November 23, 1997
What exactly is the role of a deacon, and how does it differ from the role of an elder in the church? Alistair Begg clarifies the similarities and differences between these equally valued roles and describes the character requirements that are necessary for deacons and their wives. Serving the church well and with a good attitude brings blessing to the servant and glory to God, regardless of the roles we fulfill.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Father, we pray that as we turn to this passage that has so much to say about serving you, that you will teach us from it: the practicality of it, its necessity, what it means for us as a church and will mean. We pray you will give us clarity in everything so that its truth may furnish our minds and frame our lives and help us to develop our own church family here in accordance with the principles of your Word. For we ask it in your Son’s name. Amen.
One Timothy 3:8 is where we resume our studies here in this portion of Scripture as we’re looking at the nature of the church, as Paul provides Timothy with instruction concerning how things are to be conducted within the household of God. And when we take the section that begins at verse 8 and goes to verse 13 and combine it with the first seven verses of the chapter, we discover a twofold pattern for the official ministry of the church. One group, the elders, the episkopoi, from which we get episcopal, are responsible for the oversight and care of the church. And this other group, the diakonoi, are responsible for the service elements that emerge from the elders’ jurisdiction.
This is something that we find developing in the New Testament. And the emphasis on this twofold aspect is not as often as we might have anticipated. I think this is largely due to the fact that the great concern, which is an understandable concern, on the part of the apostles was simply that the right kind of leadership, rule, care, oversight, and instruction would be present amongst the companies of God’s people as they were established. But we do have hints of this twofold dimension—for example, in the greeting that Paul gives to the church at Philippi when he writes to them. He writes there, “To all the saints” that are “in Christ Jesus”—namely, all the members of the church—along or “together with the overseers and [the] deacons.” And you find, for example, various places in the New Testament, in the Acts and elsewhere, where this twofold dimension of leadership is directed.
And what I want to do this morning is consider this with you. And I’d like to ask and seek to answer four straightforward questions. First question is simply this: What is the relationship between elders and deacons? What is the relationship between these two dimensions of ministry within the church? The answer to that will not be a new one to those of us who’ve been around for a while. It will simply reinforce things we know. But for some of us who may never have thought this through, you may want to note this and consider it at your leisure.
Well, first of all, we notice that elders and pastors are given to the church for the spiritual direction, the rule, care, and teaching of God’s people—that in the purpose of God, some are responsible for the leadership of others while all are responsible to the leadership of Christ through his Word. And so elders are set to the task of ruling, caring, shepherding, providing direction, and instruction. Deacons are those to whom specific tasks of service are assigned. And indeed, the word, the verb, diakonos, is, there in the Scriptures, not always translated in the official way as a “deacon” but often simply translated as a “servant,” because the role of a deacon is simply that which their name connotes—namely, the role of service.
Now, the early division in the church is seen, as I said to you, in a number of areas. Interestingly, the pattern—although not the designation of initial deacons, I don’t think—is provided for us in Acts chapter 6, where, in a familiar passage (if you turn to it, you will see it before you), in Acts chapter 6, there was a pressing and practical need for the apostles to make sure that they did not give up the primary task which was theirs—namely, to give themselves to prayer and the preaching of the Word of God. And so, in order to deal with the practical matters which were before them, and primarily as it had to do with the distribution of food to various widows in the burgeoning church, then these seven men were set apart to this responsibility. They were men, according to verse 3, who were “to be full of the Spirit and [of] wisdom.”
Now, some people will say that these are the first deacons in the church. And we understand why they would say that. I don’t believe they are, because there is no formalized structure at this point as the church develops. I think what we can say with conviction is that what these individuals were set apart to do established a pattern which was then developed as the church grew—namely, that there were to be those within the congregation who would not neglect the preaching and teaching and praying for the congregation, the watching and the warning and the leading and the feeding. And in order to facilitate their giving themselves to that, there were to be these individuals who were set apart to this servant responsibility. And that’s why, incidentally, as the church grows, you find occasions where there are elders with no deacons, as in Titus 1:5, but you will not find occasions where there are deacons with no elders: because the apostles understood that the primary need was for the church to be brought under the jurisdiction of godly men set apart to the responsibility of nurturing and guiding the congregation.
When we think about the relationship between them, distinguishing on the one hand between teaching and caring and providing direction and the servant arm of the church, it’s imperative that we think not again in terms of status—i.e., you know, if you become an elder, that’s the sort of big one, and if you become a deacon, that’s the little one—but rather to think in terms of service. And when we think in terms of service, then we realize that the distinction between these men becomes immediately a distinction of function and not a distinction of value, in the same way that we said a husband and wife are equal but different. They share equality before God. The wife is not inferior to her husband, but she has to take a position under her husband as given her by God. The man is not superior, but he has just been given a different function. In the same way, when you think of elders and deacons within the church and how they relate to one another, if a church understands that the issue is service and not status, then they will be so better helped than many places where that is misunderstood.
I can think of lots of places, without mentioning them specifically, where the issue of leadership within the church is total chaos. It is disruption, and it is confusion. And it is not helped by the fact that these congregations often have myriad terms and committees and bits and pieces for which they can find no peculiar explanation in the New Testament. So, for example, you will read their constitution, and it says, “The trustees do this, and the trustees do that.” And you say to them, “Well, what do the trustees actually do?” And they will say, “Well, they’re actually the elders of the church.” And depending how gracious you want to be, you’re going to say, “Well, why don’t you call them the elders of the church? Where’d you come up with the ‘trustees’ idea?” Or you go in certain Baptist churches, and there they have deacons, and when they come to the section on elders, they just jump over that. They say, “We don’t have elders. We just have deacons. But the deacons are elders,” and so on. And it’s just total chaos. So people read the Bible; they say, “I don’t know how any of this works.”
Therefore, we must labor hard to understand the distinction between them as well as the way in which they complement one another. The responsibility of eldership is a lifetime responsibility. The responsibility of deaconship is, in most cases, limited in its time frame. And it makes perfect sense, because whereas the task of an eldership is lifelong—it never ends. You never end being a father. You never cease to be a father, but you may cease to be a taker out of garbage cans, because that gets delegated. You may cease to be a carpenter, but you will remain a father. You may cease to perform a certain function, but you will remain a father. In the same way, eldership is lifelong in its responsibility, whereas deaconship lasts only as long as a specific function is being fulfilled.
The deacons are to be an extension of the heart and the hands and the mind of the elders in response to practicalities. That’s why I say again that Acts 6 is a good pattern, albeit not a formalized diaconate. The thing that cannot, must not ever happen is that deacons are established in a local congregation as an independent, parallel institution, as a form of checks and balances à la the Congress and the Senate. And I go and speak in various churches, and they will explain their structure of leadership to me in just those terms: “Well, we have the elders, but just in case the elders get out of hand, we have the deacons, and they hold the elders in check. You know, we send it between committee and committee.” Well, I understand why we would want to ensure that the elders don’t get out of check, but that’s not the role of the deacons. Because the deacons are to be the serving arm, hands, of the shepherds of the congregation.
Now, we could say more, but we won’t. That’s the first question: What is the relationship between them? It’s close. It’s complementary. It’s a distinction of function; it’s not a distinction of value.
Secondly: What are the requirements necessary to serve as a deacon? Who should serve as a deacon?
Well, interestingly, as you will note from this list, there is a great similarity between what an elder is to look like and what a deacon is to look like in terms of character. But of course, that should be no surprise, because the characteristics for both elders and deacons are to be the characteristics that are the identifying features of those who truly walk with Christ. In other words, elders and deacons are not called to bear testimony to a whole different kind of lifestyle that is not part and parcel of the congregation. All of the congregation is called to be conformed to the image of Christ, and those who serve in leadership or in servant roles should inevitably carry with them a sense of the quality of their lives so that they’re not open to disrepute and abuse.
Now, what I want to do is give you seven words, all that begin with s, which summarize the characteristics of serving as a deacon.
Number one: a deacon is to be serious. Where do you get that from? Well, the phrase “worthy of respect” is translated in the King James Version “grave.” It is translated in the New King James Version “reverent.” And it is obvious. When someone serves in the responsibility of the church and has any function, whatever that may be, however menial it may be regarded as by some, it is not to be the basis of flippancy or silliness, but it is to be conducted with gravity—that it’s got to be a sense of privilege and reverence in going about the task.
For a year of my life, I worked as a cleaner-handyman, with the emphasis on cleaner rather than handyman. If you doubt that, check with my wife. But I was a cleaner, and I was a jolly good cleaner. And the reason I was, was because I determined that if cleaning was my name, then cleaning was my game. And I had the responsibility first thing every morning, around seven, to clean the entranceway for a college of education. It had large, large doors with two plate glass windows in them, brass handles, and huge brass key locks. It had a slate floor, it had flowers laid up on three tiers, and it sparkled by seven thirty. You say, “Well, you’re pretty proud of that, aren’t you?” Yes, I am! It wasn’t much of a job, but it was my job. And it gave me great satisfaction to make the glass look as though there had never been a hand touch it and to make the brass shine so that the first professor’s hand on the handle was the first mark of the day. It wasn’t particularly brilliant. Anybody could have done it. But I didn’t do it with flippancy or silliness but with gravity, seriousness, because it was a privilege, and they paid me for it.
It’s the difference, incidentally, between what goes on behind the average counter of a fast-food restaurant in 1997 as opposed to what went on in 1972 when I came to America for the first time. Twenty-five years ago, it was marked by gravity, seriousness, and a commitment. Today, by and large, it is marked by flippancy and by silliness and by “Anything’ll do” and “Hold your horses. Where do you think you’re going in such a hurry?” (It’s the manager of the McDonald’s in Solon.) So it’s very, very important, when we think of service in the church, whether it is parking cars, cleaning, beautifying, whatever it may be, it is serious, privileged business, and nobody should undertake it without a due sense of gravitas. It all matters. Every piece of it matters. And if you’re going to be a servant, then you are to be this kind of servant. You put your stamp upon it—the stamp that is there as a result of understanding that there is no menial task in the kingdom of God.
Secondly, these individuals are to be sincere. Not only are they to be serious in their outlook, but they are to be “sincere” in their conviction. The word is a word which conveys consistency. They mustn’t be saying one thing to one person when they meet them and then another thing to another person, nor are they to be the kind of person who says one thing while thinking another. People should be able to know exactly where they stand with these individuals.
And you can see how a great importance attached to this. If they were responsible for the distribution of food, let’s say, to widows, and widows were depending on these individuals appearing at their home to bring them their meals, they don’t want some flippant Charlie who may get there or may not get there, who doesn’t know whether he’s bringing breakfast, lunch, or dinner. They don’t want somebody who says he’ll be there on Monday and doesn’t show up till Tuesday. The individual needs to be serious in their outlook and sincere in their words. Their yes is yes, and their no is no, because so much of the structure of the church depends upon people saying what they mean and meaning what they say. If they’re going to open the door, they open the door. If they’re going to turn the lights off, they turn the lights off. It’s not left to conjecture. There are no menial tasks in serving Christ.
Thirdly, sober. Sober. We saw this last time. The literal translation is “not wine to much being addicted”—mē oinō pollō prosechontas. In other words, as [Peterson] paraphrases it, they should “not be overfond of wine.” Their mind should not be occupied with it. They should not be devoting themselves to it. They should be, instead, Ephesians 5:18 people, who are not “drunk with wine, wherein is excess,” but instead are “filled with the Spirit.” They are those like the seven in Acts 6, who were men chosen on the account of the fact that they were “full of the Spirit” of God and of “wisdom.” It makes perfect sense. You don’t want to send the widows’ lunch with some guy who’s half smashed down the street, do you? There’s no saying where he’s going to end up. He’s coming down the road: “Where’s Mrs. So-and-So’s house? Hic! Sorry. Sorry.” Would that be a good testimony for the church? “There he goes again! Whoa, I wonder if he can get down to her house today? That’s a deacon of the church at such and such.” You say, “That only brings disrepute on the name of Christ.” That’s the point! It’s intensely practical.
Fourthly, these individuals are to be satisfied individuals. In other words, they’re “not pursuing dishonest gain.” In other words, they are straight in their financial dealings.
Now, the reason I chose the word satisfied is because when Paul addresses this, as we’ll come in chapter 6, to the wider church, he makes the point that the antidote to “the love of money,” which is the “root of all kinds of evil”—1 Timothy 6:10—is said to be contentment. And the contentment is with food and clothes—verse 8: “But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap.” So it only makes sense that if you have deacons dealing with money and dealing with produce and dealing with the disbursement of funds, that you have individuals who themselves are marked by contentedness with what they have.
Because otherwise, a number of things happen—and I’ve seen this in twenty-two years in pastoral ministry. Somebody is given the responsibility of diaconal charge within the church. They have the responsibility to disburse funds in certain ways. Then they become envious of the people who are getting the funds: “Well, why are they getting this box? Why are they getting this money? Why is this going to them? What about me?” And if they are not individuals of integrity, and they have access to that stuff, then they run the real risk of doing the “One for me, one for him, another one for me, and one for her.” And that, of course, is what happens in churches. That is why there is such disrepute that has come on the name of Christ: because people will not do what the Bible says. They are not men of contentedness; they are men seeking unjust gain.
Now, I can remember when I visited as a young pastor for two years in Edinburgh. I went in some of the finest homes in Edinburgh. I was close to some of the nicest antiques that would make you colonial types drool. And most of them were old ladies. And old ladies like young pastors. And so there was a real temptation to say, “My, my, Mrs. Simpson, that’s a lovely grandfather clock! Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. Know what I mean?” So that you could be coming out of the house with grandfather clocks and all things. “How did the visitation go today?” “Very nicely. Good day. Good day at the office. Look at this! Look at this!”
And so, recognizing the potential and the proclivity of my own sinful heart, I had to set up guidelines for myself. Because I found unwittingly, initially, that if you said, for example, “That’s a beautiful painting at the end of the hallway,” the chances are it had your name on it. Not that you got it immediately. It went in the lady’s will. And all of a sudden, you’re in fifty million people’s wills, you know. This is not good.
And I have one classic story that I’m going to tell you now, though I probably shouldn’t. In order to make sure that this never happened, I set myself strict standards. I was visiting at the home of a lady called Miss Nicholson. She’d worked all her years in Edinburgh, and she was now retired. She lived in the New Town, which is really a very old part of Edinburgh, but anyway… And in the New Town, she lived in a house that had huge, high ceilings. The ceilings were sixteen or fifteen feet high.
And I went to visit her one afternoon, and she told me—I said, “Where did the curtains go, Miss Nicholson?”
“Oh,” she said, “the man came and took them down because we’re moving from spring to autumn. We’re going from the light curtains to the velvet curtains. And I’m waiting for him to come and put them up.”
“Oh,” I said, “I can put them up for you. I know how to do that.” Because after all, I was a cleaner-handyman! And hanging curtains was part of my responsibility. I had that down.
So she said, “Oh, you couldn’t do that.”
I said, “Yes, I could.” So I hung her curtains. I hung her curtains. We sat down opposite one another by the fireplace. We had our little prayer and our reading. She went away to the kitchen, and she would usually bring me a box of cookies for my wife and I that tasted as though she had bought them sometime before the Titanic sank, and actually that they had been rescued from the ocean. But this day, she came back, and she brought a five-pound note.
She said, “I want to give this to you.”
I said, “Miss Nicholson, I can’t take five pounds from you. Because I’m happy to hang your curtains. I don’t have a part-time job hanging curtains. I’m here to represent the church, and I cannot take your money.”
And so she argued with me for a little bit, and then she went away again, and then she came back. And she said, “Now, this is how it is: if you do not take this five pounds, never visit me again. Because when I was in the kitchen, the Lord told me to give it to you.”
Now, this evening, I’ll tell you what happened to the five pounds.
Let’s go to the next point: spiritual. Spiritual. Verse 9: “They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience.” In other words, it is wrong for us to think that the service ministries of the church are to be exercised by people who are simply good at climbing ladders or doing things like that, and provided they are functionally okay, it really doesn’t matter if they’re very spiritual or not. That is the height of stupidity. Because just in the same way as the fact that there are no menial tasks within the kingdom, there are no unspiritual tasks within the kingdom. The way in which we do everything will convey that which is the very bedrock of our existence. And so, says Paul, these individuals are to be men who “hold … the deep truths of the faith” and do so “with a clear conscience.”
The word “mystery” in the King James Version is not something that is unable to be apprehended by the mind of a man, but it is a reference to something that was previously hidden and which has now been revealed. And it’s one of the words that Paul uses as a description of the gospel. In other words, the deacons are to be gospel men. They’re to be men who understand the Bible, who are committed to the deep things of the faith, and who are able to hold true to that and to do so with a clear conscience.
Again, remember, they’re going in and out of the homes of different people. They’re going into the homes of “weak-willed women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires”—2 Timothy 3:6. Therefore, you’d better not send somebody in there who’s simply good at running hose pipes. You’d better send someone in there who is holding on to the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. So the idea that, you know, elders are spiritual and deacons are whatever you want them to be is not a New Testament concept. The spiritual dimension, the spiritual demand, is the same for both. The function differs.
Sixthly, these individuals are to be selected—verse 10: “They must first be tested; and then if there[’s] nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.” Back in Acts chapter 6, you will notice that these individuals were set apart according to what people knew of them. They weren’t just grabbed in the hallway and given a job. And the proving ground was two places: one, within their own home, and also within the company of God’s people. And it was when they knew that there was nothing against them—which, incidentally, is just a synonym in verse 10 for “above reproach,” the phrase in verse 2—it was when they knew that they were not guilty of flagrant sins, either of omission or of commission, that would cast a shadow upon their qualifications for service that they were then, after this, set apart to serve in this capacity.
And seventhly, that these individuals were to be settled. And I’m referring now to verse 12 and to the issue of sexual and marital fidelity. They were to be individuals who could manage their children, manage their household. And, of course, if they were going to have any kind of management, administrative responsibility within the larger framework of the family of God, it only makes perfect sense that they would be able to manage their own house. So if their place is a shambles in their house, it’ll be a shambles whatever you give them to do. If they don’t pay their bills on time, then don’t give them the responsibility of paying the utility bills in the church, because they won’t pay them on time. If they are not scrupulous in relationship to their own financial dealings, they will not be scrupulous with the financial dealings of the church.
And that’s why, you see, the idea of volunteerism as a way to populate ministry in church is not actually a very good idea. I don’t particularly like “Well, do we have any volunteers for this and any volunteers for that?” I like initiative, and I like the fact that people would say they are up for service, but I think the way to do it is appointment. I think the way to do it is to come alongside. I think the elders have to take a far more serious look at what it means to be understanding who the sheep are, what they’re doing, and what their capacities are, and that the congregation identifies one another in saying, “You know, that man is so excellent at doing that. That lady is so wonderful at helping in that way.” Whatever it might be. Because if you don’t do that, and you leave it simply to volunteerism, then there’s no saying what you get, and there’s no way to prevent what you get. And so what you get are a bunch of well-meaning people who can’t do the job. Then you have to come behind them, put someone else in to do the job, or ask the people who tried to do the job to go home and lie down on the couch for a short while—or a long while.
Third question is: How, then, are we to understand the reference to women in verse 11? How are we to understand the reference to women, or to “wives,” in verse 11? Well, this is a real good question, and I’m going to run through it with you as best I can.
You’ll notice, I think, that the deacons were distinguished from the elders at the beginning of verse 8 with the word “likewise.” It’s actually the translation of an adverb, hōsautōs, which means “similarly” or “likewise,” or “in the same way.” That same word is used, although it is translated differently, in the opening phrase of verse 11: “In the same way…” It is the same adverb, hōsautōs. It’s used at the beginning of verse 8 to distinguish between elders and deacons, and it is used at the beginning of verse 11 to distinguish between the women and the deacons who are mentioned in verses 8–10 and then again in verse 12 and following.
Now, the question is: Why does this happen in this way? Why are these women mentioned at this point? Now, the obvious and general answer is that it is on account of the fact that they are somehow, some way involved in the diaconal responsibilities of the church. But when we’ve said that generally and we then go to the specific question, it’s not as easy to answer. And indeed, there is a great diversity of viewpoint in relationship to this.
There are essentially four explanations as to what’s going on here in verse 11. One is that these women are inherently part of the diakonoi—that they are deacons. That’s what they are. And they’re mentioned here because they are as much deacons as those mentioned in 8–10 and the chap mentioned in verse 12 who “must be the husband of but one wife.” So people would say, “It doesn’t matter. They are deacons. I know it says that a deacon is to be the husband of one wife, but it doesn’t matter. Verse 11: the women are deacons, ‘in the same way.’”
Two: the second explanation is that they are not deacons in the same way, but they are deaconesses—that they are different from but they’re comparable to deacons, and that there is a separate group of women in the church who have diaconal responsibilities from a kind of feminine perspective. Now, if that were the case, you would have expected Paul to use the feminine form of diakonoi in order to make that clear. He doesn’t do that.
Thirdly: third explanation is that they are somehow the female assistants of deacons. And fourthly, they are to be regarded as the wives of deacons.
Well, what about number one—that they are inherently part of the deacons group? I don’t think you can argue that at all. Because they’re so clearly distinguished from the deacons by the use of the adverb hōsautōs, by the absence of the use of a title diakonoi, and also by the clear inference that is there at the opening phrase of verse 12: “A deacon must be the husband of but one wife.” Doesn’t sound like a woman, does it? And indeed, if verse 12 had come before verse 11, there’d never be a question about verse 11, because verse 11 would be read in the light of verse 12—that is, if verse 11 followed verse 12, you understand. So I don’t think one has any validity at all.
Number three is preferable to number two—i.e., that what we have here are female assistants to deacons—because, as I said, the whole notion of a separate group of deaconesses is not self-consciously pointed out in any way.
I think the answer is either three or four: that what’s being referred to here are some feminine assistants in the role of deacons. The question, then, is “Well, are they simply women who assist, or are they wives who assist?” That leads us to a big discussion which has to do with the use of the word gunaikas, which is the word that is translated variously “woman” or “wife.” And it is translated variously “woman” or “wife” in the very verses that are before us. For example, in chapter 2 here, it is translated “woman” in verse 9, verse 10, verse 11, verse 12, and verse 14. In chapter 3, it is translated “wife” in verse 2, in verse 12. And in 5:9, it is translated “wife” there. And in Titus 1:6, it is translated “wife” there.
Now, the problem is that the word gunē—from which we get gynecology—both in its singular and in its plural has the general meaning “woman,” “women.” But it also has the general meaning “wife” or “wives.” Now, there’s a number of things, then, in the principle of interpretation that must be applied.
First of all, we have to say this is a very important place and one in which undue dogmatism must be ruled out. We may disagree on our conclusion here, but we do not… And while we have right to disagree in our conclusion, and we must recognize that we’re not all correct, nevertheless, there’s no place for undue dogmatism.
The other principle of interpretation is this: that it is legitimate to anticipate that the use of the word in any given verse will be the usage of the word in the surrounding verses. So 1 Timothy 3:2 is “wife.” Verse 12 is “wife.” Therefore, it would be no surprise if verse 11 were also “wife.” And that, of course, is why—and you wonder why I’m making a fuss about it—that is why the NIV translates it as it does. Right? “In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect.” The translators of the NIV have already made up their minds. There’s absolutely no question: these are wives; these are not just women. The King James Version: the same way. The New King James Version: the same way. I didn’t go much beyond that.
Now, if the reference were simply to women, we might have expected at the same time a reference to their marital status and to their fidelity. In other words, if it was “In the same way, women” who are deacons, we would expect that their marital status would be a matter of concern, as in 5:9—that the widows are to be those who have been faithful to their husbands. So if it was simply women and not wives, we would anticipate that Paul would make a correlative statement to the effect that these women, as the men—“We’ve said,” he says, “that the elders are to be faithful. We’ve said that the men are to be faithful. And what we’re saying is that the women are to be faithful as well. They need to be the wives of one husband.” But he doesn’t say that. And the reason he doesn’t say it, I believe, is because he isn’t in doubt either that he is making a reference to their wives. His cautious approach to sexuality is such that if he was proposing that women be involved in diaconal ministry, he would far rather have the wives of the deacons serving with the deacons than the deacons serving with other women in the church, because it would lay things open to all kinds of confusion.
Now, if that’s the case, then what you have here in verse 11 is simply another qualification that is necessary for the individual who would be a deacon. In other words, if you’re going to be a deacon, not only do you have to be marked by these characteristics, not only do you have to conduct yourself in this manner, but your wife needs to be also these things. Well, then somebody says, “I don’t buy that either. And the reason I don’t is because you would think that if he was ever going to make that point, he would have made it of elders’ wives rather than of deacons’ wives. Because after all, don’t the elders have a more significant role?” Now we’re back thinking status, number one. And number two, we’re missing a vital point—namely, that the wives of elders do not share the elders’ calling, rule, care, or teaching responsibility.
You heard it here: my wife is my wife; she is not an elder at Parkside Church. She’s not even an assistant elder at Parkside Church. She is my wife. And as my wife, she fulfills the role that is given to her as wife as I fulfill my role to her as husband. But she does not take on board the jurisdiction that comes for which I, along with my colleagues, will answer before God on the day of judgment. Therefore, she is not privy to everything that goes on in eldership at Parkside Church. Therefore, she does not share in decisions that are made in eldership at Parkside Church. She’s not supposed to! But if I were a deacon and she was assisting me in the responsibilities of serving, there is no reason in the wide world, while she may not be part and parcel of the totality of that—because we’ve already discovered that a woman may not be involved in pastoral rule, but she may be involved in pastoral care.
And that is why if you are going to put the wives of deacons in that position, then they’d better be, as he says, sensible, “not malicious talkers,” not on the bottle, and “trustworthy in everything.” That’s what he says. Why? Because they are going to share the diaconal function. There’s no need to say it about the elders, because if they understand eldership properly, they will know that as grateful as every elder is for the partnership, companionship of his wife, she will not answer on the day of judgment in the way that he will—not for the responsibility of the church. Because although she’s been called to partnership in life, she has not been called to bear the burden of eldership. And while she may ease my disappointments and pour balm on my wounds and be my confidant in everything, I do not burden her with the responsibility that falls uniquely to the elders. And I teach that to my fellow elders, and I refuse to hold it as a standard for myself and somehow or another anticipate that they will not hold it as the same standard. And incidentally and in passing, no elder’s wife should ever be the purveyor of information that comes from the responsibilities of eldership, because they are not called to that role.
Now, the only time that you can have an effective, functioning diaconal ministry in a church is when you have a church that has fully understood eldership. I have been here for fourteen years, and I think we are close to understanding eldership. We’re close. We’re closer than we’ve been. But we’re very much like the church in Crete, Titus 1, seeing things straightened out, and straightened out at the most vital of levels, in order that when you see the church grow and develop and delegation takes place, it can be done correctly in light of the understanding of the eldership structure of the church.
I’m sure we’ll get some questions on this, and that’ll be fine.
The last question is: What is the result of serving well? Because it’s to service that we’re called.
Verse 13 tells us: “Those who do well as deacons earn for themselves a certain legitimate standing, as well as gaining confidence and freedom in the Christian faith.” That’s the paraphrase of J. B. Phillips. In other words, if you serve God’s people well, in whatever capacity, you gain standing before your brothers and sisters, and you lay up for yourself an abundant entry into the kingdom of heaven. That’s 2 Peter: if you add to your faith kindness and goodness and knowledge and self-control, then you will make your calling and election sure, and your standing before God and before the church will be obvious to all. But it is a standing that comes about as a result of taking seriously the privilege of being a servant.
You see, this is what is so hard. It was so hard for disciples, and it’s so hard still today—is it not?—to break this status idea and to understand the servant idea. The disciples couldn’t grab it. Even when, in John 13, Jesus comes to them, and when none of them want to wash each other’s feet, he takes a towel and a bowl, and he washes their feet. And he wraps the towel around them, and he dries their feet. And Peter says, “You’re never going to wash my feet!”—because Peter thought he understood, and he didn’t. And Jesus said, “Unless I wash you, you have no part [in] me.” And then he said,
[Listen,] do you understand what I[’ve] done for you? … You call me “Teacher” and “Lord,” and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
And that’s why to sing the song “The greatest thing in all my life is serving you” is a bit of a challenge. And we make our journey through life in anticipation of the conclusion in the parable of the ten talents, when “his master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!’”
I told you before I was a member of the Crusaders in Scotland. It’s a boys’ Bible class. And then they let girls in, which made it—different. And we had a Crusader chorus, and we sang; it went like this:
The Lord has need of me,
His soldier I will be;
He gave himself my life to win,
And so I mean to follow him,
And serve him faithfully.
[And] although the [road] be fierce and long,
I’ll carry on—he makes me strong;
And then one day his face I’ll see,
And oh! the joy when he says to me,
“Well done! My [good] crusader!”
And I used to sing that puffing my chest out, my kilt swinging in the afternoon—the Sunday afternoon. “That’s fine for me,” I said, “I’d just like to hear—just that ‘Well done’ would be good.”
See, look around. Just look across the church, would you? Just look from there. Just look across this congregation. Service? The heart of a servant? Did you see the guy who died at 107 in the obituaries in the New York Times? He was still driving in the fast lane when he was 104. He went back to school when he was a hundred—a little Jewish man. And they asked him, “What’s the key?” And this is what he said: “Be involved, and have a good attitude.” I invite you to become a servant at Parkside Church. Get involved, with a good attitude.
Let’s pray together:
Father, we thank you this morning for the gift of your Word—that we’re not left to try and think up sermons but that you provide for us in the wonder of your instruction. Lord, we pray that you will give to us the grace that knows when to be forceful in our application and when to be cautious, and when we err that you will correct us. Save us from undue dogmatism. Save us from thinking that Parkside Church is the place where we get it right all the time. Remind us that we are learners from the one who knows the answers.
Remind us again this morning that there are no menial tasks in the service of Christ—that it’s not that if we would lead God’s people, we need to be spiritual, and if we would serve, then we can be whatever we choose, but that we are to be those who are being conformed to the image of the Lord Jesus Christ. Unlock, if it please you, the vast serving potential of our congregation for the coming century. Prepare us now for opportunities that as yet we have not even conceived of so that we might live to the praise of your glory. Let us learn how to serve and give our lives as an offering as we follow Christ, our Servant King.
May his grace and mercy and peace be our abiding portion today and forevermore. Amen.
 Philippians 1:1 (NIV 1984).
 See Acts 6:2.
 See Matthew 5:37.
 1 Timothy 3:3 (MSG).
 Ephesians 5:18 (KJV).
 See Colossians 1:26.
 1 Timothy 5:9 (KJV).
 See 2 Peter 1:5–10.
 John 13:8 (paraphrased).
 John 13:8 (NIV 1984).
 John 13:12–17 (NIV 1984).
 Mark D. Pendergrass, “The Greatest Thing” (1977).
 Matthew 25:21, 23 (NIV 1984).
 Cecil John Allen, “The Lord Hath Need of Me (High Barnet Crusaders’ Chorus)” (1934).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.