Previous article in this series: February 1, 2010, p. 203.
In treating the office of deacon, we examine yet the subject of diaconal conferences.
The term “diaconal conferences” can be used in at least two senses—a narrower and a broader. Members of Protestant Reformed Churches would more quickly understand the term in the narrower sense—to refer to occasional meetings sponsored by a particular diaconate, at which speakers give instruction and encouragement to past, present, or prospective deacons. Such conferences are held, albeit infrequently, in the Protestant Reformed Churches, especially in the Michigan area.
In the broader sense, the term is used to refer to an official organization of all diaconates in a classis or denomination, to promote cooperation among them. Diaconates of Protestant Reformed Churches have no such conference in this sense of the term.
In these final articles on deacons, our aim is to evaluate diaconal conferences in both senses, and encourage their use to the degree they can be of benefit to our deacons.
Underlying Principle: Diaconal Cooperation
Regarding the narrower and broader senses of the term “diaconal conferences,” we can say that one principle underlies them both: the need for diaconates in the same denomination to work together.
This principle finds expression in our Church Order, particularly in Article 26, which reads:
In places where others are devoting themselves to the care of the poor, the deacons shall seek a mutual understanding with them, to the end that the alms may all the better be distributed among those who have the greatest need. 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. It is also desirable that the diaconates assist and consult one another, especially in caring for the poor in such institutions.
We have previously explained this article in some detail.¹ Our purpose at the moment is to show that the concept of diaconal cooperation is embodied in our Church Order. After being led through a brief review of the principles of Reformed church government, we will see why this is significant.²
Two main principles of the Reformed system of church government are the autonomy of the local congregation, and the calling of local congregations to join together in a denomination with like-minded churches. By the “autonomy” of the local congregation is meant that each congregation of saints, with its three special offices, is itself a complete manifestation of the body of Christ, inherently able to govern its own affairs by itself, and to carry out the work that Christ assigned it (preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, exercising discipline, and caring for the poor). Although in itself a complete manifestation of Christ’s body, each congregation is obligated to join together in federation with other like-minded congregations, in order to manifest the unity of the body of Christ. Manifesting this unity, the churches meet together at classis and synod, each consistory giving these broader assemblies limited but binding authority to make decisions that pertain to the welfare of the churches in common, and to give assistance to any particular church that needs help. Cooperation in the work of the offices, in other words, is a fundamental tenet of Reformed church polity.
In this respect, Reformed church polity differs from the Congregational, or independent, form of church government. The congregational form of church government so strongly emphasizes the autonomy of the local congregation, that it views the congregational meeting as the broadest governing body, and does not have broader assemblies. The congregations are only loosely federated, and the decisions of the meetings of this federation are not binding on the churches.
Now the argument has been made that Reformed churches apply Reformed church polity properly to ministers and elders, in stipulating that they must come together at the meetings of classis and synod; but that with regard to our deacons, because we have no organized way for them to manifest cooperation with each other, we are in conflict with Reformed church polity. Specifically, Prof. William Heyns makes this argument. He notes
the incongruity of having in a Reformed Church system the Diaconate organized in a manner which is peculiar to the Independent system of the Congregational Churches. Although we repudiate the Independent system of the Congregationalists, our Diaconate occupies a position which is contrary to the Reformed, but in full harmony with the Independent system of Church Polity. Reformed Church Polity emphasizes next to the individuality of the local Churches their unity as one body, but the position of the Diaconate is of such a nature that it fits in only with a Church Polity that recognizes exclusively the independent existence of the local Churches.³
Heyns makes this statement in the context of arguing that deacons should be delegated along with ministers and elders to the broader assemblies. Whether deacons should be delegated as Heyns suggests, we hope to treat in our next article; for now the question is, do we properly apply the principles of Reformed church polity to the deacons?
My answer is that our Church Order in fact does make provision for diaconal cooperation. The presence of Article 26 in the Church Order demonstrates that Prof. Heyns’ argument is not true in principle. This is the first reason why it is significant that this article is found in the Church Order.
The second reason why it is significant that this article is found in the Church Order is that it encourages deacons to do everything possible to manifest such cooperation. As worded, Article 26 speaks of particular ways in which deacons should manifest their cooperation. It might happen that a diaconate concludes that it need not cooperate with other diaconates, because it does not face the situations set forth in Article 26. But let the deacons work together with diaconates from other congregations in other ways too! This can only be good and beneficial! Prof. Heyns’ argument is not true in principle; but it may well be that he touches on a weakness of our diaconates inpractice—that interaction and cooperation between our diaconates is relatively infrequent.
Evidences of Diaconal Cooperation
Even if not frequent, and even if not manifesting cooperation as fully as is desirable and possible, our diaconates do cooperate with each other.
One form in which they cooperate may not be readily evident to others. I refer to the fact that, in accordance with the principle expressed in Article 26, it may well be that diaconates work with each other with regard to particular cases of benevolence. How often this happens, the members of a congregation generally will never know, because the deacons’ report to the congregation must report only generally regarding their labors.
As one evidence of diaconal cooperation with which we are familiar, I note that our diaconates are ready to assist each other with benevolence. From time to time, a diaconate that has a significant surplus in its benevolent fund makes this fact known to other diaconates, so that if any have a shortfall, their need can be met. Or a diaconate that has benevolent needs greater than its congregation can provide might ask the diaconates of sister churches for money.
This is real cooperation. This manifests that as congregations also, and not only as individuals, we show ourselves Christ-like, as exhorted to do inPhilippians 2:4: “Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.” This is Israelcaring for Israel—that is, the church of Christ everywhere showing its unity by caring for its poor everywhere. This is the church today taking to heart the words of the apostle to the Corinthians, as he taught them to gather alms for the saints at Jerusalem: “For I mean not that other men be eased, and ye be burdened: But by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may be a supply for their want, that their abundance also may be a supply for your want, that there may be equality: As it is written, He that had gathered much had nothing over; and he that had gathered little had no lack” (I Cor. 8:13-15).
A second way in which our diaconates evidently cooperate with each other is in gathering periodically for instruction and encouragement at a diaconal conference—used in the narrower sense of the term. What Peter DeJong says regarding diaconal conferences in the broader sense applies here as well: “These are held chiefly for mutual inspiration and encouragement…. At such meetings practical questions may and should be discussed as well as the basic Scriptural principles underlying the ministry of mercy in the churches.”4
Such meetings as I am now describing are of great benefit for deacons, as well as for other interested attendees. They give opportunity for systematic instruction regarding various aspects of the office of deacon. At these meetings deacons can discuss various issues and concerns that they face in common, and share ideas regarding how best to address these matters. And newer as well as seasoned deacons can benefit from the advice and wisdom of others. Considering that our practice in most churches is to replace one third of our deacons annually, incoming deacons will be faced with issues and questions that some who are no longer in office have faced before. Even if a particular diaconate is made up of seasoned men, it can still benefit from the input of others. The inspired Scriptures speak of the benefit of “a multitude of counsellors” (Prov. 11:14; 24:6). And if this is of benefit for larger diaconates, think of the benefit for diaconates of smaller churches, in which perhaps one half or the whole of the diaconate is replaced at a time!
In the ways mentioned above, it is evident that our deacons do cooperate.
Encouragement to More Cooperation
Yet I envision benefit to our diaconates if they would do more in the area of cooperation. Consider that these conferences in the narrower sense are held rather infrequently, and then only where a group of churches is found. They have been virtually non-existent among our Western churches. And consider that no organized system exists to foster such cooperation.
I do not point this out to fault our deacons personally. They are faithful and godly men who are devoted to their work. Their work takes time—time for meetings, time for committee visits, time away from home. More diaconal cooperation will take more time—and as stewards of the time God gives us, we must evaluate whether we are using it wisely. Even when we would be busy in kingdom causes, we must be sure that we are not neglecting other important responsibilities that also take time.
It seems to me, though, that an organized system to foster cooperation among diaconates of the Protestant Reformed Churches would be of great benefit. Our next article will focus, then, on diaconal cooperation in the broader sense—a geographical, classical, or denominational organization that has as its purpose to help deacons work together.