Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin. Previous article in this series: March 15, 2005, p. 278.
The Christian, godly care of the poor is the fundamental work of deacons in the church of Jesus Christ. To guide deacons of Reformed churches in doing this work, the Church Order approved by the Synod of Dordrecht (1618-1619) spells out the work of deacons in three articles—25, 26, and 83.
With one exception, we have explained fully the requirements of Article 25. That exception, to be treated later if the Lord wills, is the requirement that deacons render an account of their work to the consistory. We have seen that deacons must gather the alms, evaluate the needs of the poor, distribute the alms, and visit and comfort the distressed. We have also argued that deacons must show their Christian, godly care not only to the poor within their congregation, but also to Christian poor of other congregations, and to unbelieving poor of whose need the deacons become aware.
Several points in Article 26 remain to be treated, although we have already touched on this point, that diaconates must assist and consult with each other.
For the moment, we examine Article 83, which reads: “Furthermore, to the poor, removing for sufficient reasons, so much money for traveling shall be given by the deacons as they deem adequate. The consistory and deacons shall, however, see to it that they be not too much inclined to relieve their churches of the poor, with whom they would without necessity burden other churches.”1
The Synod of Dordrecht did not adopt Article 83 as worded above. The original wording, translated into English, is this: “Furthermore, the poor, leaving for sufficient reasons, shall be given help from the deacons, according to discretion, provided that there is notification on the back of their attestation [papers] of the places where they intend to go and the help which one shall have given them.”2
Knowing the historical context in which this article was written will explain the original wording of the article.
In the early days of the Reformed churches, many Reformed believers fled their homes because of persecution, or left to look for work in other areas. These sought and received food, shelter, and money from Reformed diaconates in the communities through which they journeyed. As often happens, lazy people in the community heard of the possibility of free handouts and pretended to be Reformed believers in need of help.
To discourage these lazy people from asking for help, and better to help those who were truly Reformed and truly needy, the Synod of Emden in 1571 made provision for traveling Reformed believers to carry attestations, or certificates, which “should indicate the full name of the holder, his native country, trade, reason for moving, time spent in the Church giving the attestation, conduct, date of departure, destination, etc.”3 Such attestations were given only to those who, in their consistory’s judgment, had good reason to move. Those not producing such an attestation would not receive help from Reformed diaconates. Those who did have such attestations could receive enough money to care for them while they were in that city, and enough money to bring them to the next Reformed church on their journey. When finally they reached their destination, the Reformed church of that city would destroy the attestation.
In light of the different times and circumstances in which we live, two changes have been made to the article’s original wording. First, the reference to attestations has been removed. Second, a warning to consistories and deacons was added, reminding them not to be eager to relieve themselves of their poor. These changes were made by the Reformed churches in the Netherlands in 1905, and by the Christian Reformed Church in North America in 1914—which change the Protestant Reformed Churches retained when they began in 1924.4
Article 83 regulates the deacons’ activity toward the poor who move away from the congregation of which they are members. When this happens, the deacons are to provide those poor with enough money as the deacons consider sufficient.
Notice, first, that this applies to those who are poor. The article does not suggest that anyone who moves away from the congregation may ask the deacons for monetary support. Only the poor may do so. In this particular instance, we may define the poor as those who have been dependent on the deacons for financial help for some time. In other words, the article is not speaking to the case of one who has never needed diaconal help before, but now decides that the costs of his move are so great that he needs help.
Secondly, the article applies only to those poor who move for sufficient reasons. Not the poor man moving, but the deacons, are permitted to make the judgment whether these reasons are sufficient. In making this decision, the deacons are permitted to ask whether the church that the family plans to join is a true manifestation of the body of Christ. If the family relocates to a place in which there is no soundly Reformed church, the deacons may refuse to help. Rev. G. VandenBerg writes in this connection:
Also here the deacons must remember that the spiritual supersedes the material. It could certainly not be judged a sufficient reason to remove from the church if one simply could advance economic reasons. A man could conceivably want to go to a place where there is no manifestation of the true church but where he could obtain a job. He would then deprive himself and his family of the means of grace…. But it is better to starve or be poor with the people of God than to possess the riches of this world without God.5
This is not to say that a better paying job would always be an insufficient reason to move. It might be a very good reason, particularly considering the family’s current poverty. But it must not place one’s spiritual life in jeopardy.
My intent, however, is not to give a list of reasons that deacons might consider sufficient in this instance. They, with sanctified wisdom from God, will be able to make that decision on the basis of their knowledge of every individual case.
Thirdly, in such an instance the deacons are to give the poor enough money for traveling as they think adequate. The deacons will follow the principles of Article 25 of the Church Order in determining what amount is adequate. But Article 83 is very specific as to the purpose for which the money may be used: traveling. The deacons are not to give money for travel and enough money to support the family for a month after reaching their destination, but are to give just enough for travel. The implication is that, upon arriving at one’s destination, the poor will join a true church of Jesus Christ, and, if need be, seek help from the deacons of that church.
Having explained the various requirements of the article, we note that our deacons seldom face this circumstance today. Partly this is due to the affluent age in which we live, which means that our churches do not have many poor; and partly to the fact that few poor make the choice to move.
But the article is not irrelevant. Though seldom, deacons are confronted with such cases at times. And very possibly, deacons will face such circumstances even more in the future. Before Christ comes, His church on earth will endure such tribulation as she has never before endured (Matt. 24:10). The time may again come when many Reformed Christians flee their homes because of persecution, and the requirements of this article must be implemented often.
Even more, this article is important because of other principles that lie behind it. None of these principles are new to us; but the article does reinforce them.
One principle is that the church must care for her poor. This is so obvious, and has been defended sufficiently in past articles, that for now we simply state it.
Another is that the church must care for her poor in all circumstances. Poor families, poor widows, poor sick, and also the poor who move for sufficient reason, must be cared for. It is conceivable that deacons say they will care for the poor only in certain circumstances of poverty—but Scripture and the Church Order do not allow that thinking.
A third is that the church must be discerning in her care for the poor. That is, she must care for those who are truly poor, those of whom she is convinced that they need financial assistance. The article allows the deacons to make determinations in this matter.
Yet another principle is that the deacons are permitted to treat the poor of their own congregation differently than the poor outside their congregation. In light of the subject matter of our last two articles, that the deacons must assist other congregations in caring for their poor, and must care for some of the unbelieving poor in the community, it is now worth observing that the deacons must care for the poor in the congregation to an even greater extent than the poor outside the congregation. Article 83 applies only to Reformed believers, members of a certain congregation, who are in need. It does not permit the deacons to pay for travel of poor outside the congregation.
A fifth principle is that deacons may limit the amount of help they give even to those within the congregation. Perhaps some who have sought diaconal help have wished that the deacons would have given more than they did. Surely deacons must not be stingy. But neither ought those who receive assistance have the attitude, “If I ask the deacons for money, they should give me as much as I want.” By stating for what cause the deacons are permitted to give (that is, for travel), this article shows such an attitude to be wrong.
If the article contains important principles for diaconal work, so does the warning added to it: “The consistory and the deacons shall, however, see to it that they be not too much inclined to relieve their churches of the poor, with whom they would without necessity burden other churches.”
A congregation, its consistory, and its diaconate are all capable of having a wrong attitude toward the poor, or toward its funds. Toward the poor, this attitude might be: “They are a nuisance.” Or, “We have so many of them, a few less would be nice.” And toward its funds, the attitude might be one of stinginess, or a desire to amass church wealth, and therefore a sense of reluctance when the funds of the church must be given to the poor.
The first principle underscored by this warning, therefore, is that the church must have a right view of her poor and of giving for their relief. The poor are a blessing, and to give for their relief is a blessing! Jesus reminded us that the church will always have the poor with her (Matt. 26:11), and that in the way of giving for their relief, and being His disciples, we will have treasure in heaven (Matt. 19:21). Paul also taught that the sacrifice required of us in caring for the poor is small in comparison to Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf—and that, in gratitude for the salvation Christ bestows upon us, we must give willingly for the needs of others (II Cor. 8).
A second principle is that deacons must never suggest that the poor move away from their congregation. Of course, the deacons will rejoice in a godly, spiritual way when they hear that a family that had relied on them for help needed that help no longer. But that godly rejoicing is far different from a sigh of relief that they need not deal with a particular benevolent case any longer. Nothing that the deacons do must ever suggest that they would breathe such a sigh of relief if the poor moved.
By implication, deacons must be very slow even to suggest ways in which the poor could improve their financial standing. Deacons must not quickly tell the poor to get another job, for example. They must never tell the poor such, if the deacons’ motive is to relieve themselves of the responsibility of caring for this individual or family. The deacons ought to limit their advice on personal matters to giving scriptural admonitions and instructions when the family is using its resources sinfully.
Finally, notice that the warning is also directed against consistories. The elders have oversight of the deacons. Consistories must never encourage diaconates to take a wrong attitude or approach in this matter; in fact, consistories whose diaconates are busy must warn their diaconates against this attitude, and must encourage their deacons in their good work. And if the deacons’ attitude is not right, the elders must rebuke the deacons for it.
Being graciously guided by these principles, congregations, diaconates, and the poor alike will experience the blessing of God!
1.The Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches, 2002 edition, p. 31.
2.The translation is that of David Engelsma, translated from the Dutch as it is found in J. DeJong, Verklaring van de Kerkenordening van de Nationale Synode van Dordrecht van 1618-1619 (Rotterdam, 1918), p. 146.
3.Idzerd VanDellen and Martin Monsma, The Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing Co, 1941), p. 339.
4.VanDellen and Monsma, p. 339.
5.Gerald VandenBerg, Standard Bearer, vol. 40, p. 20.