Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin.
The first aspect of the fundamental work of the deacons is that of collecting the alms. This must be first in priority, as well as in time, for immediate needs must be immediately relieved. They must be relieved immediately, partly because of their urgency. Such needs must also be relieved immediately as a picture of how our Savior supplies our needs. Our Heavenly Father always gives us our immediate needs immediately. Trusting He will do this, we pray: “Give us this day our daily bread.” And when we seek the blessings of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, He never sends us away empty, telling us that His storehouse of blessing is empty, but He always has abundance of blessing to bestow upon us. So the deacons must collect the alms, to have in hand the means to relieve the needy when the needy seek it.
After those alms have been collected, however, the next step is not simply to disburse them, but to determine need. This work involves determining who is genuinely needy, and exactly what that need is. Conscientious deacons will not quickly pass over this aspect of their work but will carry it out carefully.
Although those documents that speak of the duties of deacons in Reformed churches do not specifically require the deacons to determine need, they do clearly imply that this is part of the deacons’ work. For instance, the Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons speaks of two fundamental duties of the deacons: first, to collect and preserve the alms, and second, to distribute them. But in explaining that second duty, the Form indicates that the deacons must have “discretion and prudence to bestow the alms only on objects of charity.” In the exhortation to the deacons after they have made their vows, the minister must tell the deacons to “provide for the true widows and orphans” (emphasis mine, DJK). True widows, in this sense, are not simply women whose husbands have died, and true orphans are not merely those without parents; but true widows and true orphans are those widows and orphans who are poor and in genuine need of the mercies of Christ. Furthermore, the Church Order, Article 25, requires deacons to distribute the alms to the poor “as their needs may require it.” Finally, the Belgic Confession, Article 30, speaks of the need to relieve the poor and distressed, “according to their necessities.” These phrases imply that the deacons must first determine need, before distributing the alms.
The necessity of determining need is clearly based on scriptural principles.
In the early New Testament church, the saints who sold their possessions distributed their wealth to others, “as every man had need” (Acts 2:45; cf. also Acts 4:35). Soon afterwards, the first deacons were appointed to care for the material needs specifically of the Grecian widows (Acts 6:1ff.). It was clear to the apostles that these widows had genuine need.
The inspired apostle Paul says to Timothy (I Tim. 5:16): “If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed.” The elders, and especially the deacons, whom Timothy ordains in the church at Ephesus are to care for the poor in their midst. In determining who has true need, the deacons are to investigate whether the needy have other means of relief.
Why must the need of a family or individual be determined before alms are distributed?
First, need must be determined because God calls the deacons to be good stewards. To the deacons are entrusted the alms that are given to relieve the poor and needy. These alms must not be squandered or misused by the deacons. The deacons must remember that they will answer to God someday for how they did their work. And God commands them to serve the poor and needy.
Need must be determined, secondly, as a reminder to God’s people that the deacons do not simply hand out money to anyone who seeks it. Those who are truly needy must not hesitate to come, thinking that by seeking money they will be a burden on the church; nor must they be ashamed to come—ashamed that they have been brought so low as to need the deacons. However, the church certainly does not encourage who have the means and ability to provide for themselves those to come to the deacons.
Finally, need must be determined so that the needs of those who are truly needy are fully satisfied. The goal of determining need is not only to use the money wisely, but also to be sure that the needs of the poor are fully met. For while one might overstate his need because he is lazy or afraid of not having enough, another might understate his need, trying to be frugal, and to appear very humble. The deacons must determine genuine need, and supply that need in full, whether it be greater or less than the amount requested by the members of the congregation.
Determining this need in a particular instance is not always an easy task.
The fact that we live in such an affluent and materialistic society makes the task difficult. Not easily answered, and the source of much debate, is the question: “What constitutes legitimate need for a person living in a modern country in the twenty-first century?”
Those needing assistance from the deacons can make the task difficult. To determine proper need, the deacons must ask questions of those in need of help, and those needing help must be ready to answer the questions honestly.
The circumstances unique to an individual case can make the task difficult. No two cases are alike. The case of a destitute widow with no family to help her must certainly be dealt with differently than that of a previously successful business man who has now fallen on hard times. The most experienced deacon surely finds that, while his experience helps him greatly in his work, he still does not have an answer to every question that arises.
In determining need, deacons must pay attention to at least three factors.
The first factor is that of the family’s immediate financial situation. The sum total of money the family has on hand must be determined, as well as the sum total of bills that are due or past due. The deacons need not require of a family that all its investments be completely depleted, and even less that all its assets be liquidated, before they give them aid; but the deacons may take into account the value of investments and assets in determining the family’s need.
The second factor is that of the family’s more general financial situation. This includes the issue of whether the total family income is sufficient for the family’s legitimate needs. Most would surely agree that the legitimate needs of a family living in America include the means to support kingdom causes (putting money in the collection plates, and paying Christian school tuition); to pay taxes; to provide for one’s needs of food, clothing, shelter, and medicine; and to provide for the family’s utility and transportation needs. In other words, even though one might argue that many of today’s “needs” are actually luxuries, no Christian family living in a modern culture should be expected, before coming to the deacons for help, to sacrifice the basic earthly comforts that their Christian brothers and sisters enjoy. Nor must the family be required, before being helped, to work harder to provide for its own needs, if the head of the family is already being diligent in this regard. To require mothers to work instead of mothering their children, or to require fathers to work two or three jobs, with the result that they cannot function well as fathers and heads of their homes, is not in keeping with biblical principles.
At the same time, those seeking benevolence must be prepared to demonstrate their need. They must demonstrate that they are diligent in working to provide for the needs of the family. They must demonstrate that their needs are proper. Certainly one who seeks diaconal help ought not claim as “needs” those things that are luxurious and extravagant, not even by using the argument that he “needs” them for his emotional health. Those seeking the help of the deacons must be ready to demonstrate that their priorities are right, that they are living within their means to the best of their ability, that they endeavor to live as pilgrims and strangers on this earth, and that they know their true riches to be spiritual.
The third factor is that of what other resources are available to the family—particularly whether or not their extended family is able to help them, and if so, to what degree. I Timothy 5:16 clearly permits—even requires—the deacons to consider this factor in determining need. The principle is that the near relatives of the needy person show their love and care by being the first to help him, enabling the church better to help those who have no family, or whose family is unable to help.
In suggesting these factors, I give only the basic starting point for deacons to use in determining need. These three factors might not have equal weight in any given instance. In the case of a family with large medical bills because of a recent hospitalization, the first factor might weigh more heavily than the second. In the case of a family who chronically seeks the help of the deacons, the second might weigh more heavily than the first.
What if the head of the family is unwilling frankly to discuss his needs with the deacons? Peter Y. DeJong insists on the right of the deacons to refuse help in such an instance:
After all, they [the deacons, DJK] are not dealing with the needy in their own right but come in obedience to the mandate of Christ and clothed with His authority. Those therefore who refuse to discuss their need with them honestly forfeit all right of assistance. In most of these instances it will become evident that assistance is not needed. However, if it can be shown that the family is actually suffering hardship, then the deacons in spite of the lack of proper cooperation may feel obligated to extend some help.1
To determine need rightly requires the deacons to do this work with a proper attitude.
A proper attitude is one of compassion. After all, the deacons represent Christ, who showed compassion on the hungry (Matt. 15:32). And John said that the child of God manifests the love of God by opening up his “bowels of compassion” to the brother that has need (I John 3:17). So must the deacons have and show compassion. Their genuine desire must be to relieve the needs of the needy, and they must manifest that to be their desire in how they determine need.
An attitude of compassion will naturally be accompanied by a gracious attitude. Christ, in pity for us and to show compassion, bestowed grace on us by delivering us from our spiritual poverty (II Cor. 8:9). So must the deacons manifest favor to those in need.
How will such an attitude be manifest in determining need?
First, the deacons will not be overly critical in doing their work. Certainly the deacons must make judgments regarding the family’s need, and perhaps even regarding how the family uses its money. But they must be careful not to pass judgment on every aspect of the family’s financial dealings in such a way as to convey the impression that, if the deacon himself were in that family’s circumstances, he would have been able to get by without needing any help.
Second, in determining need, the deacons will be ready to hear from the family why they consider certain things to be needs. What one might consider a necessity, another might consider a luxury. The deacons might have to tell people,
sometimes, that what they think they need, they do not really need. But the deacons should not do so before hearing from the person seeking help the reason why he considers himself to need this or that.
Third, the deacons will not pry into the family’s financial matters any further than they think is necessary to determine genuine need. While the family must be ready to discuss their needs, the deacons must not think that every instance of benevolence requires a detailed investigation into how the family uses its money.
Fourth, the deacons will, upon having determined need, be ready to supply that need in full, even if that means giving more than was requested.
Finally, the deacons will keep the matter confidential. Not only the details of the family’s financial affairs, but even which families are being worked with, is not a matter for public discussion, or even private discussion with one’s wife.
Such an attitude will encourage those whose needs are genuine to seek out the mercies of Christ. Nothing scares the people of God away from coming to Christ’s officebearers more than the fear that they will not be treated as Christ would treat them! God encourages His people to come boldly to His throne, in order to obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:16). This encouragement is based on the fact that Jesus Christ, our high priest who understands our infirmities, is at God’s right hand (Heb. 4:14ff.). So will God’s people be encouraged to come to the deacons, in knowing that the deacons will work hard to understand their infirmities, and supply their needs with the compassion of Christ our Lord.
When the people come to the deacons with such trust, and when the deacons perform their work with this attitude—what a manifestation of God’s blessing on that church! What a marvelous demonstration of the presence and working of Jesus Christ Himself in her midst! What a token of God’s grace to us sinners!
God grant that deacons in our churches always treat the needy with such grace and compassion.
1.Peter Y. DeJong, The Ministry of Mercy for Today (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1963), pages 145-146.