Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan.
Having sketched the history and basis of the diaconate, we must now explain in more detail what this office is. Doing this will continue to impress on us that the office is necessary for the church and has a solid basis in Scripture.
The nature of this office is well summarized by this definition of the term “diaconate”: the diaconate is that office in the church of Jesus Christ which is particularly devoted to works of mercy and the care of the church’s poor. But this raises questions: What characterizes an office? What is true of the diaconate by virtue of its being an office? And what makes the office of deacon distinct from that of the other offices in the church? The nature of the diaconate must be explained in more detail.
The diaconate is an office.
An office is a position given by God to men in the sphere of His covenant, in which He authorizes them to serve Him in that sphere. God gave Jesus Christ an office. The name “Christ” indicates that God ordained and anointed Christ to the office of Mediator of the covenant, assigning Him the prophetic, priestly, and kingly work of saving us from sin and bringing us into God’s fellowship. God has also given each believer an office. We all have authority from God to function as prophets, priests, and kings in His service (cf. Lord’s Day 12). Pastors, elders, and deacons hold special offices, being called, ordained, qualified, and thus authorized to serve God by representing Jesus Christ to the church. Each does this in a particular way – the pastor by teaching the truth and praying; the elders by ruling the church; the deacons by caring for those in need.
In general, then, one who holds a special office in the church is given authority by God and Christ to represent Christ as Mediator to God’s church. This authority is manifest by serving the saints and administering spiritual blessings to them. Furthermore, that the officebearer is given authority means that he must answer to God for how he uses it.
Because the diaconate is an office, we must see how all that has just been said is true of the diaconate.
We begin by underscoring that the deacons have authority.
God has given them this authority, having called them to this work and equipped them to do it. He gives authority through the church, which selects men to serve in this office. This does not mean that the church is at liberty to put into the office of deacon any man she desires; rather, God instructs the church, in I Timothy 3:8ff., what kind of men to choose. But possessing the necessary qualifications does not in itself mean that one has been given authority by God. Through the call of the church, God puts into the diaconate those particular men whom He wishes to hold that position.
As a visible proof to the church that these particular men are given authority to hold their office, the church installs these men into office at an official, public worship service, and prays for them (and the elders) that God might
replenish them more and more with such gifts as are necessary for them in their ministration; with the gifts of wisdom, courage, discretion, and benevolence, to the end that every one may, in his respective office, acquit himself as is becoming; … the deacons in carefully receiving, and liberally and prudently distributing of the alms to the poor, and in comforting them with thy holy Word. Give grace both to the elders and deacons, that they may persevere in their faithful labor, and never become weary by reason of any trouble, pain, or persecution of the world. (Form for Ordination of Elders and Deacons, as used in the Protestant Reformed Churches).
The prayer is the church’s acknowledgment that God has called these men to their office. In a similar manner, as visible proof of the authority vested in the first deacons in the New Testament church, the apostles prayed and laid their hands on the seven men chosen for the diaconate (Acts 6:5-6). The significance of the laying on of hands is the same as the significance of our prayer: it shows that the church has set aside these men to the office, and that the church views them as having been given authority from God to function in that office.
At the same time, the men being installed into the diaconate acknowledge that God has authorized them to hold office. The first of three questions put to them at their installation is “whether you do not feel in your hearts, that you are lawfully called of God’s church, and consequently of God Himself, to these your respective holy offices?” To which their answer must be “Yes.”
That the deacons have been given authority of God Himself to do their work must give them zeal for the work and diligence in carrying out the duties of their office.
Deacons must remember that to do this work they are called; lawful calling is implied in the idea of authority. A deacon who is busy with his secular work and with the responsibilities of fatherhood can find that time is at a premium; but the work of the diaconate must not suffer! The work of the diaconate can be hard work, particularly when dealing with a person or family which does not practice good principles of stewardship, and which seems not to heed the Word of God which the deacons bring. In times such as these, let the deacons be encouraged by remembering it is their calling to do this work, for God has given them authority to do it.
Implied in their having authority is that they have the ability to do the work, for God has given to the men whom He has called to the diaconate the gift of His Spirit in special measure to do that work. The deacons must remember this as they bring the Word of God. They have authority to bring that Word and to apply it to the particular situation in which they find a family. They have authority to rebuke and admonish, as well as to encourage and comfort. Bringing the Word, they must not question their effectiveness, but remember that they have done their duty, and that they are but instruments of the Holy Spirit to work spiritual blessings in the hearts of God’s people. At times the people will not well receive the Word of God which the deacons bring, because the Spirit uses God’s Word also to harden. Sometimes the people of God simply do not want to hear God’s Word. Then the deaconsmust still bring it with authority, remembering that to make the people obey it is not within their power.
Many will be the times when deacons, after diligently and authoritatively carrying out their work, will see fruit on their labor. The people will hear it, receive it well, appreciate the time which the deacons took to bring it, and be strengthened by that Word. This is another evidence of the fact that God has given authority to the deacons and uses them for the good of His people.
While the deacons must be conscious of their authority to do the work, they must also guard against three dangers.
The first danger to be guarded against is that of overstepping their authority. When we treat the work of the diaconate in detail, we will better understand how this might happen. Briefly for now, deacons have authority to gather, preserve, and distribute the alms; to visit and care for all those in need; to bring the Word of God and apply it to the needs of the family; even to insist on visiting those who might need benevolence but do not want the deacons’ help; and to teach principles of stewardship to those whose need is due to their own poor stewardship. But the deacons overstep their authority when they make financial or business decisions for the family, for they have then usurped the authority of the head of the home.
The second danger is that the deacon is so impressed with his authority that he neglects to dig into the work, to prepare carefully for his visits, to pray and to study the Word of God so that he can apply it to the needs of the people. This is a danger, of course, not only for deacons, but also for ministers and elders. All who are called to special offices in the church must remember that they have authority to work, and so must busy themselves in their work.
The third danger is that the deacon comes to a member of the church who is in need of spiritual help with a rod, instead of in love and in the spirit of meekness. This also is a danger for pastors and elders. All of us, and deacons also, must remember to deal pastorally with the people, even with those living sinfully. To deal with them we have authority, and we must certainly exercise that authority. But authority must be exercised in love. When one comes with the attitude, “I have authority; and boy, am I going to show it. Do this or else!” one is not viewing his authority rightly. Understanding our authority should make us diligent and zealous, but in a quiet, serving way — never backing down from the truth, never failing to point out the sins of the people, and yet doing so in such a way that they will see we truly care for them.
Elders and pastors must also uphold and respect the deacons’ authority. They uphold it by visiting any who despise the deacons’ authority, who belittle the mercies of Christ by not receiving those mercies in their need, or who belittle the work of the deacons gathering the alms. The deacons also have authority to visit and rebuke such, but if their authority is not heeded, the elders must enforce it by rebuking these people.
They respect it by not too quickly interfering with the work of the deacons. In this connection, the whole question arises regarding the relationship of the deacons to the consistory – a question that cannot now be answered. Suffice it to say that the elders do have spiritual oversight of the deacons. Article 23 of our Church Order gives elders authority “to take heed that … the deacons faithfully discharge their office.” Article 25 requires of deacons that they render an account of their work to the consistory. Article 40 says that the ministers shall be present at deacons’ meetings “if necessary.” Also indicating that the elders have legitimate oversight of the deacons, these questions are asked of the minister and elders in the absence of the deacons at the annual church visitation: “Are the collections counted in the presence of the minister or one or more of the elders?” And “Do they (deacons, DJK) administer the finances wisely, in consultation with the minister and the consistory?” (Emphasis mine, DJK. This latter question could very well refer to the administration of the general finances of the church, but does not thereby exclude reference to the work of benevolence).
However, that the elders have spiritual oversight of the deacons does not mean that they are deacons. It does not mean that the deacons are the elders’ servants in doing this work, and that they must do things exactly as the elders say. Elders must remember this, particularly when an elder visits the deacons’ meetings. The elder is there as an elder, not as a deacon. He ought not speak too quickly. Though he may certainly give his personal advice when asked for it, he ought not be too forceful in speaking his opinion on any issue that the deacons face, not only because he is not a deacon, but also because he must remember that the elders as a body, and not as individuals, have the oversight of the diaconate. He can express his concerns to the diaconate, but they are not binding on the deacons unless the consistory as a whole endorses those concerns.
One finds in the Old Testament a notable instance in which a king (elder) usurped the authority of the priests (deacon) and was judged severely. King Uzziah was smitten with leprosy for burning incense on the altar of incense (II Chron. 26:16-21).
Finally, also the congregation must understand and submit to the authority of the deacons. The congregation, at the time of installation of officebearers, is exhorted to receive “these men (elders as well as deacons, DJK) as the servants of God; … Provide the deacons with good means to assist the indigent. Be charitable, ye rich, give liberally, and contribute willingly. And ye who are in need, look unto God in your need and thank Him, who by His Holy Spirit makes His church willing and able to supply your needs.” Again, the prayer of that form indicates that the congregation needs grace to submit to the deacons’ authority: “Grant also especially thy divine grace to this people over whom they are placed … give unto the rich liberal hearts towards the poor, and to the poor grateful hearts towards those who help and serve them.”
The rich submit to the deacons’ authority by giving for the relief of the poor, and the poor by seeking relief from the deacons when needed. The congregation submits to the deacons’ authority by willingly receiving those deacons who wish to visit with the family. Whether or not the family considers itself in need of benevolence, the head of the family ought never refuse at least to meet with the deacons. The head of a home shows submission to the deacons’ authority by receiving the benevolence which they bring, even if he thinks his family does not need it, or even if in pride he does not really want it. We also show such submission by receiving in love and giving due consideration to their advice regarding our stewardship and handling of finances.
A great danger in the hearts of God’s people is to refuse, in pride, to submit to the authority of the deacons. Often this is manifest in refusing to go to the deacons in our need, thinking that the deacons are the very last resort, and we will do everything possible first to avoid going to the deacons, including having the head of the family work longer hours at the expense of family time, or having the mother in a family in which children are still at home go to work outside the home, with the result that the family suffers. This is refusal to submit to the authority of the deacons.
In the way of honoring their authority, we honor Christ, and God, whom the deacons represent and serve! And we show our gratitude to God for giving the church this office.