Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan.

By the time you read this article, most of our Protestant Reformed Churches will have again installed new deacons for the year. For two or three years these men, believing themselves to have been called of God Himself to their office, will devote themselves to the work of administering the mercies of Christ to the poor and needy. A weighty calling!

The question is: what kind of men have been put into this office? Councils and congregations, what kind of men did you nominate and elect? Deacons, what kind of men are you in all your life?

One great danger for the church and for believers is that we begin to form our own ideas of what kind of men are best able to serve in church office. Our nature would lead us to nominate or vote for the men whom we like best, or who are related to us; or for a good businessman who we think will be well equipped to handle our money; or for one who sees things (earthly things, non-essential spiritual things, or anything) our way.

Following the lead of our nature in nominating or voting for deacons, however, is wrong. It ignores the fact that the church is the house of God, that is, the house which God redeemed through Christ, and the house in which God is the master. It ignores the fact that ultimately God determines who will serve as stewards of the mercies of Christ in His house. It ignores the will of God, set forth in I Timothy 3:8-12, regarding who may serve in the office. The result of ignoring all these things is that we choose men to serve in church office in the same way in which secular society selects men to serve in positions of government.

Councils, you did nominate men who are truly qualified, in accordance with the qualifications found in God’s Word, didn’t you? And men of the congregations, you did vote for the men whom you considered to measure up best to the standard God gives us, right? I pray it was so.

Because the diaconate is one office through which Christ is present with His church, and because the deacons themselves must administer Christ’s mercies, it is imperative that the deacons be qualified men. We should know, therefore, just what the qualifications are. We begin treating this subject by stressing its importance.

The importance of the subject of qualifications is demonstrated first by the fact that God sets forth in Scripture what these qualifications are. Inasmuch as Scripture is God’s will and Word, and our guide for faith and life, everything that is taught in Scripture is important to the church and child of God. We must abide by God’s Word!

The first place in which Scripture sets forth the qualifications of deacons is Acts 6:3, 5, part of the record of the institution of the office. The apostles directed the church to select seven men for the work of the diaconate, according to verse 3: “Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.” One of the men whom the church chose was “Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost” (v. 5). The apostles understood the need to have qualified men for the work, and they knew that the chief qualification was that one be filled with the Holy Ghost. For the instruction of the church in later years, Scripture records that these requirements were followed. Stephen in particular was an eminently qualified man. The church in that day understood the importance of a deacon being qualified.

Scripture sets forth the qualifications in more detail in I Timothy 3:8-12: “Likewise must the deacons be grave, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre; Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless. Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things. Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.”

In writing those words, and in writing previously of the qualifications of elders, the inspired apostle Paul means to underscore for the young pastor Timothy the importance of these qualifications. Men who do not meet these requirements may not be put into the office of deacon in the church. Paul says in verses 14-15, “These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.”

How to behave in God’s house—an important matter indeed!

A second way in which the importance of the issue can be shown, and again from Scripture itself, is to note that when Scripture speaks explicitly of the office of the deacon, it says very little about the work of the diaconate, instead placing the emphasis on the qualifications of the deacons.

Of course, none of us would argue that the kind of work which the deacons do is not important. Nor is it the case that Scripture says nothing of their work. Acts 6:1-2 does say that these seven men should “serve tables,” that is, care for the widows in the “daily ministration.” Romans 12:8I Corinthians 12:28, and other passages speak to the subject of the deacons’ work. But when Scripture clearly indicates that it is giving instruction regarding the office of deacon, as it does in Acts 6:1-6 and I Timothy 3:8-13, that instruction takes the form of teaching us what the qualifications for the office are. Certainly God also views the deacons’ work as important, but He seems to be impressing on us that He is as concerned, if not more concerned, with what kind of men they are! The wrong kind of man trying to do the work of the diaconate will not be a blessing to the church!

In light of Scripture’s emphasis on the qualifications rather than the work of the office, we note with interest that our Reformed confessions emphasize exactly the opposite. They speak to the work of the diaconate, and the manner of calling the deacons, but say very little about the matter of qualifications.

Our Belgic Confession, the only one of our Three Forms of Unity which mentions the diaconate, sets forth briefly the work of the deacons and the general importance of the diaconate. Its only mention of the qualifications is found in the concluding sentence of Article 30, and applies as well to elders and pastors: “By these means everything will be carried on in the church with good order and decency, when faithful men are chosen according to the rule prescribed by St. Paul in his epistle to Timothy.”

The Church Order says nothing about the necessary qualifications of deacons, but instead explains how the deacons must be chosen to office, and what their work is.

The Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons speaks primarily to their work. In four places, the Form does imply, but not specifically state, that the deacons must be qualified men. The first question put to the elders and deacons is, “whether you do not feel in your hearts that ye are lawfully called of God’s church, and consequently of God Himself, to these your respective holy offices?” The feeling in one’s heart that one is lawfully called, and especially called of God, implies that the deacon-elect has examined in his heart whether he is qualified for the work. The third question asks, in part, “Do you also jointly promise to walk in all godliness….” Godliness—that, in sum, is what is required of the deacon according to I Timothy 3:8ff. In the exhortation section, the Form quotes, without saying so,I Timothy 3:9, 13. The form says, “… and hold the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience…. In so doing you will purchase to yourselves a good degree and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus…. ” While Paul wrote these words regarding the deacons, the Form applies this to elders also! Lastly, as regards the Form, the prayer includes petitions for God’s spiritual gifts to come upon them, that they might do their work. The church thanks the Lord that “Thou hast at present granted us in this place men who are of good testimony, and we hope endowed with Thy Spirit. We beseech Thee, replenish them more and more with such gifts as are necessary for them in their ministration—with the gifts of wisdom, courage, discretion, and benevolence, to the end that every one may, in his respective office, acquit himself as is becoming ….” Important gifts are prayed for; but only by implication does one think of the qualifications set forth in I Timothy 3.

In my view, this relative silence of our confessions about the qualifications of the diaconate further emphasizes the importance of the scriptural qualifications in I Timothy 3. The Belgic Confession explicitly drew attention to this importance. The silence of the other confessions on the matter indicates that Scripture’s teaching is clear. The confessions speak to areas in which we need more specific direction, because Scripture gives only broad principles regarding the work and calling of deacons. Regarding their qualifications, however, Scripture’s principles are not broad; they are direct and specific. The church needs no confessional guidance here. God will have only such men as fit the qualifications of I Timothy 3:8ff. be deacons in His church!

The faithful church has always considered this issue of proper qualifications of deacons to be important. I did not write that “the church” has always considered this important, for she has not; when the church became unfaithful to God’s Word, she lost her sense of the importance of God’s requirements of a deacon in I Timothy 3:8ff. But the “faithful church,” being faithful to God’s Word, viewed God’s Word in I Timothy 3 as important. A few historical notes about the church’s view of this matter will suffice to demonstrate this.

In the post-apostolic age, when the church was still fairly strong, the church kept in mind the requirements of I Timothy 3. Peter Y. DeJong refers to at least three documents to substantiate this claim. The Didache, written about A.D. 98, says: “Appoint, therefore, for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men meek, not lovers of money, truthful and approved….”1 Toward the end of the second century, the Apostolic Constitutions was written, which required deacons to have been proved, be exemplary in conduct, and have a family with children. Also the Book of Clement indicates that I Timothy 3 was followed.2

The decline of the diaconate had begun by the fourth century, and lasted until the Reformation period. One aspect of the decline of the diaconate was that the qualifications for the office were changed or ignored.3

John Calvin emphasized the need for deacons to be qualified.4 In London, John à Lasco did the same thing.5

Today as well, faithful churches will know and seek to follow the requirements of I Timothy 3:8-12, and will consider them important.

Why is this matter one of such great importance?

First, as has been mentioned, because it is a matter of the Word of God. That is reason enough. But we can add more.

Second, because the deacon is the representative of God to His people, the personal representative of Jesus Christ to His church! He must, therefore, be Christ-like. Dishonor would be brought to the church and the office if a deacon were not a godly man. Remember that by David’s sin, great occasion was given to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme.

Third, because God gives deacons. We do not merely choose them; God gives them! How can the church be sure that those chosen are ones by whom God will bless her? By choosing those who are qualified.

We must never forget the great importance of this subject. The qualifications set forth in God’s Word must always guide councils in nominating, and male voting members in choosing, men to the diaconate. The chairman of the meeting does well to read I Timothy 3 every time the council nominates, and at every congregational meeting in which officebearers are elected. Currently serving elders and deacons do well to read the chapter at home, in private devotions and in preparation for coming to the meeting in which nominations will be made.

That we might rightly behave in God’s house! And manifest also in this way our faithfulness to Him!

1. Peter Y. DeJong, The Ministry of Mercy for Today, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1963), page 45.

2. Ibid., pages 46, 47.

3. The reader can consult volume 75, pages 327-329 of the Standard Bearer to refresh his memory about this.

4. Cf. his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4, Section 3, Paragraph 12.

5. Cf. DeJong, op. cit., page 65.