Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin.
Deacons in Reformed churches are often expected to perform various duties. The most obvious to the members of the church is that they take all the collections and they care for the financial affairs of the church. As a result, one of the deacons is often made the bookkeeper of the church, and it falls to the deacons to prepare a budget for the coming year. Perhaps they are asked to perform other duties as well, for example, organizing events such as church picnics or serving as the building committee of the church. In small churches, necessity may require them to assist the elders in their work; in larger churches in which the elders and deacons meet separately, the deacons still meet with the elders as a council, to oversee matters that pertain to the earthly affairs of their church.
None of these is their fundamental work, however. Some of the activities mentioned above, such as being bookkeepers or members of the building committee, could be profitably assigned to other members of the church, especially in a larger congregation. Other activities, such as assisting the elders, are permitted by the Church Order adopted by Reformed churches at the Synod of Dordt, 1618-1619. And still other activities, such as overseeing the general finances of the church, falls rather naturally to the deacons, because these men (if they are the kind of men God’s Word requires deacons to be, I Timothy 3) are respected men, who can be trusted with the monies of the congregation.
But what is the fundamental work which God gave deacons to do in the church of Jesus Christ? With which members of the church particularly must this work be concerned? And how should this work be carried out?
With this article we begin an answer to these questions by setting forth the main principles that govern this work, and by quoting the main articles or sections of the Reformed standards that govern the work of the diaconate. The answer to the last question, the how of the work, will be given in succeeding articles, which will explain in more detail what the various fundamental duties of the diaconate are.
The pertinent articles or sections from Reformed standards include Articles 25 and 26 of the Church Order. Article 25 of the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches reads: “The office peculiar to the deacons is diligently to collect alms and other contributions of charity and, after mutual counsel, faithfully and diligently to distribute the same to the poor as their needs may require it; to visit and comfort the distressed and to exercise care that the alms are not misused; of which they shall render an account in consistory, and also (if anyone desires to be present) to the congregation, at such a time as the consistory may see fit.” This article speaks of the fundamental duties of the diaconate in the congregation. Article 26 speaks of the cooperation of the deacons with other agencies or diaconates in doing their work: “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.”
Two questions asked every year in every church at the time of church visitation underscore the fundamental duties of the office of deacons. In the absence of the deacons, the church visitors must put these questions to the minister and elders: “2. Are they diligent in the collecting of the alms, and do they faithfully realize their calling in the care and comfort of the poor and the oppressed?…. 4. Do they administer the finances wisely, in consultation with the minister and the consistory?” (The Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches, pp. 113-114).
Article 30 of the Belgic Confession speaks “Concerning the Government of, and Offices in the Church.” Among the listed duties of officebearers in this article is this, “that the poor and distressed may be relieved and comforted, according to their necessities.” While the article does not expressly state that this is the duty of the deacons in particular, Reformed churches have always understood the article to mean that.
And the Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons speaks in two places of the work of the deacons. In the first part of the form, in which elders and deacons are instructed as to the nature, origin, and work of their office, we read: “From which passage (the article has just referred to Acts 6, Romans 12:8, and I Corinthians 12:28, DJK) we may easily gather what the deacons’ office is, namely, that they in the first place collect and preserve with the greatest fidelity and diligence the alms and goods which are given to the poor; yea, to do their utmost endeavors that many good means be procured for the relief of the poor. The second part of their office consists in distribution, wherein are not only required discretion and prudence to bestow the alms only on objects of charity, but also cheerfulness and simplicity to assist the poor with compassion and hearty affection; as the apostle requires (Rom. 12, and II Cor. 9). For which end it is very beneficial that they do not only administer relief to the poor and indigent with external gifts, but also with comfortable words from Scripture.”
Then, after the vows are made, the minister exhorts the officebearers to diligence in their work. To the deacons he says, “And, ye deacons, be diligent in collecting the alms, prudent and cheerful in the distribution of the same; assist the oppressed, provide for the true widows and orphans, show liberality unto all men, but especially to the household of faith.”
That these statements regarding the work of the deacons are based on Scripture, the passages themselves have made clear.
Acts 6, the passage that speaks of the institution of the office of deacon, makes clear that the duty of these first deacons was the care of the widows in the daily ministration. The church supplied food to its poor widows every day, in order that they might eat. This work the apostles had been doing, for they knew it was important to care for the poor widows. Yet it became apparent that the apostles were not able to do justice to this work, as well as their own fundamental task of prayer and the ministry of the Word. So deacons were appointed to care for the widows in their need.Romans 12:6-8 speaks of the work of pastors, elders, and deacons in the church. This work is spoken of from the viewpoint of the officebearers being members of the body of Christ, serving the body as a whole. We read: “Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching; or he that exhorteth, on exhortation; he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness.” Especially the references to giving and shewing mercy apply to the work of the deacons.
I Corinthians 12:28 reads: “And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.” The Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons speaks of the word “helps” as applying to the office, and even work, of the deacons: “And I Corinthians 12:28, speaking of helps, he means those who are appointed in the church to help and assist the poor and indigent in time of need.” While this connection between the word “helps” and the work of the deacons might not seem obvious to the English-speaking person, the fact is that the word “helps” does have the idea particularly of aid or assistance given to one in need. To understand this, bear in mind that Paul, in his farewell speech to the elders of Ephesus, says in Acts 20:35: “I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Notice now that the noun “helps” in I Corinthians 12:28 is translated in its verb form “support” in Acts 20:35. In other words, the help of I Corinthians 12:28 is that of assistance to those in need—and that brings to mind the work of the deacons.
The Form of Ordination also referred to 2 Corinthians 9:7: “Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.” This passage speaks not so much to the deacons in particular, as to the members of the church as a whole. But it is true that the cheerfulness required of every child of God as he gives for the relief of the poor and other causes of the kingdom must also characterize the deacons as they distribute the mercies of Christ.
On the basis of these passages from the Reformed confessions and Scripture, we can make the following observations, to introduce our examination of the fundamental duties of the deacons.
First of all we must remember that the proper work of the diaconate is limited.
It is limited in its objects—the work of the diaconate seeks the benefit of the poor, sick, widows, and those in the church with other particular needs. Remember that the office of deacon in the New Testament church was instituted because of the need of the poor Grecian widows, Acts 6. The mercy shown to the poor in their need can also be shown to the sick or to others with needs. In other words, the work of the diaconate is limited to those in need of mercy. So Paul in Romans 12:8speaks of those in the church who show mercy.
Because the fundamental work of deacons is limited with respect to its objects, it is also limited in its scope. It is limited to showing mercy upon those in need, and therefore also to doing whatever is necessary to obtain the earthly means (money or otherwise) for helping those in need.
Second, we remember that although the work of the deacons is limited, it is not minor or relatively unimportant. This work is important, not only because love for God and fellow saints requires us to have compassion on the poor and needy, but also because in this work the deacons function as officebearers of Christ—that is, they picture the work He does in showing mercy on His people, and through them He actually does bestow mercy.
Third, the work of the diaconate is primarily spiritual. Inasmuch as the deacons are instruments of Christ to show mercy to His people, the Holy Spirit works spiritual blessings through them. Accordingly, the gifts that they distribute, while certainly including the material gifts of money or food, must also include the spiritual gift of comfortable words from Scripture.
Fourth, because the fundamental work of the diaconate, though limited, is important, the deacons must give themselves to that work with diligence. This is the general point of Romans 12:6-8, in which specific application is made to the deacons: “… he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; … he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness” (v. 8). The point is that those whom God has placed in positions of service in the church, and to whom God has given gifts to carry out that work, must be diligent in carrying out their work.
As we begin our examination of the work of deacons, therefore, our prayer is this: God grant us deacons who are diligent in their care of the poor and needy, and who are ready to bring to those poor and needy not only material gifts, but also words of comfort from the Scriptures. Having such deacons, the church may know that she is blessed!