Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin. (Preceding article in this series: July 2004, p. 421.)
The fundamental work of the deacons is spiritual in nature.
One might not immediately come to this conclusion when he sees the deacons passing the collection plates, counting the money, and arranging for the payment of the church’s bills.
Nevertheless, the fundamental work of the deacons is the work of caring for the poor of the church. This care of the poor involves giving material gifts for the relief of their poverty. But this care is not simply external and material; it is fundamentally a spiritual care.
The spiritual nature of the work of the diaconate is most clearly manifest when the deacons attend to the work of visiting and comforting the distressed.
Deacons in Reformed churches are required to visit and comfort the distressed. Article 25 of the Church Order requires the deacons “to visit and comfort the distressed.” Article 30 of the Belgic Confession gives as the reason why Christ instituted the office of deacon in the church, “that the poor and distressed may be relieved and comforted, according to their necessities.” And the Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons asserts, on the basis ofRomans 12 and II Corinthians 9, that the office of the deacons requires them “to assist the poor with compassion and hearty affection…. 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.”
It is hard to imagine that any deacon in a Reformed church would be unaware of this spiritual aspect of his work. The confessions and liturgical formula are clear. Every deacon heard the Form of Ordination read at his installation. Even prior to his installation he must have read that form, for anyone who takes the office of deacon seriously would surely have studied what will be required of him after he takes his vows.
Scripture, although not stating n so many words that deacons must visit and comfort the distressed, does indicate that the work of the deacon is a spiritual work. Romans 12:8 refers to the deacon as “he that sheweth mercy.” This showing of mercy refers to aid given to the afflicted. But Scripture elsewhere indicates that mercy is especially the spiritual relief of a spiritual affliction. Remember that some cried to Jesus to show mercy, either to them or to one of their loved ones. We think, for example, of two blind men (Matt. 9:27 and Matt. 20:30), of the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:22), and of the father of a lunatic (Matt. 17:15). This cry for mercy was a cry for physical healing, and Jesus granted that healing in each instance. Yet, at the same time, He assured these people that their faith was genuine, and their sins were forgiven. By this, Jesus taught them that His mercy was shown even more by granting them salvation than by granting them bodily healing. This, then, is the mercy that the deacons must show, according to Romans 12:8.
Another passage of Scripture makes clear that the visiting of the distressed is the duty of all Christians. We read in James 1:27: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction….” This duty that God calls all Christians to perform, the deacons must perform officially on behalf of the church.
The visiting and comforting of the distressed by showing spiritual mercy manifests the particular love of Christ for His people in distress.
By such visits, Christ manifests His love for His people in distress, in a way that He does not and will not through any other means. The civil government and other organizations are also ready to dispense material aid to those in need. The poor can receive welfare; those affected by disasters can apply for grants and low-interest loans. Our government will do everything in its power so that none of its citizens starve! But the assistance of the civil government is outward only. The government does not care about the souls of its people. In this respect, “the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel” (Prov. 12:10). And while other organizations might use means to convey the message of the gospel to those whom they assist, their aid still is not a manifestation of the mercies of Christ.
Some might question this statement, that the aid of such organizations does not manifest the mercies of Christ. They might point to the apparent love and faith of the founders and employees of these organizations. And they might remind us that God is able to accomplish His purpose through whatever means He chooses.
We do not argue these points. But they are beside the point, for we are speaking of the official means through which Christ manifests His mercies. The official means is that of the deacons in the instituted church. The first reason why other organizations that bestow aid cannot be rightly said to manifest Christ’s mercies is that they were not appointed by Christ to be the official agents to dispense His mercies. The deacons were so appointed, as Scripture shows in Acts 6. Second, the “gospel” of these organizations is usually unoffensive, pleasing to all, and therefore no gospel at all. Its message lacks the power unto salvation that the true gospel has. In contrast to such, the deacons come to the distressed in the name of Christ, and with the Word of Christ.
Furthermore, the deacons come to visit the distressed personally. Sometimes—I will not say always—other organizations present the gospel in a very impersonal way to those whom they help. They mail a check, or directly deposit money in their bank accounts. They give a tract or pamphlet, leaving it up to the recipient whether to read it or not. This is not wrong in itself—pamphlets and tracts have their place as a method of doing evangelism work. But, in contrast to these methods, Jesus Christ always presents the gospel to His people personally. Through His Word and Spirit, Christ personally calls all who hear the gospel to faith and repentance; Christ personally works that faith and repentance in the hearts of His people; Christ personally brings into fellowship with Him those who believe and repent; and Christ personally judges those who do not believe and repent. Even while on earth Christ, showing true mercy for His people, laid His hands on the sick, visited sinners in their houses, and spoke to them the gospel of salvation.
So the church is called to bring the gospel personally to those who need to hear it. Whether by the pastor in the preaching or counseling, or by the elders in the family visits or work of discipline, or by the deacons in visiting the distressed, the gospel must be brought personally, face to face, in order to manifest the personal love of Christ for His distressed brothers and sisters. Say VanDellen and Monsma in this connection: “Our Diaconates … must relieve want and distress, but not in a merely functional way, as the county or state would do, but with a heart of sympathy and love. And they must give not merely with a humanitarian sympathy and love, but with the sympathy and love of Christ Himself. This requires interest and a personal, warm touch which only a personal visit can convey.”1
Emphatically, the performing of the spiritual nature of the deacons’ work requires a personal visit. A telephone call, or brief conversation when the deacon and distressed person happen to run into each other, is not sufficient. Preferably this visit must be in the home of the individual or family. If it cannot be in that home, it should be in some other private location.
This visit must be a visit, in the deepest significance of the term.
It is not merely a social visit. Perhaps at some point during this visit, the subject of conversation may include things mundane and earthly, but the purpose of the visit is spiritual, and this purpose must be reflected in the conversation of the evening.
The word “visit” in Scripture means to attend to, look after, or care for. This meaning is common both to the Hebrew Old Testament word translated “visit” and to the Greek New Testament word. God visits the wicked by noting their sin and punishing them for it (Ps. 59:5; Luke 19:44); but He also visits His people in love, by seeing them in their misery and delivering them from it. The psalmist prayed inPsalm 106:4: “O visit me with thy salvation.” And Zacharias glorified God with these words: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people” (Luke 1:68). Notice—visited and redeemed; in other words, God’s visit to His people was not a mere social visit, but a visit to inspect the church’s welfare and to care for her needs.
This kind of visit the deacons are required to pay to the distressed. The deacons must come to the distressed to inquire into their needs, and show compassion by being ready to care for those needs.
Particularly, the deacons must bear in mind that the greatest need of the distressed is to hear an appropriate Scripture passage applied to their situation. The deacons, in bringing material gifts, understand “that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live” (Deut. 8:3).
In addition to the supplying of their earthly needs, the poor and afflicted may need to hear a Scripture passage that teaches them contentment with their lot in life; or that encourages them in their hope for heaven; or that reminds them that God’s grace is not manifest in things, or in the abundance of things, but that His grace is shown spiritually by giving them all blessings in Christ. P. Y. DeJong writes, in his book The Ministry of Mercy for Today, “The only solution to the deep-seated and radical evil which has occasioned the problems of poverty and distress lies in the gospel of Christ. It provides the antidote to the spirit of dissatisfaction, ingratitude, and rebellion to which the poor may easily fall prey. Poverty creates a myriad of problems which can be successfully faced and overcome only in the light of the gospel.”2 In another place, De Jong devotes several pages to setting forth the principles that the deacon must bear in mind as he makes these visits, as well as listing many Scripture passages that deacons might profitably use at such visits.3
Furthermore, at such a visit, prayer is of primary importance. The needs of the family must be brought to God in prayer. The family must be committed to God, whose love for His people and whose sovereign control of all history will surely be manifest in caring for this family. In this prayer the deacon should pray for grace to use the church’s gifts rightly; he may petition God to forgive the sins and trespasses of the family, relating to their stewardship; and he must pray in the confidence that God, for Christ’s sake, will certainly hear and answer the prayer.
This aspect of the work will not always be easy. Some in the church might not care for these visits; they might prefer the deacons to give them their money, and leave them alone. Others will resist the gospel and its commands that the deacons bring. Such people will make this aspect of the work difficult.
On account of this, it is possible that a deacon will find this aspect of the work very frustrating. But if he does, he should first examine himself, and his own relationship to God. He should examine whether his love for the people of God is genuine, and his compassion for them in their distress is heartfelt. He should examine whether he loves God above all, and manifests that love in all his life. He should examine whether he is the kind of man he is supposed to be—that is, a spiritually minded, godly, blameless man (I Tim. 3:8-13). He should examine whether he knows his Bible well enough. He should examine whether he is comfortable praying to his God. He should examine whether spiritual conversations make him feel uncomfortable. He should examine whether he is confident that God will equip him for every aspect of his work. And if he finds deficiency in any of these areas, he should pray earnestly to God for grace to grow, and then go forward and do his work as deacon well.
The deacon who goes on such visits in the confidence that he comes as the agent of Christ to show mercy to the distressed will certainly find this aspect of his work the most rewarding. It will enrich him personally. It will cause him to grow spiritually. And the time spent with the humble saints of God who know their need for Christ’s mercy and readily receive the deacons as Christ’s servants will be positively enjoyable.
Because of the importance of this aspect of the deacons’ work, the church must see to it that her deacons are capable of performing it. When nominations are made for this office, the council must face the question whether the men nominated are truly able, in the judgment of the council, to do this aspect of the work.
If the following statement by Prof. Heyns is true, the state of the church is sad indeed. Regarding the requirement that deacons comfort the afflicted with Scripture, he says: “Even Consistories are little impressed with its importance. When nominations are made for the appointment of Deacons, different qualities are taken into consideration, especially whether the person under consideration is acquainted with the administration of funds, but whether he is a man of a sympathetic disposition and has the gift of consolation is usually passed by as if it were of no account.”4
Sad, indeed. And it might be true. I’m sure it is, in many churches.
But it need not be true! And in a faithful Reformed church, it should not be true! I pray that in our churches, it is not true. And if it has been true in the past that members of Protestant Reformed Churches desire their deacons to be merely financial administrators, I pray God will use these articles to show us that, above all, we need deacons who are godly, compassionate men, who will visit and comfort the distressed.
1.Idzerd VanDellen and Martin Monsma, The Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1941), page 117.
2.Peter Y. DeJong, The Ministry of Mercy for Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1952), page 149.
3.Ibid., pages 176-182.
4.Prof. William Heyns, Handbook for Elders and Deacons (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1928), pages 333-334.