Observers can be assured that hierarchical structures, which, in that day, were thoroughly wrapped up in the very competition for honor that is rejected by the church of the crucified Messiah, is nowhere in sight in this treatment of the qualifications for those that aspire to the position of overseer.
Lest it be presumed that an unwarranted step is being here taken by linking “overseer” with the meal assembly that was the regular setting of the gathering of the church in its earliest days, and lest it be deemed that too much weight is being put on actions centered upon the meal as an effective counter-cultural witness, it is possible to bolster this position by acknowledging the letter’s movement directly from “overseer” to “deacon.”
In verse eight of the third chapter Paul writes “Deacons likewise must be dignified, not two-faced, not given to excessive drinking, not greedy for gain” (1 Timothy 3:8). This allusion to drinking cannot be looked upon as a general principle, plucked out of mid-air as an ideal. Rather, it must be understood to be concretely connected to the eating and drinking of the church at its meal table. That meal table, to be sure, in its arrangement and in the way it was conducted, as it was rooted in the meal culture that was foundational for society in general, and as it held to the witness of the meal tables of Jesus and the way in which He conducted Himself and spoke at those tables, was a powerful image of the kingdom that the Christians proclaimed, and of the God that was being honored and worshiped at the gatherings of their association.
Along with this, it is incumbent to add to an investigation of the letter a perusal of the introduction of the “deacon” to the church. To do so it is necessary to look to the book of Acts. Now, it is highly unlikely that Timothy had access to the book of Acts as the church has it today, but it is certainly plausible that Timothy would have been familiar with the story that described the advent of the position. Since deacons are referenced, it is a given that the recipient of the letter did not need to have the position explained to him, being well aware of the “how” and the “why” of their function within the church.
So what was that function? Why was the position in existence? In the sixth chapter of Acts Luke writes that “in those days,” which were some of the very earliest days of the church, “when the disciples were growing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Greek-speaking Jews against the native Hebraic Jews” (6:1a). Here, one encounters the all-too-familiar divide between Jew and Gentile within the church, though it is somewhat masked by the fact that both sides of this divide were said to be Jews.
What was the source of this particular division? Division between the Gentiles that were Jews by conversion and those that were ethnic and national Jews came about “because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1b). This food-related divide is probably best illustrated by the experience that Paul recounts from his time in Antioch. This record is found in Galatians, where Paul writes “when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he has clearly done wrong. Until certain people came from James, he had been eating with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he stopped doing this and separated himself because he was afraid of those who were pro-circumcision” (Galatians 2:11-12). What Paul describes in Antioch, which is from a time period after the events recorded here in chapter six of Acts, first played itself out within the church at an intra-Jew level before playing itself out at an intra-church (between Jew and Gentile, and between Gentile and Gentile) level.