Standards for deacons

A sermon by Rod Benson

1 Timothy 3:8-13

Many people today are highly suspicious of authority. But authority itself is a necessary and good gift from God that reflects his sovereign and benevolent rule over us.

With authority comes responsibility, and so in business and professional life we have codes of ethics, and professional standards, to set forth what good and bad behaviour looks like.

So too in the church: spiritual leaders exercise authority, and they need to do so in ways that honour the office which they hold, and promote the best interests of those for whom they are responsible.

It’s not easy. Leaders know only too well their own faults and failures, and there are the expectations of others, the unanticipated professional challenges and moral temptations that cross our paths,

and not least our private capacity for self-reflection, self-awareness and self-mastery.

Those are the words I said last week in relation to the biblical teaching on elders. They apply equally to the teaching on deacons which follows immediately on from the advice on elders in 1 Timothy 3.

When practical needs arise in the local church, who tends to take care of them? Who attends to the planning and organising? Who keeps track of budgets, supplies, rosters and personal contact information?

Who among us is most adept, or most passionate, about acts of mercy, acts of service, volunteering to help out at the garage sale, or the cake stall, or the counting of the offering?

In the New Testament, such roles appear to have been the province of deacons. These church officers were appointed in a similar way as the appointment of elders and pastors, with similar desirable qualities, to care for the practical needs of the church, to ensure that worship and fellowship, ministry and mission, functioned in a decent and orderly way, freeing the elders and pastors to devote themselves to the spiritual ministry to which God had called them – especially the teaching of God’s word and the ministry of prayer (see Acts 6:1-7).

The office of deacon quickly became established as an indispensable feature of good church administration. Without good planning and organising, attention to supply and demand of goods and services, and practical leadership, a voluntary organisation especially focused on meeting people’s needs will soon founder.

So when Paul writes to Timothy, giving advice on how to lead a church, he not only defines the essential qualities of elders, but those of deacons as well (1 Tim 3:8-13).

But why the rigorous personal and professional standards for people who might be expected to be found serving at the soup kitchen, or cleaning the meeting space, or making sure the heating or cooling is on or the Powerpoint slides are loaded in the USB port?

I believe there are at least three reasons. First, these are designated leaders in the church, and therefore people who influence others by their character as well as their words and actions.

It’s appropriate to set certain basic standards. The church needs not only to be led, in the sense of paid or unpaid strategic senior leadership, by people of good character and professional competence, but by managers and other volunteers as well.

Second, just as good fences make good neighbours, good standards go a long way to making good ministry. It’s good to have agreed guidelines, and stick to them, because they discourage people who should not have responsibility for leadership and management in the church from becoming too involved.

It’s also far easier to apply the test that Paul sets out here, or a similar test, before a person is appointed – much harder to confront and dismiss someone once they have been appointed and accepted by the church.

Third, I suspect that some of the deacons in churches during that first century, and many today, actually do both administrative and spiritual work, either from the start, or as they grow in maturity and expertise. And it is often hard to distinguish the purely spiritual from the clearly administrative labour.

So it was important to recognise that all service in the church, and all ministry in the name of Christ to people in need, should be done by people who were trustworthy, reliable and competent.

These standards are not unlike the checklist a pilot uses before take-off: confirming that the various systems are operating properly, that there is enough fuel on board to reach the destination and comply with aviation standards, that there are indeed life vests under the seats, that the cabin doors are closed, and all passengers are accounted for.

Why? Because things can go wrong. Sometimes the unexpected or unthinkable happens. As a child growing up in Papua New Guinea, I had the privilege of flying in and out of rather remote airstrips in rather small aircraft.

One of the most interesting aircraft, and one of the most exciting flights, was in a Pilatus Porter between Sialum and Lae in PNG’s rugged north coast. The aircraft is famous for being able to take off and land in less than 200m, and holds the world record for highest landing of a fixed-wing aircraft (landing and taking off at 19,000 feet from the Dhaulagiri glacier in Nepal).

On this day, however, we had reached cruising altitude a few hundred metres above the rainforest on the Huon Peninsula when the door beside me flew open.

It wouldn’t have been such a problem, except that it was a freight plane and only the pilot had a seatbelt that worked.

The pilot leaned around and said, “Don’t worry, son. I’ll fix that,” and slammed the door shut. He seemed well versed in the manoeuvre.

Sometimes it’s not systems that go wrong but rogue elements causing strife. In 1985 I was at a boarding school in Queensland, and flew home with my brother from Brisbane to Port Moresby, and on to Lae.

I was sitting with the other school children at the rear of the aircraft. About 20 minutes into the long flight, I noticed fuel being dumped from the wings, and the captain told us that we were returning to our port of departure due to bad weather.

We landed safely, and five hours later took off again, minus one passenger who had been taken into custody for quietly telling another passenger that he had a bomb in his suitcase.

Rules, standards and guidelines don’t protect us from everything that can go wrong, but they are usually very helpful in helping us avoid mishap and tragedy.

They are manifestly better than the virtual anarchy or totalitarianism practiced in some churches today.

Read the list, vv. 8-13

And notice the extra bit about wives (v. 11).

Look again at verse 13: what a wonderful fruit of service! It’s finally all about Jesus.

Sermon 631 copyright © 2015 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 16 August 2015. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

%d bloggers like this: