We have finished our discussion of the whole question of women in the office of deacons, and must now finish our discussion of this office which Christ has instituted in the Church. It is not my purpose to discuss the office of deacons fully. If you are interested in a much fuller discussion of the office, or if you wish to have your deacons study this office more in detail, I recommend P. Y. De Jong’s book, “The Ministry of Mercy for Today.” Our purpose is more limited: to give some of the more fundamental principles of the office—as we have done in our discussions of the other offices.
Before we make some remarks about the principles of the office of deacons, it might be well to have before our minds what our Church Order and our liturgical forms have to say about the office. Articles 24-26 of the Church Order speak specifically of the work of deacons. These articles read:
The deacons shall be chosen, approved, and installed in the same manner as was stated concerning the elders.—Article 24.
The office peculiar to the deacons is diligently to collect alms and other contributions of charity, and after mutual counsel, faithfully and diligently to distribute the same to the poor as their needs may require it; to visit and comfort the distressed and to exercise care that the alms are not misused; of which they shall render an account in consistory, and also (if anyone desires to be present) to the congregation, at such a time as the consistory may see fit.—Article 25.
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.—Article 26.
Concerning the meetings of deacons, the Church Order says:
The deacons shall meet, wherever necessary, every week to transact the business pertaining to their office, calling upon the Name of God; whereunto the ministers shall take good heed and if necessary they shall be present.—Article 40.
In the Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons we read:
Concerning the deacons: of the origin and institution of their office we may read,
where we find that the apostles themselves did in the beginning serve the poor, “At whose feet was brought the price of the things that were sold: and distribution was made unto every man, according as he had need. But afterwards, when a murmuring arose, because the widows of the Grecians were neglected in the daily ministrations,” men were chosen (by the advice of the apostles) who should make the service of the poor their peculiar business, to the end that the apostles might continually give themselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the Word. And this has been continued from that time forward in the Church, as appears from
where tie apostle, speaking of this office, saith, “he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity.” And
speaking of helps, he means those, who are appointed in the Church to help and assist the poor and indigent in time of need.
From which passage we may easily gather, what the deacon’s office is, namely, that they in the first place collect and preserve with the greatest fidelity and diligence, the alms and goods which are given to the poor: yea, to do their utmost endeavors, that many good means be procured for the relief of the poor.
The second part of this office consists in distribution, wherein are not only required discretion and prudence to bestow the alms only on objects of charity, but also cheerfulness and simplicity to assist the poor with compassion and hearty affection: as the apostle requires,
For which end it is very beneficial, that they do not only administer relief to the poor and indigent with external gifts, but also with comfortable words from Scripture.
In the exhortation addressed to deacons, the following is said:
And, ye deacons, be diligent in collecting the alms, prudent and cheerful in the distribution of the same: assist the oppressed, provide for the true widows and orphans, show liberality unto all men, but especially to the household of faith.
We need not repeat what we said already about the qualifications of deacons, the manner of their call, the origin of their office, and the relationship between their office and the other special offices in the Church.
But it is evident from a consideration of all the material which we find in these passages that the deacons also occupy an office of authority in the Church. They, along with the ministers and elders, possess an authority with which they are clothed by Christ. Also with respect to the deacons, that authority is, first of all, the authority of the officeitself. Every office in the Church (indeed in all of life) is a position of authority. That is the nature of the office. But, in the second place, that authority which is so integral a part of their office is an authority of the Word of the Scriptures. Christ alone has authority in the Church. And that authority is exercised only through the Word of Christ which we find in the Scriptures. No man can exercise the authority of his office whatever it may be except he come with the Scriptures. Only when he speaks what the Scriptures speak does he speak in the name of Christ and does he exercise the authority of Christ. The authority of the office is inseparably connected with the authority of the Word of the Scriptures which he brings.
There is an old prayer found in Reformed liturgy which is the opening prayer for the meeting of Deacons. It reads:
Bestow upon us also the grace we need, not only to relieve want by means of external gifts, but also to instill the comfort of Thy Holy Word in hearts afflicted with misery. Truly, man lives not by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of Thy mouth. We pray, therefore, that Thou wilt bless our ministrations and wilt multiply the bread of the poor, to the end that both they and we may have reasons to praise and thank Thee.—Quoted from The Ministry of Mercy for Today.
Yet, although the office of deacons is also the office of the Word, the deacons are nevertheless called to bring that Word in connection with the peculiar work of their own office. To them is entrusted that noble and glorious task of the care of the poor within God’s Church. And in connection with that work they must bring the Word.
It ought to be remembered by us that it is important to recognize the blessedness which belongs to the Church because of the presence of the poor. We so often have a misconception of this. There are churches which give thanks to God that they have no poor. Apparently the idea of such thanks is that, God’s blessing rests especially upon a congregation where none are poor. This is a sad mistake and exactly the opposite of the true nature of things. Christ informed the disciples at the time when Mary anointed His feet: “The poor ye shall always have with you.” This must not be interpreted to be nothing more than some kind of accurate prophecy; it is rather a promise which the Lord makes. He says: “I personally will see to it that there are always poor in the Church.” And this can only mean that Christ considers it most essential that, for the welfare and spiritual blessedness of the Church, there be always poor in her midst. Without the presence of the poor the church lacks something essential to her full life as a congregation of Jesus Christ. Without the poor there are blessings which Christ gives His Church which that congregation does not receive. If a congregation is to live a full life as the Church of Christ and receive all the blessings of Christ it is essential that she also have poor in her midst.
It is in connection with this work of caring for the poor that the deacons must bring the Word of God. The ministers bring that Word in the preaching and the administration of the sacraments. The elders bring that Word in connection with the rule and discipline of the Church. The deacons bring that Word in connection with the care of the needy.
It stands to reason that there is then going to be a certain overlapping of the work between the offices. We talked about this last time in connection with the whole question of deaconesses, but it is well to emphasize this once again. There are periodically questions which arise in connection with the work of the deacons concerning this matter. Some have said that the work of deacons ought to be so sharply circumscribed that they are limited exclusively to bringing alms to the poor and reading (and perhaps explaining) a pertinent passage of Scripture. If they in any way go beyond this they are trespassing on the office of their fellow elders and ministers. Thus, if they come to a widow who has no immediate needs, they may do nothing but bid her farewell. If they come to a family which is, at the moment, in need, but which is in need because this family fails to live as good stewards of God’s gifts, they may perhaps help in the immediate need, but they may not admonish the family concerning its calling. If there are families which are not paying their budget, they may perhaps inquire concerning whether this failure to pay the budget is because the family is in need, but if they find that this is not the case, they must keep their mouths shut about anything else, and simply go on their way.
We must not take such a narrow view of the office. There may be, in all these cases, specific work for the elders or the minister, but the fact remains that the deacons must bring the Word of God wherever they have the calling to do this.
It is from this point of view that the office of deacons is somewhat more broad than we often conceive of it. In connection with the ministry of mercy, the deacons have a broader calling to visit the widows and orphans not only, but to play a larger role in the ministry of mercy to the sick and afflicted. There is no question about it that this must always be a work in connection with the specific needs of alms which the people of God have; but, if I may use the term, the deacons who are faithful in their office, are much more aggressive than we often think.
I hope all these things help in an understanding of the offices in the Church. It is important that we hold fast to these things in these days when the offices are being relegated to the dustheaps of history. Just because Christ rules in the Church and does all the work in the Church, we must hold to those offices through which Christ is pleased to work. And only then will the blessing of Christ continue to rest upon His Church.
Fraternally in Christ,