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Assisting the Poor

The committee of the Christian Reformed Church that some years ago drew up a proposed revision of the church order saw fit to exclude altogether from this revision the matter of Article 83 of our church order. The reader will recall that this article deals with the matter of the deacons providing assistance to the poor who, for sufficient reason, see fit to remove from the congregation. The deacons are to provide according to their discretion an amount that is adequate to enable these poor to reach their new place of residence. Perhaps the committee considered this matter of significance only with application to the historic circumstances out of which it arose and so felt the matter entirely out dated today. At any rate under this revised church order there is no provision made for assistance to be given to any of the poor who for sufficient reason feel they must move to another locality and lack the means to do so. 

Although it must be granted that circumstances generally are quite different today than they were when the church order was composed and it may even be admitted that cases that would be covered by the provisions of this article are quite exceptional, we feel that the complete omission of this article from the church order is a mistake. First of all because there are principles involved here that ought to be preserved and, secondly, circumstances are subject to sudden change so that even today situations may arise necessitating these provisions that we would favor retaining this matter in the church order. 

Of course the article as it applies today concerns only those poor who are supported by the diaconate of the church. It does not apply to those who are able to provide their own day by day needs but lack the extra involved in moving to another place. If such persons desire to remove from the church to another area they cannot expect the deacons to provide them with funds to meet their moving costs. The article plainly refers to those who are poor, that is, the objects of the charity of the church. Concerning them the Church Order Commentary states, “If any of our poor desire to move and if the deacons feel persuaded that there are sufficient reasons for their departure, then these poor are entitled to as much help as the deacons shall deem adequate. Until 1905 for the churches in Holland, and until 1914 for our churches, Article 83 stipulated that the amount given to departing poor should be noted on the reverse side of their attestation or certificate. Now, however, this is no longer required. Those who stand in need of traveling expenses are not so numerous, and the deacons should exercise good will and confidence toward those who are worthy of the church’s help.” 

Three main principles are implicit in this matter. The first is the fundamental principle of Scripture and the entire church order that the church is duty bound to assist and provide for its poor. Not only is this a duty but it is a privilege as well. This beautiful work of mercy is a reflection of the High Priestly office of Christ Himself. To be sure there is also a human side to this work and because of this the spiritual function of mercy is sometimes forgotten and the church is inclined TV unburden herself of this task and by moving the poor from her fellowship passes the burden of their support to another church. Against this Article 83 warns. This may not be done. In regard to these problems the church may not succumb to the temptation to follow the easy way but she must ever be mindful of her calling to care for her poor, seeking their spiritual well being and providing their material needs. The poor are always with you. Care for them! In doing so ye do it as unto Christ Himself. 

The second principle is that the poor may remove from the congregation only when there is sufficient reason. This is essentially the same principle that is expressed in our Belgic Confession that “everyone is duty bound to join and unite themselves with the true church” (Art. 28). The point here is not that the poor have in their own opinion a sufficient reason to remove from the church but this reason must be sufficient in the judgment of the deacons. Without this the deacons may not let them go and certainly may not assist them with financial help on their way. Also here the deacons must remember that the spiritual supersedes the material. It could certainly not be judged a sufficient reason to remove from the church if one simply could advance economic reasons. A man could conceivably want to go to a place where there is no manifestation of the true church but where he could obtain a job. He would then deprive himself and his family of the means of grace, the fellowship of the church, the communion of saints, the instruction of the Christian school and the channels of all spiritual blessings for the sake of economic gain. But is better to starve or be poor with the people of God than to possess the riches of this world without God. Another, who is poor, might seek assistance from the deacons to move to another place where there is a larger church. Here he would still remain poor but he might consider that the larger church would give him more support than he was getting from the smaller church. Such reasons are not sufficient to justify removal from the church. 

On the other hand a poor family might want to move to another place where there is a church and where the father of the family could be gainfully employed. To do this he needs assistance in moving and in such a circumstance the deacons would judge that it is advisable to help him for in so doing the church would be relieved of supporting him and at the same time he would remain in the communion of the church. Another might of necessity have to move to another place for reasons of health, etc., and then too the deacons would rightly lend assistance. But no matter what the reason or reasons given, the deacons must use prudence and discretion so that no help is given unless the reason the poor move is justified from every point of view. 

Finally we notice that the article warns the churches that they shall not needlessly relieve themselves of their own poor and so place an unnecessary burden upon other churches. Each church must not simply look out for its own interests but also be considerate of the interests of others even as such is the responsibility of each believer in Christ. All too often this principle is ignored or forgotten. And the deeper principle is that each local church is duty bound to care for its own poor. Ordinarily when the poor leave a certain church, that church ceases to care for them and then the church in which they become members takes up this task. To this, however, there may be exceptions and then the church from which the poor has departed will continue to care for them through the diaconate of the church to which they have gone. Or it may be that both churches contribute a part of the support. The arrangements must be agreed upon by the two churches and determined according to the particular circumstances. 

We do observe here yet that in the execution of the matter of Article 83 the deacons’ task is not an easy one. When situations like these arise observers are often quick to criticize and fail to understand the difficulties confronting the deacons in disposing of these matters.

Equality of Officebearers 

“No church shall in any way lord it over other churches, no minister over other ministers, no elder or deacon over other elders or deacons.”—Article 84, D.K.O. 

Here we have to do with one of the most fundamental principles of all Reformed Church Polity. In a more limited way this same principle was already expressed in Article 17 where it is stated that, “Among the ministers of the Word equality shall be maintained with respect to the duties of their office, and also in other matters as far as possible.” Then again, “This equality shall also be maintained in the case of the elders and deacons.” In other words, Article 84 simply broadens out this principle of equality to churches as well as to officebearers. It is out of this principle that the Reformation; from the church political point of view, is born. The Reformers stood staunchly upon it as opposed to the principles of the hierarchical system. With such great importance did the Reformed fathers regard this that in the original church order of 1571 they incorporated this as the very first article. That article originally read: 

“No church shall dominate over other churches, no minister of the Word, elder or deacon shall dominate the one over the other, but every one shall guard himself against all suspicions and enticements to dominate.” 

Already three years before this church order was adopted at the Synod of Emden the ground work for this was laid when the leaders of the Reformed Church of Holland and nearby territories met in the Wezelian Convention. Dr. F.L. Rutgers informs us that in Chapter IV, Article 7 of the conclusions of this convention provision was made that “elders shall promise not to employ domination, neither regarding the ministers nor regarding the congregation.” The same convention protected the rights of the individual church and limited the authority of the broader gatherings when it decided in Chapter V, Article 19 that, “Nevertheless we do not here acknowledge the classical gatherings to have jurisdiction over any church or its offices, except these shall permit it of their own accord, in order that the churches may not be robbed against their will of their jurisdiction and authority.” 

All of this was necessary not only because the Reformed Churches wanted to express a definite stand of opposition to the hierarchical system of Rome in which one church dominates another church and one officebearer lords it over other officebearers but also because among the Reformers themselves there was fear, reluctance and even refusal to cooperate in the formation of Classes and Synods, anticipating that these bodies might tend to become domineering and deprive the individual churches of their rights. This fear was especially found in the Netherlands and so the very first article of the church order aimed at giving assurances that denominational affiliation and cooperation did not at all aim at domination, and further that all domination, the lording of one church over another, of one officebearer over the other stood to be condemned. 

Though the place of this article in the church order has changed so that now it is Article 84 instead of Article 1, the principle expressed in it is the same. This change in position has not minimized its significance. It is perhaps more important today than ever. We are living in times in which governments of the world are moving toward amalgamation and the formation of a super-state and this same pattern is being followed closely by the church. A super-church is in the making. Its power is that of the false prophet. Its character is that of domineering suppression. Zealously we must guard the principles for which our fathers died and maintain steadfastly the autonomy of the church. The importance of this we will consider, D.V., in our next article.