In times of local or national calamity the government steps in to aid the distressed. Whether a certain community is inundated by a flood, so that homes are destroyed and crops are ruined or whether the whole nation suffers from a depression, the government is called upon to send the necessary relief. She also serves by erecting institutions for the psychopaths, sanitariums for the disabled and hospitals for the sick. This is not only taken for granted, but commonly considered to be her duty. The government, it has often been said, owes us our living. And it is frequently regarded as a privilege to take as much advantage of the generosity of the government as possible.

While on the other hand, the deaconate in the church is considered a charitable institution that must be shunned at any cost. Only as a last extreme, when everything short of theft has failed, will a person submit to the disgrace of making a Nicodemus-call on the deacons. By far the large majority of church members would much rather receive aid from a generous friend, some social welfare organization, or even from the government than to appeal to the deacons for charity. The office of the deaconate stands in dishonor in the church, and those needy who consider it a disgrace to appeal to it are directly responsible. But no less responsible are the well-to-do who proudly assert themselves as if their own hand had prospered them, so that they can rightfully look down with disdain upon the distressed and needy. And in many cases even the deaconate itself has been responsible for such a state of affairs in so far as they parsimoniously doled out their funds as if they were reluctantly paying them out of their own pockets, so that the needy could survive with but a meagre existence. But behind all this, the fault must be laid at the door of the church which measures her spiritual growth by her outward prosperity and gratefully considers it a blessing that it cannot be said of her, “the poor ye have with you always.”

The result is that the Benevolence Fund often suffers the ignominy of disuse. According to the fixed custom a collection is still regularly taken or a certain amount is duty set aside for this purpose, but the rate that this fund grows shows how little real interest the congregation has in it. In some cases the money lies unused from year to year, so that no need is felt to create a large fund; in other cases these funds are “borrowed” to bolster a depletion of some other fund. All too frequently the deacons: become a mere supplement to the consistory to take care of the financial matters of the congregation. And if, especially in the smaller congregations, a great need does suddenly arise, the deacons are unable to extend the hand of mercy because of lack of funds. And too often the consistory feels most reluctant to send an appeal for aid to the neighboring churches. With the result that the needy turn elsewhere to seek relief.

The cause of all this is a serious failure to understand the significance of the office of deacons with application to practical life. Only when we understand the calling of the deaconate as we should, will civic charity, and for that matter every other form of organized charity be relegated to its proper place.

It should be understood, first of all, that charity does not belong to man, but to God. All true charity has its source in mercy, and mercy is not a virtue of fallen man, but is an attribute of God. Mercy is rooted in love, and even as there is only one that is good, so there is also but one that is love, namely God. God is merciful within Himself, and in turn is merciful unto those He loves by delivering them from all their distresses and bestowing upon them the highest good in Christ Jesus. God is always merciful and gracious toward His people, slow to anger and plenteous in compassion. With them He does not lead according to their sins, nor will He forever chide, nor keep His anger forever. As the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward them that fear Him, for He has removed their transgressions endlessly far from them.

Even when He sends His people trials and sufferings during this present time, He never does it in wrath, but in that love which causes all things to work together for good to those who, love God and are called according to His purpose. We confess that He is “for the sake of Christ His Son, my God and Father, on Whom I rely so entirely, that I have no doubt, but that He will provide me with all things necessary for soul and body; and further, that He will make whatever evils He sends upon me in. this valley of tears turn out to my advantage; for He is able to do it, being Almighty God, and willing, boing a faithful Father.” Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 9. From God we expect every good thing, for He supplies all our needs.

But it is given unto the church to be God’s witness in the world. She is God’s workmanship, God’s husbandry, co-laborer together with God. Christ is her head, and she is His body. And even as the head operates through the body, so Christ works through His Church. They are, united together as head and body, but the members are also mutually knit together as parts of the same body. Christ, who is the merciful High priest in the sanctuary, spreads abroad the love of God in His Church. But that love they love Him and love one another in Him, but also manifest that love in Christian benevolence according to their mutual trials and sufferings. The love of God in Christ, as it fills the members of the church, causes them to bear their sufferings: mutually, so that they spontaneously desire to aid the distressed, care for the destitute and feed the hungry. Spurred on by that love the members of the immediate family and the closest relatives will be the first to extend relief, but the others also will feel and assume their obligation to do all they can, according to the office of all believers. After all, in extending the helping hand to the least of Christ’s brethren they are doing it to Him. Him they find hungry and feed Him; Him they find destitute and clothe Him; Him they find in prison and they visit Him.

Yet it never was God’s intention to leave the work of charity only to the individuals in the church. That is evident from the institution of the office of deacons among the early Christians after Pentecost. As the Form for the ordination of elders and deacons states: “Of the origin and institution of their office we may read, Acts 6, where we find that the apostles themselves did in the beginning serve the poor, “At whose feet was brought the price of the things that were sold: and distribution was made unto every man, according as he had need.” But afterwards when a murmuring arose, because the widows of the Grecians were neglected in the daily ministration: “men were chosen (by the advice of the apostles) who should make the service of the poor their peculiar business, to the end that the apostles might continually give themselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the Word.” Even as the ministry of the Word represents Christ in His prophetic office, and the office of the elders represents the office of the merciful High priest, who is now in heaven and administers His office in and

through the Church. The deacons represent Him who calls them and sends them out in His name to assist the destitute and helpless with true compassion and hearty affection. It is their privilege to visit the needy in Christ’s Name, and to extend the mercy of God to them, not only in the form of necessary aid, but also with prayer and the comfort of the Word. They extend the mercy of God to those in distress, even as God has filled the hearts of His people with the eager desire to help them in their distresses. The bounties which God has bestowed upon His church, the church through her deacons gladly shares with those in need. And the needy they have always with them, if they are but sufficiently interested to search them out. It would seem a strange thing if in a world of growing sin and misery the need of the office of mercy had disappeared.

From this it should be evident that the church has been entrusted the administration of mercy, and not to the magistrate. The magistrate also has a calling, but surely not to represent Christ in the world. To the magistrate is committed the exercise of the sword power, and with it the dispensing of justice, not of mercy. The government is called to protect the good and punish the evil-doer. That is the extent of her calling. That does not exclude that she should make the necessary laws for decency and) good order for the welfare of her citizens. Surely she is interested in preventing the spread of diseases, cleaning up the filth of the poverty-stricken slums and making other laws of sanitation, as well as releaving the streets of the lone Lazarus who lies unattended at the gate of some rich man. Special times of distress may bring special demands upon the magistrate, hut that does not change the fact that charity is the task of the church, within her own sphere and as much as possible round about her. If the magistrate is forced to take over because the church fails to assume her obligation, the shame is on the church. Even organizations for social welfare should not replace the church in her work of mercy. This task rests foursquare upon the church, and upon her alone.

What is lost sight of, is the fact that Christ in God’s name, and not man, dispenses mercy in the world. Many would rather appeal to the good graces of their fellow men than foe privileged to receive mercy from God in Christ Jesus through the office in His church. True it is, that it is more blessed to give than to receive. The greater blessing evidently lies in the privilege of being a member of the body of Christ, which has been endowed from Christ with the necessary means to be able to dispense mercy in Christ’s name among the destitute. Even so, by far the most effective way of performing this work of benevolence is through the deaconate. A gift secretly dropped) into the collection plate is in every way a better gift than the one that is flaunted before the eyes of men with a lot of fanfare. Surely if we give our gifts to be seen of men, we have our reward as soon as men have seen and acknowledged them with flattering words. But he who gives in secret through the deacons can be sure that his left hand will never know what his right hand is doing. He can rest assured that his gift will reach the place that has the greatest need. And he knows that his Father who sees in secret will reward him openly. There can be no doubt about it, that it is blessed to give. Even more blessed than to receive.

But the fact remains, that in that case it must also be blessed to receive. The more so, because we receive not of men who might expect our thanks, but from our own brethren, the household of faith. And what is more, we receive from Christ, our merciful High priest, who is the good Shepherd that cares for His sheep and aids them in all their distresses. And above all, we receive from God, our heavenly Father, Who is the God of all mercy. He who cares for the sparrow has His own way of caring for us, His children, even though we be the least of Christ’s brethren.

To ignore or slight this benevolence is nothing less than to despise the mercy of God. To turn to civic charity in preference to the deaconate is to choose the charity of men rather than the goodness of God. And that, too, has its reward.

Rethinking the calling of the deaconate is well worth our while. It can only mean that all must profit, not the least the deaconate itself.