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 Other Diaconates

Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I gave order to the churches of Galatia, so also do ye. Upon the first day of the week let each of you lay by him in store, as he may prosper, that no collections be made when I come. And when I arrive, whomsoever ye shall approve, them will I send with letters to carry your bounty unto Jerusalem.

Paul, the apostle

Help us to help each other, Lord Each other's cross to bear; Let each his friendly aid afford, And feel his brother's care."

Charles Wesley

Though we have our treasure-chest, it is not made up of purchase money, as if our religion had its price. On the regular day in the month, or when one prefers, each one makes a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able; for no one is compelled, but gives voluntarily. These gifts are, as it were, piety's deposit fund. For they are taken thence and spent, not on feasts and drinking-bouts, and thankless eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined to the house, likewise shipwrecked, and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God's Church, they become the nurslings of their confession. But it is mainly for such work of love that many place a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another!

Tertullian

In ancient times Greek and Roman mariners who navigated the perilous strait between Italy and Sicily were cautioned to steer a safe course between Scylla and Charybdis. So renown was the passage because of its threatening dangers that it became a byword among the peoples. The Reformed churches have become aware in their church polity of the necessity of steering a sage course between their Scylla and Charybdis.

The Charybdis, of which they have always been very fearful, was the whirlpool of hierarchical domination in which the local congregations would be entirely absorbed by the denomination. No group saw more clearly the danger of usurpation of power by the broader assemblies over the local churches. Too long had they suffered from the system of church government championed by the papal authorities. Thus in contrast to this system and all others akin to it, the Reformed leaders insisted on the autonomy or self-government of the local church. From the very beginning of their history as church they maintained that each local church was sovereign in its own sphere by virtue of the power which Christ as Head had vested in her officers. They realized full well the high price which had to be paid in loss of spiritual strength and fruitfulness, when the local congregations were dominated by the church at large.

But with equal determination they sought to keep away from the rocky Scylla of Independentism.  In the early days of the Reformation this had manifested itself among the Anabaptists and English dissenters. There the basic spiritual unity of likeminded churches could not be properly maintained. Their insistence on the rights of the local church was so strong, that these groups ignored the plain Scriptural teaching that the unity of the churches must come to outward manifestation and expression in the broader assemblies. Unity of conviction must demonstrate itself in unity of action. Although the Independents still exercised a measure of brotherly contact with each other in their conferences, these assemblies exercised no official authority in matters of doctrine and government, since their decisions were regarded as merely advisory and not binding on the several congregations.

Realizing that the former undermined the spiri­tual authority of Christ and the rights of the local congregation which was a manifestation of the body of Christ in the world and that the latter destroyed the basic unity and the united witness of the churches, the Reformed churches adopted and developed a church polity which escaped the dilemmas found in both extremes. Thus they insisted that the power to rule the church had been delegated by Christ to the officers of the local congregations; however, these were in duty bound to unite organically with each other with the result that broader assemblies exer­cised binding authority over the churches in certain specific matters.1

With respect to the diaconates and their spiritual ministry the Church Order again seeks to escape the extremes. On the one hand, it insists that the diaconal office is local in character, consisting of deacons who are members of the congregation and seek to pro­mote its welfare. In an even stricter sense than is true with respect to the offices of the ministers of the Word and the elders, the diaconate is bound up with the life of the local church. Nowhere is provision made for diaconal assemblies on a broader scale than the deacons' meetings in the congregation. Only by way of exception, when a deacon serves as assistant elder and when no other elder can be delegated to the classical gathering, may he be seated with power to transact business. But here then the deacon is present in his capacity as assistant elder and not as minister of mercy.

Yet the Church Order does not entirely limit the scope of diaconal work to that which must be done in and for the local church. Provision is made in Article 26 for a measure of cooperation among the diaconates. "It is also desirable," so the article reads, "that the Diaconates assist and consult one another, especially in caring for the poor in such institutions." This brings up the important but often neglected topic of diaconal cooperation.

The nature of diaconal cooperation🔗

At once it will be noted that this reference to coopera­tion among the diaconates is very brief, general and advisory.

This follows from the Reformed conception of the offices as they are first of all bound up with the life of the local church. Only here is there found a hint that the deacons of one church may officially consult with and advise those of another congregation. The nature and purpose of this cooperation is not defined in detail, except that this article mentions that this may be sought, when there are poor who need institutional care. Such situations have arisen occasionally in the churches. As long as the local diacon­ate is able to make adequate provision, there is no need to seek the counsel and help of others. But should a local diaconate find the burden too great for the congregation to bear, either because the church is too small and poor to assume additional burdens or because the number who need such care is unusu­ally large, the way is here opened for seeking help in an official way. Yet even this is regarded by the Church Order as advisory and not mandatory.

The study of such diaconal cooperation and correspondence is of comparatively recent date. Originally this article referred only to the relation between the deacons and the state or the boards which were in control of Christian institutions of mercy. Those relationships have been discussed in preceding chapters.

With the new emphasis on the importance of the ecclesiastical offices in the churches of the Netherlands, as one of the results of the Doleantie movement, the matter of the relation of the diaconates to each other was seriously discussed.2

An earnest attempt was made to develop the diaconal office in accordance with New Testament principles which recognize it as distinctly the ministry of mercy. Thus those churches reacted strongly against all govern mental interference in the work of relief. Even more, many of those who took part in the discussions were convinced that it was legitimate for the deaconries to establish, control and maintain such institutions of mercy as homes for the aged, orphanages, hospitals and clinics. Naturally such an ambitious program could hardly be realized except where the congrega­tion was unusually large and wealthy. Hence to achieve this end it was considered necessary to have the diaconates cooperate.

Out of these discussions arose the question whether the deaconries should be organized in broader assemblies, patterned after the classical gatherings at which ministers of the Word and elders met together and transacted ecclesiastical busi­ness in official capacity as representatives of the local churches.

Several possibilities suggested themselves and were ardently advocated from time to time. As for the possibility of developing a system of broader assemblies, many soon rejected this as contrary to Reformed church polity, on the grounds that dea­cons cannot be empowered to serve in the government of the church. Even their diaconal meetings are not to be regarded as comparable to the consistorial gatherings, since the deacons according to the Church Order labour under the direct supervision of the ministers and elders. The Reformed churches were fearful of allowing another governing body to de­velop in addition to the consistory in any local church, lest opportunity for contention and strife be created. Also the care of the physical properties of the congre­gation was almost universally placed in the hands of the consistories.

Another suggestion was made by Dr. Herman Bavinck. He proposed that deacons be delegated to the existing broader assemblies along with ministers and elders and given the right to vote on all matters pertaining to the work of mercy. Principally there can be no objection raised against this proposal, since classis and synod are gatherings of the congre­gations. Should the Church Order be thus revised and enlarged, it would be possible and permissible that this office, too, represent the local church. However, certain practical objections immediately presented themselves. First of all, such a method would give too great a preponderance of power to the elders and deacons over the ministers of the Word, a danger which should not be minimized in a church which prizes trained leadership. For though we ardently believe that the ministers of the Word may not lord it over God's heritage, yet their office requires that they especially shall seek the welfare of the churches and give strong leadership. Still more, the deacons would have relatively little to do, if their work at such assemblies were limited strictly to that which pertains to their office. It is quite unusual that mat­ters of charity must be discussed at classis and synod. And to give them the right to discuss and vote on all matters legally before such meetings would be tan­tamount to a denial of their unique office. They would then become but assistants to the elders, and the eldership would receive undue preponderance of power and numbers over the ministers of the Word.

As result this proposal has never been adopted. Nor is this necessary. Any matter which according to the opinion of a diaconate should be discussed by and decided upon by several churches can be brought to classis and synod in the legal way. They have but to lay the case before the local consistory with the urgent request that it be referred to the broader assembly. Should such a gathering feel the need of further explanation by the diaconate or should the diaconate feel the need of giving this, steps towards this end can be readily taken.

A far better method of securing diaconal coop­eration is suggested here by the Church Order, one which can be pursued with great fruitfulness.

The necessity of diaconal cooperation🔗

Several reasons may be adduced in favour of devel­oping more and closer cooperation among our di­aconates.

First of all, occasions arise when the local di­aconate will require assistance in certain specific situations. This is especially true in small congrega­tions, which often must bear burdens far in excess of those assumed by the larger churches in order to perform the ministry of mercy well. Many times when individuals or families need help, especially if this involves committing someone to an institution for a rather long period of time, the members of the smaller churches find it difficult to provide the nec­essary funds. Already they are giving proportion­ately more for the support of the ministry of the Word and the properties than some, if not many, of the larger congregations. Thus if they are cast en­tirely on their own resources, the danger threatens that they will neglect some part of their duty towards the Christian brother and sister. The rule of the gospel, "Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2), holds for congregations as well as for individuals.

There may also be times, when the deacons face practical problems which they seem unable to solve properly. Just how should a diaconate act in regard to state support of the needy? May the deacons in certain instances lend money and, if so, what ar­rangements for repayment should be made? Is it ever permissible to require interest in such cases? What steps should be taken when such an individual who has received a loan does not repay, even though in the estimation of the diaconate he is well able to do so? To what causes beyond the confines of the local congregation may diaconal funds properly be given? In many of these cases the consistory should be requested to deal with the issues and individuals involved. There are times, when the deacons hesitate to call in the elders, because the case does not seem to be ready for ecclesiastical censures. In such con­crete cases it would be very profitable and helpful to seek the advice of neighbouring diaconates. From their experiences much can be learned, and many regrettable mistakes avoided.

More than that, since our congregations are organized as a denomination, this unity should properly come to expression also in the field of Christian mercy. Together we cooperate in various mission enterprises, radio evangelism, the support of superannuated ministers, and the maintenance of educational institutions. Surely then it is highly appropriate that we work together in performing the work of helping the needy. Certain projects in the field of charity are too great and involved to be undertaken by any single diaconate or even by a few neighbouring diaconates. An example of such an undertaking is the Calvinist Resettlement Service authorized by the Synod of 1949 to assist our congre­gations in doing their share towards bringing dis­placed persons to America and rehabilitating them economically, socially and spiritually. The commit­tee appointed by synod consisted of two ministers, two elders and two deacons. It might, indeed, have been more appropriate and advantageous if this work had been assigned directly to the deacons with perhaps the advisory presence of a minister and an elder. However, this action of synod demonstrates conclusively that the work of mercy also may and often should be conducted on a broader scale than is possible for any one diaconate. As a result, it is absolutely necessary that there be some form of diaconal cooperation which is fully recognized and frequently pursued in our churches.

The methods of diaconal cooperation🔗

In accordance with both the letter and the spirit of Article 26 several methods for the necessary mutual consultation and cooperation among our diaconates may be suggested here.

In the first place, the matter of correspondence in the restricted sense deserves mention. Any diacon­ate faced with practical problems which cannot be settled satisfactorily within the body of the deacons or which in any way involves other diaconates has the right to correspond officially with other bodies. In spite of the fact that the consistory is the ruling body in the congregation, such correspondence does not have to pass through the hands of the elders. To this end a secretary of the deacons is elected to carry out this correspondence with dispatch. The advice which is received must be officially adopted by the local diaconate, of course, before it is considered binding. Here again we must remember that no deacon shall lord it over other deacons and no con­gregation over other congregations, also in diaconal matters.

Besides, two or more diaconates may cooperate in a given venture. An example of this would be the care of a brother or a sister in a Christian institution of mercy for which two or more diaconates jointly assumed responsibility. Any deaconry with the advice and approval of its consistory may appeal to neighbouring diaconates for such assistance. Thus the matter does not necessarily have to be consi­dered at a classical gathering. Only if the help of all the neighbouring congregations is desired or needed, may the matter be decided at classis.

Another method of cooperation is afforded through the diaconal conferences which have arisen in various parts of the church. These are held chiefly for mutual inspiration and encouragement. They may never assume powers similar to those pos­sessed by the classis which exercises a measure of authority in certain matters over the local consisto­ries. All the decisions of these diaconal conferences are purely advisory, since they are attended by the deacons as individuals and never as officially ac­credited representatives of the congregation. At such meetings practical questions may and should be discussed as well as the basic Scriptural principles underlying the ministry of mercy in the churches. Thus advice can be obtained which will be helpful indeed.

Likewise such a conference may decide to bring to the attention of the local deaconries certain relief projects which cannot be carried out successfully by any single diaconate. In this way much has been done by the Holland-Zeeland and Grand Rapids conferences for the recent immigrants to Canada, the Huguenot Reformed Churches in Germany, the Reformed believers in Hungary and others who are in need. Whenever this type of diaconal cooperation is sought, we may not forget that a conference does not have the right to levy assessments or take deci­sions which are binding on any of the diaconates. The amount of help to be given can be determined only by the local deaconry at its regular meeting held under consistorial supervision. Yet as the conviction grows in our churches and among our diaconates that theirs is the God-given responsibility to assist the poor and distressed throughout the world, these conferences will assume a much more important and useful place in our ecclesiastical life. Perhaps in the not too distant future the churches in the United States and Canada will organize a Central Diaconal Conference comparable to that found in the Re­formed Churches in the Netherlands.

Endnotes🔗

  1. ^ On the relationship of the local congregation to the de­nomination, cf. H. Bavinck: Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, vol. IV, p. 470f.; L. Berkhof: Systematic Theology, p. 589f.
  2. ^  Diaconaal Handboek, p. 208-209. 

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