Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Deacons: Tried and True

In my first job out of college I served as a "job coach" with a little non-profit that helped people with disabilities integrate into the workplace. It was a great opportunity with a great group of people.

My main task, after helping the person find a job, was to provide on-the-job coaching during the probationary employment period. This was generally a "make or break" period. Either the job was a "good fit" or it was quickly evident that things would not work out.

I've had a number of clients either quit or get fired in just a matter of hours or days. It was a time of testing for the employee, the employer and the job coach. Employees could find themselves in situations too complex given their abilities. Employers could be ill-suited for supporting people with disabilities even if they employee was capable otherwise. And the job coach... well, let's just say the job coach has done everything from scoop poop at a kennel (several actually) to wash windows for an airline to data processing at IBM to flipping burgers at your local fast food joint. It was a time of testing for all.

Serving is not only a joy, it is also at times a real test. Serving others tests the depths of our love, the lengths of our patience, the quality of our endurance, and even the permanence of our joy. Serving brings great rewards, and sometimes those rewards are gift-wrapped in trying situations. Those who lovingly serve others often end up feeling like crash dummies designed specifically to discover the heat, force, and pain tolerance of some new product.

It's not surprising then that Paul should instruct Timothy and the church to find table servers, deacons, who "must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons" (1 Tim. 3:10). We call deacons to a number of difficult situations often in response to serious needs and/or serious sins. So, this is no place for a novice. The battle tested are the best applicants.

Deacons are to be examined or put to the test. As one commentator put it, "How this is to be done is not specified. The letter itself makes the requirements public, and 5:22ff indicates that time must be given to appraise a person's life. From this we can conclude that the testing is to be a thoughtful and careful evaluation of a man's life by a congregation aware of these needed qualifications" (Knight, NIGTC on The Pastoral Epistles, p. 170). The testing most likely involves the kinds of spiritual qualifications found throughout 1 Timothy 3.

Some questions to consider:

1. Is the prospective deacon a mature and growing Christian? Time is not always a predictor of maturity, but generally speaking recent converts are not tested and seasoned. There is no magic number of years to reach before one is regarded as a deacon, but churches are to examine a person for spiritual preparedness and capability before making her or him a deacon. Are the fruit of the Spirit evident in their lives? Are they growing into Christlikeness and contributing to the growth of others so that all may grow up into Christ? (Eph. 4)

2. Does the prospective deacon show competence in the area of service? This is not the equivalent of conducting a professional head hunter search for technical competence. But it is wise to look for persons who have already been serving and display some skill in the area they may be asked to lead. Perhaps they have been volunteering in some related capacity. Or, perhaps they have work-related experience and expertise. Phil Ryken puts it this way: "This is a universal principle of Christian ministry: the way to prepare for greater service is to be diligent in some lesser service. Faithful ministry is both rewarded by God and recognized by the church" (1 Timothy, Reformed Expositor's Commentary, p. 128-9).

3. Is there anything that disqualifies the prospective deacon from serving? Whether in character or in competence, does the church's testing reveal serious deficiencies prohibiting a person's service? That's the negative aspect of the testing.

4. Is the congregation supportive of the potential deacon entering the office? This is the positive aspect of the testing. The person who passes the testing labors with the full support and commendation of the church body and leaders. The testing serves to affirm the person's gifting and character and to endorse the person's ministry. It enables confidence in service.

Deacons are indispensable in the Christian church. The Lord has not established the office as an added extra. And the office does not continue to exist as some obsolete appendage. Rather, deacons serve the table of the Lord in such a way as to facilitate the advance of the gospel, the health of the body, and the rejoicing of the saints. With great reason, then, Paul concludes: "Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 3:13). What a noble calling!


John said...

This is a good post on a good topic.

When you raise the question, "does anything disqualify...?" would you generally just look to the person's character at the present time, or do you believe that sins from the past could disqualify?

I listened to your 9 Marks interview last week and really enjoyed it.

I hope all is well.

FellowElder said...

Hey John,
Good to hear from you, bro. Thanks for the encouragement and the question.

In answer to your question, it depends. How recent/old is the sin in question? Was it habitual? Was it public and scandalous? Does it ruin his reputation with outsiders so that the cause of Christ and the church would be hindered if he were a known leader of the church? Was it known inside the church? Was there discipline? Was the discipline submitted to, repentance achieved by God's gracious Spirit?

Those are some the questions I'd consider. The older the sin, the less public, the more evident the repentance, and the more fruitful the life since the sin in question... the more inclined I'd be to consider the man.