The Basis for the Diaconate: (1) God’s Care for His Poor

Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan.

O God, to Thy Anointed King

Give truth and righteousness;

Thy people He will justly judge

And give the poor redress.

The poor man’s cause He will maintain,

The needy He will bless,

And He will break the strength of those

Who would the poor oppress.

(Psalter 193, stanzas 1 and 3, versification of

Psalm 72

)

In these stanzas, and in Psalm 72, God’s saints express their confidence that Jehovah will care for His beloved poor through Christ, typified in Solomon, God’s anointed king.

God’s certain care of His poor through Christ is the theological basis of the diaconate. This is true, first, because the diaconate is the official means which Christ uses to care for His poor. Second, through the office of deacon God gives His church a visible picture of what He did for us spiritually. By nature we were spiritually poor, void of all spiritual gifts, deserving to die both physically and spiritually on account of our sins and sinfulness. But God made us rich through Christ! Though rich, Christ became poor for our sakes by taking upon Himself our guilt and corruption, and by suffering and dying to bear all of God’s wrath on account of our sin. On the basis of Christ’s work, God declares us righteous, causes us to experience everlasting life and fellowship with Him, makes us able to obey His law again, and gives us the promise of an everlasting inheritance, a mansion in the heavens! Spiritual riches, indeed!

The office of deacon pictures this work of Christ, as it supplies the earthly, bodily needs of the poor members of the church with alms which the more prosperous members of the church have given. In fact, through this office Christ supplies the earthly, bodily needs of His people.

It is important that we understand this basis well. If the church of Jesus Christ finds no basis for the office of deacon, she may not have it in her midst. She may not have it merely for practical reasons. She may not have it merely because she wants it. But if Scripture provides her with a basis for having the office, then not only may she have a diaconate, but she must! And if that basis is to be found in God’s care for the poor, then the diaconate must make this care their fundamental work. It is because the Reformed churches have historically understood this basis for the office that they have fought for its place in the church when civil authorities wanted to take over the work of caring for the poor, as we noted in our last article.We desire to understand this basis more clearly, that we might esteem our deacons highly, and insist that they perform their fundamental work.

We have already noted one aspect of the basis of the office — its institution, recorded in Acts 6. The church need not simply infer from God’s care for His poor and from His saving work for His people in Christ, that she should have a diaconate. The institution of the office shows that God made this work the official work of the church! So the church must have the office of deacon.

Having already gone forward from the record of this institution to treat the history of the office, we will now go backward, treating the scriptural and theological basis of the office in more detail. We begin in this article by examining the truth that God cares for the poor.


God’s care for His poor is evident first from His many commands to the church in the old and new dispensations to care for her poor.

These commands to Old Testament Israel are found primarily in the Mosaic law. The people were forbidden to charge the poor interest: “If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury” (Ex. 22:25). The word “usury” does not here mean exorbitant interest, but refers simply to interest. The Israelite was to give to the poor, not expecting to make any profit from this loan.

According to Exodus 23:10-11, the Israelites were to sow and reap their fields and to work their vineyards and oliveyards six years, but to do no work in them the seventh year, “that the poor of thy people may eat.” The poor would benefit because they could gather the stray crops which would grow from seeds scattered during the previous year’s planting or harvest.

Leviticus 19:10 and 23:22 contain the laws of gleaning, which required the Israelite to let the poor harvest the crops in the corners of the field and glean what fell to the ground as the men harvested.

Deuteronomy 15:7-11 is an important passage in this connection. We quote it in full:

If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother: But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth. Beware that there be not a thought in thy wicked heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and thine eye be evil against thy poor brother, and thou givest him nought; and he cry unto the Lord against thee, and it be a sin unto thee. Thou shalt surely give him, and thine heart shall not be grieved when thou givest unto him: because that for this thing the Lord they God shall bless thee in all thy works, and in all that thou puttest thine hand unto. For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.

Deuteronomy 24:12-15 contains God’s demand that the Israelite return by sundown the poor man’s raiment which he had pledged, and that he pay the poor man his hire by sundown, that his daily needs be cared for.

In His commands to care for the poor, God makes specific mention of the widows and fatherless, those who were poor because they had no husband or father to support them. He commanded that every three years the Israelite set aside a tenth of his increase, which was to be eaten by any Levite, stranger, fatherless, or widow within his gate (Deut. 14:28-29).

In the New Testament, God continued to require charitable giving of His people. John the Baptist commanded the people to give, if they had food and clothing, to those who did not (Luke 3:11). Jesus exhorted the people to give for the poor. “Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn thou not away” (Matt. 5:42; cf. also Luke 6:30, 34).Luke 11:41 and 12:33 also contain His commands to the people to give alms.

Paul also exhorted the saints to give for the needs of other poor saints. He says to the Corinthians: “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye. Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come” (I Cor. 16:1-2). He returned to this subject in his second epistle.

Therefore, as ye abound in every thing, in faith, and utterance, and knowledge, and in all diligence, and in your love to us, see that ye abound in this grace (the grace of giving, DJK) also. I speak not by commandment, but by occasion of the forwardness of others, and to prove the sincerity of your love. For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich (

II Cor. 8:7-9

).

Paul then repeated his exhortation, and explained further:

For I mean not that other men be eased, and ye burdened: But by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may be a supply for their want, that their abundance may be a supply for your want: that there may be equality: As it is written, He that gathered much had nothing over; and he that gathered little had no lack (vv. 13-15).

The last verse refers to Exodus 16:18, which speaks of God’s provision of the Israelites with sufficient manna every day as they needed. God’s care of the nation of Israel in the wilderness, a specific instance in which He supplied the daily needs of His people, is a ground for the church to give to those who have need.

John shows that caring for the poor manifests God’s work in us. “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” (I John 3:16-17).


God’s care for His poor is also evident from His promises to the church that He would bless her in the way of caring for the poor, and judge her for failing to care for them.

His blessing is spoken of in Deuteronomy 15:10: “for this thing the Lord thy God shall bless thee in all thy works, and in all that thou puttest thine hand unto.” David writes in Psalm 41:1: “Blessed is he that considereth the poor: the Lord will deliver him in time of trouble.” Solomon speaks of this blessing repeatedly. “He that despiseth his neighbor sinneth: but he that hath mercy on the poor, happy is he” (Prov. 14:21). “He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord; and that which he hath given will he pay him again” (Prov. 19:17). Proverbs 22:9 and 28:27 also speak of this blessing. Jesus also taught the rich young ruler that giving sacrificially to the poor was the way to enjoy the blessedness of the kingdom of God (Matt. 19:21Mark 10:21Luke 18:22).

God’s judgment on those who oppressed the poor was certain. “He that oppresseth the poor to increase his riches … shall surely come to want” (Prov. 22:16). Again, this included how one treated the widows and fatherless. Exodus 22:22-24 says: “Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. If thou afflict them in any wise, and they cry at all unto me, I will surely hear their cry; And my wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless.”

The prophets at times spoke of this judgment on those who oppressed the poor. Part of Sodom’s iniquity was that she failed to “strengthen the hand of the poor and needy” (Ezek. 16:49). In chapter 18 Ezekiel, explaining that the father will not bear the son’s guilt, nor the son the father’s, says that the wicked son or father shall be put to death for his own sins. Included among those sins which make one worthy of death is oppression of the poor and needy (v. 12). But he shall live who has not oppressed any nor withheld a pledge, but given his bread to the hungry and covered the naked with a garment (v. 16).

Amos also foretold judgment upon Israel (the ten tribes) because of their sins. Among the transgressions for which Jehovah would not turn away their punishment was this, that they sold “the poor for a pair of shoes” (2:6, 8:6), that they would “turn aside the poor in the gate from their right” (5:12), and that they swallowed up the needy and made the poor of the land to fail (8:4). Because they ignored the plight of the hungry, Jehovah would send upon Israel the worst famine, one of hearing His words (8:11-13).

In Matthew 25:31ff., Jesus speaks both of blessing upon those who care for the poor and judgment upon those who do not. Speaking of the great judgment over which He will preside in the last day, He promises the blessing of the kingdom of God and everlasting life to those who fed Him when He was hungry, gave Him drink when thirsty, housed Him when He needed shelter, and clothed Him when He was naked. He shows, too, that He considered these things as being done to Him when they were done to one of the least of His brethren (the least saint in the church). Those who failed to do such things to Him, or to one of the least of His brethren, were sentenced to everlasting fire and punishment.


Scripture records the confessions of the poor saints themselves, that they trusted God to care for them in their needs. “He shall judge the poor of the people. He shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor…. For he shall deliver the needy when he crieth; the poor also, and him that hath no helper. He shall spare the poor and needy, and shall save the souls of the needy” (Ps. 72:4, 12, 13). In Psalm 132:15 the Lord says through the psalmist, “I will abundantly bless her provision: I will satisfy her poor with bread.” And Paul speaks often of God’s care for him in times of hunger and poverty. Sometimes this care consisted of satisfying Paul’s needs through the church (Phil. 2:25), while other times it consisted of giving the spiritual grace of contentment (Phil. 4:11-13, 18).


It is clear that God’s care for the poor is not a minor theme in Scripture. God speaks of this care often, and shows that He performs this care primarily through the means of fellow saints in the church who give for the relief of the poor.

The practical point has surely been driven home already to every child of God reading this. Give! As you have been blessed! In gratitude to God for what He has given you! With cheerfulness and simplicity!

That God cares for the poor serves as part of the basis for the diaconate. However, it is not enough in itself to warrant our devoting an office to this work, making it the official work of the church. We must examine next, then, why the diaconate must be an office in the church.