Jesus said that you know a tree by its fruit. Good trees make good fruit; bad trees make bad fruit (Mt. 7:17-18). In context, Jesus is warning about false teachers, wolves in sheep clothing, but there’s a more fundamental reality also being assumed: you can’t be what you aren’t, you can’t give what you don’t have. This is why the Bible describes the qualities of a man first and foremost and assumes that this particular kind of man will be fully capable of accomplishing whatever is necessary for the office.
When the apostles first decide to appoint deacons, they do so in order to give themselves to “the word and prayer” (Acts 6:2-4). Deacons need to be the kind of men who embrace this prioritization. They so value the centrality of word and prayer that they gladly give themselves to serving tables in order to facilitate that center. That prioritization also comes out in how they serve tables: the work of mercy and hospitality never reduces to a purely material administration. The priority of word and prayer colors how they serve tables and love widows. Deacons are men who love the Word of God and are men of prayer.
The apostles instruct the people to find men who have a “good reputation” and are “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3). Given the echo of this language in describing Stephen (Acts 6:10), we should assume that Stephen didn’t wait to start disputing with various unbelievers until he was ordained. He had likely already been proclaiming the gospel and performing miracles (Acts 6:8). This was his “good reputation.” Remember too that the Spirit and Wisdom are closely connected to building projects in Scripture (e.g. Ex. 31:3, 35:31) and is how Joshua and Daniel are described (Dt. 34:9, Dan. 5:11) along with Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messiah (Is. 11:2). But in the New Covenant this is not as rare, and Paul prays that all the Ephesians might have the spirit of wisdom in knowing Jesus (Eph. 1:17).
Given the context, we can also deduce a few other characteristics. The situation was somewhat volatile, and these seven men were appointed to bring peace, resolution, and organization to the ministry for the widows of Jerusalem (Acts 6:1, 3). Deacons are trustworthy peacemakers in delicate situations (e.g. ethnic strife). The task of true peacemaking means a love of people, attention to detail, and a fearless commitment to God’s Word.
1 Tim. 3:8-12
“Reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy for money, holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience… blameless… husbands of one wife, ruling their children and own houses well…”
For convenience, we can group these characteristics into three thematic categories. The first category falls under the theme of biblical service. The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve. While the first quality (reverent/dignified) might be understood in a few different ways, all the characteristics that follow are linked by actions that are either self-serving or self-sacrificial. A double-tongued man may be a hypocrite or just unreliable, but either way, the reason is usually fear and unwillingness to be a faithful messenger. Likewise, wine and money are good litmus tests to see if a man is a giver or a grabber. Deacons must be generous and alert, not focused on their own personal comfort or pleasure.
Secondly, deacons must be men who hold the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience and blameless. Since deacons focus on the material needs of the Church it can be easy to forget that deacons must have a lively walk with Christ. They should be theologically literate and have an active understanding of the grace that they are appointed to share, a growing testimony of God’s mercy and love. This is the only biblical way a man can be “blameless” – he is a bold, repentant sinner who loves the righteousness of God in the cross of Jesus.
Finally, deacons are men who apply the spirit of wisdom to all of life and not just on Sunday mornings. They love and lead their wives and children with boldness, with grace, with generosity, joyfully serving in their homes.
Like the disciples, hearing this tempts us to say, who then can be a deacon? But the answer of Jesus remains: the things that are impossible with men are possible with God. If this is a description of the kind of tree a deacon is, it does not follow that every kind of fruit is ready for harvest. There are seasons, and the important thing is that we should want to see signs of growth and fruitfulness and then water, prune, and pray.