Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin. Previous article in this series, November 1, 2004, p. 63.
In the last few articles we have examined the duties of deacons in relieving the needs of the poor. Having first collected the alms, deacons in Reformed churches are required to determine the need of those who request benevolence help, distribute the alms according to their need, and visit and comfort the poor with the Word of God.
If any have inferred, at this point, that the work of relieving the needs of the poor begins only when the poor come asking, this article should dispel that notion.
Relief programs run by the government and other social agencies necessarily require the poor to ask for such help. Such programs advertise that money is available, and teach the public how to go about asking or applying for that money. The right forms must be filled out; the forms must be sent to the right person or address, etc. But such programs do not have the resources to come looking for the poor.
However, deacons in the church of Jesus Christ are not doing enough if they wait for the poor to come asking. They must also look for those in need of benevolent help.
That the deacons must actively look for those in need of benevolent help is not stated in so many words in the Church Order of Reformed Churches, or in the Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons, as these were adopted by the Synod of Dordrecht in 1618-1619. And no passage of Scripture can be found that states this duty in so many words.
Nevertheless, various principles set forth in Scripture and in the Reformed confessions lead us to say that the deacons must be looking for the poor.
I John 3:17 teaches that our care for the poor manifests God’s love in us. We read: “But whoso hath this world’s goods, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” Clearly, the text refers to a situation in which a brother in Christ has a bodily, material need, which need could be supplied by giving him the goods of this world. In other words, the text speaks of the very kind of situation that deacons are authorized to address. Furthermore, it is clear from the text that the need is observed by others: “whoso … seeth his brother have need” (italics mine, DJK). This is not a case of a person making request for assistance; it is a case of a need being observed. In such a case, the Word of God says, we are to meet the brother’s need! The text speaks of the duty, not of deacons only, but of all Christians. Every child of God is required to render aid to fellow saints whose needs are apparent. But if every Christian is required to do this, certainly the deacons are also required to do it. By implication, this means they must be looking to see who has need.
In two places, the Heidelberg Catechism stresses the importance of “going the extra mile” with regard to our neighbor. In Lord’s Day 40, explaining the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” the catechism teaches that it is the duty of the child of God toward his neighbor “to prevent his hurt as much as in us lies.” In other words, we must look for ways to prevent the neighbor’s hurt, even before he finds himself in a situation in which he might possibly get hurt. And in Lord’s Day 42, explaining the eighth commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” the catechism not only teaches that it is our duty to labor faithfully, in order to be able to relieve the needy, but also requires us to “promote the advantage of my neighbor in every instance I can or may.” This requires us to be aware of ways in which we can help our neighbor, specifically with regard to our stewardship of goods.
I understand both statements to mean that the child of God must not only take heed to fulfill the letter of the law, avoiding murder and theft, and being sure to love the neighbor’s person and respect his possessions, but also that the child of God must look for ways in which he can be of a help to his neighbor, possibly before his neighbor even realized the need for help. And this principle I now apply to the work of the deacons—let them look for those in need.
Furthermore, the example of our Lord Jesus Christ shows that this is the duty of deacons. By His grace and Spirit, Christ supplies the needs of all His brothers and sisters. He does so when we cry for help to God in Christ’s name. But His supply of our need in answer to our cry is not the first instance of His help. Even before we were aware of our sin and misery, Christ saw us in the misery of sin, humbled Himself in our flesh to atone for our sins, and rose again the third day with power to work His new, heavenly life in us. Before we knew our misery and need, He worked His life in us, to meet that need! He saw our poverty, before we were aware of it; and He acted to make us rich, before we desired these spiritual riches (II Cor. 8:9)!
Deacons are to manifest the compassion of Jesus Christ. They also, therefore, are not only to wait to be asked for help, but must be looking in the congregation to see who needs their help.
To this duty of the deacons other Reformed writers have referred by using the term “preventing poverty.”1 By this term, they do not mean that the goal of deacons must be the eradication of all poverty in the church of Jesus Christ. These writers have not lost sight of the blessedness of having the poor, and of the fact that Jesus said that the church would always have the poor with us (Matt. 26:11). Rather, they mean that the deacons must work to prevent individual instances of poverty, by looking for those who are in danger of poverty. Prof. Heyns writes,
It is in the nature of the case that real care for the poor will first of all put forth earnest endeavors to prevent poverty where it is threatening…. When the danger of falling into poverty is warded off, it is a greater benefit to a person or family than relief can be when poverty has befallen them. Here, too, an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.2
And DeJong says:
Just when must the deacons step in and offer assistance? Must this be done only when an individual or a family has become so economically impoverished that they can no longer provide even the barest necessities? This position has been advocated in some diaconates. Yet such a conception is fallacious….3
The idea that the prevention of poverty is the work of the deacons is not new or recent, according to DeJong. He asserts that
the duty of preventing poverty in specific cases has been recognized as part of the diaconal calling for many years by the Reformed churches. Already Voetius argued in favor of this attempt in his day. He based his position largely on
…. From this he concluded that to fulfil the law of brotherly love the prevention of poverty in concrete cases was preferable to waiting with assistance until extreme need had arisen, using as an example that the prevention of disease in the body is always to be preferred to a cure.4
Nor has the idea that the deacons are required to prevent concrete instances of poverty been limited to individuals. At least one Reformed denomination has required her deacons to prevent poverty. The Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons as found in the CRC Psalter Hymnal, 1959 edition, reads:
The work of the deacons consists in the faithful and diligent ingathering of the offerings which God’s people in gratitude make to their Lord, in the prevention of poverty (italics mine, DJK), in the humble and cheerful distribution of gifts according to the need, and in the relief of the distressed both with kindly deeds and words of consolation and cheer from Scripture.5
The phrase regarding the prevention of poverty was not in the form as it was written by Peter Datheen, approved by the Synod of Dordrecht in 1618-1619, and used in the churches in the Netherlands. According to an introductory note in the Psalter Hymnal, a committee of the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church revised and rewrote the form, and this revised edition was adopted by the CRC Synod in 1934.6 In 1982 this revised form was replaced with an entirely new form, in which is made no mention of the duty of deacons to prevent poverty.7
We can appreciate this point that the deacons must work to prevent poverty, especially when we know that the term is not used to refer to the impossible task of eradicating all poverty, but to the prevention of specific cases of poverty. We mean the same thing, substantially, when we say that the deacons should be looking for those in need. Not only should they look for those who are greatly impoverished and destitute, but they should also look out for others who, though not destitute, still have needs that the deacons might be able to supply.
The reasons why deacons must be sure to look for those in need are several.
First, some who have a pressing and immediate need are reluctant, for one reason or another, to come to the deacons in their need. The deacons must therefore be observant of the members of the congregation, and be ready to go to those whom they suspect have need of benevolent help.
Second, some might be blind to their own needs. Not infrequently elders and pastors might find that people either do not see their spiritual needs, or refuse to admit their needs. Likewise it is possible that some will be blind to their material needs, or not admit that they have such needs. So the deacons must be looking.
Third, in some instances the saints of God face the real threat of poverty, even though they have not actually fallen into poverty. Perhaps such do not actually need benevolent help at the moment — but it is appropriate that already the deacons convey to such people their willingness to help. All of this requires the deacons to be observant regarding the earthly condition of the people of God.
How, practically, might the deacons implement this aspect of their work?
First, by working hard to get to know the people of God better. The deacons must know the congregation. They must take seriously their calling as individuals to fellowship with all in the congregation, and not only with their favorite group of friends. In this way they will more quickly become aware of the needs of the people.
Second, when the deacons hear of a family in which the head of household has lost his job, or in which a member has been recently hospitalized, the deacons would do well to send a committee to visit this family. Not only would the committee have the mandate of asking whether the family’s situation has resulted in benevolent need, but the committee could also bring from Scripture words of comfort and encouragement that God will care for the material needs of the family in their affliction.
Third, the deacons show they are looking for the poor when they bring a word of admonition and caution to a family that appears not to exercise good stewardship of its resources. Before the family’s poor stewardship results in poverty, the deacons may encourage the family in the right use of the gifts God has given them.
Fourth, when the deacons are aware of approximately how much a family is contributing to the general fund budget, the deacons may contact those whose giving is not in accord with the budgeted amount, with a view to finding out whether the family needs benevolent help. This does not mean that our deacons must be “budget police”—rather, I have simply given one example of what might indicate to the deacons that a family has need.
At least one of our diaconates makes provision for paying a portion of the Christian school tuition bill for families whose tuition obligation exceeds a certain percentage of its income. Significantly, this diaconate considers such help to be a matter of benevolence. This seems to me to be another way in which deacons can be looking for those in need.
I have given ideas as to how deacons will implement this aspect of their work, but I can do no more than that. The “how” might be different for every diaconate and congregation. But regarding the need to look for the poor, let godly, Reformed deacons face this question at their next meeting: have they been content merely to lend aid when asked for help? Or are they also looking for those in need?
1.Cf. Prof. William Heyns, Handbook for Elders and Deacons (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1928), pages 324ff., and Peter Y. DeJong, The Ministry of Mercy for Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1952), p. 137ff.
2.Heyns, op. cit., pp. 324-325.
3.DeJong, op. cit., p. 138.
4.DeJong, op. cit., p. 139.
5.Psalter Hymnal Centennial Edition: Doctrinal Standards and Liturgy of the Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Publication Committee of the Christian Reformed Church, Inc., 1959), p. 123 of the section on doctrinal standards and liturgy.
6.Ibid., p. 74.
7.The interested reader can find the current form on the internet, at www.crcna.org/whatweoffer/resources/synodical/liturgy/deacons82.asp.