Who are deacons?

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The first turn to Bible passage on deacons tends to be 2 Timothy 3. This is where Paul sets out the qualifications for both elders and deacons. In the first part of the chapter, Paul says that the role of elder/overseer/Bishop is a noble desire. He then sets out the qualifications for the role. Overseers are to be faithful in marriage, temperate and trustworthy in character, have a good reputation outside of the church, be able to manage their own household well and competent to teach God’s Word.[1]

Meanwhile, deacons are described in the next section in a similar manner.[2] They too are to display by their lives a level of sobriety, self-control and trustworthiness. There are two area of difference though, first of all deacons are not required to be able to teach. Then notice secondly, this condition comes in:

Their wives likewise[d] must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.”[3]

Now, why would Paul introduce requirements for the deacons’ wives and not for the elders’ wives? You would in fact expect a higher requirement on the wives of elders. Furthermore, notice that in essence the same things are being asked of these wives as is being asked of the deacons and elders, godly, trustworthy, sober characters.

The issue arises because in Greek, the word used for “wives” is simply “women”. So, you determine whether the word refers specifically to wives or to women generally by context.  The points raised above suggest therefore that verse 11 should say that “The women likewise must be dignified…” This would imply that we are talking about women deacons.

Now, at this point I think it is important that we do not read into the text our prior assumptions. What I mean is that some people have read the text and said “look women cannot be leaders in the church, therefore, if deacons are part of the leadership, then you cannot have women deacons.” They have concluded that verse 11 must refer to wives. Secondly, you have others who agree with the view that women cannot be leaders and so they have concluded that if women are deacons then deacons cannot be leaders.  In both cases, I think they are reading into the text (eisegesis). 

We need to look at the text on its own terms. On its own terms, the most reasonable interpretation here is that Paul is talking about women taking up a role (deacon) within the church.  However, at the same time, I want to acknowledge that 1 Timothy 3 on its own does not settle the issue of whether or not deacons are leaders within the church. On the one hand, at a very simple level, we might simply see the distinction here between overseers and servants, in effect the description of ministry teams with their leaders. However, this still does beg the question as to why Paul is singling out what looks to be a specific role rather than talking about the requirements for all church members generally.

There are therefore some further questions to answer and so we need to have a look at some other  Bible passages to build up our answers.

[1] 1 Timothy 3:1-7.

[2] 1 Timothy 3:8-13.

[3] 1 Timothy 3:11.

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