Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin.

Just as our heavenly Father always supplies the needs of His children, and just as Jesus Christ our Good Shepherd never fails to bestow upon His sheep that which we lack, so must the church of Jesus Christ always be willing and ready to relieve the needs of the poor. Therefore, the deacons, having been informed of a need, having determined it to be genuine, and having procured the means to supply it, are required to distribute the alms accordingly.

That God expects deacons to distribute the alms is beyond question. The deacons were first appointed to “serve tables” at the “daily ministration” to the widows of the church (Acts 6:1ff.). Clearly they bestowed alms, or in this instance goods, to feed the poor. In an earlier article (Dec. 1, 2003), we noted that the phrases “he that giveth” (Rom. 12:8) and “gifts of … helps” (I Cor. 12:28) both apply to the work of the deacons. The deacons are required to give, to distribute. If they do not give, they have not helped the saints.

That Reformed churches expect their deacons to distribute the alms is also beyond question. Article 25 of our Church Order requires deacons to collect the alms “and, after mutual counsel, faithfully and diligently to distribute the same to the poor as their needs may require it….” Article 30 of the Belgic Confession requires “that the poor and distressed may be relieved and comforted, according to their necessities.” And the Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons says that the “second part of their office consists in distribution….”

Obviously, if the deacons do not distribute alms to the poor, they have failed to do that very work for which the office of deacon was instituted.

It might seem to deacons that, at this point, the work becomes easy. The alms have been collected. The hard questions relating to need have been asked and answered, and the need is determined to be genuine. All that is now required is that the alms be distributed. To write a check is easy. To deliver the check is not very difficult either—it can be quickly dropped off, or mailed if that is more convenient. Perhaps someone else, such as a deacon’s wife, can take care of this matter, which seems to be merely “clerical.”

But the principles of Scripture, as spelled out in our Reformed creeds and documents, suggest that the deacons must view the distribution of alms as a more serious and weighty matter than suggested in the previous paragraph.

To whom must alms be distributed?

Scripture and the confessions set forth one only governing principle: they must be those who are poor, in need of help. They are those whose need for help the deacons have determined to be genuine.

Whether they are members of the congregation or not does not matter. Galatians 6:10 reads: “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” As the verse indicates, the deacons must give the poor of the church first priority. Nevertheless, the deacons must not neglect to help the poor who are not members of their church, should the occasion arise, for God teaches clearly in Galatians 6:10 that the saints and church must not limit their good works simply to fellow saints. The same point is made in the Form for Ordination of Elders and Deacons. After the deacons have made their vows, the minister exhorts the deacons to “show liberality unto all men, but especially to the household of faith.” It stands to reason that the deacons need not be scouting out the neighborhood, looking for the poor, as they ought to do within the congregation. We hope to emphasize this latter point further in a future article. For now, the point is that even unbelievers may be given benevolence, if they are poor.

Neither does the standing of the poor member within the congregation matter. Peter Y. DeJong writes: “All the needy who belong to the church, without exception or distinction, are entitled to help. The view that professing members are deserving of more than members by baptism only cannot be defended. Even those who are under ecclesiastical censure may not be penalized by withholding support. The discipline of the church recognizes only spiritual weapons and may never stoop to use any others.”1 The principle set forth in James 2:1ff. with regard to respect of persons applies here. James warns the church against treating the rich with greater courtesy than the poor. This amounts to despising the poor (James 2:6). To apply the principle to distributing alms, we say that those to whom benevolence is given must be judged by the same standard, namely, their need. How active they are in the congregation, and how likely they might be one day to return a favor, does not matter.

One thing matters: they have demonstrated, to the satisfaction of the deacons, their need for help.

May the alms be distributed on the condition that the one receiving alms perform some particular activity that the deacons require of him?

It is true that one who receives alms must demonstrate that he uses them rightly. The principles of stewardship require this of the one receiving them. Furthermore, the Church Order requires the deacons “to exercise care that the alms are not misused.” If the deacons determine that one who receives alms does misuse them, the deacons must discuss among themselves how to deal with this misuse. In some cases, after the deacons have given repeated instruction and admonitions regarding stewardship, it is possible that the deacons no longer distribute alms to that person. DeJong writes: “Only when it can be demonstrated that the poor are misusing the gifts which the deacons bring by squandering money for liquor, excessive luxuries, indulgence in sports and unnecessary recreations, must the deacons refuse to help.”2 Notice that DeJong does not say that the mere purchase of liquor, or the mere attendance at a sporting event or other recreation, in itself constitutes misuse of gifts. Let us give the brother or sister who receives benevolence some measure of freedom to know how to use the money properly. But DeJong’s wording emphasizes the excess of such spending as being misuse of gifts: “squandering money for liquor, excessive luxuries, indulgence in sports and unnecessary recreations” (emphasis mine, DJK).

Certain conditions the deacons must never require when distributing alms. To require that the receiver of alms pay back a certain amount over a period of time, or make the church a beneficiary of his estate, or do some work for the church, is wrong. The alms are gifts, not loans; and they are to be given for the relief of the poor. Furthermore, the church is blessed in the way of giving, not receiving. And Christ’s mercies, by which our sins are washed away, were given us freely, without any possibility of repayment. DeJong says, accordingly, that the “deacons should never demand repayment as a condition for extending aid.”3 Another writer, Prof. William Heyns, opines that, to prevent poverty, the deacons might give a loan, and even stand ready to take the loss if the loan cannot be repaid.4 With such sentiments I heartily disagree. In any circumstance, the deacons are to give gifts, not loans. Even one who received benevolence in the past, and now has the means to give generously to the causes of God’s kingdom, ought not consider his gifts to the church a repayment of loans, but a freewill thank offering to God.

One condition, therefore, is certainly implied in the distribution of alms; and others are certainly wrong. But the deacons will face still other situations, and other questions, about how best to deal with this or that family in their need. Are there other situations in which conditions must be made? May a condition for receiving benevolence be that the head of the household be diligent in looking for a different job, one that will support his family better? Or that the members of the household sell certain possessions that the deacons consider trivial or luxurious?

No answer can be given that will cover every situation. The key here is that deacons seek wisdom from God to deal wisely with the poor in their needs. Several principal points must be remembered.

First, the deacons must distribute alms according to need, sincerely desiring to help the poor and manifesting the genuine love of Christ for His people. They must bear in mind that the church’s duty is not to relieve herself of her poor (whom we will always have with us, Matthew 26:11), but to relieve her poor of their poverty. This desire to help and love must be clearly conveyed when they bring the alms.

Second, the deacons do have the authority to ask the head of the household to face certain questions regarding his job, his use of his possessions, and anything else that might contribute to his poverty. They have the authority to ask him to consider ways in which he might be better able, without violating any principles, to support his family. However, perhaps the time to ask these questions is not when the deacons bring the alms, but some other time—either when the need is being determined, or at a follow-up visit. And, in this regard, the deacons must be careful not to overstep their bounds and intrude into the government of the home. That is, they may ask the head of the household to face certain questions; and they may give any help that the householder desires and is willing to receive (in finding a better job, for example); but they must not dictate specific requirements in areas in which God gives liberty. One principle, especially as regards our vocations, that must not be forgotten is set forth in I Corinthians 7:20ff.: “Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called. Art thou called being a servant? care not for it; but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather.” God, in His providence, places each of us in our vocations and callings. If the person desires to change his job, and believes God gives him freedom to do so, he may. But the church must be careful not to require that he work at this or that job, when he desires differently.

Several points must yet be made regarding the formal distribution of alms.

Emphatically, the deacons must distribute the alms by a personal visit to the needy family or individual.

Such a visit is necessary, first, because the distribution of the alms is emphatically the deacons’ work. It is not a clerical matter that another person may take care of on the deacons’ behalf. The deacons must serve the poor. Secondly, such a visit is necessary because the deacons are required “to visit and comfort the distressed” (Church Order, Art. 25), and to bring not only “external gifts, but also … comfortable words from Scripture” (Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons). To this aspect of the deacons’ work we hope to return in our next article, D.V. For now we note that it requires a personal visit on the part of the deacons.

The visit need not be made by the whole diaconate, but may be made by a committee of the diaconate. This committee must consist of at least two men whom the diaconate has officially authorized to administer relief to the needy family. In small churches with only one deacon, it is advisable that an elder accompany the deacon on such visits, though the deacon leads the meeting.

The visit must be made privately—not after church in a room of the church building where the whole congregation can see who goes in and who goes out. The deacons must speak to nobody outside the deacons’ room or consistory room, about who are receiving benevolence. Therefore, the deacons must also be discreet in making their visit to distribute the alms. What Jesus says in Matthew 6:3-4 applies to this aspect of the deacons’ work: “But, when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.”

This distribution must be carried out in accordance with the particular requirements of the Church Order, Article 25: “…after mutual counsel, faithfully and diligently to distribute the same to the poor as their needs may require it.”

The implications of the words “as their needs may require it” have been spelled out in our previous article. The extent of the need must be determined, and then the deacons are required to meet that determined need in full.

The words “after mutual counsel” emphasize that the whole diaconate must discuss the situation. A committee might investigate the need and make recommendations to the diaconate, and the same committee might distribute the alms, but no individual deacon(s) may determine by himself how much help is needed, and how to give that help. The deacons have authority as a body to care for the poor, and every deacon must do his work in cooperation with the whole body. Article 40 of the Church Order, therefore, requires that the “deacons shall meet monthly, or more frequently as the need arises, to transact the business pertaining to their office….”

Finally, this distribution must be made “faithfully and diligently.” The deacons must themselves be faithful men, of course. They must be faithful in their love of God, His church, and the poor and needy in the church. This faithfulness must manifest itself in their work. Especially it means that the deacons must be timely in distributing the alms. The poor are waiting for their alms! Let the deacons be dependable, quick to respond to needs, and willing to sacrifice of themselves if necessary to do so.

These words, “faithfully and diligently,” underscore the fact that this aspect of the work is weighty and must be taken seriously. That church whose deacons do take it seriously is blessed indeed!

1.Peter Y. DeJong, The Ministry of Mercy for Today (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1963), p. 142.

2.Peter Y. DeJong, p. 142.

3.Peter Y. DeJong, p. 143.

4.Prof. William Heyns, Handbook for Elders and Deacons (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1928), pp. 328-329.