Come Ye Apart…And Rest A While

Dear Philip, 

Thanks for your response to my recent letter. It was good to hear from you, and especially to know that the calling and work of the deacons has been also your concern. Maybe together we can look for some proper solution. 

I could hardly help but wonder what a minister might think, if he were called to a certain church, arrived there in eager anticipation of taking up his duties, only to discover that he had nothing to do. Suppose, for example, that he was making plans to preach, and that he was informed by the consistory that this was not necessary, since seminarians and visiting ministers would supply the pulpit. Suppose he was arranging material for the catechism classes, only to have the consistory tell him that the children received all the Biblical instruction that they could absorb right in the Christian School, where the teachers were very capable of handling these things. And when he was thinking of family visitation or sick visitation he was told that the consistory had always taken care of that work and would continue to do so. He certainly would wonder why the congregation called him. He would wonder still more whether there actually was room for the office of the ministry of the Word in the church. And did Christ actually call him? 

Many deacons probably feel the same way. We have always maintained, and correctly so, that there is a threefold office in the church, that of ministers, elders and deacons. (Maybe at this point you reach out for your Red Book to check whether or not the Church Order speaks of a fourfold office rather than a threefold office. And right you are. Article 2 speaks of four kinds of offices in the church, and includes the office of professors of theology. If we ever decide to revise our present Church Order, we might change that article to include the professors of theology under the ministers of the Word.) There are in Scripture three offices, that of prophet, priest and king. These three are one in Christ, Who is our eternal Prophet, our exalted High Priest, and our Glorious King. Christ exercises that threefold office in the church institute through the ministers who function in the prophetic office, through the elders who rule the flock, and through the deacons who minister mercy in His name. 

That is exactly the point that must always be maintained: Christ fulfills His office in the church through the duly called office bearers. Christ calls whom He will to that office, and He does so through the consistory and the congregation. No one may intrude into that office by his own appointment. No church can call apart from Christ. And on the other hand, Christ never calls apart from the church institute. (Rom. 10:14, 15;Acts 13:2). These are principles that may never be ignored. Often we lose sight of them, because we are accustomed to see a nomination for elders and deacons on the bulletin, and after a few weeks the congregation meets and chooses from that nomination. After the meeting the question is asked: Who were chosen? Or, who were voted in? Actually we should ask, since we know that this is true: Whom did Christ call? Those whom Christ calls He also qualifies by His Spirit. True, the consistory places men on nomination whom they regard fit for the office, according to the directions of I Timothy and elsewhere in Scripture. But a man’s qualifications mean nothing unless Christ will use them and carry out His work through him. 

We may well remind ourselves that when a minister preaches, he is not giving a dissertation on some popular subject, as for example, the generation gap, the Vietnam war, the race problem. Nor is he giving a speech or a lecture. He is preaching the Word, expounding the Scriptures. He comes in the name and on the authority of Christ and says: “So saith the Lord.” That is His mandate. And that Word alone is effective, powerful as a two-edged sword, because CHRIST makes it effective and powerful. When a minister teaches catechism he is officially ministering the Word to the covenant youth of the church. When the minister and elder call on us for family visitation, we must receive them as we would receive Christ. If the young people of our day were a bit more aware of all this, they would not dare to commit the sacrilege of playing church in their “underground church,” for they are playing with holy things. As to the elders, to them are entrusted the keys of the kingdom of heaven, to declare within and outside of the kingdom in Christ’s name. Therefore when they discipline members of the congregation, these members do not run away to a less strict church, but they submit to the authority of Christ as vested in the elders, even as they promise when they make confession of their faith. 

Now let us apply that to the office of deacons. And what do we get? It is obvious that the office of deacon is no less important than the other two offices. The three are one in Christ, and therefore of equal importance. Christ fulfills His Highpriestly office in the church institute through the deacons, ministering mercy to the saints. This is the one calling and duty of the deacons, according to Scripture and also the Form for Ordination. They are called to collect and distribute alms for the poor. This does not mean that the individual person may not visit the poor or extend a helping hand to those in need. But we must still be careful that we do not infringe on the office of the deacons. Christ has instituted that office so that we may give expression to our love and thankfulness to God by aiding the needy and the distressed. Freely we have received, and therefore freely we can give. And we do this through the deacons who carry out their calling with prayer and words of comfort in Christ’s name. (Matthew 25:40)

But what has happened? The deacons have become the business men in the church to care for the finances. Most churches have no needy, it would seem. And therefore, apart from an occasional visit to some widow or orphan, the deacons find themselves without an opportunity to fulfill their calling. 

Yet, is it true that we have no needy? I attended synod a few weeks ago, and there discovered anew that our churches do have various funds for benevolent purposes. We have, for example, a needy churches fund. We have also a needy student fund. We also have a Jamaican Poor Fund, and there is a fund for students who desire to prepare for the ministry in Jamaica. So we do have needy, there is no question about that. And there may even be people in the churches who would rather seek benevolent aid from the government than to “go to the deacons.” 

This, it appears to me, points out at least one possible solution to our problem. The Jamaican Poor Fund has been placed under the supervision of one particular diaconate. But could not something like that be worked out on a broader scale? For example, could not some diaconate of one of our churches assume the responsibility of one of the students in the seminary? Could that not be arranged with the approval of the congregation? And could that student not keep in close contact with the deacons of a local church, who would provide for his needs as long as he is in the seminary? And if the burden became too great for one church, could they not call in the aid of some other congregation? 

I realize that the objection could readily be raised that our seminary, even as our ministers, is the property of all the churches. And that, therefore, the responsibility of the seminary and its students is the responsibility of all of our churches. But do not synodical funds remove the needy too far from our local diaconates? Or should the churches each in turn take this responsibility upon themselves? 

You realize that I am groping for a solution. Maybe you can come up with something. I am eagerly awaiting your reply, 

fraternally, C.H.