Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin.
The explicit teaching of Scripture regarding the office of deacon is limited to four areas: a history of the origin of the office (Acts 6:1-6), the qualifications for the office (Acts 6:3, 5; I Tim. 3:8-12), a few brief and scattered references to the work of the office (Acts 6:1-3,Rom. 12:8, as well as other passages which state general principles), and an encouraging promise to the deacons that in the way of using the office well they will enjoy a reward (I Tim. 3:13).
Having finished our examination of the qualifications for the office of deacon, and before turning to other aspects of the office, we will examine this encouraging promise.
Let us have it before us: “For they that have used the office of deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus” (I Tim. 3:13).
I find it rather striking that this encouraging promise is found in God’s Word.
Striking, first, because of the relative scarcity of instruction regarding the office of deacon in Scripture, as noted above. For the instruction regarding the history of the office and the qualifications for the office we are grateful. Surely the church of Jesus Christ needed that instruction, in order to see the need to have this office in her midst, and to hold the office in high esteem. Regarding the work of the office, one might wish that Scripture said more. God determined that what was said was sufficient, of course. But He left it to the church, guided by the Spirit of truth, to come to a deeper understanding of the work of the office, based on scriptural principles, and to express that understanding in a minor confession, as we have done in our Church Order and Form for Installation. The inclusion of this encouraging promise is striking because, while God thought it not necessary to give more instruction regarding the office, He did think it important to give a word of encouragement for deacons in their work.
Striking this word is also because in the earlier verses of the chapter, in which the qualifications for office of elder are given, no exact parallel to this encouraging word can be found. Granted, the office of elder is said to be “a good work” (v. 1). That the work is a good work will and must encourage elders in their task. But it is not explicitly stated as encouragement to the elders. In this classic and foundational passage in Scripture in which the church is instructed how to behave in God’s house, there is an explicit word of encouragement directed only to the deacons.
Lastly, it is striking because the reward of which it speaks is different in character from any reward mentioned in Scripture in connection with the work of elders. Paul writes, “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine” (I Tim. 5:17). But I Timothy 5:17 is primarily intended to instruct the church how to view the elders, not to encourage the elders as such. Our text’s primary intent is to encourage the deacons. Through Peter, God also encourages elders who faithfully feed God’s flock, willingly taking its oversight and being examples to it: “And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away” (I Pet. 5:4). But while this text just quoted stimulates the elder’s hope for a heavenly reward when Christ returns, our text has the present life, not the future, in mind. Also in heaven, faithful deacons will receive their reward—that is true. But the text speaks to their reward in this life.
It is as though God made provision at the very beginning of the history of the church in the New Testament for countering any notion that the office of deacon is inferior to that of elder or pastor. It is as though He knew (of course He did!) that the common perception of the people, and maybe even of the officebearers themselves, would be that one who holds the office of elder in the church is truly someone, but to be a deacon is nothing special. All men love to rule; but servants are generally looked down upon.
Why, then, do deacons need encouragement?
Partly because of this wrong conception of their office that has infiltrated the church.
Even more, because their work is a hard work, and at the same time a very important work.
That it is a hard work is implied in the text. It is so hard, that only qualified men may hold the office and do the work. It is so hard, that none will be able to do the work well in his own strength.
It is hard for deacons to know what is the wisest route to follow in a particular situation. It is hard to bring God’s Word to people who do not want to hear it—some who need a word of comfort, but do not want to be comforted in their affliction; others, who need a word of admonition, but do not want to heed one. However, the deacons are called to do this hard work—not merely to administer material gifts, but also spiritual blessings. Bring the Word of God!
How important this work is! That church which has no deacons, or whose deacons do not do this work well, is spiritually impoverished. The mercy of Christ toward His church and saints is pictured, and administered, through the work of the deacons. Important work!
Let the deacons be encouraged to do it well.
The encouragement is for those deacons, and those deacons only, who use the office well. How does one use the office well?
We might immediately say that the deacon uses his office well who does his work diligently and faithfully; is compassionate toward the poor and truly loving and caring for them in their need; and brings them Scripture, as required. Those who do these things use the office well, and those who fail to do these things fail to use the office well.
While all of this is true, it is not enough.
Remember that this encouraging word of God concludes the section of Scripture which most fully sets forth the qualifications for the office of deacon. It does not conclude the section treating the qualifications of the diaconate as an appendix, as an unrelated idea, but as very related. It concludes the section treating the qualifications of the diaconate by giving a reason why the deacon must be all these things. It begins with “for,” that is, “because.” Why must deacons meet the high standard which God sets forth? Because they that have used the office well….
Also the word “well” indicates that he who uses the office well is not merely one who does the work of the office well, but one who is qualified. The word “well” has the idea of “beautifully, honorably, without blame.” And blame can fall upon a deacon, not just for how he carries out his work formally, but for what kind of man he is, or is not. He must be a blameless man (I Tim. 3:10).
So he who uses the office well is not only one who does the work well, but one who maintains his qualifications for office, who takes heed to his personal and family life, and who remains blameless. Even when not doing the official work of the office, the deacon is still a deacon, and must still conduct himself as such. He uses the office well who remembers these things; he does not use it well who acts like a deacon only on Sundays when taking collection and at the official meetings of the diaconate and its committees.
Those who use the office well may be encouraged. They will have their reward.
The verse teaches us a general principle, which applies to everyone, not only to deacons. That general principle is this: those who do their work well will receive a reward. We know that whenever we speak of a reward for faithful service to God, that reward is one of grace, not of merit. We are sinners; we do not deserve a reward. Christ earned it for us, and God graciously gives it to us on the basis of Christ’s merits.
The same is true of the reward of the deacon who does his work well. Let not that deacon think that he has earned this reward, that it is a right which he has due to his own faithfulness and diligence. It is not. The faithfulness to his office and calling is not his own work, but God’s work in him. And the reward which God gives is therefore also not one he has earned, but one which God freely gives him, of grace, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Granted, the text does say that deacons who do their work well “purchase to themselves” this reward. This means simply that they will possess and enjoy that reward personally—not that they enjoy it on the basis of their own merits.
Let the deacon who receives his reward be humbled, and let God be glorified.
But receive a reward he shall.
What is this reward of which the text speaks? The text states it explicitly: “a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.”
The word translated “degree” has the idea of a step on a staircase. Some have therefore interpreted the passage to mean that the deacon who uses the office well will be given a promotion, he purchases to himself a higher office, that of elder or pastor. Matthew Henry, commenting on this passage, takes this position: “And the reason why the deacons must be thus qualified is (v. 13) because, though the office of a deacon be of an inferior degree, yet it is a step towards the higher degree; and those who had served tables well the church might see cause to discharge from that service, and prefer to serve in preaching the word and in prayer.”
Immediately one senses that this explanation proceeds from a view that the offices are hierarchical, with the office of deacon being an inferior one. However, neither Reformed church polity nor Scripture support this view. Rather, they teach that the special offices in the church are all equal. I Timothy 3 shows that the offices are equal, in that it holds deacons to the same high standard to which it holds elders. It also shows that both offices are necessary and important in the church. Even verse 13 will not admit of this hierarchical view, for the word “good” is not a comparative, having the idea of “better,” with the implication that the position of a deacon is “bad” or at least “not as good.” Rather, it says “good.” The word says something about the quality of the reward, not about the office of deacon as such.
Others consider this reward to be one which is enjoyed in heaven. The faithful deacon can expect a blessed position in the new and perfected heavens and earth. Though perhaps it is true that the faithful deacon will be given a higher position in heaven, that is not the idea of this text. Nothing in the text indicates that this reward will be enjoyed in life after death; we are instead to think that it is enjoyed in this life.
The text itself says what the reward is. It is characterized as a good degree, that is, a good standing. The word “degree” has the idea of a “step,” remember, not to indicate that one will ascend the ladder, but rather that one will stand on that step firmly. Having so characterized this reward, the text goes on to say exactly what that good standing is: “and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.” A good degree, namely, great boldness in the faith.
The reward is enjoyed in this life, and has to do with a spiritual blessing the deacon himself, personally, receives and enjoys.
Another principle is demonstrated: not only that those who do their work well receive a reward, but that the reward consists of a spiritual blessing which enables one to serve God all the more diligently! Not very many verses earlier, the same principle was applied to women, and particularly to those women whom God called to be mothers in the church: “Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.” In the way of faithfulness and diligence in one’s work as a mother, a woman will be “saved,” which means at least in part that she will grow in spiritual graces, and be all the more equipped to be a godly mother and woman in the church.
Now that principle is applied to deacons. In the way of faithful diligence in their work, they will receive, as one aspect of God’s reward of grace, great boldness in the faith.
Such boldness a deacon will need as he goes about his work, fraught with its difficulties. A coward will not deal with hardship to the glory of God, as will a bold man! And God promises to give him boldness.
Deacons, are you impressed with the great responsibility which your office places on you? Do you see how hard it is, of yourself, to do the work? And do you wonder, perhaps at times even worry, how the Word will be received when you bring it?
Fear not. Just be faithful and diligent in doing your work well, and God will give you boldness.
That boldness will be an inner boldness, first of all: a stronger confidence that our faith is, in fact, truth. The mystery of the faith which you hold will be held even more strongly, in the way of diligently carrying out your task in the fear of the Lord.
But that boldness will also manifest itself in how you do your work, in what you say as you do your work, and in all your life. In your prayer life, you will be more bold. In comforting, admonishing, and instructing God’s saints, you will be more bold. In making decisions as deacons, you will be more bold.
To those who do not use their office well, no such boldness will be given. Conscious of the impurity of their conscience and of the weakness of their own faith, and conscious that they have not served well in the office, they will not have boldness to speak. That does not mean God will never or can never give them such boldness; but let them use the office well, if they still hold the office.
As a result of this using of the office well, and of the great boldness in the faith which God gives, the saints of God will honor and esteem the deacons more highly.
Do you esteem them highly, congregations and saints? And do you pray that God would give them such boldness? And that He will work in them to use the office well? And that by their good work, the church might be blessed?
And do you remind them of this encouraging promise of God when it is needed?
Deacons, may you be encouraged in your work. Do it well.