This articles looks at the rise of Christian institutions of mercy, the proper organization of these institutions, and how the diaconate can work together with these institutions.

Source: Diakonia, 1990. 7 pages.

Diaconal Cooperation With Institutions of Mercy

But a certain Samaritan, as he was journeying, came where he was: and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion, and came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on them oil and wine; and he set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.          

Jesus Christ

Thine arm, O Lord, in days of old,
Was strong to heal and save;
It triumphed o'er disease and death,
O'er darkness and the grave.
To Thee they went: the blind, the dumb,
The palsied and the lame,
The leper with his tainted life,
The sick with fevered frame.
"And lo, Thy touch brought life and health,
Gave speech and strength and sight;
Lo, youth renewed and frenzy calmed
Owned thee the Lord of Light.
And now, O Lord, be near to bless,
Almighty as of yore,
In crowded streets, by restless couch,
As by Gennesareth's shore."

E. H. Plumptre

Bestow upon us also the grace we need, not only to relieve want by means of external gifts, but also to instil the comfort of Thy Holy Word in hearts afflicted with misery. Truly, man lives not by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of Thy mouth. We pray, therefore, that Thou wilt bless our ministrations and wilt multiply the bread of the poor, to the end that both they and we may have reasons to praise and thank Thee.

Opening Prayer for the Meeting of the Deacons, Reformed Liturgy

Not only are deacons to cooperate with state agen­cies for relief; the Church Order also insists on a working arrangement between the diaconates and the directors of institutions of mercy. In this way the poor who have need of these specialized services may make use of the facilities in spite of their inabil­ity to make the necessary payments. Under such circumstances the deacons must keep in close con­tact with the authorities, in order that they may be assured that Christian brethren and sisters will re­ceive the proper care for the soul as well as for the body.

The rise of Christian institutions of mercy🔗

The matter of the institutional care of the sick and distressed is a most fascinating subject. Since it is referred to here as part of the responsibility of the diaconate, be it only indirectly, it is proper to con­sider it more thoroughly.

Already long before the Christian era there was in various parts of the world a recognition of the necessity of doing good to the poor. In some in­stances this was enhanced by a certain religious significance and value attributed to works of charity; in others notably among the Greeks and the Romans it was regarded as a social duty to which members of the same race or nation were obligated.

Not until the coming of Christianity and the spread of the Biblical conception of charity through­out the world, however, was anything like Christian mercy displayed. Yet the roots of this are clearly evident in the Old Testament. Already the Mosaic law regulated the welfare of the poor and unfortu­nate in the land, who were considered the objects of God's special compassion and care. The emphasis throughout the Christian community was laid on the necessity of living by the law of love. The chief purpose of charity was not economic equality or social progress by way of ameliorating inequalities and injustices. In so far as these were considered at all, they were regarded only as byproducts of living the life of love. Instead, charity was a religious obligation. By means of performing these duties God's people were able to demonstrate their love to the God of their salvation. Love alone was the cli­mate in which the true faith flourished. And the New Testament writers never wearied of insisting that the duties imposed by one table of the law could never be fulfilled while the duties insisted on by the other were left undone. Thus charity came to mean the giving of oneself in service to someone in need.

Love to one's fellowmen, especially to those of the household of faith, was first demonstrated in the collections for the saints received at the time of public worship. At first these funds were not only received but also distributed in public. Gradually as the congregations grew in size and wealth, an elabo­rate system of poor relief was inaugurated. The deacons were charged to take care of any who had need: the poor, widows, orphans, aged and sick in the several districts of the congregation. They drew up lists of all who received aid regularly. In Rome, as this system was developed, the sick and infirm were superintended by persons appointed to investigate the condition in the homes in certain areas of the city.

Gradually a system of institutional care was also created. This was made possible by the growing wealth and prestige of the Christian church. The first steps in this direction were taken in the East. St. Basil of Caesarea founded a large and flourishing colony of institutions, including guest houses for strangers and travelers, homes for the poor, orphanages, and the like. Since bequests were made frequently, the clergy became the proprietors of vast properties and administrators of endowed charities in behalf of the church. With the rise of monasticism this system of relief firmly entrenched itself in the church. Yet monasticism failed to solve the problem of the care of the poor; in fact, it did little to ameliorate actual conditions, since it championed the notion that poverty was a fixed condition only to be relieved but never to be removed. In harmony with this works of charity were coloured by certain novel theological views. St. Chrysostom affirmed, "If there were no poor, the greater part of your sins would not be removed; they are the healers of your wounds." Thus alms came to be regarded as the proper medi­cine against sin. The idea that the poor were themselves to be loved and helped for Christ's sake was obscured by the view that their presence merely constituted a wonderful opportunity for the sincere members of the church to increase their store of merit.

With the rise of the several monastic orders, the number of institutions of mercy grew rapidly. The monasteries often established hospitals, wherein they could perform the good works for which they were so highly lauded. These were maintained outside of the parish system, and hence were not directed or controlled by the priests. Hospitals were erected for the poor, the infirm, the lame and the blind, and even for the lepers outside of the towns. Strange and touching tales have been related of the acts of love performed especially by members of the mendicant orders for these unfortunates.

The greatest incentive to charity during the Middle Ages was provided by the Crusades which occasioned a spiritual reawakening in many parts of Christendom. Charlemagne a few centuries earlier had begged in vain for the extension of the work of mercy by the church directly. But the church, too busy with the development of her internal govern­ment, had left this work almost exclusively to the monks. Now the Crusades stimulated the laity, first of all the soldiers and knights and later the citizens of all ranks. Here we find the beginnings of our modern hospital. In Jerusalem the Order of the Hospitalers of St. John was founded to take care of ailing pilgrims. They were constituted as a new religious order under the leadership of Raymond de Puy. Since at times more than two thousand sick were cared for by these men, their fame spread to all parts of Europe. Vast benefices poured in to help them maintain and en­large their program. But with the fall of Jerusalem, they were compelled to withdraw and went first to the isle of Rhodes and later to Malta. Here they continued their work for centuries. In imitation of the Hospitalers various orders were organized in Germany, France, Bohemia and other parts of West­ern Europe.

The influential bishops and leaders of the church soon began to envy and in many ways oppose the rise of these religious orders. They really constituted a church within the church, enjoyed the services of their own priest and monks, received special privi­leges and exemptions in return for services rendered, and thus robbed the parish church of much of its power in the eyes of the people. Thus a reorganization of these hospitals and charitable institutions was bound to come. In many cases with the rise of the towns in the later Middle Ages, they often passed into the hands of the civil authorities.

The hospitals erected were very interesting in­stitutions. They usually consisted of one or more, sometimes even of a whole complex, of buildings in or near to the town. Often the hospital was a little city existing quite apart from the rest of the world. At first strangers and homeless could find a place of refuge here; later on room was also provided for the poor and sick who had no homes as well as for the orphans, foundlings and young mothers who needed special care. Generally those who suffered from contagious disease were not admitted. Towards the close of the Middle Ages more room was provided for aged men and women. Even the guilds and brotherhoods made contracts with these institutions, by which the aged and needy in their own group could receive the necessary care.

In some cases the care given in these hospitals was excellent for those times; in many others it was exceedingly poor. In the latter cases many of the inmates were forced to supplement their meager rations by begging from the citizenry. Of the actual hospital care given we know very little. Medical knowledge stood at a low level. It was almost en­tirely in the hands of the monks who had received no special preparation for the work. The care of the sick was regarded as secondary; the primary purpose of these institutions being to provide shelter and food for all who were in need. The food was the same for all. The sick often had to share their bed with two or three others. In many places those who died through­out the night were not removed until the following morning. Cholera patients were sometimes cared for in the same building with the insane and feeble­minded. The emphasis fell almost entirely on the spiritual care. All who entered such hospitals were compelled first of all to go to confession and thereaf­ter to partake of communion. For this program these institutions had their own priests, chapels, altars and even cemeteries. Yet for those times the care given was as good as could be expected.

Difficulties arose when such monasteries and hospitals waxed wealthy because of the enormous benefices. Much of the money intended for the poor and the sick was spent by the brothers in luxurious feasts. The sick and needy began to complain of neglect. Gradually these hospitals were turned over into monasteries or homes for aged men and women. This resulted in a greater interest in the poor and the sick by the guilds and the civil authorities. The medieval conception and ideal of religion went into bankruptcy. No longer was the New Testament view of the "care of the poor by the congregation" under­stood and practiced. The emphasis fell on the outward splendour of the church instead of on the inward communion with God. By means of her alms the church had created a whole class of beggars, not the least the many monks who entered the holy orders and spent the rest of their lives doing little else than repeating a few prayers and begging from the people.

With the dawn of the Reformation there came a new appreciation for the care of the poor and the sick.

An unusual example in this work was set by John Calvin in Geneva. Not only did he restore the office of the deacons in the church but outlined carefully the work for which they were responsible. In every church there were to be two kinds of deacons: the first assuming responsibility for the poor who were generally taken care of in their homes, and the second caring for the sick and needy in the hospitals. In Geneva a large share of the diaconal responsibility consisted of this second type of work. A hospital for the sick, a home for the aged and an orphanage were maintained.

The deacons who were elected to serve in the hospital moved in there with their families and performed their ministry there daily. They were expected to be examples of true piety and worthy administrators of a home dedicated to the glory of God. Once every three months delegates from the consistory together with a member of the Town Council would inspect these institutions. Both for the sick in the hospital and the poor in the town a physician was appointed and salaried by the city authorities. He was also allowed to continue his private practice. For the orphans a teacher was appointed who likewise had to catechize all the employees of these institutions. Besides, there was a large hostel for travelers, serving chiefly the refugees and exiles who thronged the city. Far removed from all other institutions there was in Geneva a "pest-house" for those suffering from contagious disease. These last two were entirely under the care of the deacons. As a result of this thorough-going program beggary was stringently forbidden in the town and became practically unnecessary.

In imitation of Calvin's work the Reformed churches wherever possible established similar institutions of mercy. This was especially the case in the Netherlands, where they were the privileged group after the expulsion of the Spaniards. Large congregations, such as the one of Amsterdam, estab­lished their own charitable institutions under the supervision of the diaconate. Since the middle of the previous century the churches there have experi­enced spiritual reawakening which has yielded rich fruits also for the practice of Christian mercy. Large groups of believers were organized to provide spe­cialized care for the blind, the deaf-mutes, the consumptives and others. This movement did not leave the Reformed churches in other parts of the world untouched. In South Africa, especially after the ces­sation of hostilities between the Boers and the Brit­ish, the Reformed churches took this work in hand. Many large and flourishing institutions caring for the sick, the poor, the aged, the orphans and other unfortunates, are scattered throughout the four provinces of the Union of South Africa. In distinction from the method followed in the Netherlands the work here is largely conducted under the direct sponsorship and supervision of the church.

In the United States Reformed Christians also began to see more clearly their responsibility for this type of Christian mercy. Here, however, the institu­tions were sponsored by voluntary organizations of Reformed brethren and sisters under a board of directors. Thus the diaconates were relieved of much work. Institutions of several kinds have found fa­vour with our people. Homes for aged men and women have been established in Paterson, New Jersey, Grand Rapids, Muskegon and Kalamazoo, Michigan, Chicago, Illinois, Pella and Sheldon, Iowa, Lynden, Washington, and southern California. Still more elaborate are the hospitals erected by Reformed people, notably the Christian Psychopathic Hospital at Cutlerville, Michigan, where insane, mentally deficient and nervous patients can receive the best treatment available. Arrangements have been made for adding a new building to be devoted exclusively to the care of mentally retarded children, and a School for exceptional children has been organized at Chicago under the fitting name of Elim. Institu­tions for mental patients also exist in Midland Park, New Jersey, and Denver, Colorado.

Provision was also made for the care of con­sumptives. This was begun in a humble way more than fifty years ago in Maxwell City, New Mexico, where a small Holland colony was established. Later on the work was transferred to Denver, Colorado, where in addition to caring for these patients, facili­ties have been provided similar to those at Cutlerville.

More specialized and limited are the services offered by the Rest Homes for convalescents recently begun in Grand Rapids and Holland, Michi­gan. Very little has been done among Reformed Christians in America for orphans. However, the Bethany Home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, does provide a home for children who are homeless.

Even though none of these institutions is under the direct control and supervision of the diaconates, it cannot be denied that they owe their inception and continued existence to the conviction that God's people are commanded to show mercy to all who are in need.

The proper organization of these institutions🔗

From the above it is evident that Reformed Chris­tians throughout the world have not always followed the same method in establishing the institu­tions of mercy which are needed. Hence the problem of the relation which the diaconates sustain to them cannot be properly assessed and answered without giving consideration to a few prior questions con­cerning the proper organization of institutions of Christian mercy.

First of all, then, may groups of believers organ­ize themselves voluntarily to perform some work of mercy? This question is not hard to answer. The New Testament plainly teaches that every believer has received the anointing of the Holy Spirit. He there­fore is called to a life of consecration as prophet, priest and king under his Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. By virtue of this office he is required to perform the works of Christian love and mercy. Without these his life cannot be said to harmonize with the will of God. And surely what he may and must do as an individual believer, he may also perform corporately with like-minded brethren and sisters. There is nothing in Scripture which would forbid the organization of a voluntary association for the purpose of establishing an institution of mercy.

But, then, is it ever proper for the diaconates to establish such institutions when and where they are needed? This question has often been debated in the Reformed churches.

Especially within recent years, when the initia­tive of the believers was strong enough to organize in voluntary associations for the promotion of the work of Christian mercy, it has been argued that the establishment and control of such institutions and hospitals is not the work of the deacons. Several arguments have been adduced in favour of this position.

  1. The church is called upon to preach the gospel, and by that very token she does not have the right to erect and maintain such institutions.
  2. The church can hardly perform this work, since there is no corporate diaconal body large enough to assume the obligations involved. The local diaconates are invariably too small and poor to take in such an ambitious program successfully.
  3. The work of such an institution is by its very nature chiefly administrative and hence impersonal. Thus if the deacons do the work, they would ignore the chief purpose for which their office was instituted, namely, that they might demonstrate the power of the love of Christ for His people in a concrete and personal way.

Although there is some merit to these objections, not one of them is conclusive in proving that the diaconates are forbidden to enter this field of service. We may not forget that in the past, also in the Netherlands, the deacons did establish and control many such institutions. John Calvin insisted that it was highly proper for the deacons to maintain a hospital for the sick, a home for the aged, and a place of shelter for orphans and strangers. No objection can be raised against such work just because it involves some administration. The erection of church buildings and parsonages, the maintenance of homes and schools and hospitals on the mission fields, and the administration of the local church all involve business transactions. Yet all of this is properly considered part of the church's calling in the world. It is wise to reduce such administrative tasks to a minimum wherever possible, lest the externals be­gin far to outweigh and overshadow the spiritual business of the church. It may not be denied that the former are always purely subsidiary. Yet all spiritual work necessarily involves some measure of use of the physical world. Thus the objection raised is not valid. There are indeed practical difficulties in the way of having the diaconate establish such institu­tions, particularly because of the almost exclusively local character of the diaconal function and task. Yet this is not an objection of principle. Especially where there is little or no initiative among Reformed Chris­tians to establish the necessary institutions, it may become imperative that the diaconates assume greater responsibility and begin work at once. Surely in the work of mercy the church may not fall one whit behind the world. Rather, the church should be so filled with the constraining love of Christ, that she constantly seeks new avenues of fulfilling her min­istry.

The third question involves us in a discussion as to which is the more ideal method of carrying on this work. Should we leave it to private initiative, or should the deacons increasingly take a hand in it and thus being it under the wing of the organized church?

For several reasons we would prefer the former. We ought not forget that the offices instituted in Christ's church may never be regarded as an ade­quate substitute for the office of all believers. In fact, the latter is fundamental to the former. Thus the three special offices of minister of the Word, elder and deacon should constantly and consistently seek to bring the office of all believers to clearer and fuller expression. Taking these institutions away from the control of groups of Christian believers, even if this were possible from an administrative point of view, and placing them directly under the care of the diaconate would stifle the spontaneous expression of the priestly work to which every believer is called by his Saviour.

Rather, the deacons should seek to direct and improve and increase what the members of the churches are doing instead of performing it for them. The latter responsibility should be assumed only if the work is being neglected. Here too likeminded believers, even though belonging to different Re­formed denominations, can cooperate, which would be impossible if all this work were conducted under the aegis of the diaconate. By stimulating the organi­zation of these voluntary groups the deacons will remain free to continue their work of going from house to house where there is need and thus keeping their eyes open for new avenues of Christian service, a task too easily neglected if they were engrossed in the work of supervising large institutions.

The specific responsibilities of the diaconate🔗

Now there is another matter which has been too long overlooked. Do the diaconates have a responsibility towards such institutions? And if so, precisely what are the limits of this duty?

The Church Order is clear on this point and insists that there shall be close contact between the diacon­ates and the board of directors of such institutions.

This presupposes that the deacons take a deep and lasting interest in the work of these Christian institutions. For although it is not being performed by them directly, it is similar to the task which the Saviour has laid upon them. As ministers of mercy theirs is the responsibility of doing good to all men, especially to those of the household of faith. Never may the deacons feel that because others are per­forming that work, their responsibility and obliga­tion has been met.

Article 26 today reads quite differently than the original redaction adopted by the Synod of Dort (1618-19). In its present form it was adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in 1914. At that time the Church Order was greatly revised in an effort to remove those parts which had become obsolete during the course of the centuries and to include other matters which had to be regulated for the churches. Now it plainly recognizes the propriety of having voluntary organizations of Christian believ­ers conduct certain aspects of the work of mercy. They are to exist independently of the church. In no way should the diaconates attempt to lord it over these groups and their boards. Instead, there should be the finest cooperation rooted in a common zeal for manifesting the love of Christ to those in need.

Thus first of all the deacons should be well informed on these institutions. Only those which are unmistakably based on Christian principles and seek to display the love of the Saviour should be sup­ported by our people, and with these our deacons must cooperate.

Furthermore, the deacons both individually and collectively should promote the cause of these insti­tutions of Christian mercy. Too largely has this been forgotten. The burden resting on the board of direc­tors of such voluntary organizations is heavy in­deed. In certain cases lack of funds has hampered the necessary expansion. In other cases the leadership has not been as progressive as it might be. Many members of the Reformed churches are still luke­warm in their interest in such institutions, with the result that they contribute but little of their time and money to the cause of Christian mercy. Here the deacons, also corporately, have a task to promote the effectiveness of these organizations and enlist the support of all the members of our churches.

Closer cooperation would be greatly promoted, if the help and advice of the diaconates were sought. Sometimes the boards of directors are so fearful of the independence of their organizations, that they ask only for financial aid from the churches. This surely is not as it should be. We may draw a parallel between these institutions and the Christian schools. The latter, too, are the result of the effective work of voluntary organizations. In no way are these schools officially connected with the churches. All the ad­ministration and control is in the hands of the boards elected by the members of the society. Yet the Church Order recognizes, and rightly so, that there must be the closest possible cooperation between church and school. At the time of the classical gatherings the elders are asked whether the consistory sees to it that there is "a good Christian school" where the children of the church are instructed. To answer this question properly the consistory must exercise a measure of supervision over the schools. In many communities elders and ministers are invited to inspect the school from time to time throughout the year. Often school boards consult with pastors and elders on mutual problems. Only when this is done are the elders discharging their duties with respect to the schools.

In Article 26 some such cooperation is also en­visaged. Here the deacons are charged with the work of making it possible for the poor to use the facilities of Christian institutions. Since the work of the deacons is basically spiritual, we may assume that the Church Order insists that the deacons shall be interested in more than the physical care of the poor. The deacons and boards of such institutions ought to consult with each other from time to time, both as to the type of care which is given and the needs which arise. More ought to be expected of the deacons than merely receiving an offering for these institutions once a year.

Only on such a basis can we understand why this article requires the deacons to make it possible for the poor to receive care in such institutions of Christian mercy. We would be betraying the trust which Christ has laid upon us, if we expected our poor people to look to the tender mercies of the state in their time of need. It is to the dishonour and shame of the church, when her members are forced to seek non-Christian help, so that the aged go to the county poor farms, the orphans to juvenile courts for dispo­sition, and the mentally afflicted to state hospitals for care. No matter how good the physical care may be, these institutions can never supply what the suffer­ing members of Christ's church need.

Only a Christian hospital and home, where love reigns supreme and service is given in the name of the Saviour, answers to that need. Therefore it should be the goal of our Reformed constituency to provide sufficient institutional care for all those of our number who are afflicted and thus need this help. For stimu­lating our people to make these provisions the dea­cons have a great responsibility. A wonderful begin­ning has been made, but much — very much — still remains to be done. And as our inspiration and encouragement let the deacons remember the words of the Saviour,

In as much as ye have done unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye have done it unto me.

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