1 Timothy 3 is the “go-to-text” when it comes to considering the appointment of deacons and elders in the local church. There are some interesting questions to be asked of this passage. Does Paul not mention female elders simply because of the culture in which he lived, or is it simply that elders must be male because of the role that they undertake in the church? Also, does Paul refer to male and female deacons, or merely to male deacons and their wives? The text could mean either of these options. And if he deacons have to have wives whose lives are of excellent reputation – why is the same stipulation not made for elders? I tend to think that there is no scriptural issue with having deacons who are female.
In the table below, I’ve simply transposed all of the requirements for elders and deacons. (Text from the NLT). What I find particularly interesting is how much overlap there is between the roles of elder and deacon. So often, I tend to think of the elders as the more spiritual ones, and the deacons as the ones who “get the job done”. But nearly all of the requirements for being an elder have a counterpart for being a deacon. In fact, there are only five requirements that are made of elders and not of deacons (shown in blue).
|Elder||Deacons||The Women (Female Deacons?)|
|an honourable position||will be rewarded with respect from others and will have an increased confidence in their faith in Christ Jesus
|be a man whose life above reproach||be carefully examined before being appointed|
|be faithful to his wife||be faithful to their wives||be faithful in everything they do|
|exercise self-control||exercise self-control|
|live wisely||live with a clear conscience|
|have a good reputation||be well-respected||be respected|
|enjoy having guests in his home|
|be able to teach|
|not be a heavy drinker||not be heavy drinkers|
|not be violent|
|not be quarrelsome||not slander others|
|not love money||not be dishonest with money|
|manage his own family well||manage their children and household well|
|Not be a new believer||be committed to the mystery of the faith now revealed|
|be well spoken of by those outside the church|
So, let’s first consider the areas of common requirements. Church officers to live lives that are above reproach. If anyone desires to serve as an elder or a deacon, they can expect to be questioned. Someone whose lifestyle doesn’t match with the truth of the gospel should not be appointed to such a position. For example, if someone beats their spouse, they wouldn’t be eligible. Nor would someone co-habiting before marriage. Nor would anyone else living in deliberate sin. Not that a deacon or elder has to be free from sin… none of us is that except for Christ. But deacons and elders should show by their life that they are seeking to live in imitation of Christ.
One of the ways that is seen is in their faithfulness to their spouse. If one is willing to ignore your marriage vows, can you be trusted to keep your promise to serve God faithfully? In fact, for the women, Paul writes that one has to be “faithful in everything they do”. Faithfulness is a mark of spiritual maturity – which is, I believe, what we should be looking for in church officers.
Both deacons and elders are to exercise self-control. Yes, everyone is tempted to sin, but a sign of spiritual maturity is not giving heed to “the sinful desires” within us, but instead exercising self-control, choosing to focus on Christ and all that is good and true and honourable instead.
Both are to “live wisely”. I’ve linked this to the Deacon’s charge to “live with a clear conscience”. How we choose to live our lives should be in imitation of God – if we do so, we will have clear consciences.
Being “well respected” – having a good reputation – is very important. Church officers are called to lead and serve their churches. If they do not have the respect of the church, will they be followed, will they be able to lead effectively?
Both are to avoid being heavy drinkers. Of course, they are permitted to drink, but not to excess. Why not? Because we are to be filled with the Spirit – we are to be clearheaded – we are to not put ourselves in a position where we might sin because we have allowed our judgement to get clouded.
Both are to not be quarrelsome. I’ve linked this to the women being told to not slander others, since both speak to keeping good inter-personal relationships. Christians are meant to live lives of love, loving others as much as we love ourselves. To be quarrelsome or to slander is to not show love to others, to not put them first.
Both are to be honest when it comes to finances. Money is a root of all sorts of evils. Church officers must be seeking more than a way to get rich or “tide themselves over”. Judas the Traitor is an example of one who allowed his love of money to override his good judgement. Church officers are responsible for the church – they should be able to be trusted.
Both should manage their families well – for one’s family is a microcosm of the relationship between Christ and the church. Also, as Paul points out pragmatically, if one can’t handle your family, how could you handle the church.
Elders should not be new believers, and deacons should be committed to the mystery of the faith now revealed. True, there is an added depth to the elder’s requirement. But these both speak to the person being committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul summarises this for us at the end of the table.
So what separates an elder? Firstly, they must enjoy having guests in their home. Elders provide spiritual insight and guidance – and they don’t do it just on a 9-5 schedule. Being an elder means opening up your life – your home even – to those who are in need of teaching or guidance or encouragement. Secondly, elders should be able to teach. The role of an elder is not only to provide oversight, but also to instruct and exhort and encourage the church. Does all of this teaching need to be didactic? Not necessarily. But every elder should be seeking to teach others to know God better.
Thirdly and fourthly, elders shouldn’t be violent, but should be gentle. Yes, they must be ready to teach, correct, and rebuke – but it should be done in such a way that draws people in to repentance, rather than throwing them into a guilt trip. I think of how Jesus reacted to those who were sinners. Yes, he called them to repentance, but he also ate with them.
Finally, an elder should be well spoken of by those outside of the church. Deacons are the servants of the church, elders are the teachers of the church. By nature, an elder has a far more “public” face than a deacon. Elders should not bring the gospel of Christ into disrepute. What a horror it would be to have someone who is in church circles the saint, but who in “private life” (see the first unique requirement again!) is known to be a fraud or a cheat or a charlatan.
So, that’s how Paul summarises the requirements of elders and deacons. What does it mean for me? Well – as a pastor, I think I probably lie among the elders. Does that mean that I’m perfect at all of these requirements. Not at all. But I am seeking, with God’s help, to be. Lord Jesus, please help me.