Previous article in this series: April 1, 2010, p. 296.
We noted in our last article that the term “diaconal conference” can be used in two senses. In the narrower sense, it refers to occasional meetings of deacons and other interested individuals to give instruction and encouragement regarding the work of the deacons. In the broader sense, it refers to an organization of diaconates residing in the same classis or denomination, to promote cooperation between them. In this broader sense Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster use the term: “The term ‘Conference’ here does not refer to scheduled meetings. It refers to a number of diaconates joined together by regional organization.”¹
Such conferences manifest a proper and beneficial cooperation between diaconates—proper, because Article 26 of our Church Order makes provision for, and thus encourages, cooperation between diaconates; and beneficial, because of the wisdom that comes from a multitude of godly counselors (Prov. 11:14, 24:6). In our last article, we noted the benefits of diaconal cooperation, and pointed to ways in which the deacons do cooperate—including holding diaconal conferences, in the narrower sense of the term.
What more can be done to promote cooperation? Specifically, from the viewpoint of diaconal conferences two things come to mind: first, have deacons’ conferences (in the narrow sense) more often, and not only in areas where churches are geographically close; and second, have a Protestant Reformed diaconal conference in the broader sense—an organization to promote cooperation.
The Form of this Organization
In my judgment, such an organization should consist of regularly scheduled joint meetings of diaconates, or at least delegations of diaconates. At these meetings a small board of deacons should be chosen as an executive committee to set an agenda for the meetings, attend to correspondence, and carry out research or investigation on any matters that relate to the work of the conference.
One recognizes immediately that this form is similar to our division of our churches into Classis East and Classis West. Each consistory in a classis sends two delegates to meetings of classis, to deal with matters that pertain to the churches in common, and to assist any individual congregation’s elders in their work. But each classis appoints a classical committee, a stated clerk, and perhaps other functionaries to help the classis do its work smoothly.
While the form that I envision these conferences taking is similar to that of a classis, I am not suggesting that the authority of these conferences will be similar to that of a classis. Such conferences are not official ecclesiastical assemblies, governed by our Church Order. Nor do they need to be. Their purpose is to aid the deacons in cooperating with each other. DeJong’s comments regarding diaconal conferences are correct:
They are, of course, rather informal meetings and may never presume to exercise any official control over any of the diaconates. Nor should they take any binding decisions which would involve the local deaconries and rob them of their rightful independence or involve them into difficulty with their consistories. All official business must be transacted in the ecclesiastical assemblies—consistories, classes and synods, lest there be set up next to the eldership another governing body in the churches.²
The form that I am proposing is similar, if not identical, to that used by the churches of the Doleantie (the secession led by Abraham Kuyper in 1886), and found today (to the best of my knowledge) in the Christian Reformed Church. Peter Y. DeJong notes that the diaconates of Doleantie churches met in a conference.
Since that time they have been held regularly. They meet together not only regionally but also nationally. Under the supervision of this nation-wide organization a periodical devoted exclusively to the office of the deacons is published.³
A different form has been proposed, one that has been argued to be preferable to the form described above, but one about which we should have serious reservations. This alternate form is that the deacons’ work and office be incorporated into the major assemblies—that is, the meetings of classis and synod itself. An early proponent of this plan was Herman Bavinck, who proposed developing the office of deacon along these lines:
8. That the ministry of mercy be given a much larger place on the agenda of all ecclesiastical assemblies than has been the case up until now.
9. That, along with ministers and elders, deacons be delegated to the major assemblies of the churches and be given a vote in all matters pertaining to the ministry of mercy.
10. That at these assemblies the ministry of mercy be organized in terms of general principles, bearing in mind the difference in congregational circumstances; that for general needs it be undertaken communally and expanded by asking the local church to assist other churches and further by assisting poor and oppressed fellow believers abroad.4
Respected authors in the Reformed community have expressed themselves in favor of this plan. Dr. F.L. Rutgers, noted Dutch Reformed expert in church polity, indicated that Bavinck’s plan was “practicable”; Abraham Kuyper himself is said to have hinted at it; and Prof. William Heyns writes, “This plan seems to be the only one that could safely be put in practice.”5 We noted Heyns’ argument in our last article: only such a plan, in his opinion, does justice to a Reformed system of church polity.
Making the conferences part of the church’s polity and government has two advantages, in the mind of those who prefer this form. First, the conferences can make decisions of a binding character. Second, they can be better regulated. Some felt that the conferences of the Doleantie churches began to act contrary to Reformed church polity, by considering themselves an “authoritative representation of the local Diaconates, and as empowered to make rules and regulations for diaconal matters…apart from the Churches themselves.”6
But the arguments against this form, and in favor of the first one, are convincing to me.
First, to delegate deacons to our assemblies along with ministers and eldersis contrary to our Church Order. At times a consistory might delegate a deacon to attend Classis instead of a minister or elder, because the minister or elder is unable to go. In such an instance, the deacon is authorized to function as an elder at the meetings of Classis, just as Article 37 of the Church Order permits deacons to be involved in the work of the elders by being added to small consistories. But to send a deacon in addition to the minister and elder to each meeting of the Classis, so that the deacon can be involved in any work of mercy at the classical level, finds no warrant in our Church Order.
Secondly, the broader assemblies are extensions of the ruling office of elder in the church. They are not, nor are they meant to be, extensions of the office of deacon. To tend to the affairs of the churches is to exercise rule; to adjudicate matters that come from the churches is to rule. But to rule is the work of the elders. Bavinck’s plan to include the work of the ministry of mercy on the agenda of classical and synodical meetings leads to a confusion of the offices.
At times, by means of protest and appeal, a matter pertaining to the work of the deacons, or the distribution of benevolence, might appear on the agenda of a broader assembly. In such an instance the ruling office of elder is the proper office to adjudicate the matter, for the elders are to see to it that the deacons are doing their work properly. This is different, however, from incorporating a diaconal conference into our classes.
Thirdly, I do not see the need for a diaconal conference to make binding decisions in the same sense in which classis or synod makes such. By organizing themselves into a conference, diaconates show themselves ready to hear the thoughts of all the men, to gain wisdom from them, and to apply what they have learned to their own needs.
The Purpose and Work of this Organization
Such an organization, we have noted, would promote and help implement cooperation between diaconates.
Berghoef and DeKoster, in a sample “Constitution for a Diaconal Conference,” adapted from a form in use by Classis Kalamazoo of the Christian Reformed Church, suggest a four-fold purpose:
a. The…Diaconal Conference exists for charitable and religious purposes: to promote the basic task of the deacons, the administration of Christian mercy, and to present and discuss the responsibilities and opportunities of deacons so that they can be challenged to administer the love of Christ.
b. To establish close contact and fellowship among the diaconates.
c. To inform the deacons regarding the needs of various institutions and organizations of mercy.
d. To assist the deacons and other Church members in meeting diaconal needs in the Church and community in the name of Jesus Christ.7
And the website maintained by the diaconal ministry of the Christian Reformed Church says:
A diaconal conference (or committee) is a gathering of deacons who represent the different diaconates within a classis. A diaconal conference promotes the ministry of deacons through the following activities:
* Mutual sharing by deacons about their ministry.
* Opportunities for learning and training.
* Identifying community ministry opportunities.8
Applying this more specifically to our purposes, an organized conference of diaconates could arrange for regular opportunities for deacons’ conferences in the narrower sense of the term—meetings of current, past, and prospective deacons, for instruction and encouragement. “Here the nature, origin, function, purpose, and goal of the deaconries should be thoroughly discussed,” as well as “practical questions.”9
Not at a meeting involving past and prospective deacons, but at meetings with other current deacons, representatives of diaconates could discuss particularly difficult cases of benevolence, without naming names, and seek advice on how best to meet the needs of these sheep.
A diaconal conference could help coordinate the work of benevolence, especially outside the local congregations. No diaconate needs outside help coordinating the work of benevolence within the local congregation; and diaconates probably do not need outside help coordinating the work of benevolence with one other local diaconate. But if our deacons were engaged in addressing broader benevolent needs, such a conference would help.
“Broader benevolent needs” is a broad term. It could include responding to a community disaster (flood or earthquake), or overseeing an institution of mercy. It could also include arranging for all of the activities deacons properly engage in, regarding those who are not poor, but still needy. In articles under the series “The Diaconal Care of Non-Poor Christians” and “Women Assisting the Deacons,” we referred to the propriety of the deacons caring for the travel needs or other personal needs of the sick or elderly. In an area where several Protestant Reformed Churches are concentrated, a diaconal conference could help coordinate meeting such needs, making the work more efficient. The Cost and Benefits of this Organization
Immediately reasons come to mind why this might be considered unnecessary or unfeasible. Unnecessary, because we’ve gotten along for eighty years without one! And unfeasible, because of the cost involved.
However, the cost for our churches in Classis East would be minimal. And for these diaconates the particular benefit would be the ability to coordinate their work outside the congregation.
Being geographically separated by long distances, some of our diaconates in Classis West don’t feel any pressing need to coordinate work outside the congregation. Also, being geographically separated, the cost to have such conferences would be greater. At the same time, the geographical separation means that these diaconates have little or no contact with each other, apart from informing each other of a benevolent surplus or deficit. In other words, the very circumstance that gives rise to a greater cost, also underscores the benefit of such meetings.
Cost is not to be overlooked when starting a new venture; always it is wise to count the cost. But, especially when the work is kingdom work, the cost must be viewed in light of the benefits that would be received.
Something to discuss, deacons, during coffee time at your next meeting!
1 Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster, The Deacons’ Handbook: A Manual of Stewardship (Grand Rapids: Christian’s Library Press, 1980), p. 188.
2 Peter Y. DeJong, The Ministry of Mercy for Today (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1963), p. 106.
3 DeJong, p. 106.
4 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), p. 429.
5 William Heyns, Handbook for Elders and Deacons (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1928), pp. 350-352. Heyns cites Rutgers book Kerkrechtelijke Adviezen, I, 210.
6 Heyns, p. 351.
7 Berghoef and DeKoster, p. 196.
8 http://www.diaconalministries.com/diaconalministry/diaconalconference.htm, January 1, 2010.
9 DeJong, pp. 106, 230.