Rev. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.
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 time as the consistory may see fit.
Church Order, Article 25.
The concern of Article 25 is with the work of the deacons. Article 24 dealt with the method of their election. Article 25, now, prescribes the labors which are required of those who have been elected to the office of deacon in the church.
The earliest Reformed synod, the Synod of Wezel, 1568, addressed itself to the work of the deacons.
According to the testimony of Scripture if is absolutely certain, that the office of the deacons consists in this that they serve at tables, which is to say, that they come to the help of the poor in their needs and provide them with what is necessary through the gathering of alms.
The Belgic Confession describes the office of deacon in Article 30. The article teaches that there must be deacons appointed in the church so “. . . that the poor and distressed may be relieved and comforted, according to their necessities.”
The lengthiest description of the deacons’ office is found in our “Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons.”
From which passage (i.e.,
I Cor. 12:28)
we may easily gather, what 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,
II Corinthians 9.
For which end if 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.
Article 25 requires especially four duties of the deacons: collection of the alms, distribution of the alms, preservation of the alms, and accounting and reporting to the consistory and congregation of their collection and distribution.
Article 25 speaks of the deacons’ diligently collecting “alms and other contributions of charity.” “Alms” refers to money. “Other contributions of charity” refers to such things as food and clothing. The “Form” speaks of “alms and goods” and also urges the deacons “to do their utmost endeavors, that many good means be procured for the relief of the poor.”
Generally the collection of the alms by the deacons ought to take place on the Sabbath Day during the worship services. This is in keeping with the apostle’s requirement in I Corinthians 16:1, 2: “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye. Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come.” The Heidelberg Catechism, Lords Day 38, makes part of our keeping of the Sabbath Day that we “diligently frequent the church of God, to . . . contribute to the relief of the poor, as becomes a Christian.” Part of the regular Sunday worship of the people of God ought to be their contributing to the Benevolent Fund. This is one collection that: the Scriptures require to be taken in the church.
This does not mean that Gods people may not give to the deacons for the relief of the poor on any other day than Sunday. But it is to say that regular Sunday collections are to be taken for the poor.
Since this is the prescribed method by which the deacons are to obtain the alms, it is forbidden that the deacons resort to the methods employed in our day by other “charitable organizations.” The deacons have no business involving themselves in crass moneymaking schemes, bazaars, socials, lotteries, auctions, and Bingo games. The Scriptures bind the deacons to the free, thankful contributions of the members of the church.
In passing it may be noted that it was the custom of the early church to take up a special collection for the poor after the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Very likely this became the substitute for the apostolic love feast. In some of our churches today a similar practice is found in the taking of a “thank offering” for the poor after the Lord’s Supper has been administered.
As part of their duty to collect the alms, the deacons ought to inform the congregation of benevolent needs and exhort the members to give their alms. Especially are they to exhort close relatives of their responsibility to come to the aid of the needy, and the poor to seek the assistance of their relatives. This is the teaching of I Timothy 5:4, 16: “But if any widow (i.e., “poor person,” RC) have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God. If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed.”
The deacons are also to exhort those who are wealthy in the church of the special responsibility they have in regard to relief of the poor. Scripture speaks of this calling. “Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; that they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate; laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time, to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life” (I Tim. 6:17-19). The Synod of Wezel laid this calling upon the deacons: “They ought also to diligently admonish those who can afford it to come to the help of the needy of the church and the want of the poor.” Our “Form” makes a point of addressing the rich: “Be charitable, ye rich, give liberally, and contribute willingly.” In addition, the Synod of Wezel ruled: “The deacons will also watch for cases in which someone deals violently or unjustly with the widows and orphans in the church, and if they hear of anything of this nature, they must report it to the consistory . . . .”
Distribution of the alms is to be made to the poor. This means, first of all, the poor members of the congregation itself. The original article in theChurch Order of Dordt spoke of “both residents and strangers.” “Residents” were native members of the local church, while “strangers” were refugees who had fled persecution in their native lands. Besides the poor in the local congregation, the deacons are to stand ready to assist the poor in sister churches within the denomination, and also other Christians of different church affiliation.
There are even circumstances when the deacons may render assistance to poor unbelievers. The apostle exhorts in Galatians 6:10, “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” Such relief ought to be given, however, not to poor unbelievers generally, but to those who are very deliberately placed across the path of the church, who probably themselves contact the church or pastor. Such relief is not to take precedence to the poor within the congregation; the poor saints come first. And such relief by the deacons must certainly be accompanied by a witness to the gospel and the explanation that the assistance given is rendered in the name of Christ.
The question is often asked: “Should the deacons search out the poor, or should the poor come to the deacons?” The answer to this question is: “Both.” Certainly it belongs to the office of deacons that they search out the poor. Compassion for the poor will compel the deacons to do this. But the poor also have the responsibility to make use of the office of deacon. There are often times when the deacons are unaware that a need exists. In such cases the poor must go to the office of Christ in the deacons for help. It is also possible for concerned members to inform the deacons when they suspect that a need exists.
The distribution to the poor is to be “as their needs may require it.” The deacons are to meet the “needs” of the poor (Acts 4:35). The poor should not be made to suffer needlessly because pressing needs are not provided for or not provided for promptly by the deacons. But neither should the benevolence of the church be used to provide unneeded luxuries for the poor or to give them a standard of living comparable to the majority of the other members of the church. The deacons’ responsibility extends to the needs, the basic necessities of the poor.
What the “need” of the poor is, the deacons are to determine. Here much discretion and wisdom are required. In order to determine the nature and the extent of the need, there must be openness and cooperation between the deacons and the poor. On the one hand, the poor should be honest and forthright in informing the deacons of their needs. On the other hand, the deacons ought to avoid unnecessary probing and needless invasion of privacy. The deacons should investigate to such a degree that they are convinced of the need and understand the extent of the need.
A question that sometimes arises is whether or not Christian education is to be considered a need. Historically, the Reformed churches have answered this question affirmatively. We have already seen that the Church Order speaks of Christian education as one of “the demands of the covenant” (Church Order, Article 21). If Christian education is a “demand,” a necessity, then it certainly is permitted covenant parents to seek the help of the deacons in paying their Christian school tuition.
The deacons are to distribute the alms only “after mutual counsels” Article 25 says. This introduces a safeguard and also provides for it that the deacons act as a body and never independently. This means that the deacons must meet and discuss together the needs of the poor, taking a formal decision to meet a particular need by a majority vote. The deacons may even consult the consistory in certain cases, seeking the additional advice of the elders and minister. The biblical principle applies: “In the multitude of counselors there is safety.”
This does not rule out the possibility of exceptions in emergency cases. Such cases do, from time to time, arise. Even then, one deacon ought never to act on his own. And as soon as possible the whole body of deacons ought to be informed of the emergency action that was taken, seeking their approval, albeit after the fact.
Accompanying this distribution, the deacons are “to visit and comfort the distressed,” Article 25 states. The deacons are not simply to relieve the poor in a formal, impersonal way, sending a check, for example, or dropping off some groceries. Any social service or government organization can do that. The deacons must never forget that they distribute the mercies of Christ.
The deacons must “visit” the poor. This means ordinarily a personal visit with the poor in their own home.
Besides, the deacons must “comfort” the poor. They do this by talking to the poor, reading and explaining the Scriptures, and applying the Word of God to the special circumstances of the poor. At bottom, the deacons’ office too, like that of the minister and the elder, is the office of bringing Christ’s Word to Christ’s people. The poor have a special need of hearing the Word of Christ. There are special temptations and peculiar struggles to be faced by the poor of God’s people. There is the tendency to become discouraged and despondent. There is the temptation to envy and bitterness. The deacons must address themselves to these temptations and serve as the means of God to protect the poor from these threats. The “Form” speaks of this calling beautifully: “For which end it is very beneficial, that they (the deacons) do not only administer relief to the poor with external gifts, but also with comfortable words from Scripture.”
It may be added that this is the most rewarding part of deacons’ work. If all that the deacons do is write and send checks, there is no great satisfaction in doing their work. Then the deacons rob themselves of the joy of their labors. But to meet with Gods people, to open the Scriptures to them, to bring them Gods promises, and to witness the Spirit at work to comfort, encourage, and strengthen the poor—that is rewarding!
Besides collecting and distributing the alms, the deacons are called to exercise care that the alms be preserved and protected against abuse.
The deacons must guard against abuse of the alms by the poor. The alms must be administered only to those who are genuinely needy. The deacons must distribute the alms to the poor only after the poor have contacted their close relatives, so as to avoid unnecessarily burdening the church. And the deacons must see to it that the alms distributed to the poor are not squandered.
The deacons must also preserve the alms against the possibility of abuse by the deacons themselves, as has on occasion happened. One deacon alone should not be left to count the benevolent collections. This should be done in the presence of all the deacons, with an elder present. The “Questions for Church Visitation” require this: “Are the collections counted in the presence of the minister or one or more of the elders?” The benevolent monies should not be kept at the home of one of the deacons, but safely deposited in the bank. At least two sets of Benevolent Fund books should be kept. Benevolent monies should-always be distributed by a committee of at least two deacons. And there should be an annual auditing of the Benevolent Fund by the consistory.
Deacons reports are prescribed by Article 25: “. . . 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.”
Regular reports are to be made to the consistory. Ordinarily this ought to be done routinely at the monthly consistory meetings. These reports ought to be sufficiently detailed so that the consistory is able to determine that the deacons are faithfully doing their work. The consistory must be assured that the poor are being provided for and that the deacons are bringing them the comfort of the Word of God.
The principle underlying reports to the consistory is the mutual supervision of the officebearers,Church Order, Article 81. Besides this, the elders, as the ruling body in the church, exercise supervision not only over the minister of the Word, but also over the deacons.
Regular reports ought also to be made to the congregation. Usually this is done at the time of the annual congregational meeting or by means of an annual financial report to the congregation. It is also possible for an individual member to meet with the consistory concerning either the collection or the distribution of benevolence. In either case, discretion must be exercised by the consistory, which generally means that names and specific amounts of assistance are not disclosed. The deacons are to give an account to the congregation because the work of mercy which the deacons perform is principally the work of the congregation through the office of deacon.