Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin. Previous article in this series: December 15, p. 135.
Within their own congregation, deacons must manifest Christ’s mercy by doing their utmost to care for the poor. This means they must collect alms, determine the need of those who seek benevolent help, distribute the alms as the need of the poor requires, and visit and comfort the poor with God’s Word. This work involves more than that the deacons are willing and ready to help any who ask—it requires also that they be alert for signs that some in the congregation might be in need.
However, the fact that the deacons have been called to office by a particular congregation does not mean that their care of the poor is limited only to those who are members of that congregation. Deacons also serve their congregation and Christ by caring for the poor outside of their congregation. Some of these poor are fellow believers who are members of other churches. To this we direct our attention in this article. Others of these poor are unbelievers. To this we will direct our attention in our next article, the Lord willing.
The principle reason why deacons must be concerned about the believing poor outside the congregation is the unity of the body of Christ.
That Christ’s body is one implies that Christ died to save one church, and that every child of God belongs to that one church. Christ’s body is an organic unity; that is, it is a living body made up of many diverse members, each of which contributes uniquely to the unity of the body. Because the church is the living body of Christ, the well-being of the whole body depends on the well-being of every member of the body.
Therefore, it is the duty of every member of this body to serve the other members. This is the requirement of Scripture in passages such as I Corinthians 12:14-26 and Ephesians 4:8-16. This is also the confession of the Reformed believer. In the Heidelberg Catechism, Answer 55, the Reformed believer answers the question “What do you understand by ‘the communion of saints’?” this way: “First, that all and every one who believes, being members of Christ, are, in common, partakers of Him and of all His riches and gifts; secondly, that every one must know it to be his duty, readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts, for the advantage and salvation of other members.” And the Belgic Confession, Article 28, sets forth the confession of Reformed people that believers must join the true church. Merely to join, however, merely to have one’s membership in a Reformed church, is not enough. “We believe … that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintaining the unity of the church; … and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them.”
Applying these principles to the relief of the poor, we conclude that individual congregations, and the deacons who serve them, must not limit themselves to the care of the poor in their own congregation, but must also have a concern for the poor in other congregations of the church of Jesus Christ.
The great example for us in this connection is that of the churches of Macedonia, when the saints in Jerusalem had become impoverished. Of this example Paul speaks in his epistle to the Romans and in both of his epistles to the Corinthians. We read in Romans 15:25-27: “But now I go unto Jerusalem to minister unto the saints. For it hath pleased them of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor saints which are at Jerusalem. It hath pleased them verily; and their debtors they are. For if the Gentiles have been made partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister unto them in carnal things.” Paul’s commendation of the saints in Macedonia is this: that they remembered what they had received from the church of Jerusalem, namely, the gospel, and spiritual blessings. Therefore, hearing of the poverty that had come upon the church in Jerusalem, the saints in Macedonia thought it only right that they supply the material need of the church in Jerusalem.
In I Corinthians 16:1-4, Paul exhorts the saints in Corinth also to take a collection for the saints in Jerusalem. And in II Corinthians 8 and II Corinthians 9, after about a year had passed since his exhortation, he praises the Corinthians for having the desire to take these collections, but admonishes them for not having done so yet. In this connection he sets forth that beautiful passage that speaks of the grace of Jesus Christ: “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich.” Here is our incentive to give for the relief of poor Christians in other churches—Christ became poor for us!
Though the deacons must care for the believing poor in other congregations, they must not intrude into the work that properly belongs to other deacons in other congregations.
In other words, even though the churches must care for each other’s poor, that does not mean that a member of one congregation may come to the deacons of another to ask for benevolence. And it does not mean that the deacons of one church must go actively looking for the poor in another congregation. It is not the duty of deacons to determine the need of a family or individual in another congregation, to supply that need with a personal visit, and to bring comfortable words from Scripture. These things deacons must do to those within their own congregation. And those who have need of benevolence must go to their own deacons to seek the supply of their need.
So how do the deacons care for the believing poor outside their congregation? Let us answer this question, first from the viewpoint of the cooperation of diaconates within a denomination, and secondly from the viewpoint of the cooperation of diaconates of different denominations.
Within the same denomination, the primary way diaconates show their care for poor in other churches is by keeping in contact with other diaconates regarding their need for funds.
Article 26 of the Church Order requires this of deacons. The article speaks mainly of deacons cooperating with others who are devoting themselves to the care of the poor, these others being social and governmental organizations. But the last sentence of the article is pertinent for us: “It is also desirable that the diaconates assist and consult one another, especially in caring for the poor in such institutions.”
Regarding this need for cooperation between diaconates, VanDellen and Monsma write the following in The Church Order Commentary:
Co-operation between our various diaconates, particularly neighboring diaconates, is certainly proper. There are practical considerations which make co-operation advisable. For instance: One Church may have many needy in the providence of God and but little ability to help. Another Church may have but few needy and numerous well-to-do members who can help those in need. Moreover, the inherent unity of all the Churches, and denominational unity, would suggest co-operation also. “Bear ye one another’s burdens,” holds here as well as elsewhere.*
It is encouraging, then, to know that our diaconates do correspond with each other, both when a diaconate has a great surplus of benevolent funds, and when a diaconate has a severe shortage of funds. By offering and giving help to other diaconates, deacons and churches show their concern for all the poor of Christ’s body.
This, by the way, is one reason why churches that have a large balance in their benevolence funds ought never consider reducing the number of collections taken for benevolence. And it is one reason why it would be wrong to investigate other ways of using the money in the benevolence fund. The church must give for her poor. The money given for her poor may be used only for her poor. But her poor are not only those within her congregation. The deacons ought to see how they can help the poor in other congregations as well.
In other ways, too, the deacons might show their care for the poor in other congregations.
It happens sometimes that a member of a congregation moves away from the congregation for an extended but temporary period of time. College students who are away from home at college for eight months of the year are a case in point. Because the distance limits the elders’ ability to watch for that person’s soul, the elders ask a consistory of a church in the vicinity of the college to take the student’s spiritual oversight. This does not mean that the consistory of the student’s home church relinquishes its duty regarding that student; rather, it means that it needs the help of another consistory to carry out its task before God.
Similarly, deacons can help each other. Perhaps a member of one congregation needs medical help from an institution far away from his home; or a poor member moves away temporarily for work or other reasons. In such an instance, it is proper for the deacons of the home church to ask for assistance in caring for this family or individual, from the deacons of a church geographically closer to the needy. The deacons of the home church might ask the other diaconate to help assess the person’s need, or to deliver personally a check from the home deacons, with comfortable words from Scripture.
Another way in which deacons might help the poor in other congregations is by helping a diaconate in another congregation with a particular, ongoing, involved case—either by giving money for that particular case, or by giving advice with regard to it.
Or it might happen that a new congregation is organized in which the deacons are all new to church office, and they desire the advice and assistance of more experienced deacons to help them learn how to do the work. These deacons might ask a neighboring diaconate to help and advise them for a time.
In all of these instances, deacons must remember to operate within their sphere of authority. No diaconate may begin to help another without first being asked. A diaconate might offer to help another, but that offer must be accepted before this help is given.
Regarding cooperation of diaconates of different denominations, one might wonder if such is even permissible. I argue that it is permissible, yet should not be done lightly.
Such cooperation would accord with the spirit of Article 26 of the Church Order. Article 26 requires the deacons to cooperate with “others (who) are devoting themselves to the care of the poor.” This requirement is broad. These “others” might be Christian organizations, but they are not necessarily such; and they are not even diaconates. If Reformed churches require their deacons to cooperate with such, to be sure that those with greatest need are cared for, then surely such churches will permit their deacons to cooperate with diaconates of other denominations.
This cooperation will not be of the same character as is the cooperation with deacons in the same denomination. It will not be manifest by keeping in contact with other diaconates regarding their need for benevolence funds, or by giving them advice in regard to certain cases.
Such cooperation should be done only in special circumstances. It might be that the husband of a needy family attends a church in one denomination, while the wife attends a church in another. Both diaconates then might work together to help that family. Or a major calamity might strike a community, resulting in a sudden and dramatic increase in the amount of visiting and distributing of benevolence on the part of many churches. The deacons of the various churches might work together in such an instance, to be sure that their work is not overlapping and that all in need of help might get it.
Such cooperation should be done only with regard specifically to the care of the poor in specific cases. Diaconates of some churches today turn their attention away from the care of the poor, to address social issues in the church and community—injustice, stewardship, etc. In such ventures deacons ought not join forces. Their duty is to care for the poor.
It should be done only when the common intent of the diaconates involved is to distribute alms, accompanied with comfortable words from Scripture—namely, the gospel of Christ as the revelation of the triune God, and as the only savior from sin.
We are not arguing, then, that deacons should be ecumenically minded with regard to diaconates in other churches. We are arguing that certain situations might arise in which the deacons may properly communicate and perhaps work together in a certain instance regarding the relief of the poor.
It is, after all, our duty to “do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).
*Idzerd VanDellen and Martin Monsma, The Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1941), p. 123.