Mr. Schipper is a member of and former deacon in Southwest Protestant Reformed Church.
Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.”
Once each year the men currently holding office in our churches meet together as council and consider who among the men in the congregation best meet the qualifications for deacons as mentioned in Acts 6 and in I Timothy 3. The office bearers consider these qualifications in light of the unique duties Christ calls deacons to perform. The church has gleaned from the Scriptures its understanding of this office and has expressed the responsibilities of deacons in our Church Order and in our Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons, The congregation must prayerfully consider the men nominated and vote for those whom they think to be best suited for the office. In this way Christ calls the men whom He wants to represent Him as the merciful High Priest in a local congregation. Electing good deacons is necessary for the spiritual health of a congregation. We must take the calling seriously. We must review the qualifications and responsibilities of the office of deacon on a regular basis.
John a Lasco was pastor of a refugee congregation in London during the time of persecution that followed the Reformation. Under his leadership the church developed a rich understanding of the office of deacon. It is instructive to note the procedure for electing deacons in his congregation. P.Y. DeJong in his The Ministry of Mercy for Today states on page 65,
The consistory would prescribe a special day of fasting and prayer on which the minister was to preach twice, explaining the nature and function of this holy office. Thereupon the congregation joined in prayers for the wisdom and guidance of God. Within the next week, the ballots of the members were collected at the homes by the elders. From those designated by the members, the consistory elected the necessary number.
Though our churches do not follow the formal aspects of this procedure, we can learn something from the great importance which the Reformed churches historically have placed on the office of deacon.
When instituting the office of deacon, the apostles called the congregation to consider the qualifications for the office in the same breath they used to indicate the reason for the office (Acts 6:3). This points out that the apostles were not looking merely for assistance with some administrative and logistical details. The apostles realized that they were not doing justice to a particular aspect of the office of Christ in the church. Christ’s care of His poor required men who made this work their peculiar business. The apostles therefore set forth the qualifications they felt were necessary for those who would represent Christ as He cared for the poor in their fellowship. This was emphatically a spiritual calling with spiritual qualifications, namely, being of honest report and being full of the Holy Ghost and of wisdom.
The apostle Paul gives an extensive treatment of the requirements for officebearers in I Timothy 3. After listing the qualifications for ruling elder, Paul states the characteristics of good deacons. They must “be grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre; holding the mystery of faith in a pure conscience.” The apostle continues by stating that the deacons must “be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.” The Church Order and Form of Ordination summarize the calling of deacons. Articles 25 and 26 of the Church Order maintain that “the office peculiar to the Deacons is diligently to collect alms and other contributions of charity . . . and faithfully and diligently to distribute the same to the poor as their needs may require it.” These articles also call the deacons to visit and comfort the distressed and to assist the poor, making use of institutions of mercy. The Form of Ordination gives similar instruction, as it notes that calling of deacons to be the diligent collection and preservation of the alms along with cheerful, discrete, and prudent distribution to objects of charity.
From the biblical qualifications and the church’s understanding of their duties, we may say a few things about the men who make good deacons.
First of all, it is clear that the church must know the men whom they elect as officebearers. It is not enough simply to be satisfied that there is nothing evident that disqualifies a man from serving. If the only thing that one knows about a man is his name and that he attends church regularly, one has no basis yet for considering him to be qualified to hold one of the special offices. The church must know positively that a man satisfies the qualifications. This implies that prospective officebearers must be active in congregational life. Only in this way can a congregation know that a man is “full of the Holy Ghost.” This activity includes participation in congregational meetings, fellowship after the worship services, and participation in the Bible-study societies.
The implication, really, is that everyone must be active in congregational life. How else do we get to know each other? Indeed, how else can we fulfill the injunction of the Heidelberg Catechism in Question and Answer 55 in its treatment of “the communion of saints,” i.e., “every one must know it to be his duty, readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts, for the advantage and salvation of other members”?
That a man is full of the Holy Ghost will be evident in his knowledge of and attitude towards Scripture. It will also be evident in his prayers. We should note that a vital aspect of the deacon’s work is to bring the Word and offer prayer. When the Church Order calls deacons to comfort the distressed, it means that deacons bring the comfort of the Word! They come with much more than mere consolation or platitudes, such as “every cloud has a silver lining.” The Form of Ordination specifies that, along with the material gifts, deacons must bring “comfortable words from Scripture.” Deacons must therefore have a broad familiarity with Scripture. They must lay hold of the principle that Christ Himself effectually speaks His Word in the hearts of His people as the deacons, as His official representatives, open the Scriptures. Men in the congregation must continually strive to acquire a thorough knowledge of the Bible so that they are prepared for this work should it please our Lord to call them to this office.
Closely related to the requirement that a man be full of the Holy Ghost is the characteristic of a deacon that he “holds the mystery of faith in a pure conscience.” Deacons must be doctrinally sound. Here, also, it is not enough that doctrinal error be absent. It must be positively evident that a man is thoroughly Reformed. We must be assured that prospective deacons understand and maintain our Protestant Reformed distinctives. We should note that deacons sign the “Formula of Subscription,” whereby they promise that they will “teach and faithfully defend the aforesaid doctrine (the Three Forms of Unity), without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same, by our public preaching or writing.” We might be inclined to connect this requirement more to the office of elder than to that of deacon, but the apostle Paul mentions it specifically as a requirement for deacons. Perhaps it goes without saying that this applies to elders, and Scripture takes special care that we understand that this is a requirement for deacons as well.
Doctrinal soundness is a requirement for deacons because “mercy and truth are met together” (Ps. 85:l0). Mercy is inseparable from the truth. Scripture uses the phrase “mercy and truth” ten times. This phrase appears in the Psalms five times. In the Psalms, where this phrase appears, the psalmist is either offering a prayer of supplication to God, or he is extolling God for His virtues. Note the following opening lines: “Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul” (Ps. 25). “Hear my cry, O God” (Ps. 61). “Bow down thine ear, O Lord, hear me” (Ps. 86). “I will sing of the mercies of the Lord for ever” (Ps. 89). God is mercy and truth! These are virtues of God. This is the God of our salvation. Christ Himself clung to these virtues of God, as is evident from Psalm 40, where the Spirit of Christ inspired David to write in verse 11, “Let thy lovingkindness and thy truth continually preserve me.” Deacons, as representatives of Christ, must reflect this in their doctrine and life. This is also very practical because it is the Reformed faith that is comforting to God’s people. As Rev. Vandenberg noted in volume 32, page 358 of the Standard Bearer, true mercy leads God’s people “in the way of truth, in which way is the attainment of the only blessedness.” Deacons must be able to bring our beloved Reformed doctrines to bear on the situation of the poor and oppressed. In this way they show the mercies of Christ.
Acts 6 and I Timothy 3 stress that deacons must have an impeccable reputation in the church and in the community. They must be men of “honest report” and “not greedy of filthy lucre.” The Form of Ordination stipulates that deacons “collect and preserve with the greatest fidelity and diligence, the alms and goods which are given to the poor.” Deacons will be dealing with large sums of money. There must be no suspicion that a deacon has “sticky fingers”! To that end the deacons consistently handle the moneys, not individually, but as a diaconate. They exercise mutual supervision over each other in order that the integrity of the office never be questioned.
Deacons must be wise. Acts 6 states this explicitly. The Church Order clearly implies this when it requires “care that the alms are not misused.” The Form of Ordination states that “discretion and prudence” are required to “bestow the alms only on objects of charity.” Paul tells us that deacons must be “grave.” Deacons must think carefully about situations. They must seek biblical solutions to problems. Their wisdom must not be the wisdom of this world, but the wisdom of Scripture. One of the marks of wisdom is the characteristic that a man humbly acknowledge that he does not have the best understanding of every situation by himself, but that he must seek the collective wisdom of the diaconate. Specifically, the decision of whether or not to grant financial assistance requires sound judgment on the part of deacons.
Much more could be said about the qualifications of deacons, but rather than making an extensive checklist we could better sum up the requirements with the one word, “merciful.” It is the office of mercy. Are care and concern for the household of faith clearly displayed in his walk? Is this same care seen in his wife and family? Can you envision the man bringing the Word to you when you are aged, a widow or widower, alone or distressed? Can you picture the man opening the Scriptures in a poverty-stricken household in such a way that the family will testify that Christ is indeed merciful? Do you see the man tactfully dealing with a family who has developed financial distress due to poor stewardship? Are you confident that the man will be able to convey the biblical truth that “having food and raiment” we must be content? Do you believe that this man will point you to the spiritual riches that are ours in Christ, through His atoning work? Would you want this man to lead you in prayer?
As we consider these qualifications, we must be impressed with the fact that good deacons are a gracious gift of Christ to His church. What a marvelous institution! Manifold are the blessings which Christ merited on the cross. Not the least of these are faithful officebearers. As deacons and prospective deacons consider the qualifications, we are all humbled and confess that none of us is equal to this task of himself. We labor in the confidence that Christ will bless His Word, and we rejoice in the words of the apostle Paul, “For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus” (I Tim. 3:13).