In Acts, Luke tells the story of the ordination of a group that came to be referred to as deacons, and moves from that to the particular story of one of those men---a man by the name of Stephen. Stephen, who is said to be “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (6:5b), which was one of the requirements as suggested by the disciples, served admirably. We go on to read that “Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (6:8). As this performance of wonders and signs was undoubtedly linked to the fact of his service at the church’s meal table, and as it was owing to God’s special attention to widows as revealed by the Hebrew Scriptures, his service to widows must figure prominently in the Spirit’s growing presence in his ministry. Might it also be presumed that the people wondered at what they were seeing from Stephen, which was his willful service to the least, eschewing both honor and shame? While we are always transfixed on signs and wonders, looking to such things as the evidence of the Spirit’s working, the working of the Spirit is just as present and just as powerful when a widow is served. When that widow is served in a way that stands in sharp distinction from the way that she would normally be treated by her culture, with somebody sacrificing their own honor and prestige, then that is just as great a wonder and sign of the in-breaking kingdom of God as would be someone being raised from the dead.
However, rather than receiving honor and praise, Stephen was accused of blasphemy, of speaking against the Temple and Moses, and was ultimately sentenced to death, experiencing the pain and shame of stoning. This was the honor that one could come to expect from being a deacon---a servant of the church’s table. This is the example that Paul, if indeed he is the author of this letter, would have in mind when writing to Timothy concerning deacons. As Paul would give his instructions concerning deacons, he would be unable to escape the weighty and terrible fact that he had been involved in the death that had come to Stephen. How ironic that we are introduced to Paul at the death of the first person to be mentioned as a deacon of the church, and then here he is, years later, instructing Timothy in regards to the qualifications and conduct of deacons.
As we read the words concerning deacons that are on offer in the first letter to Timothy, along with an underlying contemplation of the culture into which this position was introduced and against which it gravitated and stood as a counter-cultural witness in its revelation of the functioning of the kingdom of God, we should do so with Stephen in mind. To that end, we hear that “Deacons likewise must be dignified, not two-faced, not given to excessive drinking, not greedy for gain, holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience” (3:8-9). Truly, Stephen went to his death with great dignity, expressing a desire, like Jesus, that those taking his life be forgiven. Not being given to excessive drinking would serve him well in his service of others. Not being greedy for gain, which is fundamentally an honor proposition, would enable him to conscientiously take the lowest place. His holding to the mystery of the faith, part of which was a reversal of the social order, in which the last become first and the first become last as a significant component of Jesus’ kingdom teaching, is demonstrated by willful service to those considered last, treating both first and last as equal in the eyes of God as they participate in God’s kingdom come to earth. In a world defined by honor competition, these can be difficult propositions, which is why, with Timothy and the first set of deacons in mind, we can go on to read “And these also must be tested first and then let them serve as deacons if they are found blameless” (3:10).
Why must they be tested? In the kingdom, it is servants that were to be honored, rather than those being served. Therefore, if this is rightly grasped by a congregation, there would be a significant temptation to give undue honor to those that serve, elevating the individual that serves rather than elevating the position of servant and ideal of service. Accordingly then, a deacon would have to be willing to relegate the position if it became vested with honor, distancing himself from the undue honor that might be heading his way, and allowing another to take up the role. In a way then, divesting oneself of the position of servant is a way of embracing shame. This elevation of service as conducive to honor, as opposed to public speech acts such as speaking in tongues or words of wisdom and knowledge, could only take place in a community transformed by the re-shaping message of the Gospel.
Going further, it is said “Likewise also their wives must be dignified, not slanderous, temperate, faithful in every respect. Deacons must be husbands of one wife and good managers of their children and their own households” (3:11-12). As we saw with similar words said concerning overseers, this may very well be a way to specifically identify certain men that should not be considered for this position. Why provide such limitation? Would not the service serve to bring about what may be much-needed humility and change to such a person and to their family? Though this may be a position held by an on-looker from outside the congregation, who sees the role of servant in opposition to the accrual of honor, this would not be so inside the church, as the taking of the role of servant at the table becomes that by which honor can be accrued. A person that is not “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” may take advantage of this reversed situation, using it for their own advantage. So in rounding out the treatment concerning deacons, with all of these thoughts in mind, we read “For those who have served well as deacons,” with service being the crux of the matter, “gain a good standing for themselves and a great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus” (3:13). Truly then, honor and standing in the church come from service, though it is not an honor or a standing that should cause one believer to be set over another believer. The boldness comes from taking the role of servant, living out the kingdom, and even experiencing, to an extent, as the surrounding community viewed a person of honor taking the role of a lowly servant, a portion of the shame that came the way of their Lord.