Reforming the Deacons (Part 3):
Interpreting the Qualifications by the Spirit

May 25, 2012

By Joe McKeever, Preacher, Cartoonist, Pastor, and retired Director of Missions at the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans.

Read Part One Here.
Read Part Two Here.

There’s a danger in interpreting the Word of the Lord “by the Spirit and not by the letter of the law.”

The danger is that strict constructionists, who love their legalism and exclude anyone who thinks otherwise, will accuse you of not taking the Word of God seriously. (This I know from experience. I’ll go online and see where some article from this website has been ripped to shreds by a preacher who accuses me either of not knowing the Word or caring little for it. I try to respond kindly, but almost never get a response. The preacher loves his unloving tirades more than his brethren, thus violating John 13:34-35.)

“(He) has made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (II Corinthians 3:6)

The letter kills. That’s what legalism does as soon as it comes to interpret the Word. Putting their strict interpretation ahead of the believers involved or the particular circumstances the church finds itself facing, legalists end up misrepresenting the Lord, abandoning the people who were looking to them for light and help, and painting themselves into an uncomfortable corner.

The Spirit gives life. This refers both to the Spirit of God as well as a spiritual interpretation of His Word. It is the Holy Spirit who gives us a spiritual interpretation of Scripture.

We can see Jesus “spiritually interpreting the Word” throughout the Gospels. To the woman caught in adultery (John 8), to the harsh Pharisees who strained at gnats and swallowed camels (Matthew 23:24), and to the critics who accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath law (Matthew 12:2), Jesus interpreted the Word spiritually and not legalistically.

Would it surprise you to know the “defenders of God’s Word” were furious at Jesus?

When we come to consider the qualifications of deacons in I Timothy 3:8-13, the church has frequently painted itself into some dark corners and bound itself hand and foot by turning this text into a strait jacket.

In no way do we intend what follows as the final word on anything. Longtime readers of these articles will know that I simply hope to get good people to discussing the subject and misguided people to giving a second look at what they have been doing.

Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine, or fond of sordid gain; But holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience
(I Tim. 3:8-9).


Let’s begin here.

What would a “letter of the law” interpretation of these verses produce? We are not in the dark on this. Anyone who has been in the church for a decade or more has seen what legalism does here.

Legalism instructs that, based on these words, deacons must be humorless, colorless, occasional drinkers, and misers. They produce the very kind of church leader caricatured in countless novels, mean-spirited critics of everything good and anything fun.

But, “occasional drinkers?” If we took literally what Paul wrote, that would be our position. Except for two things….

1) We have lots of other scriptures on this subject and 2) we live in a world far different from Paul’s. Today, even light, social drinking sets horrible examples and may lead to major addictions and traffic deaths. In the first century, I suppose the worst that could happen to an over-imbiber would be falling off his camel. It’s a different world.

What would a spiritual interpretation of these two verses produce? Answer: Godly, responsible, and mature men of the Christian faith. How clear is that?

And let these also first be tested; let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach
(I Timothy 3:10).


The legalist wants to require members to belong to the church at least ____ years before becoming eligible to serve as deacons. Why? Because–and this is the hang-up–if you see the deacons’ role as running the church, then you do not want to put it in the hands of newcomers who might not understand how things are done around here. But what if deacons are servants? How long does one have to belong to a church before qualifying to serve?

The spiritual interpretation does exactly what this verse calls for: insists that no one be chosen who has not proven himself faithful, whether a newcomer or a longtimer. Luke 16:10 gives us a wonderful principle: if they have been faithful in small things, they can be trusted with larger. And if not faithful in the small, the trust level ends here.

“Above reproach.” If this means sinless and perfect, no one will ever serve. Usually translated “blameless,” the word literally means “not to be called to account.” That is, there are no outstanding charges against the man. It calls to mind Stephen, where enemies of the faith, unable to find charges to bring against him, were reduced to bribing false witnesses (Acts 6:10ff).

Let deacons be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households (I Timothy 3:12).


How much (ahem) fun church people have had over the centuries trying to fathom two things about this text: what Paul had in mind and what they were going to do regarding the ticklish situations they faced.

Strict interpreters of “husband of one wife” are all over the map on this: one wife in a lifetime, even if the first wife died; one wife at a time, which forbids polygamy; one wife living, so it’s all right to remarry if the first wife died; and strangest of all, the deacon must be married if he is to serve.

What does a spiritual interpretation give us? Unfortunately, it produces just as varied an assortment of answers. First, some say whatever the fellow did in his pre-Christian life is erased and irrelevant. Some say if the individual had “just cause” for a divorce (see Matthew 19:9), remarrying is acceptable. For others, divorce is precluded, but if the man remarries and shows over many years a faithful life, he can be considered. And, finally, some who mean well conclude that the issue is so convoluted, we should ignore this “husband of one wife” thing altogether.

In fact, this part of the qualifications sucks all the air out of the room and we end up ignoring the “managing their own children and their own household.”

This article was posted earlier from, and is reposted here by permission of the author.

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While I agree with you about anyone being able to be a “servant” in the Church, I do think that the spiritually mature example, which a Deacon should be to the rest of the Church, would cause us to make sure of the man a church makes a Deacon. He should spend time in a church, so that the church can see that his walk with God is something that would make that church call him to be a Deacon. This takes time. I mean, I’d hate to elect someone as a Deacon, who’d only been a member for 6 months, and no one really knew the fella. How would we know what kind of man he is?

So, for the example aspect of the role of Deacon, I’d be all for having a waiting period… require someone to be a member for “x” number of year/years. I mean, how can we know if the fella meets the qualifications, if no one even knows him?


Tim Rogers

Brother David,

See, you went straight from the Spirit and focused on the letter. Something Brother Joe warned us against in the article and even gave scripture reference for. You ole back slidden heathern. :)

Seriously, Brother Joe, the moving from the “Letter” of law to the “Spirit” of the law has a many, if not more, possibilities of abuse. While I agree that a strict interpretation can lead us to legalism and we must apply grace in all of our interpretative aspects, I do not see a warning against passing by God’s requirements. The closest I saw was your various spiritual interpretations of “one wife”. We certainly have to interpret the scripture and the culture we live and were raised adds lots of filters we use in this interpretation. Thus, the only interpretation we have is the letter and if we stray too far from the letter, using the Spirit as our justification for this straying, we form a basis for leaving the letter because the Spirit led me.

Help me understand your point on this more clearly.

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