Previous article in this series: July 2009, p. 423.
“Furthermore, to the poor, removing for sufficient reasons, so much money for traveling shall be given by the deacons as they deem adequate. The consistory and the deacons shall, however, see to it that they be not too much inclined to relieve their churches of the poor, with whom they would without necessity burden other churches.” Church Order, Article 83.
Article 83 of the Church Order is closely related to Article 82. Article 82 concerns transfer of membership from one congregation to another congregation within the denomination. Those who transfer from one congregation to another are to be given a certificate of testimonial, affirming the uprightness of their “profession and conduct.” Article 83 takes up the special case of the transfer of membership of the poor. For compelling reasons, the poor ought to be granted assistance for moving from the diaconate of the congregation from which they are transferring their membership.
The poor who are the concern of the church in Article 83 are the poor within the congregation. The poor who are members of the church are the special object of the care of the deacons. Although the deacons are not prohibited from extending relief to the poor outside of the congregation, poor whom God in one way or another places in the pathway of a congregation, the main focus of the deacons is the care of the poor members of the church. This is clear from the account of the origin of the office of deacon in Acts 6. And this is the teaching of the apostle in Galatians 6:10: “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” Article 83 is a specific application of the calling that the church has for the care of the poor whom God has placed in her midst.
These poor desire to move. It is understood that their desire to relocate is for financial reasons. The possibility for employment or better employment opportunities are the motivating factors in the desire of the poor to move. Very likely, these poor have been for some time the object of the care of the deacons in the local congregation of which they are members. The possibility exists that they will be able to better themselves financially by a move to a different locale. Their hope is that such a move will provide them with the opportunity to be gainfully employed, and thus relieve the church of the necessity of supporting them. But since they are poor, they have not the means to enable them to relocate. In such circumstances, the deacons are to come to the aid of the poor and provide them with sufficient funds to move their families and their belongings.
The article speaks of “sufficient reasons.” The sufficient reasons are both sufficient reasons for justifying the move, as well as sufficient reasons for the amount that the poor request in order to move. Of special importance are the “sufficient reasons” that the poor adduce for moving. The point is that there should be “sufficient reasons.” The deacons should not assist the poor who might be taking advantage of the church in order to move. The move must not be on a mere whim, merely the desire for a change of scenery or warmer climes. The poor must be able to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the deacons that their move is occasioned by the real possibility of the improvement of their economic situation. In such cases, the deacons ought to provide assistance to the poor.
When the deacons provide assistance to the poor who move, they ought to be in communication with the deacons of the congregation to which they are relocating. The original Article 83 required that the necessity for the assistance and the amount of the assistance received were to be noted on the reverse side of the Certificate of Transfer. This provision has been removed from the present form of Article 83, having been dropped by the revision that was made to the Church Order by the Christian Reformed Church in 1914. Nevertheless, the article implies that the deacons of the two congregations ought to be in contact with each other. If these poor are genuinely poor, so poor that they do not even have the means to move, they will undoubtedly soon become the objects of the care of the deacons in the congregation that they will be joining. Those deacons should be informed of the history of the work of the deacons with the poor who are now moving to their congregation.
Article 83 concerns the poor who move from one congregation to another within the denomination. The poor leave the congregation in which they and their family have their membership in order to become members in a like-minded congregation. This says something about the strength of faith of these poor believers. Although their move is certainly precipitated by financial considerations, those financial considerations are not the only, nor even the main, considerations. Although the poor head-of-household feels the weight of his God-ordained responsibility to provide for the needs of his family, and so is willing to relocate in order to meet that responsibility, he recognizes that his financial responsibility is not the only, nor even the main, responsibility that he has towards his family.
His main responsibility is the spiritual responsibility. His responsibility before God is not only to do his utmost to put food on his table, but to see to it that the members of his family are provided with the meat and drink of life eternal. His responsibility before God is not only to provide physically for his family’s needs, but, understanding that man does not live by bread alone, to see to their provision of the means of grace.
Poverty is often attended by sore temptations. There is the temptation to become bitter against the Lord because of His hard way. There is the temptation to despair and to give up. There is the temptation to steal, to use illegal means to procure the necessities of this life. Recognizing these temptations, Solomon prays, “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me, Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord? Or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain” (Prov. 30:8, 9).
Included in the temptations that confront the believing poor is the temptation to leave the church for economic opportunity. That is, indeed, a sore temptation. It is the temptation for the sake of a job or a better job to leave the church, moving to an area where there is no Reformed church. Or it is the temptation to leave a true church for a church that is not faithful to the truth of the Word of God and the Reformed confessions. The poor of Article 83 are the poor who recognize their calling to be and to remain members of the true church of Jesus Christ in the world. They are poor who honor the vow of their confession of faith to remain faithful members of the true church of Christ in the world. They are poor who understand the obligation expressed in the Belgic Confession, Article 28, that “Everyone is bound to join himself to the true church,” and that no one may separate from the true church, “even though the magistrates and edicts of princes were against it, yea, though they should suffer death or any other corporal punishment….” Church membership is precious to these poor, so precious that when it comes to economic advancement or even survival in comparison to membership in a true church, they choose poverty rather than forsake the true church of Christ in the world. They hold dear Jesus’ promise inMatthew 19:29: “And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.” These poor are willing to move from one congregation to another, but they are not willing to remove their membership from the true church.
Article 83 calls for the judgment of the consistory and the deacons. The reasons adduced by the poor for moving, as well as the amount they request to assist in their move, is subject to the approval of the diaconate: “…so much money for traveling shall be given by the deacons as they deem adequate.” The “they” are not the poor, of course, but “they” are the deacons. As always, the deacons must approve any assistance to the poor out of the benevolent fund of the church. The assistance requested by the poor under Article 83 is a bit beyond the basic assistance that the deacons provide for the everyday needs of the poor. But moving expenses provided out of the benevolent fund of the church do have as their goal alleviation of the future needs of the poor, and thus do fall properly within the scope of the work of the deacons.
Although the deacons ought to make determination regarding the specifics of the request of the poor for moving expenses, the work of the deacons is subject to the supervision of the elders. As is the case throughout the Church Order, “consistory” in Article 83 refers to the elders. The supervision of the elders was included already in Article 25’s description of the work of the deacons. That article called for the deacons to “render an account in consistory.” The exceptional request, not for the immediate needs of the poor, but moving expenses, ought to be brought by the deacons to the consistory for the input and approval of the elders. Article 83 calls for good cooperation between the elders and the deacons in the local congregation. If all things are well in a congregation, there will be a good cooperative spirit between the elders and the deacons.
It is clear from this article that while the churches must be eager to help their poor, they must also take care lest benevolence fall into the hands of the undeserving. The concern ought to be to help the poor who are poor indeed, and not those who travel from place to place taking wrongful advantage of the kindness of the saints. There have been those who, after they wore out their welcome in one place, simply packed up and moved on. To such, aid must be refused. Paul’s admonition is that “if any would not work, neither should he eat” (II Thess. 3:10).
A necessary warning is included in Article 83: “The consistory and the deacons shall, however, see to it that they be not too much inclined to relieve their churches of the poor, with whom they would without necessity burden other churches.” It is possible that a consistory encourages the poor to move so that their congregation will be relieved of the “burden” of the care of the poor. This is especially a temptation to a consistory when the benevolent case is longstanding, with no relief in sight. Human nature being what it is, and officebearers being the sinful men that they are, a consistory might encourage the poor to move, not with a view to the betterment of the poor, but so that the strain on their benevolent fund may be eased. A consistory “too much inclined” in this direction shows a wrong attitude towards the poor concerning whom it is God’s will that they ever be in the church (Matt. 26:11), as well as a disdain of the privilege that the church enjoys in being able to assist Christ’s poor. The church must never forget that we “ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).