Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin. Previous article in this series: May 15, 2005, p. 373.
The church of Jesus Christ is not the only entity that busies itself caring for the needy—the poor, aged, widows, sick, disabled, and disaster victims. The civil government does so on all levels—federal, state, and local. 1 Secular private organizations such as the Red Cross do so. And even some private organizations that might be called Christian do so. I have in mind, for instance, the board of directors of a Christian retirement home, which not only oversees the home’s staff and finances, but also makes provision for its residents to continue to live in the home even if they cannot afford to pay the costs of living there. The fact is that the deacons have some “competition” in their work.
Reformed deacons must never let the “competition” win the day. In our last article, we pointed out the warning of Article 83 of the Church Order, that deacons must “be not too much inclined to relieve their churches of the poor.” Article 83 applies this warning specifically to the case of the poor moving from one Reformed church to another. But the principle can be applied more broadly: deacons must never allow any other people or organization to minimize the work of the deacons, by caring for the church’s poor.
What, then, are the deacons to do? Article 26 of our Church Order answers this question. The article reads:
In places where others are devoting themselves to the care of the poor, the deacons shall seek a mutual understanding with them, to the end that the alms may all the better be distributed among those who have the greatest need. Moreover, they shall make it possible for the poor to make use of institutions of mercy, and to that end they shall request the board of directors of such institutions to keep in close touch with them. It is also desirable that the diaconates assist and consult one another, especially in caring for the poor in such institutions.
Having already treated the matter of deacons consulting with other deacons, we wish in two articles to treat the first two points of Article 26. In this article we will treat the issue of how the existence of “others” who “are devoting themselves to the care of the poor” affects the work of the diaconate.
Because our purpose at this point is to explain the fundamental work of the diaconate, we will not at this time give a detailed answer to the question of whether or not poor Christians may avail them- selves of the help that secular organizations offer. We simply point out that the scriptural principle is this, that in their poverty God’s people seek the true mercies of Christ from fellow saints and from the church through her diaconate, and that God’s people not think too highly of the tender mercies of the wicked, for these are cruel (Prov. 12:10). But to explain this principle further and guide God’s people in applying it requires us to make careful distinctions, which we will not take the time to do now, for this question does not bear so much on the work of the deacons.
What does bear on the work of the deacons is the fact that the people of God, if they choose to do so, could receive help both from the church and the government. Historically some did that very thing. When the teachings of the Reformation came to the Netherlands, and the government officially viewed the Reformed church as the state church, both the government and the church insisted on administering relief to the poor. Consequently, VanDellen and Monsma tell us, “certain parties would receive aid through the Church of their locality and also from the local government agency, whereas others suffered from insufficient support.”2 Today the same possibility exists.
It is the duty of the deacons, therefore, to do their utmost to prevent some from receiving more than they need, and others from not receiving enough. And to this end the deacons are required to “seek a mutual understanding with” others who devote themselves to the relief of the poor, whether those “others” be a government agency or a non-governmental agency.
What is meant by a “mutual understanding”?
In the Dutch, the article originally used the wordsgoede correspondentie,3 which we could translate as “good correspondence.” VanDellen and Monsma say: “No doubt they meant by ‘good correspondence’ that each should report to the other to whom aid was extended.”4 And Prof. William Heyns writes that the idea of “mutual understanding” is “an understanding of mutual recognition and of readiness to inform one another of the assistance that has been rendered, so that it will be possible for the Deacons to ascertain in regard to poor church members whether, and to what extent, they have received help from other sources.”5
While not disapproving the state’s busying itself in the relief of the poor, and while not discouraging the poor of the church from receiving such relief, the article nevertheless requires the deacons to let the state know what the deacons are doing, and to receive knowledge of what the state is doing in the care of the poor. A “mutual” understanding is an understanding that both state and deacons have, not the one or the other only. And such an understanding can be achieved only by communication, whether written or verbal.
Such mutual understanding was possible in the days in which the article was originally written, because the government of the Netherlands officially recognized and even partially sponsored one church—the Reformed church. One has good reason to wonder if such mutual understanding is even possible today, especially in the western world.
One reason why such an understanding seems unlikely is that both church and state today rightly emphasize a separation of church and state. Because of this separation, the church is not interested in telling the state what it is doing in terms of poor relief, and the state is not interested in knowing. A second, related reason, would be that the government considers itself obliged to give aid to any of its citizens who qualify for it, and would probably be unconcerned about the role the church desires to play in this matter. A third, suggested by VanDellen and Monsma, is that the multitude of organizations that exist today for the relief of the poor make this practically impossible for deacons to do. Yet another reason would be the great emphasis on the privacy of the individual that is so common today. No governmental agency, or even private organization, is free to release personal information about one of its clients to a third party.
In light of this possibility that deacons cannot have such a mutual understanding with others today, VanDellen and Monsma are of a mind that this requirement of our Church Order should be eliminated. Another reason they favor its revision or elimination is that, in their opinion, the provision “obscures a principle, namely, that the Church is fully responsible for its own needy.”6 It obscures this principle, apparently, inasmuch as it allows deacons to keep in contact with other organizations that also relieve the needy.
I would prefer, rather than taking VanDellen and Monsma’s suggested route, to proceed on the assumption that this part of Article 26 is not wholly irrelevant, even though we know that deacons today will certainly have to apply the principles of this article differently than did deacons in another century and country.
If Article 26 does nothing more than remind us of important principles, we would have reason to argue that it is relevant. This article does remind us of such principles. True, the principles might be obvious, and a matter of common sense—but they are good scriptural principles for all that. And we can always profit from a reminder of good scriptural principles.
The article underscores the principle that the deacons may never allow any organization, not even the civil government, to relieve them of their duty to care for the poor. This reminder is necessary. These “others” do exist, and do work to relieve material poverty. The deacons cannot compel these organizations to cease this work, or to cease their existence altogether. In light of this, the deacons might be tempted to let the “others” do all the work. Article 26 will not allow deacons to fall into this error.
The principle is that the deacons assert their authority to care for the poor! They must even respectfully assert that authority to the government, if need be! Such is the significance of the answer of the Synod of Dordtrecht, 1578, to a question put to it:
What a church must do which is hindered by the authorities in the ministry of mercy. Answer: All diligence shall be followed that the church again be given her right in the best possible way, which first the consistory and after that also the classis if necessary shall take care of, requesting the same from the government if necessary.7
A second principle that the article underscores is simply this, that no needy persons be helped above and beyond their need. The article says, “…to the end that the alms may all the better be distributed among those who have the greatest need.” Although we discourage our people from seeking help from the government in their poverty, the fact remains that a member of the church could seek help from both the government and the deacons. If this should happen, and if the deacons are aware of it, the latter may investigate to what degree the government helped, so that the individual or family is not receiving from two sources more than what they need. It is not right of the church to bestow alms on those whose need has already been met by another source, even if her members should have come to the church first.
These principles are good. They make the article relevant for us today.
The article is also relevant because it reminds deacons of what they must strive to do, and perhaps can do successfully, in certain instances.
First, at times they might be required to show the civil government that the church through her deacons is capable of caring for the needs of a specific individual, and ought to be permitted to do so. I speak of specific cases. Suppose that in some instance the civil government becomes insistent on helping a member of the church, and requests the deacons to let the government be the sole supplier of aid. Then deacons today must also request the government to let the deacons be the sole supplier of aid. Just the thought of what might be involved in making this request might make the deacons think, “It will never work.” It might be easier to make a camel go through the eye of a needle than to try cutting through government red tape, to get the government to stop doing something it thinks it has a right to do. But it is possible! God, who governs men’s hearts, could so govern the hearts of those in government who act on this request, that they grant it! But it will require the deacons to make the request, and show the government that the deacons are serious about taking care of their own poor. And the reason for making such a request will be the deacons’ realization that the church must care for her poor, and that the deacons must correspond with others who are doing the same thing, so that the poor are best cared for.
Second, if the deacons become aware of any in the congregation who are on the government’s welfare rolls, the deacons must teach them to seek help, not from the government, but from God through the church and her deacons. This also could be a daunting task. The deacons might meet opposition to this. But if the deacons are convinced that the member of the congregation is wrongly seeking help from the government, rather than from the church, the deacons will undertake this daunting task anyway, and will persist in it. For they must not let any “others” relieve them of their own duty to administer Christ’s mercies to the poor!
No other organization canadminister Christ’s mercies to the poor. No other group of people has God called to do this. No other group is so privileged as to be used of God in this way. The deacons exclusively administer Christ’s mercies. Deacons, do not neglect this work!
1. It is not our purpose to delve into the history of the government’s care of the poor, interesting though that history may be. For a survey of this history, the interested reader can consult pages 194—200 of Peter Y. DeJong’s book The Ministry of Mercy For Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1963).
2. Idzerd VanDellen and Martin Monsma, The Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1941), p. 120.
3. To read the entire article in Dutch, as adopted by the Synod of Dordt, the interested reader can consult VanDellen and Monsma, p. 119.
4. VanDellen and Monsma, p. 120.
5. William Heyns, Handbook for Elders and Deacons (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1928), p. 319.
6. VanDellen and Monsma, p. 121.
7. The quote is from page 102 of Richard R. DeRidder’s translation of P. Biesterveld’s and Dr. H. H. Kuyper’s book, Ecclesiastical Manual, including the decisions of the Netherlands Synods and other significant matters relating to the government of the churches (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1982).