Compassion Must Be Wise
I've written previously, and frequently, about the role of deacons in the ministry of mercy. I've argued that deacons are not to be the church's mercy-workers, but that showing mercy is part of the ministry of the whole church and every believer, and that the unique service deacons bring to the table is that of stimulating and coordinating the mercy of the rest of the Body.
But sometimes, the work of showing mercy gets confusing. I receive frequent requests from deacons to help them sort through troubles they face in this area of their work. Those troubles range from the ever present pride that prohibits many needy folks from seeking help, to the opposite end of the spectrum, a "welfare entitlement" attitude that cultivates laziness and the absence of any self-respect. Add to the mix the jealousy and covetousness that infects North American culture, and you will quickly sense the problems deacons face these days. It's not uncommon for deacons to receive calls to pay for repairs on a family's second or third car, a car that still isn't paid for, when there are no other real crises involved other than the loss of convenience.
This article offers a series of short principles or guidelines to help deacons steer their way through the difficult course of mercy and compassion in our prosperous and materialistic age. Many Scripture passages are cited, and careful study of these is necessary to understand the key point. I pray this will stimulate much discussion in your deacon's meeting, provide clarity, and help you with difficult cases you may be facing.
Mercy Is More Than a "Hand Out"
The church, led by her deacons, is called to compassion, love, encouragement, and support of those who are under the burdens of life. Oftentimes that support involves providing money, or a "cup of cold water" (Mark 9:41), or an encouraging word in the name of Jesus. Sometimes, people face a more crippling foe, the loss of hope ("A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones" — Proverbs 17:22). In such cases, faithful visits by deacons (elders and preachers too!) with the Word of the Lord open before them, are urgent. On the other hand, the work of deacons often involves the difficult task of sounding a warning or providing an admonition — the kind of support that many don't appreciate, but a ministry that serves long-term purposes. A good passage is 1 Thessalonians 5:12-15. Part of that passage calls us to "warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak..."
The Church Is Not the Liberal Democratic Party
The church receives financial gifts from God's people, and is to use them in benevolent ways. But remember that the goal is not redistribution of wealth, as if the church wrote the taxation or welfare planks in the liberal democratic parties of many Western countries. Rather, the goal is the advancement of the kingdom of God, both in the broader sense and in the individual's life. (See Acts 6:1-7 and 2 Corinthians 8-9. In both cases, diaconal ministry enabled the church to grow and the kingdom to be extended.) Indeed, Scripture calls the wealthy to be generous to the needy (1 Timothy 6:18); but it also calls rich and poor alike to be content with what they have, and not to be unhappy with their lot in life (1 Timothy 6:7-8). While we have very few poor people in the US according to the Biblical definition ("if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that..." [2 Timothy 6:8]) we do have rampant discontent, a spiritual problem of serious consequence. ("People who want to get rich, fall into temptation, and a trap, and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction" [1 Timothy 6:9]). Remember, we will have the poor always with us, partly to test the hearts of the rich, but also partly to make sure the faith of all is clearly focused on Him, not on our possessions. Focus on hearts, not on "fairness."
Keep a Biblical Perspective on Suffering
Suffering hurts, but suffering does not harm. And the difference is crucial. Christ calls us to accept suffering as a schoolmaster of the soul. Throughout the New Testament, we're taught that suffering humbles the proud (something we all need!), teaches patience (ditto), develops endurance, awakens hope. When believers cry out to the Lord under suffering, fellow believers rush to their aid. However, when others become bitter under suffering, and petulantly demand that the deacons take it away, they shake a clenched fist in God's face. (Reformed believers confess in Lord's Day 10 of the Heidelberg Catechism that "prosperity and poverty ... come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand.") Deacons must not think it is their ministry to alleviate suffering. Rather, their ministry is to interpret suffering, to help people through (not avoid) it, and to grow because of it. To have the wrong aim here is to short-circuit the Lord's good purposes — like not letting your kids learn the hard lesson of embarrassment, shame, and punishment when caught shoplifting a candy bar, or, as a parent backing off of parental discipline just because children cry. Important Scriptures are Hebrews 12:7ff; James 1:2-12; 1 Peter 4:12-19.
Don't Enable Fools in Their Folly
Folly has consequences. Foolish choices of spending, foolish nurturing of our children, foolish moral behavior publicly or privately — all reap a harvest of troubles. We are warned in Scripture not to enable fools. ("Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself" [Proverbs 26:41]).
Imagine deacons receiving a request for financial assistance from someone whose problems stem from a credit card bill well into 5 figures. If the cause of their trouble was a tornado, or a fire, or huge medical bills, that's one thing. If it's caused by "needing" the latest electronic gear, wardrobe, or home remodeling, or by the belief that "spending is therapy" for the various struggles of life, that's another. You may help in the former case. To provide financial help in the latter would be unwise. More appropriate diaconal assistance would be careful instruction about spending priorities and budgeting skills. Relevant passages are: 2 Thessalonians 3:10, Galatians 6:7 ff, and a few selected Proverbs (16:25, 26; 17:15, 16, 18, 22; 18:6-7; and chapter 19).
Keep the Big Picture of Stewardship in Mind
Acts 6:3 requires men as deacons who are "known to be full of the Spirit and of wisdom." 1 Timothy 3 requires men who can "manage their own households" or else they can't manage God's household. Why, pray tell, these requirements? They aren't necessary for taking collection on Sunday, or even for setting offering schedules. Nor are they required if all deacons do is disburse financial assistance to alleviate suffering. The answer should be obvious: that's NOT all deacons do! Rather, you are called to help people steward their lives and resources in faith, to encourage generosity, to avoid covetousness and discontent, to utilize their resources wisely, and all for the sake of the coming of the Kingdom of God.
Compassion, too, must serve these purposes.