The Congregation’s Support of Her Diaconate (3): An Act of Worship

Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin. Previous article in this series: October 1, 2008, p. 13.

We have noted in our past two articles that the congregation is required to support her deacons by giving to the cause of the poor. God requires us to give as we have been blessed: generously, sincerely, willingly, trusting Him to supply all our needs.

As of yet we have not stated that the congregation must do this as an act of worship. But she must. To make the point emphatic, we devote this article to it.

That the care of the poor by the church and her members is an act of worship Scripture indicates in I Corinthians 16:1-2: “Now as concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do you. 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.”

Having gleaned other insights from this passage in our last two articles, our question now is why the apostle Paul directed the Corinthians to perform this duty on the first day of the week.

One reason is to underscore that the giving for the poor must be a priority. That which is higher in a list of priorities must be done before that which is lower. So high a priority did Paul place on the collecting of this benevolence money for the poor saints in Jerusalem, that he told the saints in Corinth to do it right away, to set it aside on the first day of the week. From the fact that later Paul devotes two chapters (II Cor. 8-9) to encouraging the saints in Corinth to do this same thing, one concludes that the admonition to make this giving a priority was one that they sorely needed.

So must we make giving to the poor a priority in our lives. Regardless of how much we give to the poor, we must think of them early; already when receiving our paycheck, we ought to consider our obligation to give for their relief.

But the second reason is certainly even more to the point: the first day was the day on which the early church worshiped. In other words, by inspiring Paul to tell the Corinthians to lay in store on the first day of the week, the Holy Spirit teaches us that giving for the relief of the poor is an aspect of the church’s worship.

Agreeing with this explanation, commentator Peter Naylor writes:

Here, not only does Paul indicate that the collection for Jerusalem is an act of worship, but immediately after his exposition of the resurrection in chapter 15 he introduces the first day as the appropriate occasion for a financial response to the Lord’s triumph.¹

And from the pen of P.Y. DeJong, referring to I Corinthians 16:

The apostle Paul spoke often and eloquently about Christian love as it came to expression in the bringing of gifts for the poor. That love was to be demonstrated not only in the personal lives of believers but should also come to expression at the time of corporate worship.²

I Corinthians 16:2 is the clearest Scripture, but not the only Scripture, on the basis of which we can see that the congregation’s giving for the poor is an act of worship. That the church is called to care for her poor (Rom. 12:8; I Cor. 12:28), and that the office of deacon is instituted in the church for this purpose (Acts 6:1-6; I Tim. 3:8-13; Phil. 1:1) means that the church must carry out this work as an institute. One finds the church institute on the Lord’s Day as she gathers for worship.

The early Christian church understood that the care of the poor was to be part of her worship. Justin Martyr described the worship of the early church in the middle of the second century A.D.:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray…[here he describes the administration of the Lord’s Supper, DJK]. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows, and those who, through sickness or any cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. [Justin Martyr then goes on to explain that this is done on Sunday, because on that day Christ arose, DJK].²

Over the years the church forgot this, as she neglected the care of the poor and assigned other duties to the office of deacon. But the Reformation restored the idea that the care of the poor is an act of worship.

It did so, first, by confessing this. That the collections for the poor are an act of worship on the part of the church Reformed churches confess explicitly in Lord’s Day 38 of the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. 103. What doth God require in the fourth commandment? A. First, that the ministry of the gospel and the schools be maintained; and that I, especially on the sabbath, that is, on the day of rest, diligently frequent the church of God, to hear His word, to use the sacraments, publicly to call upon the Lord, and contribute to the relief of the poor, as becomes a Christian….

Implicitly, Reformed believers confess this in Belgic Confession Article 30, which states that the Lord requires His church to have pastors, elders, and deacons,

that by these means the true religion may be preserved and the true doctrine everywhere propagated, likewise transgressors punished and restrained by spiritual means; also that the poor and distressed may be relieved and comforted, according to their necessities.

Reformed churches also restored the idea that the care of the poor is an act of worship by their practice: they did, and do, what their confessions require of them.

This did not happen immediately, but it did happen eventually. In Geneva, funds to be used for the relief of the poor and needy were raised in various ways, including endowments and legacies. Apparently the deacons solicited the citizens of Geneva individually, because we read that “regular collections were made from the populace on a daily, weekly, and annual basis.”³ But later:

At the request of the ministers the Council agreed that a collection could be gathered from the people as they left the Sunday sermon. October 11, 1568, it was decided to have people holding troncs or alms baskets at the doors of the Churches “to receive at the coming out from sermons on Sunday the charities which each wished to make to the poor.” This practice must have caused some embarrassment or have seemed too much like coercion, for three days later the Council thought it better simply to have boxes made available at the doors to receive these gifts.4

Since then it has become the practice of Reformed churches, at some point during the worship service, to have the deacons take a collection for the relief of the poor. At what point during the service this collection is taken—whether early or late, before or after the sermon—is immaterial. But I will take liberty to give my own personal opinion: I like it when such a collection is taken near the end of the service, after the sermon, so that our giving for the relief of the poor is clearly our response to hearing the gospel.

The reason why the congregation’s support of the poor is an act of worship is not merely pragmatic. The reason is not merely convenience, the whole congregation being assembled; it is not merely that this will likely result in a larger amount of alms being gathered, because most or all are present.

The reason, which we have already suggested in our first article in this series, is the church’s obedience to, love for, and gratitude to God for all He has done for us in Jesus Christ.

Christ offered Himself a sacrifice of propitiation to God, atoning for us. He gave Himself; He laid down His life. We reap the benefits—His righteousness is ours, we have fellowship with God, and we enjoy eternal life!

In gratitude, in love, and in obedience, we thank and praise Him for these things by worshiping—praying, opening up the Scriptures, hearing His Word expounded, and administering the sacraments. But if we participate in all these, yet do not give to the poor, our participation is just a show.

For by giving for the relief of the poor, more than anything else that we do in the worship service, we show that the gospel has moved us to a life of gratitude. In reading the Scriptures, listening to the preaching, and partaking of the sacraments, we hear, see, and taste what God has done for us; in prayer, we speak our gratitude to Him for it; but in giving, we manifest that this gospel has truly changed our heart and life.

This is the teaching of the Scriptures. The apostle John writes by inspiration: “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). James makes a similar point (James 2:15-16), although instead of saying that the care of the poor is a manifestation of God’s love in us, he says that it is evidence of a true and living faith.

In a very real and concrete way, giving for the relief of the poor is our response of love and faith to that which the gospel teaches. So it is appropriately an act of worship.

Because it is an act of worship, it would be appropriate if a collection for the relief of the poor were taken at every worship service.

Such is not, however, the practice of any of the Protestant Reformed Churches, and to my knowledge is not the practice of any church. In most of our churches such a collection is taken at one of the services on the Lord’s Day, while others take such a collection once or twice a month.

I believe that, while such a collection at every worship service would be appropriate, it is not mandated by Scripture.

It is true that the apostle Paul in I Corinthians 16:2 required the saints to put aside weekly for the cause of the poor, and that from this passage we conclude that the church must care for the poor as part of her worship. But the passage indicates that this requirement was meant to address a specific case, and meet a specific goal. The specific case, we have already noted, was the relief of the need of the saints in Jerusalem. In other words, Paul was not telling them to begin building up a balance in a benevolent fund for future needs, unknown at present. The need was immediate. And the specific goal was that all the monies be gathered by the time Paul arrived, so that he would not be delayed in delivering the gift.

These facts lead me to view the passage as setting forth a principle rather than a law regarding giving for the relief of the poor. The principle is that the collections for the poor are an act of worship, and that the church must take them regularly. The text does not make it a law for the New Testament church that this collection be taken weekly, or at every worship service, especially if less frequent benevolent collections bring in sufficient money to care for the poor. The church that is blessed with many poor, and whose need for benevolence money is great, appropriately applies the instruction of I Corinthians 16:2 by taking weekly collections.

So viewed, the church’s collections for the poor in worship are similar to her administration of the Lord’s Supper in worship. She must partake of the Lord’s Supper often and regularly, until Christ comes (I Cor. 11:26). She is required to do so as part of her worship service; Lord’s Day 38 gives as one purpose of diligently frequenting the church that we “use the sacraments.” But Scripture does not require, and Reformed churches have never said, that the Lord’s Supper be administered at every worship service, or even once a week.

What are some of the implications of the fact that the congregation’s support of her deacons is an act of worship?

First, the members of the congregation should be expecting a collection for benevolence regularly. They should know when they will have opportunity to give for this cause. Second, the members of the congregation must prepare for this aspect of worship. Just as we must prepare to come to church, to hear the gospel preached, to pray, to sing, so must we prepare to give. Part of that preparation involves having the money to put in the plate when it is passed. He has not well prepared for this who opens his wallet as he sees the plate approaching, only then to decide whether he will give, and how much. We must lay by us in store—save some when our paycheck comes! And part of that preparation involves our examining our own attitude toward our material goods, toward the poor, and toward our giving for their relief.

Third, the individual member of the congregation should realize even more the need to give with generosity and sincerity, willingly, trusting God to supply our needs. For we give in worship; we give, in God’s presence; we give to God!

Would you really, in worship, before the face of God and before Christ who is present in His Spirit, give otherwise? Would you really show your response to the gospel in the form of a stingy, half-hearted dropping of a few coins in the collection plate, wincing all the while, as you are mindful of what earthly purchases you have just forfeited? Gratitude will not lead the child of God to do so. Such would not manifest true praise.

As the psalmist puts it in Psalm 96:8, this manifests praise and gratitude: “Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name: bring an offering, and come into his courts.”

God give us the thankful and willing spirit to do so.

¹ Peter Naylor, A Study Commentary on I Corinthians (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 2004), p. 473.

² “The First Apology of Justin,” chapter LXVII, The Ante-Nicean Fathers (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925), vol. 1, p. 186.

³ Alexander M. Zeidman, The Care of the Poor and Indigent in Geneva in the Latter Half of the Sixteenth Century (Master’s thesis, Knox College of Toronto, 1965), p. 81.

4 Zeidman, pp. 82-83.