Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin. Previous article in this serise: December 15, 2006, p. 136.
In our last article we demonstrated that, inasmuch as deacons are required to handle the Word of God, their work has a prophetic aspect to it. That is, deacons may and must teach. In so doing, they do not become pastors, or substitutes for pastors. The deacons are to teach to the extent that their teaching serves their fundamental work, the gathering and disbursing of alms.
We now examine in more detail just how the deacons might perform this aspect of their work.
Perhaps the most obvious way is that of teaching the Scriptures to the poor and distressed whom the deacons are to comfort. As we noted in the last article, the Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons requires deacons “not only [to] administer relief to the poor and indigent with external gifts, but also with comfortable words from Scripture.”¹ By opening up the Scriptures to the people of God in their needs, the deacons implement the prophetic aspect of their work.
These poor and distressed are almost always members of the church in which the deacons hold office. They are children of God, Reformed believers, who themselves know the Scriptures. The deacons open up the Scriptures to them, not to teach them the fundamentals of the Christian and Reformed faith, but to point them to God as their only hope, who promises to supply His people with daily bread and with grace sufficient for our every need. This reassurance and comfort is the greatest need of the poor and distressed of God’s people.
The deacon who is diligently preparing for such a visit will face this question: which Bible passage should I use? The question will arise, not from the scarcity of appropriate passages in Scripture, but from their vast number. While many passages in the gospels and epistles suggest themselves for this use, the deacon ought not overlook the many pertinent passages in the Old Testament. Already in the Mosaic law God spoke of His care for the poor. As to its letter, the Mosaic law is not in force today; but the use of such passages to illustrate that God’s people can depend on Him, and have always done so, can be rewarding both to the deacon and the poor. The book of Ruth gives an instance of God’s care of poor believers, whose sins make them unworthy of such care. The Psalms and prophetical books are full of cries to God for help, and confessions of trust in God. Peter Y. DeJong gives an extensive list of appropriate passages, which list he prefaces with these remarks: “This is by no means exhaustive. It serves only to suggest the rich variety which God has provided for the consolation of those in distress.”²
Less frequently, the poor whom the deacons visit might be those who are not members of the church in which the deacons hold office, and probably not members of a church at all. In such instances, the prophetic aspect of the deacons’ work involves instructing such in the basic tenets of the gospel and calling them to faith and repentance. Because their great need is to hear the gospel, the deacon may consider appropriate any Scripture passage that sets forth clearly the wonder of salvation in Jesus Christ. Not to be overlooked is II Corinthians 8, in which Christ’s incarnation is described in terms of a rich Christ becoming poor, that we who are poor might become rich. This wonder is set forth as a reason for the church to give material gifts to others in need.
In either case—that of the poor within or outside of the congregation’s membership—the deacons function as prophets by providing for the true need of mankind. This true need is not for earthly bread, but spiritual; it is not for gifts of money, but for the news of the gospel of the free and gracious gift of God in Jesus Christ for unworthy sinners.
A second way in which deacons implement the prophetic aspect of their work is by giving scriptural instruction and counsel to those whose financial woes are the fruit of their own poor stewardship.
This instruction and counsel is also usually directed to those who are members of the congregation that the deacons serve. However, the purpose of the work is not so much to comfort, as it is to rebuke, admonish, instruct, and correct. Such work is still considered prophetic, because the only basis for these rebukes, admonitions, instructions, and corrections is the Word of God.
This aspect of the work the deacons ought not be reluctant to perform. God’s people will not always receive such admonition and instruction in a proper spirit. But when it is clear to the deacons that such admonition is needed, the deacons must be ready to give it. And the fruit will be, by God’s grace, that some are turned to repent of their poor stewardship.
Again, a host of Scripture passages suggest themselves. The eighth commandment, which forbids stealing, by implication regulates all our use of our possessions; Lord’s Day 42 of our Heidelberg Catechism shows this by explaining the eighth commandment to forbid “all covetousness, and all useless waste of his gifts,” and to require of us that we “labor faithfully that [we] may be able to help the poor in their need.”³ Jesus reminded His disciples of the need first to seek the kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33), and not to be concerned so much about earthly matters. The book of Proverbs is replete with suitable passages in this connection.
Thirdly, deacons implement this aspect of their work by instructing the rich in the congregation regarding giving, when such instruction is necessary. Especially deacons might do this when the congregation is blessed with many poor, and when the deacons have evidence that certain members of the congregation who have the means are reluctant to help. Passages such as I Timothy 6:17-19, in which Timothy is told to instruct the rich to be “ready to distribute,” or James 2:5-6, in which the rich are rebuked for despising the poor, are appropriate here.
Finally, this aspect of their work deacons implement by instructing the congregation as a whole concerning the subject of giving and receiving. This instruction is also usually given when the need is great; but it may be given whenever the deacons consider it profitable for the congregation. Most likely deacons would do this by way of a letter, but they might also do so in other ways—for example, by hosting a conference aimed at teaching the congregation about financial principles of stewardship.
The last two ways just mentioned raise again the question: is not this the work of the pastor? Is not Timothy as pastor told to charge the rich that they be ready to distribute? Is not the work of teaching the congregation as a whole the work of the pastor?
Of course, all public instruction of the congregation as a whole is the work of the office of pastor. The pastor must preach sermons regarding the care of the poor, the calling of the rich towards them, and the subject of stewardship in general. Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster make this point well: “The key to the congregation’s practice of good stewardship is, of course, the pulpit.” And later: “The deacon as teacher, then, concerns himself first of all with urging faithful preaching, and supporting it.”4
Individual instruction to the rich is not a substitute for addressing such matters in the preaching. However, the deacons may supplement the preaching’s charge to the rich by personal visits and individual instruction in the subject of giving.
Similarly, a conference hosted by the deacons on the subject of stewardship must be viewed, not as replacing, but as supplementing, the work of the pulpit. Perhaps the deacons would even ask the minister to lead the conference. But it would not be wrong for a deacon to lead such a conference, inasmuch as the content of the instruction bears directly on the work of gathering and distributing alms.
For at least two practical reasons, deacons must be ready to supplement the work of the pastor by taking seriously the prophetic aspect of their work.
The first is that at times, especially in a larger congregation, the pastor is so busy tending to all the needs of the congregation, that he needs such help. Elders and retired ministers help by teaching catechism and tending to the sick. Deacons can help by being ready to instruct and counsel both rich and poor regarding their calling and comfort.
The second is that every congregation is vacant from time to time. During these vacancies, the poor must still be cared for, and the congregation encouraged to do its part. The deacons must do the work.
Our development of this aspect of the work of the deacons underscores the need for deacons to be spiritual, godly men, who are “full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom” (Acts 6:3) and who hold “the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience” (I Tim. 3:9).
This means that they must be men who know the Scriptures. “Every deacon must be well grounded in the teachings of the Bible especially as these apply to his ministry. He must be able to do far more than quote an appropriate text occasionally.”5 De Jong’s point is that the deacons must understand the whole teaching of Scripture as it bears on God’s loving care of His people.
The deacon (and the same applies to pastors, elders, and all of God’s children) must not think that his knowledge of the Scriptures is a means to an end—that is, he must not study the Scriptures just because his diaconal work requires it of him. Rather, he must study them as an end in itself. The Scriptures are able to make us wise unto salvation through faith in Jesus Christ (II Tim. 3:15). We must study the Scriptures for personal growth, and to apply them to our own lives as Christians. Doing so, the deacon will find himself growing in his ability to use the Scriptures also in his diaconal work.
That deacons must be spiritual, godly men also means that they must be men who pray without ceasing, and for whom true, sincere, heartfelt prayer is a regular activity. God promises to give us wisdom in the way of our asking for it without doubting (James 1:5-6). As was true of his study of Scripture, so also with prayer, the deacon must pray not only in connection with his diaconal work, while making his visits, after opening up the Scriptures to God’s people, but he must be a man familiar with prayer, so that by this means he grows spiritually as a person.
If the church wants such men as her deacons, the church has a responsibility as well. This responsibility is first to choose to office those men to whom God has given the necessary gifts. Remember that the Scriptures teach us little about how the deacons must go about their work, but much about what kind of man a deacon must be (I Tim. 3:8-13). Not only must the council give heed to these qualifications as it nominates deacons, but the people of God must give heed as they choose their deacons.
The church’s responsibility is also to pray to God on the deacons’ behalf, that they be men who give their hearts to their work, men who experience God’s blessing in their lives, in order that by them the church also might be blessed.
¹ 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.
² Peter Y. DeJong, The Ministry of Mercy for Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1963), page 178. The list is found on pp. 179-182.
³ Philip Schaff, ed, The Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3, “The Evangelical Protestant Creeds” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1990), pages 347, 348. The Protestant Reformed reader familiar with the Catechism as found in the back of our Psalter will notice a slight difference in the wording of the translation, but no difference in the meaning.
4 Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster, The Deacons Handbook: A Manual of Stewardship (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian’s Library Press, 1980), p. 143.
5 DeJong, p. 177.