Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin. Previous article in this series: June 2006, p. 399.
Scripture indicates that the church through her deacons must care for her sick, aged, widows, orphaned, and others who endure earthly trials, even if such are not poor. Reformed churches in the past have done this. In this article we examine the question how Reformed diaconates today, and particularly those in developed countries such as in the United States and Canada, might implement this practice.
What follows are not rules, but ideas and suggestions. The purpose of this article is to encourage deacons of Reformed churches to face these questions: are we showing compassion and mercy to this group of people in the congregation? and what more could we do to fulfill this aspect of our calling as deacons?
At almost any time in the life of a congregation, God blesses it with some who, although not poor, are still in need of help for other reasons.
The sick and aged often need help with transportation to and from doctors visits, stores, and church. They may need assistance with home health care, legal or financial matters, mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, changing light bulbs, putting batteries in the smoke detectors—the list could go on.
New mothers, or mothers who have physical ailments, may need help with meals, housecleaning, or laundry.
All of the above-mentioned services might be needed by adults who have physical handicaps. And to parent a handicapped or “special needs” child requires a commitment of time and energy that few can imagine. Such parents might need some in the congregation to learn the particular nature of their child, and the specific treatments that the parents give the child, so that they can help the parents with their handicapped child in times of emergency or while the parents take a short break from the full-time care of their child.
Such members of the congregation have needs that are not monetary. Perhaps they could even afford to pay a person to assist them with their household needs, or to hire a taxi for their transportation. Perhaps some medical organization could help them with their home health needs, or some social organization with their handicapped child. Such arrangements are not necessarily wrong. However, the congregation and deacons might consider helping such for at least two reasons: first, to prevent poverty—that is, so that these other arrangements and sources of help do not put a strain on the family’s finances; and second, in order the better to show the love and care of the members of the body for each other.
Many such members of the congregation also have family members to help them. That the family should help its own in need is the teaching of God in I Timothy 5:4: “But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God.” Notice how the text stresses the duty of family members to help needy relatives: first, it teaches that the descendants—children and nephews—are to care for the ancestors. We think of nephews not as descendants, but as extended family. In this text, however, the word “nephews” translates a Greek word that means “descendants,” thus referring to grandchildren. Second, the text teaches that such descendants are to care for their relatives because they are family. The text does not teach that this burden falls only to those descendants who live under the same roof as the needy widow, for the phrase “at home” could better be translated “with respect to one’s own house,” where the word “house” means “family.” The help that the family members must give their needy relatives the text calls a requiting, or a paying back. In earlier years the widow mother gave her time, energy, and possessions for the care of her children; now her children are to give of theirs for her. This they must do in love and gratitude not only to God, but also to their mother and grandmother.
The principle of family helping family the text applies specifically to a widowed mother and her children, or a widowed grandmother and her grandchildren. However, the application can be broadened in at least two ways. First, it can be broadened to apply to one of any relation—whether ancestor or descendant, or a member of an extended family. The family must help its own. Second, it can be broadened to apply to any kind of needy relative. It speaks specifically of the widow, but can be applied to the orphan, the sick, the aged, the handicapped child, etc.
The point, however, is that the widows, aged, sick, and otherwise afflicted members of the congregation might not need any help from the deacons, because they have family members to help them. This is good. But the deacons should investigate to be sure that such is the case, rather than simply assuming it; and the deacons should be ready to help them at any time such need is required.
Other times the congregation informally, or one of the church’s societies, undertakes such tasks. Particularly new mothers are often lavished with meals and baked goods, apart from the deacons making any arrangements for such. Again, this is good. But where it is not happening, the deacons do well to arrange for these things, for the deacons are the official ministers of the mercies of Christ.
The implementing of this practice begins, then, with knowing the needs of the members of the congregation, and knowing whether they have any other sources of help. Each diaconate ought regularly to read through the directory of the congregation, with the questions in mind whether any of the families have particular circumstances that warrant the deacons asking them if they need help in any way.
In one way or another, many Reformed diaconates are doing these things. Many of them visit widows at least annually, sometimes presenting them with a gift basket. Many diaconates draw up a schedule for transporting the elderly to and from church. A committee visits a family in which a member has recently been hospitalized, not only to see if the family needs benevolent help with the medical bills, but also to see if the sick member needs any other hands-on assistance during the recuperation period. Another committee is assigned periodically to monitor the situation with a family or member who has chronic needs.
Christ’s compassion and mercies are thus manifested! And, through the diaconate, the members of the congregation show that they care for Christ, inasmuch as they care for the needs of one of His brethren! For this commitment of the deacons to their work, the church praises God. Happy is the church that has such deacons.
To say that such tasks are the work of the diaconate, however, does not mean that in every instance a deacon or committee of deacons must do the work personally. The deacons may fulfill this part of their work by arranging with others to do it, and by asking these “others” to give a report of their labors to the deacons. In this respect the care of the non-poor differs from the care of the poor themselves, whom the deacons must assist personally.
For various reasons it is good that the deacons be assisted in carrying out this aspect of their work. First, the deacons are not usually able to give such help during the day, when much of it is needed, because the deacons are themselves busy at work. Second, sometimes the needs of a woman are personal, and it would not be appropriate for a deacon to attend to them.
Some Reformed diaconates carry out this work by appointing a committee of members of the congregation to assist them. This committee is made up both of men and women, and every year a part of the committee is replaced. Thus the work does not fall only to a few. The task of this committee is to arrange for the practical, hands-on care of the sick, elderly, shut-ins, and other such members of the congregation. Such a committee functions as a sub-committee of the diaconate. It must limit itself to the mandate that the deacons gave it, and must report regularly to the deacons about the work it is doing.
Other diaconates do not have such a committee; but they are free to ask individual members of the congregation to assist them in dealing with particular individuals in the congregation. For example, the deacons might ask a certain person of the congregation to be personally responsible for transporting an elderly person to and from church. Or the deacons might ask another qualified member to assist someone with certain financial and legal matters. Or the deacons, being aware that one member of the congregation needs medical assistance in the home, ask another member of the congregation who is a nurse to give such help.
Scripture indicates that two sorts of people in the church are particularly able and authorized to assist the deacons in this way. Wives of deacons are one such sort. Apparently this is why God in I Timothy 3:11 prescribes the qualities that a deacon’s wife must possess. Interestingly, no mention is made in Scripture of the qualities necessary for elders’ wives; only for deacons’ wives. The implication is that deacons’ wives must assist their husbands in their work at certain times—thus the wives themselves must be “grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things.”
The other such group is the widows over 60, of whom the inspired apostle writes to Timothy in I Timothy 5:9ff. To them was entrusted some of the care and supervision of those members of the church who were particularly afflicted.
So Scripture permits deacons to make use of others in the church, also of women, to help them care for the needy. Yet the fact that both I Timothy 3:11 and I Timothy 5:9ff. give prescription regarding what kind of woman may help is a caution to deacons to be judicious in soliciting helpers. Not only must these helpers be physically able to do the work that the deacons ask of them, but they must be also spiritually equipped to do the work in love, having charitable hearts, and having control of their tongues so that they not be given to gossip.
Reformed diaconates, discuss and evaluate the ideas and suggestions set forth in this article. See to it, before God, that you are caring for the needy of the congregation. Use what means God has given you, including other godly members of the congregation, to that end. And do it, in the service of Christ, and to the glory of God!