Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan.

In the last article we contended that Reformed churches have done more than the Romish, Anglican, Lutheran, and Baptist churches to restore the diaconate to its rightful place in the church. This the Reformed churches could do because they understood that Scripture requires the church to have the office of deacon in her midst, and requires that the work of the office be that of caring for the poor and needy.

We will support our contention further by examining more closely the place of the diaconate in the Reformed churches.

In the restoration of the office in Reformed churches, John Calvin blazed the way.

Calvin considered Acts 6:1-6 to be a record of the institution of the office of deacon: “Luke declareth here upon what occasion, and to what end, and also with what rite, deacons were first made.”1 Believing that this institution demonstrated that the church needed deacons, Calvin made sure that the diaconate existed in the church of Geneva. He also viewed the care of the poor to be the deacons’ fundamental work. Commenting on the word “deacon,” he said:

The word itself is indeed general, yet is it properly taken for those which are stewards for the poor. Whereby it appeareth how licentiously the Papists do mock God and men, who assign unto their deacons no other office but this, to have the charge of the paten and chalice (referring to the liturgical duties to which the Romish deacons were assigned, DJK). Surely we need no disputation to prove that they agree in no point with the apostles.2

Though not trying to introduce a multiplication of offices, as Rome had done with her deacons, archdeacons, and subdeacons, Calvin did think that Scripture warranted two kinds of deacons, and implemented the two kinds in Geneva. He wrote:

The care of the poor was entrusted to the deacons. However, two kinds are mentioned in the letter to the Romans: “He that gives, let him do it with simplicity; … he that shows mercy, with cheerfulness” [Rom. 12:8, cf. Vulgate]. Since it is certain that Paul is speaking of the public office of the church, there must have been two distinct grades. Unless my judgment deceive me, in the first clause he designates the deacons who distribute the alms. But the second refers to those who had devoted themselves to the care of the poor and sick…. If we accept this (as it must be accepted), there will be two kinds of deacons: one to serve the church in administering the affairs of the poor; the other, in caring for the poor themselves.3

The work of the second kind of deacons was not monetary but physical care, and was not limited to the poor but included also the care of the widows and orphans at the local hospital. Accordingly, the first group was called “stewards,” the second “hospitallers.”4 Prof. William Heyns notes that the Reformed churches at large did not adopt this practice of having two kinds of deacons:

This example of Calvin, however, found little favor with the Reformed Churches. Even those in France, although organized very closely in accordance with Calvin’s model, have from the beginning prescribed the appointment of Deacons, but not of two kinds of Deacons. And in the Netherlands it was only the Convention of Wesel, 1568, that declared itself in favor of the idea, but the General Synods that followed this Convention ignored it.5

The French Reformed Churches confessed the need for the office ofdeacon to care for the poor in their congregations. Article 29 of the French Confession of Faith, which confession was approved by the synod of Paris in 1559, reads:

As to the true Church, we believe that it should be governed according to the order established by our Lord Jesus Christ. That there should be pastors, overseers, and deacons, so that true doctrine may have its course, that errors may be corrected and suppressed, and the poor and all who are in affliction may be helped in their necessities; and that assemblies may be held in the name of God, so that great and small may be edified.6

The duties of the deacons in the French churches were the same as those in Geneva, namely, to receive the alms and distribute them to the poor, as well as to visit the sick and those with other special needs.

A group of Reformed people from the continent seeking refuge from persecution established a church in London in the 1560s. Their leader, John à Lasco, insisted that deacons must not think that simply gathering and distributing the alms is enough; rather, they must be qualified men, men with a true, heartfelt compassion for those in need, ready always to bring the poor words of comfort and, if they did not live a godly life, words of admonition.

P.Y. DeJong mentions several respects in which the Reformed in London and the French Reformed differed.7 We note three. First, the French churches considered the deacons to be part of the consistory (ruling body of elders), and even delegated deacons to higher assemblies. The London church so emphasized the distinction of the deacons and consistory that they called the assembly of elders and deacons meeting together a “council.” Second, in the French churches the deacons were sometimes allowed to catechize, exhort, and officiate at marriages, while in the London church none of these other duties was permitted. Third, in the French churches the consistories simply appointed the deacons, while in London the congregation was given opportunity to form a nomination of men from which the consistory elected the deacons.

In formulating their view of the diaconate, the Dutch Reformed Churches borrowed from both the French churches and the London church.

The influence of the French churches is seen in the similarity of Article 30 of the Belgic Confession to the above quoted Article 29

of the French Confession. The Belgic Confession reads:

We believe that this true Church must be governed by the spiritual policy which our Lord has taught us in his Word – namely, that there must be Ministers or Pastors to preach the Word of God, and to administer the Sacraments; also elders and deacons, who, together with the pastors, form the council of the Church; that by these means the true religion may be preserved, and the true doctrine every where propagated, likewise transgressors punished and restrained by spiritual means; also that the poor and distressed may be relieved and comforted, according to their necessities. By these means every thing will be carried on in the Church with good order and decency, when faithful men are chosen, according to the rule prescribed by St. Paul to Timothy.8

Regarding the relationship of the deacons to the consistory, the Dutch Reformed combined the views of both churches. Whereas the French churches considered the deacons part of the consistory, and the London church did not, the Dutch Reformed Churches officially consider a consistory to be “composed of the ministers of the Word and the elders,” according to Article 37 of the Church Order adopted by the Dutch Reformed Churches at the synod of Dordrecht, 1618-1619. As did the London church, the Dutch referred to a meeting of the deacons with the elders and pastor(s) as a “council.” However, Article 37 makes provision for the deacons to be added in special instances: “Whenever the number of the elders is small, the deacons may be added to the consistory by local regulation; this shall invariably be the rule where the number is less than three.” This raises the question: what is the exact relationship of the deacons to the consistory? The reader can consult the articles of Mr. Martin Swart in recent issues of the Standard Bearer for a more detailed examination of the question.

The Dutch Reformed also adapted for their own purpose the practices of both groups regarding how deacons are chosen. In the French and London churches the choice was ultimately left up to the consistory. The Dutch Reformed leave the ultimate choice to the congregation. Articles 22 and 24 of the Church Order allow for members of the congregation to direct the council’s attention to persons fit for the diaconate, and then allow the council either to appoint the deacons with the congregation’s approval, or to prepare a nomination of candidates from which the congregation may choose half.

The particular influence of the London church is evident in Article 25 of the Church Order, which requires the deacons to care for the poor and bring comfort to them, but makes no allowance for the deacons to catechize, exhort, or officiate at marriages. The article 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.

Similarly, the “Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons” approved by the synod of Dordrecht requires the deacons to collect and preserve the alms, to bestow them on objects of charity, to bestow compassion and hearty affection on the poor, and to administer relief not only with external gifts but also with comfortable words from Scripture.

To enforce the care of the poor through this office, the first synod of the Dutch churches, held at Emden in 1571, adopted the rule “that at every classical gathering the delegates of the several churches were to be interrogated whether the poor were properly cared for by the deacons.”9 This procedure was also required of all Dutch Reformed Churches by the synod of Dordrecht, which required in Article 41 of the Church Order that at every classis meeting the following question be asked of the delegates of each church: “Are the poor and the Christian schools cared for?” These questions are still asked today of every delegation to a classis meeting of the Protestant Reformed Churches.

Implementing their conviction that the church must care for the poor through her diaconate did not come easy for the Dutch Reformed churches. The civil authorities in the Netherlands wanted to continue doing this work as they had in the past. The state noticed that many estates were being donated to the church and feared that the church would gain too much power. Therefore, in 1576 the civil authorities in the province of Holland drew up some “Ecclesiastical Laws” in which they asserted their right to govern the church, even appointing men to care for the poor. Remember that in similar circumstances the Lutheran churches in Germany did not develop the office of deacon, but left the care of the poor to the state. The Dutch church, however, fought stubbornly and won the battle: she would have her deacons. An interesting story shows that the Dutch Reformed in the Netherlands, convinced of the importance

of the diaconate, fought for her convictions even in this century.

When during World War II the Netherlands were occupied by Germany the deacons of the Dutch Reformed Church assumed the care for the politically persecuted, supplying food and providing secret refuge. Realizing what was happening, the Germans decreed that the elective office of the deacon should be eliminated. The Reformed Synod on 17 July 1941 resolved: “Whoever touches the diaconate interferes with what Christ has ordained as the task of the Church. He touches the cult of the Church.” … The Germans backed down.10

God grant that, should the civil government ever command us to relinquish the care of the poor and abolish the diaconate, we might be as tenacious in fighting for this cause.

The diaconate in the Dutch Reformed Churches flourished in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The office declined in the eighteenth century, however, as love for the poor waned and the deacons cared more for the honor of the office than for the work involved. The leaders of the Afscheiding (1834) and the Doleantie (1886), two reform movements in the Dutch Reformed Churches, worked hard to restore the office in the new denomination. The fruit of this restoration is seen in the Reformed churches in America, Indonesia, and South Africa, which have their roots in the Dutch Reformed Churches. These churches hold their diaconates in high esteem.11

Two aspects of the history of the diaconate in Reformed churches merit a brief comment. The first regards deaconesses. The London church had no deaconesses, while the French churches used deaconesses as assistants to the deacons. For a brief time the Dutch Reformed Churches followed the practice of the French. In 1568 the Convent of Wesel made provision for female assistants to the deacons. This practice was followed until 1581, when the synod of Middleburg advised against deaconesses. Still, this latter synod said that, should sick women need special care, “the Deacons should render assistance through their wives or through other capable women.”12 The Lord willing, we shall some time look more carefully at the history of women assistants to the deacons, as well as the Scripture passages which some used to defend this practice, to evaluate it ourselves.

The second regards the relationship of the deacons to the state. We have seen that the Reformed churches insisted on having the office of deacon in their midst, and not allowing the state entirely to care for the poor. At the same time, the Reformed churches have historically allowed their members to receive money from the state. In the French churches, the synod of St. Maixant (1609) permitted invalid soldiers to receive money from a government fund set up for them. The Dutch churches, at the synods of Dordt (1574) and The Hague (1586), instructed the deacons to work with the civil authorities in helping the poor of the community. Furthermore, Article 26 of the Church Order of Dordrecht requires deacons to cooperate with other agencies which are involved in the care of the poor. We also hope someday to treat this subject in more detail.

This concludes our treatment of the history of the diaconate, which we began by examining the institution of the office as recorded in Acts 6Acts 6 also constitutes an important scriptural basis for the office. However, the scriptural and theological basis for the office is a subject which merits our further attention, and to it we will turn next.

1. John Calvin, Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Acts 6:1.

2. Ibid., Acts 6:3.

3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, transl. Ford Lewis Battles, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), vol. 2, page 1061.

4. Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, ed. and transl., The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,), pages 42-43.

5. Prof. William Heyns, Handbook for Elders and Deacons, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1928), page 288.

6. French Confession of Faith, Article 29, as quoted in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990 reprint), volume 3, pages 376-377. 

7. Peter Y. DeJong, The Ministry of Mercy for Today, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1963), pages 67-68.

8. Quoted in Schaff, op. cit., vol. 3, pages 421-422. 

9. DeJong, op. cit., page 69. 

10. F. Herzog, “Diakonia in Modern Times,” quoted by Elsie Anne McKee, Diakonia in the Classical Reformed Tradition and Today, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1989), page 27.

11. Cf. DeJong, op. cit., pages 72-74, for more information on this recent history of the diaconate.

12. Heyns, op. cit., page 289.