Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin.
Is it proper to speak of the deacons’ work as having aprophetic aspect? Are Gerard Berghoef and Lester De Koster right to devote a page of their book to the subject of “The Deacon As Teacher”?¹
After all, Scripture requires that bishops be “apt to teach” (I Tim. 3:2), but makes no such requirement regarding deacons.
Scripture further indicates that in the New Testament the exalted Christ functions as prophet through the office of pastor in the church. So the inspired apostle indicates that God gave the New Testament church “pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:11). But Scripture clearly teaches, and Reformed believers confess, that the office of pastor and that of deacon are distinct from each other.
This distinction the apostles emphasized when they exhorted the church at Jerusalem to find seven godly men to serve the widows. Thus the apostles would be relieved of serving tables, the better to devote themselves to their God-given task: “But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).
While these passage emphasize the distinction between the various offices in the church of Christ, they do not forbid us to speak of a prophetic aspect to the work of the diaconate.
Properly understanding this aspect of their work, deacons ought to be the more confident and bold to bring God’s Word to God’s people in their needs.
That deacons are required to handle the Word of God is the fundamental evidence that the work of the diaconate has a prophetic aspect.
This requirement is found specifically in our Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons, which requires deacons “not only [to] administer relief to the poor and indigent with external gifts, but also with comfortable words from Scripture.”² That the deacons must “administer” these comfortable words suggests that deacons must do more than merely read the Scriptures. At the very least, they must explain and apply the passage sufficiently that the poor and distressed are comforted by it.
Our Church Order, Article 25, requires deacons “to visit and comfort the distressed.”³ While the article does not explicitly require the deacon to open up the Scriptures, all true visitation does require the deacon to read and apply the Scriptures. This we have demonstrated in a previous article.4
Other Reformed confessions and synods have also indicated that the work of the diaconate has a prophetic aspect.
Article 25 of the French Huguenot document “Ecclesiastical Discipline, 1559” required the deacons, as they distributed the alms, “to catechize in homes,” while Article 26 forbad them to “catechize in public.”5
Article 55 of the “Church Order Selected from the Acts of the Provincial Synod of Dordrecht held on 15 June 1574” reads:
Visiting the sick belongs to the office of the ministers of the Word, and it is risky to assign other persons to that task. Therefore, the ministers shall request the elders and deacons to help them with their task. They shall do so because their office in comparison with other Christians requires more with respect to visiting, comforting, and strengthening the sick, the poor, and members in need of comfort.6
This explicitly required deacons to help the minister as needed with the work of visiting the sick. The reason why deacons were to do so was specifically grounded in the work of their office. Not explicitly mentioned, but certainly assumed, is that this visitation must involve bringing the Scriptures to God’s people in their need.
Not only to the poor or sick, but also to those who have the means to support the deacons, this prophetic aspect of their work may be directed. We read in “The Articles of Wesel 1568”: “They [i.e., deacons, DJK] ought also to diligently admonish those who can afford it to come to the help of the need of the church and the want of the poor.”7
That the deacons’ work has a prophetic aspect is suggested in Scripture by the fact that the Old Testament priests were required to teach God’s law to Israel. God emphasized to Aaron the need for him to be holy and to know the law, “that ye may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the LORD hath spoken unto them by the hand of Moses” (Lev. 10:11). Israel was reminded to “do according to all that the priests the Levites shall teach you” (Deut. 25:8). The blessing upon Levi, pronounced by Moses just prior to his death, was that Levi would “teach Jacob thy judgments, and Israel thy law” (Deut. 33:10). Ezra was a priest who returned from captivity having “prepared his heart to seek the law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments” (Ezra 7:10). Rebuking the priests for failing to teach, Malachi says, “For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts” (Mal. 2:7).
That Old Testament priests were required to teach God’s law indicates that also the deacons of Christ in the New Testament must teach. The office of deacon in the church is the New Testament counterpart of the Old Testament office of priest in Israel. Particularly the high priest’s work involved prophecy. God clearly instructed the high priests to bless the children of Israel by pronouncing the words of the familiar Aaronitic blessing (Num. 6:22-27). God’s final words in this connection are, “And they shall put my name upon the children of Israel; and I will bless them” (v. 27). Efficaciously to bless God’s people in God’s name by God’s command is to speak as God’s spokesperson. It is to prophesy. To prophesy does not necessarily require one to have a new revelation from God, or to speak about things future. To speak God’s word to God’s people on the basis of past revelation is prophecy.
That the high priest’s work involved prophecy is confirmed by the fact that Caiaphas prophesied of Christ’s death (John 11:49-52). This is a unique and remarkable prophecy, by a corrupt high priest who did not manifest true faith in Christ. Nevertheless, Scripture indicates that he prophesied in the capacity of high priest: “But being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation” (v. 51). We take Calvin’s point to heart: “Must we conclude that, because Caiaphas once prophesied, every word uttered by the high priest is always aprophecy?” (commentary on John 11:51). No; not every word uttered by the high priest was prophecy. But high priests, in their official capacity as such, could and did prophesy.
The reason why God assigned priests this duty is not simply that the office of prophet was not perpetual in the Old Testament. It is true that at times, sometimes for hundreds of years, God’s people heard no new revelation by a prophet. Also true is that, by contrast, the office of pastor is a perpetual office in the New Testament. But the real reason why the priests were to teach the law is because of how the law related to their work on behalf of Israel. First, the law prescribed exactly how Israel must worship God. The priests, through whose agency Israel worshiped God, were to teach the people this right manner of worship. Second, by virtue of the work of the priests, as a picture of the work that Christ would do for His church, God viewed and treated Israel as holy. Therefore, they must live as God’s holy people. Because the law spelled out how to live as God’s holy people, the priests were to teach the law.
It must be explained how, if the work of the diaconate has a prophetic aspect, the office remains distinct from that of pastor.
First, the fundamental work of the office of deacon is distinct from that of pastor. To speak of a propheticaspect of the deacons’ work is to indicate that the deacon is not fundamentally a prophet. Fundamentally, the office of deacon is that of administering the mercies of Christ to the poor and needy through physical, earthly gifts. The work of the deacon is fundamentally that of gathering and disbursing of alms. The deacons are to teach only to the extent that their teaching serves the gathering and disbursing of alms.
The pastor, by contrast, is fundamentally a prophet. Teaching God’s Word to God’s people is inherent in the work of his office. He cannot perform the duties of his office any other way than by teaching. Because the knowledge of God’s Word and the ability to teach it is fundamental to the office of pastor, God requires of bishops that they be “apt to teach” (I Tim. 3:2), and the apostles resolved to give themselves over to “the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).
The same was true in the Old Testament. The prophet was called to speak the Word of God to the people of God. This involved receiving and imparting new revelation, and calling the people to faith and obedience. The priest’s calling, by contrast, was to offer sacrifices for sin, to intercede for the people, and to bless the people. In fulfilling this obligation, he was to teach the people the law of God— for God would not be pleased with the temple worship of the people, if they did not strive to conform to His law. That which the priests taught the people did not consist of new revelation, but of the Word of God already revealed to Israel. The exceptional cases in which priests were given new revelation (such as Samuel) are cases in which God appointed one man to both the office of priest and that of prophet.
Second, the distinction between the offices of deacon and pastor is to be found in the scope of their teaching.
As regards whom they teach, the pastor must teach the whole congregation, while the deacons teach one segment of it—the poor, sick, and others in need.
As regards what they teach, the pastor must teach the whole counsel of God, while the deacon teaches only that part of the counsel that regards the work of the deacons. We expressed this earlier when we said that deacons are to teach to the extent that their teaching serves the gathering and disbursing of alms.
As regards where they teach, the pastor teaches publicly in the worship service, while the deacon teaches the individual members privately.
These distinctions are biblical. The church must know and implement them. Those who understand this are not likely to blur the two offices. Throughout church history, especially for the one thousand years before the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, the church did lose sight of the proper work of the office of deacon, and did often assign to deacons work that belonged properly to another office. Today as well, it is possible that the church fall into this danger. But she guards against it by understanding and implementing the biblical distinction between the offices.
Having attempted to demonstrate clearly that the work of the diaconate has a prophetic aspect, we will next examine the various ways in which the deacons might implement this aspect of their work.
1. Gerard Berghoef and Lester De Koster, The Deacons Handbook: A Manual of Stewardship (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian’s Library Press, 1980), pp. 143-144.
2. The Psalter With Doctrinal Standards, Liturgy, Church Order, and Added Chorale Section (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1927; revised edition [PRC], December 2002), p. 106.
3. The Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches, 2002 edition, p. 14.
4. Standard Bearer, vol. 81, issue 3, p. 65; November 1, 2004.
5. “Ecclesiastical Discipline, 1559,” Paradigms in Polity: Classic Readings in Reformed and Presbyterian Church Government, ed. David W. Hall and Joseph H. Hall (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), p. 138.
6. Richard R. DeRidder, Translation of Ecclesiastical Manual, including the decisions of the Netherlands Synods and other significant matters relating to the government of the churches (the original work authored by P. Biesterveld and Dr. H.H. Kuyper), (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1982), p. 69.
7. DeRidder, p. 33.