Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin.
Regarding the duties of the deacons toward the congregation, and especially toward her needy members, we have written much. Now we must examine the congregation’s duty toward her deacons—that of supporting her diaconate.
The support to which we refer is the congregation’s sincere, heartfelt, and grateful giving to the deacons for the care of the poor and needy. Primarily this is done by giving to the benevolent fund, but it can also be done by helping the deacons in any concrete way in which they ask for help with any needy member of the congregation.
To support the deacons in this way is the congregation’s calling. God calls her to do this, and will judge her accordingly.
Specifically whose is this calling, and why?
It is certainly the calling of the congregation as a whole. Reformed churches have always understood it so. Article 25 of the Church Order requires the deacons “diligently to collect alms and other contributions of charity.” To fulfill this calling, the deacons must turn to the congregation. And in the Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons currently used in the Protestant Reformed Churches, and approved by the Synod of Dordt 1618-1619, the exhortation to the whole congregation after the new officebearers are installed includes these words: “Provide the deacons with good means to assist the indigent.”
One does not find in the Scriptures a command so explicit as this: “Church of Jesus Christ, supply your deacons with that which they need to do their work.” Yet Scripture does teach that this is the congregation’s duty, for it makes clear that the church as a whole must care for the poor. When the saints in Jerusalem experienced great poverty, the apostle Paul arranged for the churches in Galatia, Macedonia, and Achaia (in other words, the churches in Asia Minor and in Greece) to take a collection for the saints in Jerusalem. To the church of Corinth (in Achaia), the apostle wrote,
Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye. Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay in store as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come
One reason why the church must support her deacons, then, is that God instituted the office of deacon to be the means by which the whole congregation cares for the poor. The diaconate is not merely a society of the church, whose members give of their own time to show their special regard for the poor. Rather, as an office in the church, the diaconate has a divine mandate to care for the poor, and divine authority to carry out that mandate. In giving the office of deacon to the church, God lays upon the whole congregation the duty to care for her poor, in the way of supporting her deacons.
There is more to the reason.
The church must support her deacons in gratitude to God for the great spiritual riches and grace He has bestowed on her in Jesus Christ our Lord. To earn these riches and bestow them upon us, Christ, who was rich (that is, who enjoyed the glory of the Godhead and fellowship with the Father in heaven) became poor (that is, became man, suffered, and died), as we read in II Corinthians 8:9:
For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich.
If the spiritual riches of the whole congregation required the poverty of our Lord, we must give of our riches for the relief of the poor. Gratitude demands it.
Also love demands it. Dwelling in His church by His Word and Spirit, Jesus works in her true love for God and the neighbor, including the poor neighbor. This love motivates the church to give to her deacons, to support the poor in her midst. So the apostle said to the Corinthians, as he reminded them of their obligation: “I speak…to prove the sincerity of your love” (II Cor. 8:8).
The church must always remember this to be her calling, lest she forget it or simply ignore it. That she is in danger of forgetting and ignoring it, the situation in the church in Corinth underscores. In his first epistle, the apostle had told her to take these collections (II Cor. 16:1); in his second epistle, he states that he had told others of the zeal of the Corinthian church for this cause (II Cor. 9:2); yet he sends a delegation with his epistle, personally to see to it that the Corinthians were doing so. We read inII Corinthians 9:3-4:
Yet have I sent the brethren, lest our boasting of you should be in vain in this behalf; that, as I said, ye may be ready: Lest haply if they of Macedonia come with me, and find you unprepared, we (that we say not, ye) should be ashamed in this same confident boasting.
Apparently the apostle had reason to think that the saints in Corinth were not fulfilling their pledge.
The church always faces this danger. We think of other ways in which the poor can get support, so that we need not support them; or we think of other things we can do with our money than support the poor—such as build bigger buildings. (Nothing wrong with this in itself, of course—but notat the expense of the poor).
God requires the church to care for her own poor, by supporting her diaconate.
If the support of the diaconate is the duty of the church as a whole, it is certainly the responsibility of every member of the congregation.
This too is confessional. Lord’s Day 38 of the Heidelberg Catechism explains the fourth commandment as requiring the individual child of God
especially on the sabbath, that is, on the day of rest, diligently [to] frequent the church of God, to hear His word, to use the sacraments, publicly to call upon the Lord, and contribute to the relief of the poor, as becomes a Christian.
And this is explicitly biblical. Not only is Lord’s Day 38 an explanation of the fourth commandment, which clearly regulates the life of every member of Christ’s church, but the Scriptures also make clear that every child of God must care for the poor.
In the Old Testament, Israel (the church of that day) was commanded to care for the poor; but because no diaconate existed to facilitate the work, God’s command was that every individual Israelite show his care for the poor in his area, or the poor who came to him (Lev. 23:22; Deut. 15:7-11; and Deut. 24:12-15). So we read of godly men such as Boaz (Ruth 2), Job (Job 31:16-22 and other places), and David (Ps. 41:1) showing a genuine concern for the poor.
In the New Testament, the responsibility to care for the poor still falls to every member of the church. God’s Word through Paul to the Corinthians underscores this, for he said in I Corinthians 16:2: “Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store…”; and in II Corinthians 9:7, speaking of the same giving for the poor, he says to the church as a whole, “Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give.” The italicized words clearly indicate that no member of the congregation may consider himself exempt from this duty.
The reasons why every member of the congregation is obligated to care for the poor are the same as those given above, why the whole church must care for her poor. Salvation, the gratitude that flows from it, and the love that it works in us, are given to every individual child of God!
But how necessary that each of us be reminded of this obligation.
How easy for me to suppose that, because my congregation has enough others who will give to that cause, I personally need not do so! Or, how quickly I might even suppose that, because I do not have so much disposable income myself, I am exempt from this obligation!
I must be reminded that it is not so.
God does know that some are unable to give much for this cause because they themselves are poor. So every one is directed to lay in store “as God hath prospered him” (I Cor. 16:2). But to contribute in some way, each is called of God.
Not to be overlooked is the command that comes to the rich in the congregation, to care for the poor.
Paul tells Timothy, “Charge them that are rich in this world…that they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate” (I Tim. 6:17-18). The last two phrases, “ready to distribute” and “willing to communicate” particularly refer to the calling of the rich to share their wealth with the poor. The exhortation to the congregation in our Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons includes this charge: “Be charitable, ye rich, give liberally, and contribute willingly.” And the prayer at the end of the form includes this petition: “give also unto the rich liberal hearts toward the poor.”
Obeying this command, the rich follow the example of the rich Zacchaeus, who said—not boasting in what he did, but expressing his love for God’s law—”Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor” (Luke 19:8).
Why are the rich particularly addressed?
Not because the support of the poor falls to them only, as we have seen. But, first, because the rich have been prospered much, and so must give in abundance.
Second, because the rich are the more prone to despise the poor and not share their wealth. In other words, just as the congregation as a whole needed the admonition, and just as every individual needs the reminder, so the rich must be enjoined to care for their poor brethren.
That the rich are least likely to care for the poor might seem ironic. Yet it is not only the experience of many, but the teaching of Scripture too.
When the rich young ruler, having kept the whole law from his youth up, was told that he should sell all his goods, give to the poor, and follow Jesus, “he was very sorrowful: for he was very rich” (Luke 18:23). He loved his riches.
James writes of the rich who oppress the poor, bring the poor before judgment seats (referring to the rich bringing the poor to the judge, because the poor owe the rich money), and blaspheme the worthy name of Christ by which the poor are called (James 2:6-7). James tells them that in the last days the wages of their laborers will testify against them—for the rich kept back part of the wages of their employees by fraud (James 5:4).
The explanation for this treatment of the poor by the rich is the deceitfulness of riches—riches promise to give true happiness. Believing this lie, the rich become selfish, and turn their eyes from the plight of the poor, as the rich man did to Lazarus in Jesus’ parable (Luke 16:19ff.). They love their money, and are snared and drowned in destruction and perdition, as the apostle said would happen (I Tim. 6:9-10).
We have been speaking, however, of the rich as they are by nature. By grace, the rich are far different. God does save some—many—who are rich. The wonder of grace that God works in the rich when He saves them has this effect, that they become mindful of the poor! Whereas by nature they despised the poor and treated them ill, loving their own riches, by grace the rich love the poor and seek their good, realizing that the riches of this world are gifts from God to be used in His service, and that the true riches are heavenly and spiritual.
That congregation is blessed, whose rich think and act this way. The poor of that congregation will not suffer lack. The deacons of that congregation will have the means they need to do their work.
Therefore, ye rich, “be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate.” This is your calling from God!
I am convinced that this calling to the rich comes to each mature member of the church of Jesus Christ in North America in the year 2008. Each member, anyway, who has a job, who is able to provide his family with the necessities of life, must consider himself rich.
I realize that even among us some have a difficult time “making ends meet,” and so are called “poor.” By putting the word in quotation marks, I do not mean to scoff at the fact, minimize it, or suggest that I don’t believe such people have real financial struggles. Rather, my point is that, according to the standards of society, some of us are poor. This is why the deacons in our affluent society still have work to do among our own members!
And yet, we are all rich. Society’s affluence, the abundance of our own possessions, our relative ease in supplying the necessities of life (especially when compared with ages past), and the fact that our financial struggles are usually due to our attempt to have as many of life’s luxuries as we want—all testify to us that we are, in fact, rich.
And all of us are members of Christ’s church.
So all of us are called to be mindful of the poor. All of us are to give, as we have been prospered.
Support your deacons, then! Be a Boaz, a Job, a David, a Zacchaeus, in the year 2008!
And God will note your gratitude and obedience in His book of remembrance!