Previous article in this series: May 15, 2006, p. 376.
All good things, this side of the grave and the renewed creation, must come to an end. So must this in-depth treatment of the office of deacon. I expect this to be my last article on the subject. God willing, we will turn our attention next to the office of elder—although perhaps not treating that subject as thoroughly as we have this one.
A brief review
Over the past twelve years we have examined a number of subjects pertaining to the office of deacon—its history, basis, and nature; the qualifications of deacons; and the principles governing the election and installation of deacons. Then we turned our attention to various aspects of their work—their fundamental work in the caring for the poor, their care of the non-poor Christians, and the prophetic aspect of their work. After that, we covered the subject of deacons’ meetings, and the relationship of the deacons to the consistory. Then we turned to the more practical matters of preparing for the office of deacon, and the role of the congregation in supporting her diaconate. We concluded by examining the matter of women assisting the deacons, particularly in their care of the non-poor Christians, and the matter of deacons’ conferences.
In writing these articles I had several overall goals.
One was to present the teachings of Scripture and our confessions on this subject, as Reformed churches have historically understood and implemented these teachings. Especially this was for the benefit of the deacons, so that they would better know what their work entailed.
A second was to impress on the church as a whole the necessity of having deacons who know their fundamental work and take it seriously. We must rejoice that God has preserved in our midst such deacons, in a day and age in which many churches have a wrong understanding of what a deacon is, or in which the elders and the people let the deacons become virtually redundant because they will not seek the mercies of Christ, preferring instead the cruel tender mercies of the government (Prov. 12:10). In a day and age in which apostasy will continue to develop, and in which Protestant Reformed Churches too will have to fight against spiritual decline, we do well to remember what a blessing this is.
Yet a third goal was to help us—church and deacons— develop in our understanding of the work of the diaconate, and to suggest ways in which our deacons could do yet more to carry out their work of benevolence and mercy in Christ’s church. With this goal in mind, I developed the subject of the diaconal care of non-poor Christians, concluding it with a modest proposal for a Protestant Reformed retirement home. I also intended the articles regarding the prophetic aspect of the work of the deacons to serve this purpose, as well as the more recent series on women assisting the deacons. And in this article…well, read on and find out.
The broad and difficult work of the diaconate
In accomplishing these goals, we have seen that the work of the diaconate is both broad and, at times, difficult.
Their work is broad because it includes the care of the poor and needy in the church of Jesus Christ, as well as the care of those poor and needy outside the church of Christ who seek that help.
It is broad also because the needs of God’s people are varied. Some need money; others need help in other ways. It is the calling of the deacons both to assess need, and to be sure the resources exist to supply all legitimate needs.
It is broad because God’s people need not only earthly gifts, but also spiritual gifts. The deacons must therefore bring both money or other resources and comfortable words from Scripture and prayer.
Nor is the work easy. At times, and in certain cases, it might be easy—those cases in which the need of the saints is clearly evident, in which the saints cooperate with the deacons in their investigation, and in which the saints receive the earthly gifts and spiritual gifts with joy and gratitude to God. However, not all cases are like that. The deacons deal with sinners who hinder them from doing their real work. They come in contact with the covetous, whose earthly needs are more imagined than real. They must visit those who desire earthly gifts, but not the Word.
And, in times of widespread economic distress, it is not an easy task to ensure that sufficient means exist to care for all the poor and needy.
Deacons, use your office well!
The burden of this last article is to encourage all of you who are deacons to use your office well—that is, to be diligent and faithful in your labors!
For a number of reasons, I think it good to leave you with this encouragement.
First, there is the reality of human nature that if we find a job to be difficult, and know that we might soon be relieved of the job anyway, we are tempted not to pour into that work the energy that it requires of us. Term limits for elders and deacons, as we have them in the PRC, have their benefits. One possible drawback, however, is that if we become discouraged with the work, we simply wait out the rest of our term. Against this we must be on guard.
Second, the deacons must always remember that they function with authority. Jesus Christ has given you authority to carry out your labors in the care of the poor and needy on His behalf. This is a reason to believe that God uses you, and will equip you (in fact, already has equipped you) to do the work to which He has called you.
But third—and this is the most important reason to encourage you—the work of the diaconate will continue to be undermined and opposed. This is due in part to the increasing individualism of our society, in which people will not always admit their need for help, or, if they seek help, will not seek it from the right source. This is also due in part to apostasy. Falling away in areas of doctrine always affects the church’s life as well. It is no surprise, therefore, that in apostate churches, if an office of deacons exists, it does not at all resemble the office as Scripture speaks of it. And in this day in which the government increasingly takes care of the earthly needs of its citizens (note the passing of the recent health care reform bill as development of this), even church-goers might think it redundant for the church to give help as well.
So, deacons: use your office well, and do the work assigned you by Christ!
Elders, encourage and enable the deacons to do their work!
Encouragement must be given as much to the elders as to the deacons. For, as the overseers and rulers of the congregation, it falls to the elders to see that the deacons are doing their work.
How the elders are to watch over the deacons is not my concern for the moment. My concern is that the elders take the time to encourage the deacons to do their work, and to enable them to do their work.
Particularly, my concern is that the elders do all in their power to prevent the deacons as a body from being sidetracked from their real work.
It has happened, and still does happen, that the diaconate gets assigned tasks that do not belong to their office. Let me be clear here: I am not taking issue with the fact that an individual deacon might, in addition to being a deacon, serve another function in the church. But elders should avoid assigning to the diaconate as a body any tasks that do not pertain to their work of benevolence and mercy, so that the deacons can focus on their God-given work.
One application of this is that we ought not view our deacons as the financial committee of the council. Preparing the annual budget, drawing up the collection schedule, and counting all collections other than those for benevolence is the work of the council as a whole—elders and deacons together. These tasks should be done by committees of the council, consisting of one or more elders as well as one or more deacons. Or, if the council finds itself too busy for this work, it can even appoint a committee of non-officebearers to serve in this way, as we often do when appointing a building committee, made up mostly of non-officebearers, which answers to the council.
Some of our diaconates begin their monthly meetings by counting the General Fund collections for the past month. After counting and recording the offerings, they might spend time reviewing the General Fund ledger, and discussing what to do with those who are delinquent in paying their budget but have indicated that they have no benevolent needs. Possibly an hour or more is spent on this task—and yet this is not their fundamental work.
And why is it that the deacons have to pass out candy and fruit at the Christmas program? That the deaconshave to set up for the church picnic, or serve the ice cream? That the deacons distribute the handouts after church on behalf of the council? Not every church asks the deacons to do these things; in fact, very likely most churches do not. But it is possible that in some other way, your congregation asks or expects the deacons as a body to do some task that is not part of the work of mercy.
We do well to change these things, so that the deacons can keep the focus of their meetings on the real work to which they are called. And the ones to take the lead in such change are the elders, who have the oversight of the deacons, and who therefore must see that the deacons are doing the work that God has assigned them.
Congregation, encourage and enable the deacons to do their work!
All members of the church of Jesus Christ also have a calling in this regard. Although in past articles this calling has been pointed out, I take the opportunity to remind the members of it.
Enabling the deacons to do their work involves supplying them with the necessary gifts with which they can carry out their work—that is, giving for the cause of benevolence, and being ready to serve in other ways, according to need and ability.
Enabling the deacons to do their work means that, when one is truly in need, one comes readily to the deacons for help, and cooperates with the deacons as they investigate the need.
And enabling the deacons to do their work means for the congregation that it also understands what the real work of the deacons is, and desires that they attend to that work without distraction.
The congregation encourages the deacons in their work by praying for them, and by conveying to the deacons that it consciously enjoys blessing in the way of their faithful labors.
Encouragement for deacons in the work
Some years ago already we examined the passage that speaks of the reward of grace that God gives to faithful deacons: “For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus” (I Tim. 3:13). This text is God’s own encouragement to deacons in their work, and an incentive for deacons to do their work well.
The encouragement is that God notes your faithful labors in His service, and will reward you accordingly. Of course, the reward is earned by Christ. It is a reward of grace. But it is graciously promised to faithful deacons.
The encouragement is that the power to such faithful service is found in our only High Priest, and our Merciful Deacon, Jesus Christ. His service to the church is the example for all to follow (Matt. 20:27-28). But it is not only an example; by His death and resurrection He shows that He possesses the power to serve well, and bestows that power on His people by His Spirit. In particular and special measure, He gives that power to deacons.
So use your office well! Make manifest to the people that the exalted Jesus Christ lives and dwells with us, and continually ministers to our needs!
And congregations, rejoice in this gift of God to His church: faithful deacons, servants of Christ and of His church’s needy.