Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin.
The fundamental work of the deacons in God’s church is the relief of the poor and needy. In order to do this work, the deacons must have the means available to relieve those in need. It comes as no surprise, then, that Reformed churches require their deacons “diligently to collect alms and other contributions of charity” (Church Order, Article 25), and again, to “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” (Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons).
Three points immediately catch our attention as being noteworthy. The first relates to what must be collected. Not only must the deacons collect alms, but they may collect other things as well, as the following phrases indicate: “and other contributions of charity”; “that many good means be procured….” The second relates to the gathering of these alms and other contributions: they must be collected, and preserved. The third pertains to the diligence with which the deacons must do their work. Both works quoted above point out the need for diligence. In addition, the word “procure” underscores this; generally it means “to get or obtain,” but the emphasis falls especially on the care required to get or obtain. One definition given for this word in the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is “To put forth or employ care or effort; to do one’s best.”
“Alms” are charitable gifts donated to the poor. The word as it appears in the New Testament is a translation of a Greek word with the basic meaning “mercy.” This Greek word refers particularly to mercy displayed in acts of kindness, as Acts 9:36 indicates, speaking of Dorcas having done “almsdeeds.” So the alms are specifically those gifts given to the church, in order that she might perform the ministry of mercy through her diaconate, in the service of Christ.
In our experience, alms most often take the form of money. This is because ours is a money-based society. Money is the most convenient thing to give for the relief of the poor, because we get paid in money. And money is the most convenient thing to give to the poor, because they can buy any material necessity with money. Money also fits nicely into the collection plate.
The deacons, however, are permitted to collect more than simply money. And they might consider doing so for good reason.
First, the poor whom they serve usually have a specific need—such as a need for a house, car, furniture, or groceries. While money can buy all these things in a money-based society, it is obvious that the need of the poor would be relieved if they were given the very thing that they need, rather than being given money to buy what they need.
Second, giving gifts of money is not always wise. With money, a man whose family is hungry can buy more beer to quench his unsatisfied thirst for alcohol. With money, a woman whose children need clothes can buy jewelry or whatever else will keep her happy. When the specific needs of a family are supplied with the very thingneeded, the possibility of the misuse of the gift is greatly reduced.
“Many good means” can also take the form of services, rather than material objects. Some in the congregation are not so much poor as they are invalid; or perhaps they are both poor and invalid. Being invalid, they might need gifts of time and energy, rather than possessions. Perhaps they need transportation to and from places; or they need one to get their groceries for them. The task of making arrangements for such needs properly falls to the deacons.
By requiring their deacons to procure “many good means” for the relief of the poor, Reformed churches indicate that the ministry of mercy that they expect of their deacons requires more than simply receiving money and giving money to the poor. Such churches also realize that every case must be dealt with individually. Each diaconate is given some freedom to be creative, in determining how best to meet any particular need.
Perhaps this is a necessary reminder for our diaconates today. So accustomed are we to collecting and distributing only money, that we might tend to view one who comes to us with a different need as bucking the system, or as being bothersome, or as being at the wrong door with their request. I hope such is not the case. It ought not be the case. The needs of God’s people, which might lead them to ask help of the deacons, can be many; and the deacons must stand ready to help each child of God with whatever need he has.
These contributions are to be collected.
Obviously, the services that we have mentioned above cannot be collected. Rather, they are to be solicited. When the deacons are not able to give of their own time and energy to provide transportation or other services, they must ask members of the congregation to do so.
What must be collected are the money and other material objects that are given for the relief of the poor. The point that must be now stressed is that collection is the only proper way to obtain and receive such contributions.
Passing the collection plate at the worship service is the most common way to gather such alms. This is proper. I Corinthians 16:1-2 teaches that collections for the relief of the poor are an aspect of the worship service. And our Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 38, in explaining what God requires of us in the fourth commandment, says: “that I, especially on the sabbath, that is, on the day of rest, diligently frequent the church of God, to … contribute to the relief of the poor, as becomes a Christian.”
Other ways of obtaining contributions of charity are not ruled out, so long as they involve collecting.
If the need for benevolent funds and goods is great, but the benevolent fund is low, and the congregation does not give more despite being made aware of the shortage, the deacons may go door to door in the congregation collecting benevolent funds. On this point, Peter Y. DeJong writes:
In some cities of the Netherlands the custom was followed of having the deacons collect alms from door to door. But wherever the spiritual life of the congregation flourished, this method was soon discarded. However, in times of serious economic stress the deacons may with propriety call on those who enjoy greater than average material prosperity and solicit special gifts.¹
While going door to door to collect funds is not wrong in principle, the fact that it is not done in Reformed churches indicates that Reformed believers realize the importance of putting their benevolence gifts in the collection plate.
Such door-to-door collections are the only way to collect contributions of charity given in a form other than money. If a member of the congregation gives the diaconate food for the relief of the poor, that member would either bring his donation to the deacons privately, or ask the deacons to pick up the goods from his house. This would still be considered a collection, even though it did not happen at a public worship service.
Why is it so important that these monies and goods be collected?
Scripture requires us to give our gifts for the relief of the poor directly to the diaconate, voluntarily, and for the simple motive that we love the poor and desire to supply their needs. That we must give to the diaconate directly is clear from Paul’s words to the Corinthians inI Corinthians 16:1-2, as well as from the example of many of the saints in the early New Testament church, who having “lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need” (Acts 4:34-35). That such giving must be voluntary and in love is clear fromII Corinthians 8:1-15, in which Paul motivates the Corinthians to prove the sincerity of their love for the poor saints in Judea by taking a collection for them, and yet requires them to give willingly, that is, voluntarily. That we are to give, not seeking anything in return, is clear from Romans 12:8: “he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity.” By the word “simplicity” the Spirit impresses on us that such gifts must be given with singleness of mind, expressing genuine love to the saints, not desiring anything in return.
For these reasons, benevolence monies and contributions may not be raised by means other than collections. To obtain means for the relief of the poor by means of auctions, bazaars, carnivals, or other fundraisers is contrary to the principle of giving directly, without desire for something in return. To build up an endowment fund for this purpose, using the interest to cover the needs of the poor, is contrary to the principle of giving directly for the needs of the poor. To include a line item in the church’s general fund budget for benevolence, and then to require every family to give a certain amount every week for benevolence, is contrary to the principle of voluntary giving, and it confuses the general operating expenses of the church with the very necessary and distinct work of caring for the poor. One can read more arguments against this practice in DeJong’s book, pages 135-136.
Having collected these goods, the deacons are required to preserve them, according to the Ordination Form. That this requirement is explicitly added is striking—does it not go without saying that the funds given for the relief of the poor must be preserved?
But the fact is that thieves and robbers know that someone, upon leaving the church service, either has the money or knows where it is. And the fact is that deacons are men, who are capable of unintentionally misplacing or losing the money—a very uncomfortable situation for any deacon to be in, indeed! So the duty to keep the contributions of charity safe is mentioned.
So important do Reformed churches consider this duty, that two of the questions that church visitors must ask in their annual visits to every church in the classis touch on the subject. One of the questions is put to the council as a whole: “Are the funds of the church and the poor fund and all proofs of possession kept in a safe place so that no occasion is given for mistrust nor difficulties can arise on leave of office or death…?” And the second question is put to the elders and minister in the absence of the deacons: “Are the collections counted in the presence of the minister or one or more of the elders?”²
How do our diaconates preserve these alms and goods? Following are some ways. To me they seem obvious. While I realize that each diaconate may decide for itself how to preserve its alms, I suggest that any diaconate that does not conform to the following ways should reevaluate its practice, and ask whether it is doing enough to preserve the alms.
First, the money must be counted carefully as soon as possible. Preferably, this means as soon as the worship service is over. This counting must be done in the presence of the minister or one or more elders, in order that the deacons might have witnesses that they have faithfully and carefully counted these monies. If the counting does not take place until a monthly meeting of the diaconate, the money should be put in a safe as soon as possible.
Second, the money must be brought to the bank as soon as possible. For a deacon to take the money home with him is not at all a good idea. His house is not as safe from thieves or fire as is a bank; the money is probably not insured, so long as it is in his house, while it is usually insured when deposited in a bank; and, because the money has been for some extended time in his sole possession, that deacon is personally accountable for it, and if any discrepancies should arise regarding its amount, he probably has no unbiased witnesses to his integrity.
Third, the money must not be invested in any account that could be devalued, such as stocks or mutual funds. All the church’s funds, not only the benevolent funds, belong in an account in which the principal is safe.
Fourth, never may any deacon authorize the disbursement of any of the benevolent funds without the knowledge of the deacons as a whole. Perhaps this pertains more to the matter of distributing the funds, which we will deal with in a future article; but it relates also to that of preserving the funds.
All this the deacons must do “with the greatest fidelity and diligence.”
The reason for fidelity is clear enough. To them is entrusted money that is intended for the poor. The deacons must see that it is used for that purpose, and that purpose only. Furthermore, they answer to God for how they do this aspect of the work.
Their fidelity will lead to diligence. It will lead the deacons to do everything possible so that every poor and needy family or individual in their congregation is cared for.
Especially the deacons must remember the need for diligence when the needs of the congregation are many and great. While a deacon must never view his work as a burden, he might be tempted to do so when it requires excessive amounts of his time. Then he must give diligence to his work and not become weary in well doing.
Also, the deacons must remember the need for diligence when the congregation does not appear to be generous in its support of their work. The deacons might grow weary of constantly reminding the congregation of the need to give for benevolence. But such is their calling.
As an example, look to Christ! How diligent He was, and still is, in supplying all our needs! So let the deacons be diligent as they administer His mercies to the poor and needy.
And remember the incentive that God gives deacons to be so diligent in I Timothy 3:13: “For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.”
¹Peter Y. DeJong, The Ministry of Mercy for Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1952), page 134.
²Cf. The Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (“The Green Book”), 2002 edition, pages 112 and 113.