Mr. Schipper is a deacon in Southwest Protestant Reformed Church.
I am thankful to the brother who has responded to my article with several very good questions.* The issues that he raises are all the more interesting because of his perspective of living in a country that has more social programs than does the US. I preface my response by noting that I do not think there is a simple “yes or no” answer to most of the brother’s questions. The Christian must prayerfully consider the biblical principles that apply as he faces each situation.
We believe that the state is ordained of God for the praise and protection of those who do well, and to be a terror to those who do evil (Rom. 13). We also pray for those that are in authority, “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (I Tim. 2:2). We pay the taxes to the state in order that the state may have the means to carry out its divine mandate. We therefore have a right to use many of the programs which our tax dollars support. The programs are not evil in themselves just because they are administered by the state. I think of such programs as the library system, the park system, and even health-care (to name only a few). Whether all of these programs are wise or cost-effective is another question.
The brother lives in a province of Australia, and he indicates that Australians have a “very socialistic government.” I take this to mean that the citizens pay a high percentage of their income to the state in taxes, and in return the government offers many benefits to its citizens. The brother sent a booklet which describes the comprehensive array of programs available to the citizens of Australia. Most of the benefits have to do with payments that families receive based on the number of children in the family and on parental income. While I question the wisdom and biblical character of this approach, I do not think it is principally any different from the situation in the US which allows for reductions in income tax for every dependent. Whether we pay less in, or receive something back in a check, is principally the same.
I do not want to leave the impression that I am in favor of the Christian taking advantage of every program offered by the state just because it is supported by his taxes. This is not the case. A classic example of a tax-supported program we do not support is public education. We believe that education is the duty of the parent, not the state. We do not want the state to educate our children according to humanistic principles. We therefore ordinarily do not use the public schools.
Brother Kleyn makes an interesting comment when he states that in Australia “no one has to live in poverty.” He indicates that, as a result of this, the task of the deacons is made easy. This brings weighty matters to the foreground. Apparently there are enough social programs available so that a person never has to suffer lack to the point that he cannot afford food and raiment. Because of this, the deacons would rarely (if ever?) need to provide financial assistance. This is not good for the church.
Historically, there has always been a tension between the church and the state over the privilege of caring for the poor. The church has had to guard jealously her calling to care for the Lord’s poor. The temptation comes from within and without. It seems that the state (in varying degrees) is constantly seeking to encroach on the church’s privilege to care for her poor. The devil uses this situation to his advantage. He would like nothing better than for members of the church to become financially dependent on the state. For a time, there may not be an overt evil evident, but eventually the church will face a real question of principle. At some point the state will insist on a condition that involves a violation of principle, for continuing financial support. The church, having grown accustomed to the support, will be tempted to forsake the principle because she cannot imagine taking on the financial burden previously handled by the state. The way of wisdom is to avoid the beginnings! The church must understand the great spiritual value in the office of deacon. Wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction.
In addition to the scenario described above, another evil lurks. This has to do with the devil’s attack on the office of Christ in the church. Brother Kleyn alludes to this when he indicates that because of an abundance of financial aid programs the work of the diaconate becomes “easy.” I understand him to mean “easy” in the sense that deacons do not have much (if any) financial relief to distribute, and therefore also have an “easy” time in procuring “many good means for relief of the poor.” In one sense, having no poor makes the work of the deacons “easy”; but, in another sense, having no poor makes the work impossible. Christ is present in His church through the offices. To have the deacons present in name only is to lose the office. Just as the office of prophet would be absent if the preacher were not preaching, and just as the office of king would be absent if the elders were not ruling, so also is the office of the merciful high priest absent if the deacons are not relieving physical needs. To the extent that the office is non-functional, to that same extent Christ is not present with us, and to that same extent we do not experience the blessings of salvation merited by Christ. This should not be taken to mean that there must be financial assistance rendered each and every month of the year, but it does mean that if an absence of need persists on a consistent and long-term basis, there is unavoidable spiritual damage that will ensue.
In this connection, I would note that the office of deacon is probably the most vulnerable aspect of the office of Christ for the devil to attack. It is the least visible of the special offices. The deacons have little direct contact in their official work with the majority of the members. As a result, the church can lose sight of the spiritual nature of the office, and focus primarily on the financial aspect of the office. The office is then thought to be a financial-aid organization rather than the office of our merciful High Priest, Jesus Christ. If this perception prevails, those who are in need may prefer the financial aid of the state rather than the deacons. For the state may ask fewer questions. The state may give more money. And no one in the church will know of the situation. The possibility of embarrassment among fellow church members is thus eliminated. The reasons (all of them wrong) can be multiplied. What has been lost, however, is the blessing of Christ that comes through the office of deacon. The great benefit of the office of deacon for the poor is not the money, but the spiritual blessing of Christ! When the poor receive financial assistance accompanied with the Word and sanctified by prayer from the official representatives of Christ, they receive a priceless blessing from their Savior. The blessing is in the Word! The speaking of the Word by officebearers is the speaking of the Word by Christ Himself. What a glorious blessing!
Where does this leave us? We may properly use some of the programs that we support with our taxes, and yet there is a danger if these programs tend to make the office of deacon unnecessary. The decision will need to be a matter of sanctified judgment as the believer exercises the liberty that he has in Christ. I would avoid any legalistic approach to the issue. In general, my judgment would be that the Christian may take advantage of the programs that are provided as a basic level of service from the government to the majority of the citizens (provided that the program itself does not compromise biblical principles). This may take the form of payments based on the number of children in a family, income tax deductions based on the number of dependents, and even health-care. I would tend to avoid programs that are designed to address situations that would otherwise leave one in poverty. When God in His providence leads His people in a way of physical hardship, relief should not be sought from the state, but from the office of mercy in the church. There is no end of situations to describe, but they would involve either a loss of income, or an increase in bills such that the Christian finds himself without the means to meet financial obligations.
Even in a state with a very socialistic government, I cannot imagine that Christians who support the church, missions, a seminary, Christian education, and myriads of other kingdom causes never find themselves in financial need. I believe that Christ will see to that (Matt. 26:11). When the circumstances in the life of some saints are such that they face the reality that they cannot meet their financial obligations, they must make a choice. They can go to the state and seek financial assistance from a program whose chief focus is elimination of poverty, or they can go to Christ and receive not only financial assistance, but also spiritual blessings. The deacons will bring the Word, and by this means Christ will comfort His people with the assurance that He will never leave or forsake them. They will be reminded that God in His perfect wisdom has ordained the present way of hardship to be ‘the way of their salvation. They will experience in a direct way the blessedness of the communion of the saints, as God’s people willingly provide the deacons with the means to relieve their suffering. (This assumes that they have sought help first from their immediate family).
It is good to remember also that the office of Christ is essentially one. There are three aspects to the one office of Christ. To allow the office of deacon to wither from disuse must necessarily lead to a withering of the office in its other aspects as well. To neglect the office of Christ in any of its manifestations is to neglect Christ. The church has therefore been zealous to protect the office of deacon from the encroachment of the state. Church members who are conscious of the true spiritual character of the office of deacon will support the office with their gifts and prayers. And, those in financial need will not hesitate to come to the diaconate, because they are confident of the great spiritual benefit that they will enjoy. In thankful awareness of the spiritual riches we have in Christ, we give to the poor. Confident that the One who willingly suffered the torments of hell to pay our spiritual debts will also help with material needs, the poor come to Christ as manifested in the office of deacon.
* See “Letters”—Ed.