heed” (1 Tim 1:4), “give attendance to” (1 Tim 4:13), etc. The relative mildness of these verbs suggests to us that Paul has in mind that deacons should not indulge in much wine, whether or not they are addicted to it. Wine (or beer) drinking ought not to be a social or pleasurable past-time of the deacon. This is especially so since he must maintain a clear mind, seeing he will often have to handle the finances of the church.

Last, but very importantly, a deacon must “not [be] greedy of filthy lucre” (1 Tim 3:8). That is, they must not be “fond of dishonest gain” or be “greedy for money.” Since deacons are charged with handling the church’s money, it is essential that they be not tempted to put their hands to the collection. Practically, a deacon should be generous with his own money, but when it comes to the church’s money, which is entrusted to his care, he ought to be scrupulous and determined not to dig into it even when he is suffering a financial crisis, and even if it is for a loan.

Conclusion

The biblical qualification for deacons may not be as stringent and comprehensive as for elders, but it is no less a very high standard when properly considered. An existing deacon, who has a proper estimation of himself, studying this list, is more than likely to feel discouraged by his own shortfalls. However, let him not entertain any thoughts of giving up rather than seeking God’s help and strength to persevere and improve. The high standard required of deacons is really the same standard required for all believers. It is a standard which drives out self-sufficiency and shuts us up to Christ to cling on unto Him for help. Unless, the aspect in which we perceive ourselves to disqualify is not within our control, giving up would be equivalent to giving in to sin. Let us rather examine ourselves, and confess and repent of our faults rather than seeking to dull our conscience by asking to be deposed from office.

Of course, it would be quite different, if the church (through the elders), having examined a particular deacon and finds him disqualifying as a deacon. In such a case, the church should call the erring deacon to repentance. And if after a stipulated period of time, no observable change occurs, then the church ought to depose him, declaring his ordination to have been a mistake in the first place.

Let any potential deacon also not be discouraged by the high standard. As “the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45), so let us desire to minister unto others. The word “minister” (Grk: diakoneô) is related to the word “deacon.” We may render it as “deaconise” or “serve as a deacon.” In a certain sense, Christ is the deacon par excellence, and the service of the deacon is reflective of the ministry of the Lord. What a great privilege! Moreover, deacons who use the office well, “purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 3:13). They not only gain the respect and honour of the members of the church, so that they gain even more privilege of being used of the Lord, but they are also given the privilege of boldness and assurance of perseverance in the faith, which every child of God will long to have.


JJ Lim