Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin. Previous article in this series: September 1, 2006, p. 473.
In our last article we examined ways in which Reformed diaconates today can implement, and often are implementing, the care of non-poor Christians, such as the sick, aged, widowed, handicapped, and the like. In this article I particularly address Protestant Reformed diaconates, suggesting another way in which deacons can busy themselves in their work.
The suggestion regards establishing a group of small retirement homes that are intended primarily for the benefit of Protestant Reformed people, and are overseen by Protestant Reformed diaconates. Whether these homes are only for the aged, or include convalescent care for the sick, does not matter as far as this writer is concerned. What follows can apply to either instance.
Let me first explain the rationale for such a project.
First, it is the church’s duty to care for the aged, sick, and widows (for the sake of brevity, let us understand that in this article widows includes widowers). This point has been sufficiently demonstrated in previous articles.
Deacons usually implement this duty by caring for the various needy in their congregation on an individual basis. One committee of deacons is assigned to this person, another to that person; and, because the aged and sick have access to other homes and care programs, the primary task of the deacons is to ensure that the aged and sick are able to pay for their care. This way of implementing the duty of caring for the aged, widows, and sick is not wrong. Practically speaking, it is probably the easiest way to care for such.
Yet, the first instance of diaconal work in the New Testament is an instance of communal care—that is, of the care of the needy as a whole body. The practice of the church in Jerusalem was to care for the widows in a daily ministration—as a body the widows gathered, in order that their needs be supplied. Also in Geneva, as we have noticed, the deacons cared for the needy as a body, through the General Hospital. When the church has a large number of needy, the care of the needy as a body is possibly the more efficient way to care for such, even though it requires more organization and probably more personnel. By caring for the needy as a body, I do not mean to suggest that the deacons no longer need to take a personal interest in the individual child of God who is needy. I mean simply that some common provision be made for all the widows, all the aged, all the sick, etc.—as is done in a retirement and convalescent home.
Second, the establishment of such homes by the PRC would follow from our understanding of the covenant. The doctrine of the covenant relates to this proposed venture in at least two ways. First, we emphasize the duty of the members of the covenant to care for each other. Such homes would be means by which we who share the same faith could together care for those of our number who are needy. Second, they would be means by which our own widows, aged, and needy could enjoy fellowship with others of like faith and practice.
This argument for establishing retirement homes is similar to the argument we make, based on the covenant, for establishing our own Protestant Reformed schools. In one respect, the argument for establishing our schools on the basis of our covenant view is greater than the argument for establishing retirement homes. We know that God’s promise to continue His covenant with us and our children is fulfilled in the way of our teaching our children the truths of Scripture as we confess them. This we consider to be so important because of the ungodly methods and philosophies of the state’s instruction today. Our aged have of course already received this instruction and are grounded in the truth. Our first concern toward them need not be that of teaching.
Yet, consider how an argument for establishing retirement homes on the basis of our understanding of the covenant is similar to our argument for establishing our own schools. We desire that our children be cared for, in respect of their instruction, by fellow saints and believing adults. And we desire that they learn to have fellowship with like-minded children. Why not show the same concern to our aged? Why not give them caretakers with whom they are one in the faith? Why not give them the opportunity to have fellowship one with another, as members of the same body of Christ?
It is for this reason that other denominations or groups of Christians have already instituted Christian homes and institutions of mercy. As we grow in numbers and in wealth, we should considering doing the same thing.
Some might argue that we do not need our own retirement homes exactly because other Christian homes already exist. My response is that, while these other Christian homes serve a good purpose, and while many of our own people enjoy living in them, these other homes do not demonstrate the care of the PRC as a body for her own needy. They also do not allow our aged to enjoy fellowship as easily with others who share the same convictions regarding doctrine and life. Granted, our aged in such homes often find fellow saints, members of other denominations, with whom they can experience true fellowship. But this will become less and less likely as the mainline Reformed denominations depart ever more from the faith of our fathers. Finally, we do not argue that our own Protestant Reformed schools are unnecessary because of the existence of other Christian schools in the area; so why argue that with regard to homes for the aged?
Third, the establishment of such homes by the PRC would follow from our understanding of the antithesis.
Lest any misunderstand me here, I am not promoting a world flight mentality. Our idea of the antithesis is not that we become geographically separate from the world. Our elderly saints in retirement homes are called to live the life of the antithesis spiritually, by confession and walk—and I trust that by God’s grace they are striving to do that.
Rather, we understand the antithesis, the spiritual separation between the church and the world, to require us to believe the truth over against the lie, and to live in obedience to God’s law as opposed to a life of service to the lusts of the flesh. Our own retirement homes would be a means whereby we would help our aged live this life. They could participate with good conscience in all the programs, the daily activities, the outings, the Bible studies, the informal worship services, the devotions at meal times.
Driving home to me the importance of this argument was the testimony of a widowed and elderly saint who is a member of one of our churches, and who lives in a retirement home at which, periodically, a movie was shown for the entertainment of the residents. Our sister made known to other residents that she did not attend such, and would not be attending such. But one day she was physically dragged by other residents, despite her protests and struggles, toward the room where this movie was shown.
This incident reminds me of the words of Paul to Timothy, “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (II Tim. 3:12). Persecution we cannot escape. Surrounded by others who do not believe and live as we do, and manifesting our own godliness, we will be persecuted. But would it not be good to provide our aged with an environment in which this persecution will not arise from staff and fellow residents?
Regarding the implementation of this idea, let me state at the outset that I am not envisioning one large and centrally located home to serve the whole denomination. This answers the concern of those who have already thought, “Oh, of course, and it would be in Grand Rapids…. So we in Iowa and Alberta and other remote congregations would not benefit from it.” Such is not my thinking.
Rather, I envision several smaller homes scattered throughout the country—perhaps two or three in West Michigan, and others to serve the aged of the churches in Classis West. One home for five elderly saints is not too small a project, as far as I am concerned. In this way the aged could live near their families and congregations, and the benefits could be enjoyed by many of our congregations.
While this would require nursing staff and support personnel in various places around the country, it would not require each home to be individually operated by its own separate board. Perhaps individual government would be best; but it is also possible that all of the smaller homes be part of one broader organization, with one governing body.
The question arises, of course, whether the project is feasible. Can the PRC financially afford such? Are we not already strained enough by our commitments to missions, a seminary, and Christian education? My response is that such does not appear to me to be the case. True enough, some of our families do struggle financially. But as a whole, we are not poor. And our past history, both in establishing churches and schools, has demonstrated that when we see a need and begin to address it prayerfully, the Lord supplies the means for us to go forward.
And is such a project feasible from the viewpoint of the laws of the state that regulate the establishing and maintaining of such homes? Could we work through all the red tape? Could we be free to establish such homes, subject to civil laws, and still be able to set our own guidelines regarding who may be residents and who may be employees, as we do with our schools? I do not have the answer to these questions. But we have the means to find them out!
To my mind, the most important question regarding implementation is the question of which body within the PRC could properly undertake the project. As I see it, two options exist. One is that the deacons undertake this project as part of the work of their office. To facilitate this the deacons might establish one or two diaconal conferences, similar to our broader assemblies, to oversee this project. If one conference, it would include delegates from every diaconate in the denomination; if two conferences, they would be comprised of delegates from every diaconate in the Classis. Thus the work, which is properly the work of deacons, but is too great an undertaking for any one diaconate, can still be carried out by the deacons.
The other option is that interested members of our congregations form a society for the purpose of undertaking this project, just as we do for Christian education. The society then elects a board, which is responsible for the oversight of the project.
Either option is potentially feasible. Personally, I prefer the former option, for two reasons. First, such a project can properly be considered part of the work of the deacons. In this respect such a project is distinct from Christian education. While the church as institute is called to teach her youth in the fear of Jehovah, the church rightly fulfills this obligation not by establishing parochial schools, but by catechizing her youth. Comprehensive Christian education of children is the duty of parents. If the children do not have parents, such education becomes the duty of the children’s legal guardians, not of the church institute. However, the care of the aged and sick is the duty of the church institute. It is true that, first of all, the care of such is the responsibility of their families. But the deacons have the responsibility of caring for the aged when the families cannot, or when the aged have no families.
Second, if the deacons oversaw such a project, it would then be centrally organized. It seems to me that if the project were centrally organized, it could be administered and operated more efficiently.
The foregoing remarks regarding the implementing of this idea are not meant to be the real burden of the article. I have set them forth in order that the readers might understand better what I have in mind. If members of the PRC think that some other way of implementing the idea is preferred, that is fine with me, so long as it is legal and proper.
The real burden of this article is to suggest the timeliness and propriety of our establishing such a home, or group of homes.
Deacons, talk it over.