Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Randolph, Wisconsin. Previous article in this series: September 1, 2005, p. 476.
Article 26 of our Church Order requires deacons to work closely with other diaconates in the care of the poor, to correspond with civil poor-relief organizations so that aid might be better distributed among those who have need, and to cooperate with the board of directors of institutions of mercy so that the poor can use these institutions. Concluding our examination of the duties of Reformed deacons as set forth in our Church Order, we now examine the latter duty required by Article 26.
Specifically, Article 26, requires this of deacons: “Moreover, they shall make it possible for the poor to make use of institutions of mercy, and to that end they shall request the board of directors of such institutions to keep in close touch with them.”
This requirement was not found in the original Church Order as adopted by the Synod of Dordrecht in 1618-1619. Nor did the churches in the Netherlands add it when they, in 1905, adopted a revision of the Church Order. Rather, this point was added to the Church Order by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1914.¹ In other words, the requirement of Article 26 that we are now examining is a relatively recent addition to our Church Order. Today the Protestant Reformed Churches in America are the only Reformed churches in the United States officially to require this of their deacons.² We must not conclude that diaconates of other Reformed churches had or have no interest in the work of caring for the poor in institutions of mercy, for history shows otherwise. In Calvin’s Geneva the deacons maintained a hospital (caring not only for the sick, but also for the aged and orphans). Reformed diaconates in the Netherlands and in South Africa have undertaken similar works.³ But for now our point is that the requirement as found in the Church Order is currently unique to the Protestant Reformed Churches, as an inheritance from our mother, the Christian Reformed Church.
VanDellen and Monsma explain why the Christian Reformed Church added this requirement. When Reformed Christians in the United States began building homes for the aged, many aged who could have used such homes could not afford them. Consequently, “diaconates began to aid the afflicted or their relatives financially, so that this very necessary Christian care could be shared by such as would otherwise have to forego this privilege. To assure the continuance of this practice the second provision of Article 26 was added to this Article.”4
The term “institutions of mercy” refers to those private organizations that care for the sick, poor, aged, widows, orphans, or any other needy people. I say they are private organizations because Article 26 has already spoken of “others” who are “devoting themselves to the care of the poor,” which “others” refers especially to the government or other civic relief organizations. Now the article is speaking of private organizations, and especially of those institutions that not only care for the poor and needy, but also build infrastructure and hire employees, so that the needy can receive full-time care and support. That the article has such an organization in mind is clear from the fact that it speaks of a “board of directors,” a group of people who oversee the operation of this facility. We have in mind, therefore, hospitals, retirement and nursing homes, orphanages, boarding schools for the deaf or blind, and other institutions of a similar nature.
Those who are poor because, while having jobs, their income does not sufficiently meet their needs, are given financial aid and brought comfortable words from Scripture. But the poor in institutions of mercy need round the clock help, which requires full-time caregivers and adequate facilities in which such care can be given. The cost of caring for such poor, therefore, is significantly greater. Such institutions must charge high fees for their services, and often the poor cannot afford these high fees.
We can appreciate the fact, therefore, that our Church Order directs the attention of the deacons to their calling in this regard: make it possible for the poor of the church to use such institutions!
We ought to note that the article does not require deacons to establish and maintain such institutions, as was done earlier in Reformed churches. It remains a question whether deacons properly may do so, and to this question we hope to return in a future article, the Lord willing. Regardless of how these institutions are established and maintained, Article 26 requires deacons to be sure that the poor are able to use them.
How do the deacons fulfill this responsibility?
Obviously, one way is by dealing with the poor and needy themselves, on an individual basis. That is, on a regular basis the deacons might visit those of their congregations who are in such institutions of mercy, to inquire whether they need financial help. Or, if the deacons are aware of a person in the congregation who appears to be in need of such an institution—an aged person who lives alone, or a special-needs adult who might need full-time care, for example—the deacons might visit the person or the person’s family, to express their willingness to assist financially with placing the person in an institution of mercy. In such instances, the deacons would still follow the procedure set forth in Article 25, which requires deacons to collect sufficient alms to help the poor, to determine the amount of the individual’s genuine need, and “after mutual counsel, faithfully and diligently to distribute … to the poor as their needs may require it.”
But the requirements of Article 26 are not completely satisfied when the deacons deal with the poor and needy on an individual basis. For the article requires the deacons, as they seek to make it possible for the poor to use these institutions, to “request the Board of Directors of such institutions to keep in close touch with them.”
On the one hand, this requirement seems rather simple to implement. The deacons would request, probably by letter, that if any matters arose regarding the care of a particular individual with which the deacons could be of help, the deacons would like to be so informed. Perhaps, to impress upon the Board of Directors the sincerity of the deacons in this regard, the letter would be followed up by another letter, or other letters, or even by a personal visit. (After all, not every letter to directors and boards of such institutions is given a response; and some might not even be read). In some way, at least, the deacons must indicate that they truly desire to be kept in close touch, that is, to be informed quickly and frequently, if need be. When the deacons have conveyed their desire to the board, it becomes the responsibility of the board to inform the deacons of how they can help.
On the other hand, just as we pointed out in our last article, we live in a day in which organizations put a high priority on protecting the privacy of individuals whom they serve. This might make it difficult for the board of directors ever to inform the deacons of a need. In such an instance, the deacons might do two things: first, they might encourage the individual who is receiving care at such an institution to give written permission for the board of directors to divulge such information to the diaconate; and secondly, they might try to get the board of directors to see that the deacons consider it very important that the needs of the members of the church are met not by civic grants or other sources, but by the church itself. What a witness to the church’s love for her own, and desire to manifest true mercy—the mercies of Christ—when deacons do this!
Implied in this requirement of Article 26 is not only that deacons desire the well-being of their members who use such institutions, but also that deacons desire the wellbeing of such institutions themselves—particularly, of such institutions that are operated by Christian believers on the basis of Christian principles. As DeJong says: “This [the close contact requested by the deacons, DJK] presupposes that the deacons take a deep and lasting interest in the work of these Christian institutions. For although it is not being performed by them directly, it is similar to the task which the Savior has laid on them.”5
In at least two ways, in addition to being ready to care for the needs of institutionalized members of their own congregation, the deacons do well to manifest this interest in the work of such organizations.
First, the deacons might consider scheduling collections for such organizations. Many of our congregations do this already. Perhaps it happens that deacons think to themselves, as they prepare to make a collection schedule for the year, “So many organizations have asked us to take collections, and we cannot take them for all. Perhaps we should simply reject the request of any organization that is not directly affiliated with the Protestant Reformed Churches.” While my intent is not to tell deacons what criteria they must use in determining for which causes to schedule collections, it should be clear that we must not ignore the fact that Christian institutions of mercy are good causes, kingdom causes, for which we may pray, and to which we may give our money.
Second, a diaconate that understands its responsibility to “do good unto all men” (Gal. 6:10) and that is eager to fulfill this responsibility, but does not know how, might consider asking the board of directors whether there are any in the institution who have needs that are not being met. After all, one finds two sorts of people in institutions of mercy—the one has family and friends who visit often, while the other has few visitors and perhaps no family. Sadly, this happens even to those who are members of congregations; the members of the church are too busy to visit the shut-ins, or never think to visit them. The deacons have here an opportunity to assist financially if there is need, and also to visit these lonely people, bringing them comfortable words from Scripture.
Obviously, these two suggestions are not required by the letter of the article. But deacons do well to ask themselves the question: “Are we as busy in the work to which we are called as we could be? Are there some to whom we could minister, if we looked harder?” If our diaconates have the desire and ability to minister to others outside their own congregation, here are possible ways to do that.
This brings us, then, to the conclusion of our examination of the duties of the deacons to care for the poor, in light of what our Church Order and Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons requires. We plan next, God willing, to deal more specifically with the deacons’ care of widows, of the sick, and any work that would consist of administering the mercies of Christ.
1. To confirm these historical data, the interested reader can consult the following works: Idzerd VanDellen and Martin Monsma, The Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing Co., 1941), pp. 119, 121; and Peter Y. DeJong, The Ministry of Mercy for Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1952), p. 219.
2. I have consulted the current Church Orders of the following Reformed denominations in North America to confirm that they do not officially require this of their deacons: Reformed Church in America, Christian Reformed Church in North America, United Reformed Churches in North America, Canadian and American Reformed Churches, and Reformed Church in the United States.
3. The interested reader can consult pages 210-216 of DeJong’s book for a survey of the history of Christian institutions of mercy from the time of the early New Testament church, through the Middle Ages and the Reformation era, until the present time. Also Prof. William Heyns indicates that the Reformed churches busied themselves in the work of founding and directing such institutions—cf. his Handbook for Elders and Deacons (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1928), pp. 339-340.
4. VanDellen and Monsma, p. 121.
5. DeJong, p. 219.