Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin.

Is the proper work of the deacons limited to the care of the poor? Or ought they also care in some way for those who are sick, aged, widowed, orphaned, displaced, or enduring some other heavy burden in life?

The question arises because, in explaining the duties of deacons in Reformed churches, both the Church Order (Articles 25, 26, and 83) and the Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons speak exclusively of the care of the poor. I say exclusively—but there is one possible exception to this: Church Order, Article 25 requires the deacons to “visit and comfort the distressed,” which raises the question whether the “distressed” are only those who are poor.

The argument could be made, therefore, that the proper work of the deacons is the care of the poor only, and that the care of fellow saints who are sick, aged, or otherwise afflicted ought not at all be the concern of the deacons, so long as their circumstances of life do not bring them into poverty.

We wish, however, to devote a few articles to argue the opposite point of view: that the deacons, who are called to manifest the mercies of Christ to His church, ought to care also for other needy members of the church, even if their afflictions do not bring them into poverty.

To argue this point is not to contradict the Church Order and the Form of Ordination. Indeed, the care of the poor is the deacons’ fundamental task. But it is my judgment that the word “distressed” in Article 25 of our Church Order ought not be limited to the poor. And this is the opinion of VanDellen and Monsma as well, who, commenting on the phrase “visit and comfort the distressed,” write: “Moreover, sometimes the distressed may not need money, food, or clothing nearly as much as assistance in some other form, such as sick care (emphasis mine, DJK), or words of comfort from Holy Writ.”¹

Our defense begins with scriptural principles.

It is scriptural to say that sin, not poverty, is the root cause of our misery; and that sin’s consequences extend to all of life’s troubles, not only poverty. That some are widows or orphans is a consequence of sin, inasmuch as “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). And the manifestation of death in us, in the form of sickness, handicaps, and old age, is the consequence of sin. The word “death” in Romans 6:23 can be understood to include both spiritual death and physical death, with all the earthly and bodily troubles that precede it.

It is also scriptural to say that the alleviation of these troubles is the work of mercy. Manifesting His mercy, Jesus raised some from the dead, cast out devils, and healed many that were sick.Matthew 8:16-17, a passage that I bring often to those who are sick, proves this:

When the even was come, they brought unto him many that were possessed with devils: and he cast out the spirits with his word, and healed all that were sick, That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses.

Here Matthew quotes Isaiah 53:4Isaiah 53 is primarily a prophecy of Christ’s atoning suffering on account of our sin. Strikingly, in verse 4 Isaiah prophesies that Christ’s atoning death would be the ground for the removing of our sicknesses as well. This is because sickness is an effect of sin. While the final realization of this prophecy is enjoyed in heaven, where there is “no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain” (Rev. 21:4), Matthew notes in Matthew 8:17 that Jesus Christ began to fulfill this prophecy regarding Himself already while He was on earth, by healing the sick. The point is simply this: today also, in the care of the sick and those with other needs, the church is called to manifest the mercies of Christ.

Jesus underscores this in His notable description of the day of judgment, at which time He will separate the sheep from the goats. Those who inherit the kingdom showed during their life on earth that they were citizens of that kingdom, in supplying Christ’s needs when He was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, and in prison. They provided for Christ in all these circumstances, inasmuch as they provided for one of the least of Christ’s brethren (Matt. 25:34-39).

These manifestations of mercy by Jesus while He was on earth, and by individual saints of Jesus toward fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, the church must also show as a body. And the God-appointed means for her to show this mercy as a body is that of her diaconate.

Secondly, our defense is taken from church history.

The deacons in Calvin’s Geneva were devoted not only to the relief of the poor, but also to the care of the sick, aged, and widows. That they undertook this work is clear from the “Ecclesiastical Ordinances,” what we might call the “Church Order,” of the church in Geneva, adopted in 1541: “There were always two kinds of deacons in the early Church. The one kind was deputed to receive, dispense, and keep the goods for the poor…; the other kind to care for and remember the sick and administer the allowance for the poor, a custom which we still retain at present.”² This document further provided for the deacons to oversee the communal hospital, which housed the sick in one wing, and widows, orphans, and homeless poor in another, and to oversee a hospice for travelers. In this connection, Prof. William Heyns writes,

The fact that Calvin in his regulations for the Genevan Church provided for the appointment of Deacons specifically for taking care of the sick, and also Deaconesses for nursing them, shows that he was fully convinced that care for the sick was a duty of the Church, to be performed through the Deacons.³

Exactly how this happened in Geneva we will examine in the following article, the Lord willing. For now we note that the situation in Geneva was due at least in part to the thought and teachings of John Calvin. This is clear from his writings. In the 1559 edition of his Institutes, Calvin writes:

The care of the poor was entrusted to the deacons. However, two kinds are mentioned in the letter to the Romans: “He that gives, let him do it with simplicity;… he that shows mercy, with cheerfulness.”

Rom. 12:8

Since it is certain that Paul is speaking of the public office of the church, there must have been two distinct grades. Unless my judgment deceive me, in the first clause he designates the deacons who distribute alms. But the second refers to those who had devoted themselves to the care of the poor and sick…. If we accept this (as it must be accepted), there will be two kinds of deacons: one to serve the church in administering the affairs of the poor; the other, in caring for the poor themselves.4

To make it more clear, Calvin’s point is that one kind of deacon is to busy himself with distributing alms, while the second kind of deacon is to manifest the practical, hands-on care of the poor—at which point it is noteworthy that Calvin adds “and sick.”

This influence of Calvin with regard to having deacons who did more than simply care for the poor, but who also cared for other afflicted saints of God, was felt throughout Europe.

The French Confession of Faith, prepared by Calvin and adopted at the Synod of Paris in 1559, gives as reason for including the deacons as an office in the church that “the poor and all who are in affliction may be helped in their necessities.”5 The confession was not being redundant when it added “and all who are in affliction”; it had in mind others who were not poor. Peter Y. DeJong is of this opinion as well, for he writes that the deacons of the French Reformed Churches “were to gather and distribute the alms of God’s people, visit the sick and imprisoned, and whenever possible render all lawful assistance.”6 In the French Reformed churches, however, there was no division of the office of deacon into two parts, as there was in Geneva.

The same distinction in the office of deacon was found in the Netherlands. In 1568 a convention similar to a synod met in Wesel and made a similar requirement. In the fifth chapter of the record of its proceedings, dated November 3, 1568, and entitled “Concerning the Deacons,” we read:

(5) It would, however, be helpful if especially in the large localities two sorts of deacons would be established, one part of which shall apply itself to the gathering and distribution of the alms and at the same time see to it that, in case there are any goods that have been bequeathed to the poor, these will be claimed from the heirs in a lawful way and distributed faithfully to those for whom they had been intended in the bequest. 

(6) The other kind will in the main care for the sick, the wounded and the prisoners; these deacons ought to be gifted not only with faithfulness and diligence but also with the gift of comforting and a better than average knowledge of the Word; and they must diligently inquire from the elders if in their district there are perhaps sick or infirm people who are in need of comfort and encouragement. 

(8) The duty of love demands that attention shall be given also to those who come from outside and to strangers. 

(9) It shall therefore be the calling of the deacons carefully to inquire from the elders and other members of the church if by any chance travelers or strangers have arrived in town who are believers to the end that the benefit of hospitality may be conferred upon them and further faithful and Christian assistance may be given. And in case they are indigent they shall be given what they need. It is furthermore beyond doubt that their care belongs to the first kind of deacons.7

The Church Order of the Provincial Synod of Dordrecht, which met in June of 1574, makes this statement “Concerning the Visitation of the Sick.”

Visiting the sick belongs to the office of the ministers of the Word, and it is risky to assign other persons to that task. Therefore, the ministers shall request the elders and deacons to help them with their task. They shall do so because their office [that of elders and deacons, DJK] in comparison with other Christians requires more with respect to visiting, comforting, and strengthening the sick, the poor, and members in need of comfort.8

It is a fact that explicit references to this aspect of the work of the deacons disappeared from Reformed church orders over the years, beginning already in the late 1500s. But this does not mean that Reformed churches have changed their mind regarding the propriety of deacons caring for Christians whose needs are other than poverty. The indication that this is still part of the deacons’ work, according to Reformed standards, is found in the continual mention of the “poor and…,” in which another word is used, which word is not merely synonymous with poor. For example, the Belgic Confession, which was approved by the Synod of Dordt 1618-1619 as a confession of Reformed churches, requires deacons to relieve and comfort “the poor and distressed.”9 One question that the Protestant Reformed classical church visitors are required to ask the ministers and elders regarding the deacons is whether they are faithful in attending to “their calling in the care and comfort of the poor and oppressed.” And, as we have noted at the beginning of the article, our Church Order implies the need to care for more than the poor, when it speaks of the deacons visiting and comforting the “distressed.”

So, we argue, the care of such by the deacons is proper. What other God-ordained vehicle does the church have than the deacons, to care in an organized manner for her sick, aged, widows, etc.? For deacons are the ministers of Christ’s mercy.

1. Idzerd VanDellen and Martin Monsma, The Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1941), p. 117.

2. Philip E. Hughes, ed and transl, The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1966), p. 42.

3. Prof. William Heyns, Handbook for Elders and Deacons (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1928), p. 334.

4. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, transl. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), p. 1061.

5. Philip Schaff, ed, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1990), vol. 3, pp. 376-377.

6. Peter Y. DeJong, The Ministry of Mercy for Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1963), p. 62.

7. Richard R. DeRidder, Translation of Ecclesiastical Manual, including the decisions of the Netherlands Synods and other significant matters relating to the government of the churches, (the original work authored by P. Biesterveld and Dr. H. H. Kuyper), (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1982), p. 33.

8. DeRidder, p. 69.

9. Schaff, vol. 3, page 421.