Deacon qualifications

Discussion in 'Church Order' started by Joseph Knowles, Feb 28, 2019.

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  1. Joseph Knowles

    Joseph Knowles Puritan Board Freshman

    As noted in my signature, I am currently a deacon at a Southern Baptist church. Thus, I recognize that the issue I'm presenting is one that is, at least in some ways, only an issue in non-confessional Baptist churches. I'll also add that I know how I answer the main question, so what I'm hoping some folks will be able to help me with here is more along the lines of how best to talk about these things with people who might disagree. To be clear, we have already discussed all of this as a group, but because we're going to have to come back to it at another meeting, I want to think it through a little more so I don't merely repeat what I already said.

    We've recently been having discussions amongst church leaders (new pastor and board of deacons) about deacon qualifications. As you might imagine in a Southern Baptist church, in our most recent meeting in which we walked through I Timothy 3:8ff, probably 90% of the discussion time was spent on two items out of that list: alcohol and marriage. I found myself in a small minority that took the position that abstinence from alcohol is not required of deacons. The marriage question was probably equally divided between those who believe a deacon must be a man who is currently married to his first and only wife and those who believe divorce is not an automatic disqualifier in every situation.

    Among those who say that divorce under any circumstances is a disqualifier and that total abstinence from alcohol is required, there seems to be a consensus that "deacons should be held to a high(er) standard." I agree with them that deacons ought to be held to a high standard. However, it seems to me that the church should not require of deacons something that is not required by Scripture. To require abstinence from alcohol and automatically disqualify men who were divorced seems to me to be an extra-biblical requirement.

    So the first question is this: "Ought a church to require of officeholders (whether deacons or elders) things that Scripture does not require when it comes to a man's eligibility for that office?" I think the clear answer is "No," but if I'm missing something that should change my answer, I'm eager to hear it.

    Secondly, if it is the case that a church should not add requirements to what the Bible requires for men to be officeholders in the church, what is the best way to go about resolving that disagreement? Scripture must be the rule, of course, but if you have any specific guidance or advice, that's really what I'm after.
    Last edited: Mar 17, 2019
  2. Dekybo

    Dekybo Puritan Board Freshman

    Hey Joseph,

    I will try to give some advice.

    You've answered your first question, so I'll focus on the second question.

    If you are given the opportunity to converse about your beliefs over specific qualifications, then take it. As always be respectful and kind. In my limited experience people are often very emotionally stirred by these kinds of beliefs. In a church I had pastored, I had a deacon leave the church because I committed to my stance of allowing divorced men to hold this office. Some people will not give you the light of day.

    I will say that it is not always the argument of Scripture vs. opinion/tradition. Sometimes it is Interpretation vs. Interpretation both coming from Scripture, so be humble and long-suffering.
  3. Romans922

    Romans922 Puritan Board Professor

    Do you have elders? I ask because I know in some baptist circles "deacons" actually serve like biblical elders and there are no actual deacons of the biblical sort.
  4. Jack K

    Jack K Puritan Board Professor

    One qualification for officeholders (and if you look at the role "deacons" fill in many SBC congregations, the "elder" qualifications might be the best guide) is that the man be respected, above reproach, well thought of in the community, seen to manage his own household well, etc. This set of qualifications is going to be especially fluid: it will vary somewhat depending on the views and expectations of the man's community. Some otherwise allowable behaviors might be viewed with disrespect in that particular community, making it unwise for that man to serve.

    It would be an error to take this too far. Should not the Bible, rather than culture, tell us what is respectable? But the need to avoid scandal and to have the church led by men the congregation respects are legitimate requirements.

    I suspect there are some SBC congregations in Virginia where it would be scandalous to have a man who drinks (even just a little) in a position of leadership. It would be good if that could change, but as long as it is the case, the leaders might be practicing godly concern for weaker and/or hurt members by refraining, and they might make it a policy among themselves. Remember that many people have been deeply scarred by the effects of alcohol abuse, so it is understandable if they find it emotionally hard to submit to a spiritual leader who drinks.

    I agree with you that divorce is not an absolute disqualification, but in many circles it is starting to become no issue at all when it should be considered very closely. Divorce often is a sign of poor household leadership, and it is hated by God. So while it would be good for a church to be able to look beyond snap judgments and examine each case by its unique circumstances, a congregation or community that still sees divorce as scandalous or reproachful is not so far off the mark. And again, divorce has scarred many people in the church, people who must be able to submit respectfully to their leaders.

    So, does the Bible absolutely exclude men who drink responsibly, or divorced men? No, I don't think we should conclude that from 1 Timothy 3. But if a church is taking seriously its responsibility to place in leadership men who will easily have the respect and submission of its members, that church might be right to consider these things based on that qualification.
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  5. Joseph Knowles

    Joseph Knowles Puritan Board Freshman

    In times past it's my understanding that the deacons have acted like elders in certain respects. That is not the case at present and although we are currently a single-pastor congregation the new pastor is pushing to have the church adopt a plural-elder model for leadership as soon as our governing documents can be changed.
  6. Joseph Knowles

    Joseph Knowles Puritan Board Freshman

    You make a good point. I hadn’t really considered that angle.
  7. Contra_Mundum

    Contra_Mundum Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger Staff Member

    Speaking as someone who thinks it exceeding dangerous to add (especially to the duties of officers) further qualifications beyond Scripture,

    I still say that you should adhere to such promises and rules that you agreed to upon your vows of office. Or demit the office as one who is not able conscientiously to fulfill your vow as you took it. I agree with Jack that "having a good reputation toward those outside" may include abstinence from alcohol; and it may hinder your leadership to drink openly before believers who struggle with liberty in this area.

    But if this is a new, extrabiblical standard-of-righteousness (as opposed to prudent advice) that is being imposed upon the officers, I dare to say: you should refuse to comply. The reason (if I understand your scenario properly; I may not understand) is that the obligation appears to add a particular behavior to the Christian profession. Thus, you as an "exemplary Christian," are presenting teetotaling--a standard you do not believe is biblical--as nevertheless most biblical and godly. You are being asked to lie, and not just serve your neighbor so that he is not tempted to wound his weak conscience by sin.

    Not everyone has the stomach for a defense. I do not say that to shame you or anyone who declines the fight. But in some cases, it is necessary for the good of one's own conscience and the instruction of others to make a public defense; and let the church-institution do its false duty, and show its hand.

    On the "divorce" question, this (it seems to me) could qualify as a situation where the general church's failures in the past to properly discipline its membership has brought about a situation where extra wisdom and discernment is needed to decide a particular case where a divorced man might be considered for a church office. Blanket prohibitions are unwise; but then, for so long divorce has been winked at, the church might need to tighten its policy for applying its standard.
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  8. Robert K

    Robert K Puritan Board Freshman

    For those who believe "husband of one wife" does not mean "never divorced," what do you think it does mean?

    It can't mean "not single" because the same requirement applies to elders, and Paul was an elder, and was single.

    I've heard people say it might mean "not a polygamist".

    Just curious if you think it means something besides "never divorced," or if you merely think it is not intended as a strict rule.
    Last edited: Feb 28, 2019
  9. Jack K

    Jack K Puritan Board Professor

  10. JimmyH

    JimmyH Puritan Board Junior

    I am an ordained deacon in the OPC, and I've been divorced. In my case my reasons were justified according to Scripture, and session was told when I was before them for evaluation. I find it interesting that the NRSV has translated 1Timothy 3:2 Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher,
    All other English translations I know of translate it as 'a husband of one wife.' Somehow I think the NRSV has it wrong.
  11. Robert K

    Robert K Puritan Board Freshman

    Thanks, @JimmyH .

    So to summarize, "husband of one wife" means "never divorced except on account of the spouse's infidelity," since you would be allowed to remarry in this case.

    I ask because before I was a Presbyterian I had to vote on calling a pastor who was previously divorced, though apparently he did everything right. Within a year, his new wife also had an affair, and he had to leave the church for failure to manage his household well (both leading up to and following his wife's affair). I've always wondered whether I interpreted "husband of one wife" correctly when I was considering whether to vote to call him to be our pastor.
  12. Dekybo

    Dekybo Puritan Board Freshman

    This is what you believe that "husband of one wife" means but that doesn't make it true. Could "husband of one wife" mean a faithful husband of the one wife that he has? What would you advise the unbeliever who has divorced in his past but been remarried and now a faithful believer? His past sin has been forgiven but he is forever disqualified?
  13. Robert K

    Robert K Puritan Board Freshman

    @Dekybo I am not trying to pick what I think it means, I am just trying to summarize what I am hearing.

    I suppose "faithful husband of one wife" is another option.

    I'm not ready to give my opinion on the matter... But I appreciate other people's opinions!
  14. JimmyH

    JimmyH Puritan Board Junior

    From 'Bible Hub', these translations are the few that specify faithfulness, as opposed to 'husband of one wife.' Dynamic equivalence I suppose ... It would seem polygamy being excluded is the source of the admonition. Obviously the husband shouldn't be an adulterer, but should be faithful to his wife. Whether a man who is divorced for Scripturally allowable reasons, and then remarries is beyond the pale ... I don't know.

    NIV Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,

    NLT So an elder must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exercise self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must be able to teach.

    CEV That's why officials must have a good reputation and be faithful in marriage. They must be self-controlled, sensible, well-behaved, friendly to strangers, and able to teach.
  15. ZackF

    ZackF Puritan Board Graduate

    What about a widower?
  16. jwithnell

    jwithnell Moderator Staff Member

    This is precisely why the church should not go beyond a plain reading of "husband of one wife." A man, like my deacon husband, who faithfully completed his vows "until death" is nowhere in scripture kept from holding office. Being overzealous in describing "married to his first and only wife" creates a barrier to men who have been the most faithful in their fidelity to their wives and management of their households.
    Last edited: Mar 1, 2019
  17. Joseph Knowles

    Joseph Knowles Puritan Board Freshman

    This is also helpful. To hopefully clarify our situation at my church, there is presently no formal set of vows a deacon takes that include abstinence from alcohol. In addition, although I was asked whether I had ever been married before when I was asked whether I would be willing to be ordained as a deacon, I know there are at least a couple men whom the church has ordained that were not asked and who later revealed that they had been divorced and remarried (and have remained married for decades to their current wives).

    So, as it stands, I think the new pastor has identified that the church lacks a spelled-out standard of what is required of deacons. I know there have been unstated assumptions in the past, but I agree with him that that's not good enough when it comes to the church's selecting/recognizing of officeholders.
  18. Joseph Knowles

    Joseph Knowles Puritan Board Freshman

    I'm no Greek scholar, but my understanding is that the phrase would literally mean something like "a one-woman man." The key, then, would be that the man be the kind of man who demonstrates fidelity and sexual purity. Thus, for instance, single men would not necessarily be disqualified on account of their unmarried status if they demonstrate that they are that kind of man. Similarly, a widower would not be disqualified (although this seems to be admitted as an exception even by those who take the "married to his first and only wife" side), if he has proved himself to be a one-woman kind of man. And for the same reasons, I think the church would have to judge each candidate for elder or deacon based on what characterizes the kind of man he is now even if he has been divorced. There are many good reasons that a church should be extremely cautious in putting a man in a leadership position who has been divorced in the past, and it may be that many such men will not be found qualified, but I can't say that it's an automatic disqualifier without allowing for a more searching examination of such a man's character and reputation.
  19. JimmyH

    JimmyH Puritan Board Junior

    I think in comparing Scripture with Scripture, going to Paul's admonition in 1 Corinthians 7:7 - 7:9
    If an individual has Paul's gift of celibacy 'burning with passion' is not an issue. If he does not he should find a wife. A man divorced because of the wife's infidelity would not be disqualified from a position as an ordained deacon or elder, and I assume would be permitted to remarry, as would a widower.

    Looking at my previous experience in a Baptist church, where I was not an officer, I observed more than one instance where deacons had rebellious children, teenagers, who from a technical point of view, would have disqualified them from remaining as deacons.

    As it worked out they were not called out on that and as the teens grew and matured they turned out to be fine young adults ... not so young by now, but outgrew that rebelliousness common in teens.

    I'm just pointing out that in todays world it is even more difficult to control young people in your household. The whole world lieth in the wicked one. .
  20. Dachaser

    Dachaser Puritan Board Doctor

    We are also a Baptist church, and we do not have an official policy in regards to use of alcohol, other then a Christian should never drink to excess and getting drunk. We also tend to see the requirement of the person having just one wife as meaning being married to one woman at the time of service, and not into multiple wives.
  21. Bill Duncan

    Bill Duncan Puritan Board Freshman


    This man who was divorced as an unbeliever would not be disqualified if he is repentant and has been forgiven by his X and anyone else who was offended, specifically children. This is the position of some churches in the PCA that I know of. Not saying its right just what is practiced by men I hold in high esteem.
  22. Joseph Knowles

    Joseph Knowles Puritan Board Freshman

    I’ll be at the deacons meeting tonight where this will be discussed again. Your prayers for wisdom, discernment, and charity would be greatly appreciated.
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