Mr. Schipper is a deacon in Southwest Protestant Reformed Church.
The office of deacon is a vital office in the church. The church calls men to be officebearers. These men are ordained to be the official representatives of Christ. When these men, equipped by the Holy Spirit, bring the Word (and only when they bring the Word!), Christ is with His church.
In light of this vital truth, it is not surprising that there is a wealth of material that deals with the offices in the church. In preparing to discuss the office of deacon, I made use of several resources which I would like to acknowledge and recommend. I depend heavily onReformed Dogmatics and The Triple Knowledge by Herman Hoeksema for their instruction concerning the office of Christ. I would also acknowledge The Ministry of Mercy For Today by P.Y. DeJong andThe Church Order Commentary by VanDellen and Monsma. There have been many articles through the years on this subject in the Standard Bearer, but I would note in particular a series in volumes 32 and 33 by the Rev. G. Vandenberg, as well as articles in volume 67 by the Rev. R. Cammenga. These treat the articles of the church order that focus on the office of deacon. Finally, Prof. H. Hanko taught a series of classes in 1987 on the office of deacon. The audio cassettes of these classes provide the background for many of the concepts I hope to discuss.
Our Lord Jesus Christ is God’s eternal Officebearer (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, LD 12). As God’s Officebearer, He is the visible representative of the invisible God. The Triune God sent the Christ that He might redeem the church and all creation through the deep way of sin and grace. Our Lord accomplished this purpose of God by going the way of the cross. His suffering and death satisfied God’s justice. Through His atoning work all things are reconciled to God (Col. 1:20). Jesus, Christ now sits exalted at God’s right hand, where all power has been given unto Him to execute God’s counsel. He sovereignly directs all things (even the forces of darkness) such that all things work towards the realization of the new creation when the tabernacle of God shall be with men, and when Christ shall be the glorious head over all (Rev. 21:3). To this glorious office Christ was ordained from before the foundations of the earth (Col. 1:17).
The triumphant church will be ruled directly by Jesus Christ. We will know Him as our chief Prophet, our only High Priest, and our eternal Ring. As Prophet, He will be the full revelation of the Triune God. As Priest, He will consecrate all of the new creation to the glory of God. And as Ring He will reign over all creatures in the name of God. Thus, the essential idea of the office of Christ is that He is God’s representative. Ministers, elders, and deacons in the church militant stand in this office of Christ.
While the church is yet militant, Christ rules her by means of men whom He calls and equips to represent Him. In the Old Testament, the threefold office of Christ is clearly evident in the prophets, priests, and kings in Israel. In the New Testament, the form (but not the essence) of these offices changed. Christ calls some to stand in the office of prophet. These are the ministers of the gospel, whose calling it is to reveal the full counsel of God. Men called to labor in the office of elder represent Christ in the office of king and govern the church. The priestly office of Christ is present in the church in the office of deacon. The deacons are called to represent Christ as the merciful High Priest of His people.
It is good to have a solid understanding of the office of Christ lest we have a superficial view of the corresponding offices in the church. It is my concern in this rubric that deacons and congregations realize the profound nature of the office of deacon. In the first place, we must see that the office of deacon is not the least bit inferior to the offices of elder and minister. Just as the priestly aspect of Christ’s office is of equal importance with those of prophet and king, so also is the office of deacon of equal importance with the offices of minister and elder. This is not to suggest that deacons are not under the authority of the elders, or that a deacon should preach, but it is to say that the deacon is every bit as vital for the wellbeing of the church as are the elder and minister. The diaconate must not be thought (by deacons or congregation) to play a minor role in the church, or viewed as a stepping stone to the eldership. The office of deacon is a weighty and essential office. The office is not concerned chiefly with financial matters but is a profoundly spiritual calling. Deacons minister to the spiritual needs of the Lord’s poor by bringing them financial assistance along with Scripture.
Secondly, Christ in the priestly aspect of His office isthe Deacon in the church. When a deacon functions in his office, Christ is present in His church. When deacons come to the home of the poor, Christ comes! When the congregation sees the deacons collecting alms for the poor during the worship service, they must see Christ opening His hand to receive the offering. To the extent that the office of deacon is not active in caring for the poor, to that same extent Christ is not present in the church. To lose the office of deacon is to lose Christ. Deacons and congregations must lay hold of the profound importance of this office in the church. With these thoughts in mind, I hope to discuss the nature of the office in greater detail. I also intend to treat the attitude the poor must have towards the office, and the attitude the congregation must have for the Lord’s poor through the office.
God has a special concern for the poor in the church. The Old Testament is replete with references to the poor as well as to “the fatherless and widows.” The word “poor” appears 162 times in the Old Testament. God instructed the nation of Israel to care for them. God warns Israel that His “wrath shall wax hot” if the poor are afflicted and they cry unto God (Ex. 22:23, 24). Indeed, the affliction of the poor by their fellow Israelites was an explicit ground for punishment of both the northern and southern kingdoms (Amos 2:6, 7; Is. 3:14, 15). Far from being the occasion for the affliction of the poor, we are to open our hands wide unto them (Deut. 15:7-8). Think also of the many laws in the Old Testament which had as their focus the care of the poor. P.Y. DeJong notes that during the Sabbatic years, fields were left uncultivated, and everything that grew might be freely gathered by the poor (cf. Ministry of Mercy, pp. 31-32). There are several passages that instruct the Israelites not to harvest their fields to the last kernel, but instead to leave something for the poor to glean (Lev. 19:9, 10; Lev. 23:22; Deut. 24:19). That God’s blessing attended the sincere obeying of this law is abundantly evident in the touching account of Boaz and Ruth (Ruth 2).
In the new dispensation God maintains a deep concern for the poor. This is evident by the leading of the Spirit through the apostles. The institution of the office of deacon has as its immediate occasion the distress of the Grecian widows in Jerusalem (Acts 6:1-8). The apostle Paul makes many references to the support of the poor, which we intend to examine in some detail in future articles.
Why does God have such a concern for the poor? A key passage in this regard is Deuteronomy 26. Here God calls His people to remember that they had been in bondage in Egypt. When under the cruel oppression and affliction of the Egyptians, they cried unto the LORD God. They were delivered “with a mighty hand, and with a stretched out arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs and with wonders; and (were brought into) . . . a land that floweth with milk and honey” (Deut. 26:7, 8). See also Deuteronomy 24:17-22, where God states explicitly that the reason He requires Israel to care for the poor is directly connected to their deliverance from Egypt. This deliverance was accomplished through the judgment of the Egyptians by the Angel of the LORD, who passed over the Israelites whose houses were covered by the blood of the Paschal lamb.
The deliverance of Israel out of the iron furnace of Egypt is a picture of our deliverance from the iron furnace of our sin, guilt, and corruption (Deut. 4:20). God cared for us when we were poor. God delivered us from our desperate spiritual poverty and helplessness. He paid our debts with the blood of His own Son and made us rich in the blessings of salvation. Indeed, we are “bought with a price” (I Cor. 6:20). Christ, though rich in Himself, became poor for our sakes, that through His poverty we might be rich (II Cor. 8:9). Our care for the poor is evidence of the fact that we remember our deliverance from spiritual poverty.
God has a special concern for His poor in the church because they are usually those-who have the most intimate communion with Him. Their prayers are fervent. They are sincere when they pray for their daily bread. They acknowledge their complete dependence upon their Father in heaven. Often their longing for the perfection of the kingdom of heaven is more focused, for they are not caught up in the materialism of the day. In a word, their financial distress drives them to an intense spiritual communion with their Father. Those who are weak in themselves find that God’s grace is sufficient. Such children are the Father’s delight.
Although the poor in the church are often very spiritual, it is also true that poverty brings with it unique temptations. Satan seeks to use the financial distress of God’s people to tempt them to forsake God and the church. He will show them how much money is “thrown away” on kingdom causes. He will challenge the trust they place in God. After all, why would a loving God not take care of them? Satan will leverage our covetous nature to his advantage. Resentment can build against God and against fellow church members. This temptation to despair and to question God’s love will be resolved by Christ Himself when He sends His representatives with financial assistance and the comfort of His Word.