Also Some Women

This sermon was preached on December 30, 2018 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

It seems like every year, there are new concerns about how women are treated. Not long ago, there were several stories about people in the entertainment industry who have sexually abused, harassed, or intimidated women. Many women came out and told their stories of how Larry Nassar, a doctor, sexually abused them while they were on the USA Gymnastics team. There has been a lot of talk about how much women get paid in comparison to men. Every time there’s an election, there is discussion about how many women are in Congress and if a woman could become president. The women’s rights movement has been going on for decades and discussions about women’s issues won’t stop any time soon.

What these discussions reveal is that many different people assume that women should be treated as well as men. That’s hardly a controversial statement today. But if you study history, you know that women were often not treated as well as men. They were often relegated to second class status. The further you go back in history, the more clearly you can see that.

So, what happened between ancient times, when women were treated more like property than adult human beings, and today, when we expect that women will do everything that men do? What caused us to think that women have rights that should be protected?

I’m sure many people today would say the Enlightenment, that period of time beginning roughly in the 1600s and continuing for a couple of centuries. But is that so?

What if the proper grounding for women’s rights comes not from the Enlightenment, but from the time when God created human beings in his image? What if a refined understanding of this issue came from the New Testament, which states that all those who are united to Christ have an equal status as “sons,” receiving a full inheritance (Gal. 3:9, 26–29; 4:4–7)?

Today, we’re going to look at just three verses from the Gospel of Luke. We had been studying Luke’s biography of Jesus for the better part of this year, taking a couple of breaks to look at other passages in the Bible. As we come back to Luke, we’ll see how he highlights the role that women played in Jesus’ ministry. We’ll see that they serve as an example of how people who come to faith are willing to serve Jesus. And we’ll think about how the Bible—contrary to what many people might think—shows that women are equal to men in value, and that our modern views about women, though a bit distorted, are largely due to the influence of Christianity throughout the world.

Before we read today’s passage, which is Luke 8:1–3, I want to remind us of what Luke was doing in his Gospel. At the very beginning, he states that his goal was “to write an orderly account” that was based on “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word,” who have delivered their accounts of what Jesus did to those who hadn’t personally witnessed such things. So, Luke was writing history. But not just any history. It’s theological and religious history. Luke’s goal was that his audience “may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:1–4).[1]

Luke begins his story by telling about all the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Aside from telling one story about Jesus’ childhood, he skips ahead to when Jesus begins his public activity as an adult. Jesus went around healing people and teaching. We’re often told that Jesus went around proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The good news is that the kingdom was at hand. The true King had come, and people could enter his kingdom by coming under his reign and rule. People who had been at war with the king could now find peace, which comes through the forgiveness of sins, which is rebellion against the King’s rule.

Jesus called a special group of twelve disciples, or followers. But they weren’t the only ones following Jesus, as we’ll see in this passage. There were other people who followed Jesus, including a group of women.

Let’s now read today’s passage, Luke 8:1–3:

1 Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.

Luke begins by saying “afterward.” The last episode we saw in Luke was about a woman whom Jesus had forgiven for her sins. She was grateful, and she expressed her love for Jesus in an act of service: washing his feet.

Now, we see Jesus continue to travel throughout Galilee, preaching the “good news of the kingdom of God.” The twelve disciples are with him, but so are some women. They had been healed by Jesus from infirmities and evil spirits. As I said last week, while looking at Revelation 12, evil spirits are real, and there was heightened demonic activity during Jesus’ lifetime.[2] These three women whom Jesus healed followed Jesus, serving him out of gratitude, just like the sinful woman who had been forgiven.

The first woman named is Mary Magdalene, who was from the town of Magdala, on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. She is later mentioned in the Gospels at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection. She witnessed Jesus’ death and she saw Jesus after he rose from the grave (Luke 24:1–10; John 19:25; 20:1–2, 11–18). Mary had seven demons driven out of her. Seven is a number of completion or perfection; this might be a way of saying Jesus exorcised all her demons, once and for all.

The second woman is Joanna, who was married to a man named Chuza, who served Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee. Chuza was either the manager of one of Herod’s estates or a high-ranking official. Either way, this means that Joanna was a woman of status and some wealth. This shows that not all early Christians were poor.

The third woman is named Susanna. We don’t know anything else about her.

As I said earlier, Luke claimed to write history. But some skeptics doubt whether his Gospel, as well as other books in the Bible, are truly historical. Legendary writings during this time wouldn’t have such details as all these names, particularly ones that weren’t further explained, like Susanna. Luke’s writing has an air of history about it, even when he reports miraculous things like exorcisms. The writing style isn’t fantastical. It’s restrained and fact-oriented. But more importantly, if you were going to fabricate a story about Jesus to make him look more impressive than he was, you would never have women among his followers.

Why is that? People in Jesus’ day had a lower view of women. It would have been shocking to learn that Jesus had women following him. Jewish teachers, rabbis, didn’t have women accompany them on journeys. Jewish oral tradition taught that women were not to speak in public and shouldn’t be taught the Torah, the law that God gave to the Israelites. Women weren’t normally allowed to testify in court.[3] In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ own disciples “marveled that he was talking [alone] with a woman” (John 4:27).

To be clear, this was a cultural view, not a biblical one. We have to make that distinction when we’re thinking about religions and cultures. There’s nothing in the Old Testament that suggests that women couldn’t be taught or couldn’t speak in public. In fact, there are two books in the Old Testament named after exemplary women: Ruth and Esther. I’ll say more about this in a moment.

The important thing to note is that Luke’s reporting concerning women was not something that he would have created to make the Jesus story more acceptable or believable.

And yet Luke often writes about women in favorable ways. In the first chapter of his Gospel, we have reports of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, who comes across much better than her husband, Zechariah. We also have Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was likely a teenager at that time yet who trusted God when she heard the amazing news that she would become pregnant though she was a virgin. Luke gives favorable reports of a prophetess named Anna (Luke 2:36–38), a widow whose son died (Luke 7:11–17), that sinful woman who had been forgiven (Luke 7:36–50), Mary (not Magdalene), the sister of Martha (Luke 10: 38–42), a widow who gives everything (Luke 21:1–4), and the women who were witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (Luke 23:49, 55–56; 24:1–12). This is all the more remarkable given how often the twelve disciples look foolish.

These women flocked to Jesus because they knew his message was good news. He said that all kinds of people could be part of God’s kingdom, both men and women, rich and poor, old and young, and Jew and Gentile. Women were not second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. Jesus wasn’t afraid to talk to them, teach them, and include them in his ministry.

Jesus knew that both men and women were made in God’s image. This is what the first chapter of the Bible says:

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

27  So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them (Gen. 1:26–27).

In the ancient world, people worshiped many different gods, and they built temples to these gods. In these temples, they would place statues or other physical representations of these gods. The Bible says that God made the universe to be his temple. And the Bible strictly forbids making physical representations of God, because human beings are made to represent him on Earth. We were made to rule over the world by coming under God’s rule. We were made to reflect his glory, to worship him. And we were made after his likeness, which means we were made to be his loving, obedient children. This is true of both men and women.

In the New Testament, it is quite clear that both men and women are part of God’s kingdom and have roles to play. Women financially supported Jesus and his apostles. It’s possible that they might have served in other ways, perhaps in terms of providing food and clothing for the apostles. Women hosted house churches (1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philem. 2). Phoebe was a deacon who probably carried the letter of Romans to its audience (Rom. 16:1–2). Priscilla was involved in ministry with her husband, Aquila (Acts 18:2, 18, 26; Rom. 16:3–4; 1 Cor. 16:19). The apostle Paul called Euodia and Syntyche his “fellow workers” (Phil. 4:2–3).

The Christian view of women was very different from other views of women in the ancient world. It was different from the Greek view. Greek women “lived in semi-seclusion,” had no property rights and could get married and divorced against her wishes.[4] “The Greek wife had virtually no freedom.”[5] Greek women were not educated.[6]

The Christian view of women was different than the Roman view of women. Roman women had limited education and property rights. A married woman was under the rule of her husband and control of her husband.

In both Greek and Roman culture, women were often married quite young, sometimes before puberty, which wasn’t uncommon in the ancient world. And women were of such low value that they were often killed as infants.[7] Rodney Stark says, “The exposure of unwanted infants was ‘widespread’ in the Roman Empire, and girls were far more likely than boys to be exposed.”[8] In fact, there’s a letter dated roughly 1 BC, written by a man named Hilarion to what we assume is his wife, Alis, and to Berous and Appollonarion. In the letter, he writes, “I beg and beseech of you to take care of the little child, and as soon as we receive wages I will send them to you. If—good luck to you!—you bear offspring, if it is a male, let it live; if it is a female, expose it.”[9] We assume this man is telling his wife to kill the baby, to expose it to the elements, where it might be eaten by wild animals or starve, if it were female.

Beyond the ancient world, the Christian view of women was and is very different than the ones found in other cultures. In Muslim countries, particularly ones that more closely follow the Qur’an and other Islamic traditions, women have little freedom. Just this year, a small group of women in Saudi Arabia were finally allowed to get driver’s licenses. Less than two hundred years ago, it was common in India for widows to be burned on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands. The practice was outlawed in 1829 by British authorities.[10] The British missionary William Carey played a significant role in helping abolish this practice. In China, the practice of binding women’s feet, supposedly to make them more attractive as they sashayed on their toes, was made illegal in 1912.

Alvin Schmidt, in his book, How Christianity Changed the World, asks, “where else do women have more freedom, opportunities and human worth than in countries that have been highly influenced by the Christian ethic?”[11] It’s no accident that how women have been treated in the West is very different than how women have been treated elsewhere. And when laws have changed in other countries, it has been due to Western influence. And this is because of the Christian view of women, who are made in the image of God, just as men have been, and who can be children of God and coheirs with Christ if they turn to Jesus in faith.

Again, the Bible says that men and women were created with the same basic purpose. The Bible teaches that men and women have the same problem, which is sin. The reason why bad things happen, including the oppression of women, is because of sin in the world. We were made for a certain purpose, as I said earlier. The problem is that we don’t live according to that purpose. As a punishment, God has removed us from his direct and special presence and he has given us over to our sinful practices. The consequences of sin include fighting, oppression, natural disasters, diseases, and death.

The Bible teaches that the same solution to this problem of sin is available to both men and women. Because we do not tend to love God as we should, because we tend to do wrong, we cannot find our way to God. We cannot earn our own right standing with him. We can’t merit our way to heaven. So, God came down to Earth. Jesus was, of course, male, but he was born of a woman, so both men and women played a role in salvation. But this was all God’s initiative, God’s doing. God sent his Son to the world to live perfectly, fulfilling God’s design for humanity. And Jesus, though perfect, was put to death, ultimately as a sacrifice, to pay the penalty for our sin. God is a perfect judge who must punish sin, and Jesus took that punish on himself willingly. Everyone—man or woman—who trusts Jesus is a child of God and is part of his kingdom. As Paul writes in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek [Gentile], there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

This does not mean, however, that men and women are the same. God made men and women to be similar, yet different. This is true physically and often emotionally. Men and women were made to play different roles. Ben Witherington, a New Testament scholar, writes the following in an article about today’s passage:

This does not mean that Jesus abrogated all sexual, social, or creation order distinctions recognized under the Old Covenant. Indeed, it seems rather clear that He affirmed the headship and authority of the man when He chose twelve men from among His disciples to be leaders of the community and that Luke wishes to reaffirm this by giving special stress to the twelve and their distinct roles.[12]

He then adds:

Being Jesus’ disciple did not lead these women to abandon their traditional roles in regard to preparing food, serving, etc. Rather, it gave these roles new significance and importance, for now they could be used to serve the Master and the family. The transformation of these women involved not only assuming new discipleship roles, but also resuming their traditional roles for a new purpose.[13]

Christianity doesn’t teach, as many people do today, that men and women are alike in every way other than biologically. Men and women play different roles. But this does not mean they have different values. Both have the same worth in God’s eyes. This is because our worth isn’t based on physical strength, or the role we play, or how much money we have. Our worth is determined by our position in Jesus Christ. That is what makes Christianity unique. We become acceptable to God and a treasured part of his kingdom if we are united to his Son.

So, what do we learn from today’s passage?

First, the kingdom of God is for everyone who turns away from patterns of sin and rebellion against God and turns in faith to Jesus. Men, women, rich, poor, old, young, people of different skin colors, ethnicities, backgrounds—all kinds of people will be part of God’s kingdom.

Second, we should also see that women played a key role in Jesus’ ministry. They supported him financially. They probably served him and his apostles in practical ways. They also were witnesses to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Again, if this story were made up, no one would ever think of having women be the key witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection.

It’s also possible that Luke got some of his information about Jesus from these women. Many scholars believe Luke was able to talk to an elderly Mary about Jesus. He might very well have met Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna.

Third, here’s an even more important thing for us to get out of this passage. Notice that the women whom Jesus had healed then followed Jesus and served him. This is the pattern of God’s people throughout the Bible. God rescues us from sin and the condemnation that we deserve not so we can live for ourselves. He saves us so that we can serve him. And people who truly realize what God has done for them thankfully and willingly live for him.

So, if you claim to be a Christian, how are you serving God? Are you following the example of these women?

As we come to a new year, what kind of resolution could you make to serve God better?

There are many ways to do this. We can grow in our knowledge of God by reading the Bible and by coming to church to participate in Bible studies and to hear the word of God preached.

We can spend more time in prayer.

We can make sure we’re living according to God’s word in our homes. The New Testament has many things to say about how husbands and wives should live, how parents should raise their children, and how children should obey their parents.

We can make sure we’re living according to God’s word at the workplace, working with integrity and, whatever our job is, working as if our boss is Jesus.

We can be more devoted to telling other people about Jesus. To do that, start by praying for those who don’t know Jesus. Pray that God would give you new relationships and new opportunities to share your faith. Then make sure you know the gospel. Learn about common objections to Christianity and how to answer them. I can help you with this. Talk to me if you’re interested.

You can find ways to help the poor and needy. Find an organization to donate to or to help through volunteering.

But one of the best ways to serve God is by serving his church.

God has instituted his church as the “place” where he is worshiped, where he is made known, where his people come together and love and serve one another, where disciples are made. And people who truly love God love his church, and they serve in his church.

How would these women serve in a local church? I think they would do what they did for Jesus. They would contribute financially. Giving to the local church is a way of supporting the ministry of the gospel. We turn around and give a good percentage of what comes in to the church to missionaries and Christian organizations. The more money we have, the more we are able to do here and abroad.

These women would meet practical needs at the church, whether that’s helping take care of children, helping clean things, organize things, or whatever else they could do. We always have a need for help in very practical ways.

The biggest thing that these women—and all the early disciples showed—was commitment. I’m convinced that one of the biggest idols of our age is the idea that we should always keep our options open, always be free to do whatever we want. And this means that we lack commitment. This is seen in our families, as people walk out of marriages. It’s seen at work, as people are not very loyal to their jobs. And it’s seen in church.

One of my great frustrations is that Christians aren’t more committed to the church. And this is the same frustration that pastors everywhere experience. Some people who are members of a church don’t attend regularly, or they attend but don’t help out. Other people don’t become members at all. I really don’t understand this. No, there is no one verse that says, “You must officially join the local church.” But it is presupposed everywhere in the New Testament. God gave the church leaders to help hold people accountable, to teach them the Bible and make sure that they’re living according to it. And one of the ways we can hold people accountable is through membership. Members of a church can be excommunicated if they are unwilling to repent. But we can’t do this without some sense of membership. People who don’t become members of a church are basically saying that they will not come under the authority of that church.

But God has instituted authority everywhere: in civil government, in the workplace, in the home, and in the church. Authorities are good for us. The Bible does teach that wives should submit to their husbands. And it teaches that children should submit to parents, and employees to employers, and people in church to their leaders, and citizens of a country to their governmental leaders, and everyone to God. To serve God means to come under his authority, which means coming under God’s appointed authority structure, even within the church.

Coming under authority helps remind us that life is not about us. Service reminds us of that, too. Some people who are Christians seem to act as if life revolves around them and their needs. But if we serve God, we’ll become less selfish. We’ll be concerned with the welfare of the church. We’ll be concerned that only a few people do most of the work, and we’ll want to help our brothers and sisters. We’ll be concerned about those who don’t yet know Jesus and we’ll help reach them, individually or as a church.

People often make New Year’s resolutions. Why not resolve to serve in the church? Why not resolve to join the church? I would love to talk with you if you are not yet a member. I would love to talk to members about how to serve more. Some of you have been asked or will be asked to join the church or to serve. Please think about it and pray, and then respond.

And if you’re not yet truly a Christian, I would urge you to turn to Jesus. Maybe you need to learn more about him. Please come and talk to me. I would love to answer any questions you might have. Perhaps you’ve heard a lot about Jesus but haven’t committed to him. Now is the time to follow him.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. See the sermon I preached on December 23, 2018, “She Gave Birth to a Male Child,” https://wbcommunity.org/she-gave-birth-to-a-male-child.
  3. Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 102.
  4. Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 122–23.
  5. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World, 98.
  6. Ibid., 99.
  7. Stark, Triumph, 126–27.
  8. Ibid., 126. Stark here cites William V. Harris, “Child Exposure in the Roman Empire,” Journal of Roman Studies 84:1–22 (specifically page 1).
  9. Oxyrhynchus papyrus 744, http://www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology/wlgr/wlgr-privatelife249.shtml.
  10. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World, 117.
  11. Ibid., 122.
  12. Ben Witherington III, “On the road with Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and other disciples: Luke 8:1-3,
    Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche, 70 no. 3 – 4 (1979): 245.
  13. Ibid.: 247.

 

Those Who Serve Well as Deacons

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on June 17, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

When you watch something, whether it’s a movie, a game of football, or an orchestra play, do you ever think about how many people it takes to put on a large production? When we’re watching a movie, we tend to focus on the actors. We may think about the director, particularly if it’s a famous director. But we probably don’t think about those who are operating the cameras, those who design the lighting, those who are in charge of costumes, the makeup artists, or the editors. We probably don’t think about the key grip, because we’re not quite sure what that person does. We might not even think about the screenwriter. But it takes all those people and many more to make a movie. Each role is important, even if all the roles aren’t visible to the audience.

The same is true of a football game. We tend to focus on the star players, like the quarterback, the running back, and the wide receivers. But a football team needs all kinds of players, like offensive lineman, and the guy who holds the ball for the kicker. And beyond the players, you need coaches and trainers. And you need groundskeepers, ticket sellers, and people who maintain stadiums. Tom Brady may be the star of the Patriots, but he wouldn’t do well without offensive linemen blocking for him, and he couldn’t play if nobody built stadiums, or scheduled games.

The same thing is true of a symphony orchestra. If you go to Symphony Hall to see the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform, you may focus on the conductor or the soloists. But all the players are important. They all play different parts, different roles. And then there is the stage manager and the stage hands, who arrange the chairs on the stage. There are people who sell tickets and take tickets and clean up the building. All are important.

That’s the way it is in the church. For a church to be a healthy, faithful church, there need to be many people involved, all of whom are important. And these people will play different roles. Some will lead and teach. But most will serve in different ways. These roles aren’t less important, they’re just different.

Today, we’re going to talk about the role of the deacon in the church. We’ll do this by looking at 1 Timothy 3:8–13. But before we do that, I want to say this: We are looking at the letter of 1 Timothy, a book of the Bible written by the apostle Paul to his younger associate, a man named Timothy. We’ve been looking at some other passages in the Bible that deal with how the church should run. We’re doing this because we want to make sure that we are a healthy, faithful church.

There are many churches that are more or less faithful in their message. Thye teach people about Jesus. They tell people who God is, how to have a relationship with God, and how to live a life that is pleasing to God. But many churches ignore what the Bible says about how a church should be organized or how a church should do things. But we can’t do this. We can’t just take the message of Jesus and separate it from Jesus’ commands regarding his church. He has designed his church to function in a certain way, the best way. And we would be wise to pay attention to what Jesus has revealed to us through his prophets and apostles. That’s why we’re spending so much time on this issue.

So, with that being said, we’re going to look at what Paul says about deacons. Let’s read 1 Timothy 3:8–13:

Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.[1]

Today, I want to ask and answer three questions about deacons. The first question is: What are deacons? Before I even begin to answer that question, I want to make a quick statement. I want you to forget everything you think you may know about deacons. This morning, I’m going to teach what the Bible teaches about deacons. Ideally, what the Bible says about deacons would match up with our understanding of what a deacon is. But that’s not the case. So, I’m going to teach what the Bible teaches. My hope is that this church can line up more fully with what the Bible says.

This passage really doesn’t tell us much about what deacons are. Here, Paul lists the qualities of the deacons. He doesn’t define “deacon” for us. But if we pay close attention, there are some clues as to what a deacon is. In the previous passage in 1 Timothy, Paul talks about overseers, or pastors. He says that they must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). Paul doesn’t say that about deacons, so deacons don’t need to be teachers. But a lot of the other things that Paul says here apply to pastors as well, so that doesn’t tell us a lot.

But one of the main things that tells us about what a deacon is, is the very word for this office. The New Testament was written in Greek, and most of the time translations into English are very accurate and easy enough to understand. But there are times when some Greek words are transliterated, probably because of traditions. The word “deacon” in Greek is διάκονος. You can hear how that sounds a lot like our English word. The word actually means “servant.” It can be used to refer to people who wait on tables. So, deacons are servants. It would probably be better for this word to be translated that way in our Bibles. But I suppose it’s not because the translators want us to know that these aren’t just any servants, but the church’s officially recognized servants.

Just as the words “overseer” and “shepherd” tell us a lot about that office, the word “servant” tells us a lot about what a deacon is. But if we’re going to understand more about what kind of a servant a deacon is, we have to look at other passages in the New Testament.

The problem is that the word “deacon,” when used of an official office, doesn’t appear much at all in the New Testament. At the beginning of his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes, “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons” (Phil. 1:1). Notice how he addresses the whole congregation and then specifies the two offices of the church: overseers and deacons. But that doesn’t tell us a lot. And, really, that’s the only other time that the word “deacon” appears in our Bibles. The Greek word διάκονος does appear some other times, but it often refers to a servant of some kind or other, not an official servant of the church.

To understand what a deacon is, we have to look at another passage, Acts 6. This passage discusses what is probably the origin of the diaconate. If you’re not familiar with the book of Acts, it tells the story of the early church, beginning with Jesus’ ascension to heaven after he died and rose from the grave. The early chapters tell about the Holy Spirit, the third Person of God, being poured out on the church and the disciples preaching a message about Jesus in Jerusalem. But Christianity is more than just preaching. Let’s read Acts 6:1–7:

1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

We’re told that the disciples—another name for Christians, which means “students” or “followers”—were growing in number. But there was a problem. The church was taking care of widows, but only some widows, the ones who were regarded as Hebrews, who spoke Aramaic. The Hellenists were the Jews who spoke Greek, who grew up in places outside of Palestine, and who had moved to Jerusalem later in life. Their widows weren’t being taken care of. They weren’t receiving food. So, “the twelve,” the apostles, the leaders of the church, come up with a solution. First, they say, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.” The verb that is translated “to serve” is διακονεῖν, which is related to the Greek word for “deacon.” The job of the apostles was to preach the word of God, not to take care of these physical problems. They needed someone else to take care of the widows. So, they told the people to pick seven men who had a good reputation, who were full of the Holy Spirit, and who were wise. The people picked seven men, and the apostles approved of their choices and laid hands on them, which means they set them apart for this service.

This division of labor allowed the apostles to focus on “prayer and . . . the ministry of the word.” Since these seven men made sure the Greek widows were fed, the apostles didn’t have to worry about that, and they could focus on the task that Jesus gave them, which was to tell people about Jesus. And this division of labor is very similar to what we find with overseers/pastors and deacons. Pastors preach and teach the Bible, they help people grow in faith, and the lead. But overseeing and leading doesn’t mean they can and should do all the work. Deacons are servants who take care of physical needs.

I don’t think it’s an accident that when men are chosen to take care of the widows, freeing the apostles up to do the work of praying and preaching, “the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly.” A healthy church that follows God’s design will see to the spiritual and physical needs of the congregation. Deacons are not pastors/shepherds/elders/overseers. They aren’t board members who make decisions. They’re not leaders. They are servants.

That is what the Bible teaches. And it’s a practical teaching. But right now, we don’t have this teaching reflected in our church. We do have two deacons, two godly men who have been a great help to me. But they’re really functioning more like elders. They both do some “deacon-type things.” Jim spends hours mowing the lawn. Dean serves as an usher and opens and later locks the doors. But I suspect that if we reform the church according to the Bible, they will serve as elders, not deacons. Yet we do need deacons to do physical things. That would free me up to do what I need to do as a pastor. If there are physical things that need taking care of in the building or on the grounds, I should be able to contact a deacon to do those things. If we have people who need rides to church, who need help paying bills, or who need physical tasks done because they can’t do them, there should be deacons to meet those needs.

So, deacons are servants, not assistant pastors or even assistants to the pastor. They are not junior overseers or shepherds. But that doesn’t make them less valuable. The church needs servants. And I hope that our by-laws will change to reflect what the Bible teaches. Right now, our by-laws say that deacons should “watch over and pray for the spiritual life of the church.” Anyone can pray for the spiritual life of the church, but the language of “watch over” should be reserved only for pastors. The by-laws also state that deacons should serve as “overseeing . . . members of all committees and boards.” The language of “overseeing” should be reserved for overseers. This needs to be changed. We need a plurality of overseers/elders/pastors and a plurality of deacons. Having a deacon serve as a pastor or a pastor serve as a deacon is like having Tom Brady serve as a receiver. And if you watched the last Super Bowl, you know that didn’t work out so well.

The second question I want to ask and answer is: Who can be deacons? That’s what Paul addresses in 1 Timothy. Let’s look again at today’s passage. He says that deacons should be “dignified,” or honorable. They shouldn’t be “double-tongued.” In other words, they shouldn’t say one thing to one group of people, and another thing to another group of people. They shouldn’t say one thing when they really mean another. They should be consistent in their speech. They shouldn’t be greedy, using their position “for dishonest gain.”

Deacons should also hold fast to the faith. Paul calls it “the mystery of the faith.” When Paul uses “mystery,” he means something specific. He means something that we couldn’t discover by ourselves, but something that God has now revealed. We couldn’t discover on our own what God is like, or how we can have a right relationship with him. God needed to reveal that to us. I’ll come back to that idea in a little while.

Paul also says that deacons should be tested. We shouldn’t throw something into the role of deacon if we don’t know them. Really, we shouldn’t throw someone into the role of deacon if they haven’t already demonstrated that they are truly Christians, that they are trustworthy, and that they have a heart to serve other people.

Then, in verse 11, Paul writes, “Their wives.” Literally, he writes “women.” Here, there is some debate. Is Paul saying that women can be deacons, or is he saying that deacons are men, and that their wives must be a certain way? Or, is Paul saying that deacons are normally men, but their wives can serve alongside them in their service?

Now, before I go any further, I want to say that there are some faithful, Bible-believing churches that have only male deacons, and there are some faithful, Bible-believing churches that have male and female deacons. But, again, I have to say this: deacons are not pastors. Deacons aren’t leaders. They are servants who take care of physical needs of the church.

Now, there are some strong arguments for having female deacons, and there are some strong arguments for understanding that Paul is referring to wives who have some role to play in service in the church. In favor of female deacons, Paul does not write “their wives.” It just says “women” in the original Greek language. He could have added “their,” but he didn’t. Also, when Paul writes about overseers, he doesn’t refer to their wives. Why do deacons need to have anything written about their wives? Third, in the book of Romans, Paul writes about a woman who is a servant of a church. Literally, she is a διάκονος. This is what Romans 16:1 says: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae” (Rom. 16:1). The footnote in the English Standard Version says that “servant” could be translated as “deaconess.” But it’s not the female form of the word that is used here. It’s the male form, deacon. Does Paul mean that Phoebe is an official deacon or is she just “a servant”? It’s not clear. But it seems that she could very well be a deacon.

That being said, there are some good arguments for Paul referring to deacons’ wives. In 1 Timothy 3, Paul has already used the word “woman” to refer to a wife. We see that in verse 2. If in verse 11 he’s referring to women in general, it’s a bit odd, because in verse 12, he goes back to referring to deacons who are male. If he’s referring to female deacons in verse 11, why doesn’t he talk about their marital status? These are some of the arguments against having female deacons.[2]

So, what are we to make of this? Well, if we understand that deacons are not leaders and teachers, then there is no violation of what Paul writes about women in the church (1 Tim. 2:11–15). What is said about deacons could apply to men and women—except for verse 12, where Paul says that deacons should literally be “one-women men.” Perhaps the best way to understand Paul is to see that men should be deacons and should serve along with their wives.

There are situations where a female servant would be helpful. For example, imagine there is a woman in the church who needs help with something in her house. Maybe she’s a widow who can’t do all the housework. Maybe she’s a single mom who doesn’t have the time and energy to do everything in the house, like cleaning or fixing something. It would be unwise for a man to go into that situation, at least alone. It would be better for a woman to serve in that situation, or perhaps a husband-wife team.

This is something that we will have to decide on as a church. But I will say that my last church had some female deacons, almost always serving along with their husbands. One of the most biblical churches I know, Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., has deacons and deaconesses. Again, these people are not board members, decision-makers, leaders, or shepherds. They are servants. It’s something to consider.

The third question I want to ask and answer is: Why do we need deacons? Hopefully this should be clear by now. A pastor, or even a group of pastors, can’t do all the ministry of the church. We’re not called to do all the ministry of the church. We need members of the church who take care of physical things, whether it’s the building and grounds or going to people’s homes to serve them in different ways, or being in charge of a deacon’s fund, which is used to help people in times of need. At this point, some may wonder why we need people who are called deacons. After all, shouldn’t all Christians be serving in the local church?

Yes, all Christians should serve. But the church needs some officially recognized servants, people who are trustworthy, who have demonstrated that they aren’t greedy, but who can manage their own lives well. That’s because deacons have some important responsibilities. One is that they have access to money and other resources. Even the seven men of Acts 6 were in charge of distributing food. Deacons today often have access to money to use to help the needy. They may also have to serve in sensitive situations, like going into people’s homes. You need someone who is trustworthy in that case. And deacons end up representing the church. If the church is known for having servants that don’t hold to the faith, who are greedy, who misuse their positions, then the church looks bad. Even more important, Jesus looks bad.

So, it makes sense to have officially recognized servants, people who can respond to needs in the church. And it’s practical to have people who fit this role. The church should know who to call upon when there are needs. I should know whom I can call when I discover there’s a need.

The fact that the church needs official officers dedicated to service shows how important physical service is. Christianity is more than just caring about where someone’s spirit goes when he or she dies. It’s about more than just “going to heaven.” Christianity cares about the whole person. Christianity recognizes that God didn’t just create spirits; God created a person who is both body and soul. Christians should care about where someone stands with God, what kind of relationship to Jesus a person has. But they should also care about the physical wellbeing of a person.

Taking care of physical needs is not an unworthy task. That’s something that Christianity demonstrated to a world that thought less of servants. In the ancient world, in both Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures, physical service was regarded as less important, far below that of rulers. But Jesus shows that serving is something great. We might say that Jesus is the ultimate deacon.

History is full of examples of people who try to make themselves look great. We want power and a high status. We want people to look at us and think we’re great. This is fallen human nature. But Jesus taught something different. He said, the last would be first, and the first would be last (Matt. 19:30; 20:16). Two of Jesus’ followers, James and John, seemed to want positions of power and status. They had their mother ask Jesus to put them at prominent positions in the kingdom of God. Jesus said that those who follow him will suffer. And then Jesus said,

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:25–28).

Jesus said that Gentiles—Romans in his day—lord their power and status over others. They were domineering. They wouldn’t dare stoop down to the level of people below them. But those who follow Jesus should be different. If you want to be great, be a servant. If you want to be first in the kingdom of God, you must first be a slave.

That is completely contrary to the way of the world. Earlier, I talked about “mystery,” that it’s something God must reveal. This is something that God must tell us, because it’s not natural for us. And Jesus reveals to us that it is the right way. Why can Jesus say that the servant and the slave are great in the kingdom of God? Because Jesus himself came to serve. He said, “the Son of Man”—that’s a reference to himself—“came not to be served but to serve.” How did Jesus serve? He gave “his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus is the eternal Son of God. He has always been God. God the Father created the universe through the Son, by the power of the Spirit. He existed eternally in glory with the Father. But Jesus also became a human being over two thousand years ago. When he did that, he set aside his divine prerogatives. He left the realm of glory, heaven, to come to earth, where he would experience life as we do. He would experience hunger and thirst and fatigue and pain. He would be laughed at, mocked, rejected, betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed. He did all this so that he could save his people from judgment, from condemnation. His death on the cross was the redemption price, the only thing that could free us from sin, from eternal death, from hell.

Why do we face condemnation? Because we have rejected God. God made us to reflect his glory, to represent him on earth, to love and obey him, to worship him, and, yes, to serve him. But we don’t want to live under God’s authority. We want to live life on our terms. We turn our backs on God, ignoring him, disobeying his commands. And this is a great evil. In fact, all the evil in the world can be traced back to rebellion against God. Since God wants a good creation, one that isn’t tainted with evil, he has plans to judge the world, to punish sinners and remove sin from his creation. God is a righteous judge who will make sure that all rebellion is punished, because that rebellion ruins his good creation. If you had someone come into your house and destroy everything and harm your family, you would make sure that person was driven out of your house and punished, wouldn’t you? Well, that’s what God will do on judgment day.

But if God did that, every human being would be driven out of his house and punished. Yet God is merciful and gracious. He provided a way for our sins to be punished but for us not to be driven out. Jesus is that way. He was punished for our sins. He was driven out, cut off from the land of the living, so that we could live eternally.

In another letter, Paul writes about this. In Philippians 2, Paul writes,

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:5–8).

Jesus, though he was and is divine, didn’t try to cling to his status in heaven. I like what a recent translation, the Christian Standard Bible says. It says Jesus, “existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God, as something to be exploited.” Instead, he made himself a servant by becoming a human being. And he humbled himself even to the point of death on a cross, which was an instrument of torture. Only Jesus lived the perfect life. He never sinned. He didn’t deserve to die, particularly in that manner. And when he died on the cross, he endured more than a physical death. He endured hell on earth, a spiritual pain that goes beyond what we could imagine.

Yet Jesus’ death wasn’t the end of the story. Paul continues:

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:9–11).

Jesus rose from the grave. He ascended to heaven. He has been exalted by God the Father to glory. And when he comes again to earth, every knee will bow. Some will bow in terror. Others will bow in worship. But every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord, that he is the King, that he is God. And those who serve will be exalted, too. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus shows that service, even the most menial service, isn’t something “below us.” It is something that is great. Jesus even washed his disciples’ feet, which would have been covered in dirt, since they wore sandals and walked on dirty, dusty roads. (You can read about this in John 13.) He did this to foreshadow his cleansing them from their sin. But he also did this as an example. He said,

13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

Jesus is far more than just an example. He did what we cannot do. He has the power to make us right with God, to take care of our sin problem, which is what separates us from God. We can’t do that. And we can’t die for another person’s sin. So, we need to be served by Jesus. But we also need to serve like Jesus, stooping down to meet the needs of others. And this is something that is great.

If you do not know Jesus, if you don’t know much about him or how to live for him, I would love to talk to you more. He is the only one who can give us eternal life.

If you do know Jesus, I hope that you are serving him by serving others. If you’re not a member of this church, I would like to talk to you about joining the church. We may not all be deacons, but we should all serve in the local church.

If you’re a member of the church, if you have a heart for service, and if you meet the qualifications for a deacon, perhaps consider serving in that role. If you do, keep in mind that “those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.”

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Arguments for and against female deacons are found in Benjamin L. Merkle, 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2008), 249–258.

 

Those Who Serve Well as Deacons (1 Timothy 3:8-13)

Serving others is just as important as leading. Service is so important to Christianity that the church has officially recognized servants called deacons. What is a deacon? Who can be a deacon? Why do we need deacons? Find out in this sermon by Brian Watson, based on 1 Timothy 3:8–13.

Striving Side by Side

Pastor Brian Watson drew from Philippians 1-2 to talk about the importance of being involved in the local church. If all Christians marched side-by-side and contributed their talents, spiritual gifts, and everything else that God has given them, each local church (and the universal church) would be stronger.