1 Timothy 3:8-13

A few weeks ago the Executive Committee of the D.C. Baptist Convention made a very difficult decision.  Acting on recommendations from the Finance Committee and Personnel Committee, the Executive Committee voted to restructure the Convention staff by de-funding positions currently held by three staff members.  It meant that those three staff members would be out of a job at the end of the year.  Last Monday night the Executive Board of the D.C. Baptist Convention took up the matter.  It was a very emotional meeting.  A number of people stood up to plead against the restructuring.  In effect they said that we must not let these valuable staff members go.  For almost an hour they spoke with great fervor about the importance of these staff members.  Some of the speakers were pastors, and you know how emotional some preachers can be.  The fact that the three staff members whose jobs were jeopardy were sitting there in the meeting only added to the tension.  Finally a vote was taken, by a show of hands.  No one voted to approve the restructuring proposal, despite the fact that the Finance Committee and Personnel Committee and Executive Committee had recommended it.  It would have seemed cruel and heartless with those staff members sitting there to vote to eliminate their jobs.  So, for the time being, their jobs are saved.  But it’s only a matter of time before some staff reductions must take place.  Ever since the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention de-funded the D.C. Baptist Convention, the D.C. Convention has been spending more money than it has been receiving.  Unless the churches of the D.C. Baptist Convention dramatically increase their giving, sooner or later some staff positions will have to be eliminated.

Dr. Jeffrey Haggray, the Executive Director/Minister of the D.C. Baptist Convention has been a model of “grace under fire” through all of this.  Dr. Haggray, who spoke in our church last year, is the first African-American leader of a state convention related to the Southern Baptist Convention.  Shortly after he became Executive Director/Minister, the Southern Baptist Convention North American Mission Board issued the D.C. Convention an ultimatum—either accept our oversight or lose our funding.  No other state convention has been given such conditions.  By refusing the ultimatum, the D.C. Convention suffered the loss of almost half a million dollars.  That’s what precipitated the current financial crisis.  Through it all Dr. Haggray has remained calm and gracious.  Even during the heated exchanges last Monday night, Dr. Haggray remained an island of tranquility in a tumultuous sea.  Probably he was churning on the inside, but he was courteous and measured and reasonable in all his responses.  At the end of the meeting Dr. Haggray said, “I supported the restructuring recommendation that was presented to the Executive Board, and I support the Executive Board’s decision to reject the proposal.”  The issue is far from settled.  The D.C. Baptist Convention still faces a financial crisis.  Some tough decisions regarding staffing will have to be made somewhere down the line.  But I am grateful that we have a Christian leader like Jeffrey Haggray to guide our D.C. Baptist Convention during these difficult times.

Like every organization, churches need leaders.  But not just any leaders; churches need Christian leaders.  There are many styles of leadership that may be effective, depending on how you measure success.  Donald Trump appears to be a very effective leader in the real estate and entertainment industries.  I’ve not watched his television show, “The Apprentice,” but I’ve seen the promos where he looks directly at an aspiring job applicant and gestures with his hand as he decisively says, “you’re fired.”  Donald Trump knows how to lead an organization to make a lot of money.  But I’m not sure that we would want a Donald Trump to be a leader in our church.  Our criteria for success are different from those of the business world.  The bottom line is not all that matters to us.  The end result is not all that is important.  People are important.  Character and integrity and morality are important.  Faith and trust are important.  Love is important.

In our scripture passage Paul described some characteristics and qualifications for Christian leaders.  Paul was writing here about the office of deacon, one of the most important leadership roles in the church.  The office of deacon was a newly created position in the early church.  There was no parallel office of deacon in Judaism.  Jewish religion had priests and Levites and scribes and Pharisees, but no deacons.  The early Christians saw a need to organize themselves in a way that reflected their values and faith, and a part of that organization including selecting Christian leaders who would help guide the church to fulfill its mission.  There were many positions of leadership in the early church—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers.  But another category of church leaders was equally important—deacons.

Our English word “deacon” comes from the Greek word that is used here in the New Testament, diakonos, which literally means “servant,” or one who serves at table.  In the secular sense, a server in a restaurant might be called a deacon.  But in the church, deacons were not wait staff.  They were respected church leaders who helped to set the spiritual tone for the church.  Deacons assisted the pastors, sometimes called bishops or overseers, in the pastoral care of the congregation.  Because of this trusted role, the qualifications for deacons were almost as rigorous as the qualifications for pastors.  Not just anyone could be a deacon.  It was an important role in the church that required highly qualified people.  Some of the qualifications that Paul set forth are self-explanatory, while others need a little explanation.

First, Paul said, deacons must be “serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money.”  Serious—respectable, dignified, steady, people of integrity.  Not double-tongued—sincere, truthful, straightforward, not hypocritical, not gossips.  Not indulging in much wine—temperate.  Not greedy for money—honest in their business dealings, not preoccupied with money or material possessions.

Next, Paul said, deacons “hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.”  In other words, deacons have a good grasp of the essentials of the Christian faith and sincerely believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord.  Next, deacons should be tested before they begin to serve as deacons.  They should be given other responsibilities in the church so they can demonstrate their character and faithfulness and abilities.  Then, having proven themselves faithful in those tasks they can take on the duties of deacons.

“Women, likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things.”  Some interpreters believe “women” refers to the wives of deacons.  Other interpreters believe “women” refers to female deacons.  We know there were female deacons in the early church.  In his letter to the Romans Paul referred to Phoebe as “a deacon of the church at Cenchreae” (Romans 16:1).  By the second century there was clear textual evidence for women deacons in the church.  Female deacons were necessary for certain duties such as assisting women in baptism, caring for sick women, and other tasks that male deacons could not perform in that culture.  

Many Baptist churches even today will not allow a woman to be a deacon, but Village Baptist Church has had women serving as deacons for over twenty-five years.  Jo Reiter was elected to be a deacon in 1978 and Jeanette Robinson was elected to be a deacon in 1979.  Also of historical importance—we elected our first African-American deacon in 1986.  As our church becomes more diverse, our deacons should reflect the diversity of our congregation.

Another qualification has to do with a deacon’s family life.  Paul wrote, “Let deacons be married only once, and let them manage their children and their households well.”  Does this mean that a deacon must be married?  Not necessarily.  No doubt some deacons were not married, because Paul himself was single, and he promoted singleness as a benefit for Christian ministry.  Some churches have interpreted this qualification to mean that a divorced person cannot be a deacon, but the Bible does not say that divorce in and of itself disqualifies a person for Christian service.  The Bible views divorce as a tragedy, but nowhere in the Bible is divorce an unforgivable sin.  There are some passages in the Bible that permit divorce under certain circumstances (Matthew 19:9; 1 Corinthians 7:15).  In other passages in his letters, Paul permitted people to remarry under certain circumstances (1 Timothy 5:14; Romans 7:2-3; 1 Corinthians 7:39).  Divorced persons have served this church as deacons in a marvelous way over the years.  In some cases, having gone through the painful experience of divorce themselves equips such persons to have a sympathy and understanding for others who are dealing with the breakup of a marriage.

I think what Paul is emphasizing is the quality of a deacon’s family life.  It’s really a part of the overall picture of the importance of character for Christian leadership.  This is what separates Christian leaders from secular leaders.  In the secular world, a leader is judged solely by results, or the bottom line.  In the church, spiritual maturity and Christian character are essential for leadership.  The qualifications for deacon and other church leaders have more to do with character than anything else.

The real key to determining who should be elected as a deacon comes from the word itself—diakonos, a deacon is one who serves.  Look at those who are serving among us, those with a servant’s heart, and you will know who should be a deacon.

A few months ago a first-class passenger boarding an American Airlines flight from Atlanta to Chicago saw another passenger whom he felt was more deserving of first-class treatment.  The first-class passenger said, “Hey soldier, where are you sitting?”  The soldier, who was returning from Iraq, replied, “Seat 22E, sir.”  The first class passenger said he wanted to trade places with him.  They checked with the flight attendant and she said it would be o.k.  Other first class passengers saw what was happening, and they started offering their seats to soldiers.  It was like a domino effect.  The flight attendant said, “there were 14 first class seats, but only 12 soldiers, so we ran out of soldiers before we ran out of seats.”  The flight attendant was so touched by these gestures of generosity to honor the returning servicemen that she wept.  “It put an entirely different mood on the entire flight,” the flight attendant said.

Deacons set the tone for the entire church by their selfless attitude.  They lead the way by their example of service.  But that’s what Jesus did.  He gave up his first-class seat and took our place.  That why we eat this bread and drink this cup—to remember what Jesus did for us.  May his example inspire us to serve each other too.

Bruce Salmon, Pastor, Village Baptist Church, Bowie, Maryland
October 2, 2004

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