Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin. Previous article in this series: January 1, 2005, p. 155.
The first priority of deacons in the church of Jesus Christ must be the care of the poor in their own congregation. At their installation, the deacons were authorized to do their work within and on behalf of that congregation in which they were installed.
Their next priority, as we have demonstrated in our previous article, must be the care of believing poor in other congregations.
But Christ requires deacons in His church to be ready also to help the poor who are outside the household of faith—that is, those poor who manifest themselves to be unbelievers.
Reformed churches have historically taught, on the basis of Scripture, that the church is required to care for the needs also of the poor outside the church of Jesus Christ.
Already in the Old Testament, Israel was required to care for strangers in her midst. Specifically, God’s law in Leviticus 19:10 andDeuteronomy 24:19-21 required Israelites to save the gleanings of their harvest and vineyard for the poor, strangers, fatherless, and widows. Leviticus 25:35 reads: “And if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him: yea, though he be a stranger, or a sojourner; that he may live with thee.” Whether these strangers (foreigners) took up permanent earthly residence in Israel, or were just passing through, Israel was to care for them. Some of these strangers were proselytes, having been circumcised, and therefore were brothers and sisters in the faith. But not all were proselytes; some were just sojourners. Regardless of the spiritual state and condition of these strangers, God required Israel to care for them.
A classic New Testament passage that indicates that the church must care for the needs of the poor outside of her number isGalatians 6:9-10: “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not. As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good to all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.”
In the previous verses, Paul teaches that believers must give for the good of other believers. Specifically, verse 2 requires the saints to bear each other’s burdens, and verse 6 requires the church to support her minister in earthly, material ways. Lest we think that such care of others is a burden, the Holy Spirit encourages us in our duty, by reminding us that what a man sows, he reaps (v. 7). In verse 9 Paul again refers to the hope of a harvest as encouragement not to be weary in well doing. Verse 10 contains the practical application: “let us do good to all men.”
The verse teaches that the church and believers are called to do good. This doing good involves more than, but certainly includes, relieving the poor. Applying the verse specifically to the work of the deacons, notice that it requires deacons to make the poor of the congregation their first priority (“especially unto them who are of the household of faith”); that it also requires the deacons not to limit themselves to the congregation (“let us do good to all men”); and that the deacons are to do this as they have “opportunity.”
The church’s opportunity to do good to others is an ongoing one. The “opportunity” of which the verse speaks is not primarily one of circumstance—that we happen to see one who has a need, and are ready to supply it. Literally translated, the word is “time.” It is the word translated “season” in verse 9: “for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.” The “opportunity” of the church to do good to all, therefore, is that of our being alive on this earth, and having strength to serve God. Our days on this earth are God’s appointed time for the church to do good to all men. John Calvin writes: “Since, therefore, God has set apart the whole of the present life for ploughing and sowing, let us avail ourselves of the season, lest, through our negligence, it may be taken out of our power.”¹ The church must do good to all always.
On the basis of such passages, Article 25 of the Church Order of Dordt originally required the deacons to distribute alms “to the poor among ‘inhabitants and strangers’.”² In the Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons that was approved by the Synod of Dordt, deacons are still exhorted to “show liberality unto all men, but especially to the household of faith.” This phrase clearly refers to Galatians 6:10, and shows that Reformed churches permit their deacons to dispense alms to unbelievers.
Objections might be lodged against the position that the deacons may properly care for the needs also of the unbelieving poor in their vicinity.
Some might argue that the relief of the poor outside the church is really the work of the state. Israel as a nation, not as a church, was required to care for the strangers in her midst. And the Reformed churches in the Netherlands understood it to be their duty to care for the poor outside the churches, because they were state churches—the only church officially recognized by the government in the land.
Others might argue that the benevolent care of the poor who are outside the household of faith is a practical denial of the antithesis—the principle of the church living spiritually separate from the world.
In response to these objections, we acknowledge the possibility that the relationship of the Dutch church to the state contributed to the practice of Reformed churches helping the poor, whether residents or strangers. And we consider proper the concern that the church maintain the antithesis.
Nevertheless, the objections do not disprove the need for the deacons also to care for the needs of the poor who are not of the household of faith.
For, first, one can never separate Israel as a nation from Israel as a church. Old Testament Israel was the elect, chosen, redeemed church of God, whose life on earth took the form of a kingdom. In that kingdom and church, God’s everlasting, spiritual, heavenly kingdom was realized. So His kingdom is being realized in the church today. And the law of God’s kingdom still requires love to our neighbor (Matt. 22:39), even if that neighbor hates us (Matt. 5:43ff.). Christ says to the citizens of God’s kingdom, “Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away” (Matt. 5:42).
Second, the principle of the antithesis is not denied when the church ministers the gospel to unbelievers in the name of Christ. The principle of the antithesis is denied when the church helps the world of ungodly in the world’s cause, on the world’s terms, for the attainment of the world’s goals. But just as the church does not deny the antithesis when she undertakes the work of missions, preaching the gospel to unbelievers, so does she not deny the antithesis when she undertakes the work of relieving the needs of the poor unbelievers with material gifts accompanied by words from Scripture.
Finally, the objections do not disprove the need for the deacons to care for the poor who are not of the household of faith, because Scripture is clear that Christians must show kindness to all.
In much the same way as they care for the poor within the church of Christ, the deacons will care for the poor without.
This care has often begun, in particular cases, with these poor approaching the deacons of the church, or more often the minister of the church, who then ought to assure the person that he will refer the matter to the deacons. That the care of these poor has often begun this way is understandable, for the deacons do not always know the people of the community. Such requests of members of the community for assistance, deacons should take seriously.
But at times the deacons should take the initiative in caring for a person or family in the community. Perhaps the deacons are aware of a homeless person or family that is seen regularly asking for food, work, or a place to sleep, near the church. Or perhaps one of the deacons becomes aware of a particular family in the community who has needs, and discusses this matter with the other deacons.
The deacons will probably find it harder to assess the genuine need of the poor outside the congregation. Sometimes these poor, if they come to the deacons of their own accord, will simply ask for a certain amount of money to use in a certain way. When the deacons try to learn more about the person, their income, and their spending habits, such people often refuse to cooperate. Other times these people will ask to be given their money immediately—for example, within the hour. These are often indications that the needs of these people are not genuine. Even when the people do cooperate, the deacons have little way of knowing whether or not they are telling the truth.
Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster have good advice for deacons in this connection.³ First, reminding us that professional crooks do go about asking the churches for handouts, Berghoef and DeKoster encourage deacons to communicate with other agencies about how these crooks work, and how they can be exposed. Some communities have organizations that keep a file of names of such crooks. Churches can inquire whether a certain person is in the file. But this requires of deacons, when they have been duped, to report the name for the benefit of other churches too.
Second, on page 179 Berghoef and DeKoster write: “When in doubt, give prudently and sparingly the first time, so you will not have mismanaged much of the Lord’s goods if you are misled.”
Third, on page 180 they give a list of questions to ask those who come to receive a handout, both to help assess the need and to detect frauds. I encourage all deacons to refer to this list, modifying it as they think necessary, when dealing with requests for assistance from people outside the church.
In relieving the needs of such poor, the deacons manifest the mercy that Christ bestows upon His people in relieving us of the misery of sin. This is not to say that Christ actually bestows mercy on these poor. He does not, if they are not given to Him of the Father. But the deacons still picture Christ’s mercy. In order that the recipients of their gifts understand this, the deacons must be explicit in bringing the Scriptures and in speaking of Christ to the poor outside the household of faith. The deacons must show these people that they need Christ, the bread of life, even worse than they need the material relief that the deacons give.
The deacons, in manifesting this mercy, must call the people to faith, obedience, and good works of gratitude. The deacons must impress upon these poor that they have a duty toward God. Their duty is not owed to the congregation—they are not required to repay the money, or to show any other favor to the church in return for the church’s gifts. But they must receive these gifts in gratitude to God, using them rightly as good stewards, not squandering them.
In manifesting this mercy, the deacons must also set forth the justice of Christ, warning such that if they do not believe and repent, Christ will condemn them. Moreover, the deacons must manifest this justice of Christ by refusing to help such as are not interested in Christ at all, but care only for earthly food. Such refusal to help, these people must understand, manifests Christ’s judgment on them for their impenitence in their sin.
Doing this work in all earnestness, the deacons must pray God’s blessing on their labors. By God’s grace, they will sometimes see that God still grants to Gentiles (heathen) repentance unto life (Acts 11:18). And often they will witness God’s sovereign work of hardening hearts, preparing them for destruction. Either way, the deacons may rest assured that God’s sovereign will is being accomplished through their faithful and obedient labors.
¹John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, transl. William Pringle (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989 printing), p. 180.
²Prof. William Heyns, Handbook for Elders and Deacons (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1928), page 327. One still reads a similar requirement in article 25 of the Church Order, found in the back of the 1991 edition of The Psalter, which was produced by special arrangement for the Netherlands Reformed Congregations. There the deacons are required “to distribute the same [alms, DJK] faithfully and diligently to the poor, both to residents and to strangers, as their needs may require it….”
³Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster, The Deacons Handbook: A Manual of Stewardship (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian’s Library Press, 1980), pp. 178-180.