“The office peculiar to the deacons is diligently to collect alms (aalmoezen) and other contributions of charity (andere armengoederen), 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.” (Art. 25, Church Order)
“We believe . . . . that there must be deacons . . . . that the poor and distressed may be relieved and comforted according to their necessities.” (Belgic Confession, Art. 30)
“The deacon’s 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, Romans 12; and II Corinthians 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.” (Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons)
In the above quotations the task peculiar to the deacons is rather completely defined. Beautiful but also difficult are the labors of these ministers of mercy. Beautiful they are because they are the labors of Christ, the perfect and heavenly high priest and they are difficult labors because they are to be performed by sinful men in the midst of a sinful people. We may distinguish this work into four parts:
a. Collecting Alms and Gifts of Charity
If the task of collecting alms consisted merely in passing the offering plate during the services of Divine worship, this phase of the deacon’s labor would be relatively simple. In the churches today this has become more or less the established custom so that the major percentage of gifts for the poor are received in this manner. Formerly a large table was placed in the church whereupon the various gifts for the poor were placed. Later, following the Synod of Dordrecht in 1574, the custom changed. The deacons stood by the door of the church and received the gifts for the poor as the people departed after the service. Still later this was again changed since as Voetius expressed it—no one could as conveniently pass it by and the offerings brought in more—and the contributions for the poor were taken during the services. Further, it was felt that this was more proper since alms-giving is not something to be appended but rather belongs to the service. This is obviously also the position of our Heidelberg Catechism which speaks of the proper observance of the Sabbath as consisting not only in “diligently frequenting the church of God to hear His Word, to use the sacraments, and publicly to call upon the Lord,” but also, “to contribute to the poor as becomes a Christian.”
Offerings for the poor are to be distinguished from the offerings received for the regular expenses and needs of the church. What is contributed for the “budget” is not the same as contributions for the poor. The latter are gifts of love and need not necessarily be in the form of money. Food and clothing are as much needed by the poor as money and oft times more so. Occasionally legacies of real estate and other possessions are properly left to the deaconate to be disbursed to the poor. For this reason such gifts to charity are not necessarily given on Sunday or limited to offerings received in the services.
The task of the deacons is to diligently collect these various contributions. Apparently this is not so difficult in times when there is little need for the poor and when there are great surpluses of goods as in our times. Expenditures are at a minimum and through periodic collections the balances in the charity fund reveal continuous increases. Such a situation, however, does not necessarily reflect diligence on the part of the deacons. It may be merely due to prosperous economic conditions and the result of many routine offerings where very little, if any, is disbursed. It may even be the lack of diligent distribution that creates these surpluses. The congregation may simply in routine manner give into a fund and in some instances part of the offering may even be withheld since there is already a surplus and no immediate need. Such collecting, however, is not what is here meant.
To diligently collect alms means that the deacons must see to it that only legitimate means are used through which the needs of the poor are provided. Alms are gifts of love and, therefore, are not to be gathered through various fundraising schemes such as bazaars, suppers, auctions, etc. Nor should the Deaconate appeal to the government for aid td assist its poor. No doubt it is true that as tax payers the people of God are legally entitled to government relief but this cannot be construed as a work of mercy. Better it is that God’s people learn to discard their individualism and cease to “look every man on his own things” so that the bond of unity in Christ may be more consciously felt and there may be more readiness to “bear one another’s burdens.” The deacons are to use diligence as far as possible so that what is received for the poor is indeed the gifts of love and if these are insufficient to meet the needs of the poor an important second step in this matter of diligence must be taken.
That second step is to bring before the consciousness of the church the need and nature of gifts of charity. It has been suggested that the deacons, too, engage in a work similar to the work of family visiting performed by the elders. This would not be improper if kept within its rightful limitation? There is much room for instruction in the spiritual art of giving. Another alternative is that the deacons report their deficits to the consistory and attention be given to these things in the ministry of the Word. It is important that we understand that our gifts to aid the poor and distressed of God’s people ought to assume the nature of thank offerings. Such is the underlying idea of II Corinthians 8, 9. It is only out of gratitude to God for the great gift of His love, Christ Jesus, and in Him the fullness of salvation that we can properly be disposed to assist those that are afflicted and in need. If this were more deeply .understood there would be no need for the poor to suffer. The world, as expected, is moved by humanitarian motives in helping its distressed. Such, giving is often abundant but it is without mercy. The church is moved by Christian love and gratitude in her giving and these are far more excellent. Let the deacons give diligence that those from whom they receive the gifts of charity understand this for then it will also be reflected in the giving.
b. Distribution of Charity
It is here that the deacons encounter one of the most serious difficulties of their task. They are to be faithful and diligent in this work of distribution. On the one hand this means that they are to see to if that the gifts of charity are not misused and given where there is no real need. An able bodied man who has opportunity to work and provide bread for his family but who manifests himself as a sluggard ought not to be fed by the deacons, Yet, his wife and little children who suffer in consequence of his evil laziness, ought not to be neglected. A man who is able to purchase a new automobile each year or two, furnish his house with the latest in luxury and entertainment but who neglects to pay his Christian school tuition is no object of charity. That man needs sound instruction in the Word, abundant grace of the Spirit and not more money. So the deacons must be diligent for they, too, must give account of their distribution. On the other hand, they do not have to wait to bestow help until there are circumstances of dire want and deep suffering. Aid in smaller quantities in time may often prevent much greater needs later. But the difficulty for the deacons lies in the fact that often those who really have need are the most reluctant to request it while those who are not in the least entitled to charity are very bold to demand it. Such sinfulness, sad to say, is often found in the church and it is this factor that makes this labor so difficult and frequently occasions considerable unjust criticism. If only greed, selfishness and pride could be rooted from the human nature, the work of Christian mercy would assume an altogether different character and be met with greater appreciation. But as long as these things exist, it will be necessary and very important that the deacons use great diligence.
As it is the deacons are often unjustly criticized when they carry out the necessary investigation to rightly execute their work. Certainly they must know somewhat of the circumstances before they can properly apportion the gifts entrusted to their care. Of course, they must confine such investigation to its proper limitations and it must always be done in the spirit of Christ as characterized by humility and love. Even then, however, there are always people who expect hand-outs without disclosing any information concerning their circumstances and when they are requested to honestly present their needs they become bitter and resentful and express the same toward the ministers of mercy who have come to help them. Such attitudes are not reflections of grace but spring either from sinful pride or are an attempt to hide the truth concerning their real circumstances. As long as such things exist the task of the deacon will not be an easy one. He, too, will sow the seeds of mercy in tears.
Another thing that virtually makes much of this work of Christian mercy obsolete in our day is the economic changes of our advanced age coupled with the proud independence of man and his refusal to recognize the church as the only proper administrator of mercy. In times past when there were seasons of unemployment, sickness, death, etc. in a family that created hardship and want or when such things as fires, earthquakes, floods, pestilences, drought, tornadoes, etc. occurred, the deacons would stand ready to aid and comfort the distressed and the latter felt keenly the need of their coming. This, in many instances, is no longer the case. Today unemployment compensation, insurances of countless sorts, social securities, etc. tend to replace the deaconate. What formerly would be regarded as a disaster is now almost regarded as a blessing in disguise since the victim is able to reap more than he has lost. To the flesh the mercies (??) of the world prove to be more abundant than the real mercies of Christ. The latter, reflected in the deaconate, are not desired but the former are considered indispensable. The poor widows in Acts 6 could not be directed to some government agency and their deceased husbands left them no nest-egg in insurance benefits. Their need necessitated the deaconate but today one wonders whether it is still “necessary to serve tables” or whether there are still “tables left to serve.”
(D.V. to be continued)