Mr. Schipper is a member and former deacon of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, MI.
The diaconate functions as an integral part of congregational life. The deacons have a visible part in every worship service. The congregation interacts with the diaconate at every worship service. The deacons regularly visit appropriate members of the congregation. All in the congregation know that they can seek the assistance of Christ for their physical needs. Each member should reflect on his calling to support the diaconate in its work, and on his calling to seek financial assistance when he has true physical needs.
The most common way we interact with the diaconate is the collection for benevolence that takes place during the worship service. We should note that the collection for benevolence is more than one collection out of many. This collection is the primary collection in our worship service. It has greater spiritual significance than the general fund collection, even though the general fund may amount to more money. The general fund should be viewed more as an obligation than a “freewill” offering. The other collections for kingdom causes are appropriate and worthy of our support, but they are not on a par with the collection for the benevolent fund. Remember that the deacons are not just money collectors who count the monies and send a check to the various institutions. Deacons are collecting money for the poor! That is their office. All the other collections are secondary. Never forget this. Make sure that the children understand the purpose of this collection.
Secondly, we should note that giving to the poor is part of our worship on the Sabbath day. Lord’s Day 38 binds this upon us as part of keeping the Sabbath day holy. The Catechism notes that we keep the Sabbath day by supporting the ministry of the gospel (general fund), and that we “diligently frequent the church of God to hear His word, to use the sacraments, publicly to call on the Lord, and contribute to the relief of the poor, as becomes a Christian.” The Catechism thus specifies that the contribution for the poor is an element of the worship service. Giving to the poor is worship.
This has an implication for the frequency of benevolent fund collections. It may not be necessary to have a benevolent collection every worship service, but it seems appropriate to have one each Lord’s day. At the least we can say this, if the care of the poor is not in the heart and mind of the congregation on the Lord’s day, our worship is not acceptable to God. God loveth a cheerful giver (II Cor 9:7).
We need to reflect on our level of giving to the diaconate. How has our giving changed over the years? Have we been giving at nearly the same level for the last 10 or more years? Are we giving at the same level as when we were children? Does our giving consist of mere pocket-change? We need to bring the amount of our benevolent- fund contributions up to date. At present, the economy is prosperous in the west Michigan area. There is low unemployment. The calls for benevolent assistance are not as numerous in such times. But the times will change. We will be seeing times when hours are cut and jobs are lost. We will be seeing situations when people lose their health insurance and incur large medical bills. The ungodly will increase their efforts to squeeze God’s people out of the workplace. We are starting to see that our government is realizing that it cannot afford to pay for as many services through the Medicare program and that it needs to shift more and more of the financial burden onto the elderly. We hear talk of the possibility that Medicare will be bankrupt in a few years. There are many factors that could combine to bring about drastic changes in our financial situation.
I believe that we will see a trend toward more and more calls for benevolent assistance. I believe that the magnitude of the need will be greater than is commonly thought. There will be large financial obligations to meet. There will be long-term financial obligations to meet. We need to anticipate times when our benevolent contributions may have to increase tenfold!
This will be a very spiritual time for the congregation. Members in the congregation will reflect on how many material things they have and realize that they have much more than they need. Households will discuss their priorities and consciously decide to lower their standard of living in order to contribute to the deacons. All family members will participate in this. Fathers will be spiritual leaders and stress the calling and privilege to care for the poor even when it means that some of the things we like to have or like to do will have to be set aside. As each family member puts money in the collection plate, that collection will have concrete meaning because the money represents something that the family is willingly giving up in order to care for the poor. In such times, the office of deacon will be very prominent in the mind of the congregation.
While these circumstances will draw our attention to the office of deacon in special measure, there is no principle difference between the time described above and a time of relative prosperity. Our consciousness of the diaconate and our calling to provide the deacons with many good means to relieve the poor should always be prominent in our minds.
Note with me the judgment of God upon the people that have lost their concern for the poor. “They sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes; that pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor” (Amos 2:6, 7). At the same time, the rich were lying “upon beds of ivory, and stretch(ing) themselves upon their couches, and eat(ing) the lambs out of the flock, and the calves out of the midst of the stall” (Amos 6:4). The cruel treatment of the poor in the land was one of many transgressions which marked the apostate northern kingdom and made them ripe for judgment.
Yet, we should note as well that the lack of concern for the poor is not unconnected with all the other evils which marked the nation. They had departed in many areas of doctrine and had corrupted the true worship of God with their false worship at Dan and Bethel. Because they had lost sight of, the holiness of God, they lost sight of their own spiritual poverty. Having no concern for their own spiritual poverty, they disdained those who were physically poor.
Right knowledge of God and appreciation for our deliverance from spiritual poverty always leads to a genuine concern for those in physical need. We have freely been given spiritual riches through the cross of Christ. It is a small matter to give of our material possessions. After all, what do we have that we have not received? The doctrine of sovereign grace impacts our attitude towards the poor. A heart that is truly thankful to God is a heart that is truly compassionate towards his fellow saints. Mercy and truth are met together.
Even as the congregation must have a heart for the care of the poor, we also must stress the need for the poor to come to the deacons. This can be a problem. The diaconate can be perceived as a last resort. For a number of reasons, some of God’s people wait too long before seeking help from the diaconate. It seems that some consider it shameful to seek the mercies of Christ. Others don’t want to “burden” the church. When God directs the circumstances of our lives such that we are poor, we need to avail ourselves of the office of mercy in the church. When should we do this? The position of Scripture is that if we have food and raiment, we must be content. Therefore it is clear that we must seek financial help from the deacons when we do not have the means to provide for the basic necessities of life.
Does this mean that a family is obligated to sell every possession, and wait until they cannot put a meal on the table before they seek assistance? Certainly, this is not the case. There will need to be sanctified judgment exercised by those in financial need, as well as by the diaconate. In general, we may say that when a person or a family is living in an adequate home, has used its savings, and does not have the means to meet legitimate financial obligations, it should seek financial assistance from the deacons. This situation assumes that the family already has sought help from other family members. One’s family is the first place to seek help. Scripture makes this very clear. I Timothy 5:8 instructs us that those who will not provide for their own house deny the faith and are worse than unbelievers. While the context indicates that the primary focus of this passage is the care of aged parents by their children, it is certain that family members with more than sufficient means may not refuse to help their own brothers and sisters who do not have enough.
One situation deserves special attention in this connection. This is the matter of Christian school tuition. Because tuition is a large bill, it stands out as a big factor in the financial picture for any family. Because our schools have been more than reasonable in accommodating late payments, tuition frequently has been an item that people do not pay on time when there is a financial pinch. In spite of the fact that we all have been told that church budget and tuition are the first two items in priority when we pay the bills, these priorities are not always followed. And, when that happens, within a short time the past-due tuition builds to a substantial amount and the family is in financial trouble. Assuming that they have asked their family for help, they now face the question of what to do. They realize that they ought not to be in this situation.
The family is correct. They ought not to be in this situation. Tuition comes before every other financial obligation except our obligation to the church. This is because we consider Christian education to be the means whereby we fulfill our baptismal vows concerning the instruction of our covenant children. Paying our tuition on time is a matter of seeking “first the kingdom of God” (Matt. 6:33). Secondly, we should note that our schools are parental schools. They are owned and operated by our brothers and sisters in the church. When we fail to pay tuition on time, we are unilaterally exacting an interest-free loan from the rest of the parents. Also, we need to be aware that our schools do not operate with large cash reserves. When we fail to pay on time, we create financial hardship for the schools. It is our brothers in the church who need to meet extra nights in order to deal with cashflow issues. Lastly, past-due tuition is unacceptable because we break the promise that we made when we enrolled our children. We promised to pay the tuition on time. We are obligated to keep our word.
Late tuition has been a major problem in our schools. Boards have had to adopt strict, “hardnosed” policies concerning late tuition payments. They have learned that leniency only caused families to get into deeper financial trouble. In many of these cases, it seemed that there was a great hesitancy, to seek help from the church. I have personal knowledge of the fact that at the same time that several of our schools in the west Michigan area had large amounts of pastdue tuition, there were diaconates whose biggest problem was no requests for financial assistance. The deacons had nothing to do, and the schools had tens of thousands of dollars in past-due tuition. Brethren, these things ought not so to be.
In spite of the fact that a family should not present themselves to a diaconate with a past-due tuition problem, it is not a rare situation. I have heard it said that deacons should not pay tuition. This sentiment proceeds from the idea that tuition is supposed to be paid first, and therefore should never be the item that brings a family to the diaconate. I fear that this sentiment can be a barrier to a family seeking the help they need. Any family that finds itself unable to pay its bills, needs to go to the deacons. Don’t wait. Even if the reason is past-due tuition, go to the diaconate. Even if the reason is gross financial mismanagement, inappropriate expenditures, or other matters that reveal poor stewardship, go to the diaconate. The deacons have an obligation to be prudent in their distribution of the alms, but they are not going to withhold assistance just because a sinful or unwise practice has caused the problem. They will call for proper stewardship and to living within means. They will call for biblical priorities in paying bills. They will assist in getting a financial situation under control. And they will be generous in the financial assistance they give because they have many good means available.
Finally, they will open the Scriptures and bring a word of comfort. They will demonstrate that these circumstances have been ordained by God so that Christ could manifest His mercy to them in a direct physical way. The assistance is financial and material, the blessings are spiritual.