How can the deacons encourage mercy and service in the church and the world? This article discusses the importance of home visits by deacons.

Source: Dienst, 1991. 10 pages. Translated by Bram Vegter.

To Encourage to Serve

1. History🔗

A good hundred years ago, three Reformed ministers wrote a book with reflections about the deaconry, with the title: “Oil and wine in the wounds”. This book was necessary, because in the church of that time quite a bit faltered concerning the work of the deacons. The authors of this book describe the church here as ill, the deacon work (or looking after the poor) as they also call it, still leaves much to be desired. “After all, also the office of Deacon lies, emerged from among murderers, on the public road. Unbelief and mercilessness, rut service and slowness, greed for money and calculation have assaulted the glorious office of mercy and robbed it from its jewels and power.” And by means of this book they want, as they say, to provide again the proper perspective on the mercy of Christ.

Christ it is, who as “High Priest” brought about the office of mercy through the (work of the) Holy Spirit. Only he can purify these wounds as with wine and soften them as with oil.

The imagery they use here is taken from the parable which Jesus told of the good Samaritan. This book was written one year after the Second Secession (in Dutch: Doleantie). The first national meeting of these churches, which had severed ties with the Netherlands Reformed Church government, was the Synodical Convention (1887). One of the agenda items was: “The practice of mercy in the Reformed churches, specifically by means of the deaconry…”.

The Deaconry Convention, held in 1888, was a result of this national meeting. As preparation for this Deaconry Convention, the abovementioned book was written. The situation was not very rosy in the churches. The mercy by the deacons had degenerated in an administration of the poor. Careful watch was held over the large sums of money which the church possessed.

If there was a bountiful positive balance in the books, people spoke of “a nice account”. Deacons were men, who were all sitting on and holding onto the cash box. The capital stood “not as a blessing, but as a curse between us and our eternal and eternally rich God”. We can read descriptions of how the deacons dealt with the poor members of the congregation.

Then we read a scene such as this: on the one side of a big antique room stood a raised platform, on which stood a table with eight tall chairs. This table has the name “table of complaints” and is covered with a fancy green tablecloth. The deacons were seated in the tall chairs and the poor congregations had to appear before these tall gentlemen. In this manner, the deacons were “men of mercy who, dressed in majesty, were seated for judgment”. Also, there was hardly a bond between the deacons and the members of the congregation who needed assistance. Giving (assistance) did not take place out of love, but it happened because you were obligated to do it. However, it was often a giving in an arrogant manner, as a hand-out to a beggar. Someone wrote about this: “A respectable citizen could not imagine a greater humiliation then to sink to such a material decline, that it would become necessary to accept assistance from the deacons.” It will not have been as solemn everywhere and at the same time repellent for those who where in need of assistance, and yet, the structure of dealing with these matters was wrong. These kinds of situations have contributed to what you see today; that congregation members would rather accept social assistance from the government than to ask the deacons for assistance. The shock and the shame are still there. As Prof. Veenhof wrote: “One cannot compute what terrible large and irreparable damage the church has done to herself by her cold lack of mercy, and how much unnamed damage has been done because of this to the cause of the Lord in our country.” And I think that today’s deacons must still battle a prejudice from congregation members, namely that deacons would still work in this way.

2. The Lord’s Supper🔗

It is clear of course, that when we deal with the theme of serving, we do not find ourselves in a situation as described in the book “Oil and wine in the wounds”. Through many meetings, and through the Provincial and Classical Deacon meetings, we see good fruit. Deacons have (again) realized that they are called by Christ, who himself wanted to serve. There are many places in the Bible that accentuate this merciful work of Christ. I point to Philippians 2: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who…emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant”. He has not come to be served, but to serve, and that is why he also washed his disciples’ feet. He was rich (in heaven), but for us he became poor, so that we could become rich due to his becoming poor. And so, the life’s work of the Mediator Christ can be typified as service, and in that is our word “deacon”. This service, this deacon work, must be visible in today’s congregation. Therefore, Christ has appointed office bearers to be busy in the congregation and to lead the work of serving.

This serving is after all the task of the whole congregation — and important in this regard is Ephesians 4:11, 12. Office bearers are mentioned there, which the elevated Christ has given to His congregation, and they receive as task to build up the congregation in serving. Central in the serving of Christ is his sacrifice, made on the cross. That sacrifice we commemorate at the Lord’s Supper. We can also call the Lord’s Supper table “the table of servitude”; the serving of Christ to the depths is shown and served to us there. The love he had for his church is made tangible there. Therefore, the Lord’s Supper must stand central in the service of the deacons. It is central in all the preaching and in all the work of the office bearers. And therefore, no less in the service of the deacons.

If we take the bread and wine in remembrance of the atonement that Christ accomplished — a high point in the liturgy — then this is also the starting point for the work of the deacons. The deacons must ensure that the table of the Lord is and remains a table of communion. There should not only be bread and wine on the table, but the love which is contained in the sharing of the bread must be palpable. For that reason, it is beautifully symbolic if especially the Lord Supper collection is destined for the service of the deacons, intended for the service of mercy. And from this remembrance of the death (of Christ) which is at the same time a celebration of life, the Scriptures draw lines to broader connections. The form (for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper) shows this. In this form, three texts are mentioned, which show that the service of love must continue from the Lord’s Supper. These texts speak about the love that we as congregation must show to each other and must show to others. The form for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper adds to this: and not only with words, but also with deeds.

Prof Trimp quite rightly says: “Therefore, the Lord’s Supper is for the congregation of Christ the place of origin of all mutual communion and of the obligation to practising this communion. At the same time, it points there to the roots of the office of deacon.”

With the word deacon there is also a connection with the term that we read in the Bible of “serving the tables” (Acts 6:2). That will apply to the table at home, but also to the love meal which is part of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. “A deacon is actually someone who serves the meal…the work of the deaconry is serving at the table.” As they initially had to regulate the love meal, so not no one was left out, and at the same time make sure that those who had plenty were not shamelessly stuffing themselves with food. This is how they also now ought to work in the congregation, so that no one has any need, and so that no one lives without caring for their needy neighbour. “Deacons are table servers. They watch over the specific communion of the saints within the congregation, who celebrate the Lord’s Supper as the proclamation of ‘the poverty of Jesus because of us’. This is how members of the congregation serve one another out of love for Christ.”

3. Mercy🔗

The deacons must arouse the members of the congregation to this (mercy). The congregation must learn to see their own servitude. Serving each other we can also call mercy. To serve in the service of mercy is actually a beautiful term for the work which the deacons do. God is merciful and it is also being said of people. The Old Testament word for mercy has to do with the womb, the innermost. The word makes us think of how a mother is connected to her child (in the womb). This is how the congregation members must be connected to each other and then they will be merciful. Just like a child in the womb cannot take care of herself and the mother will carry the child out of love, so it must be between members of the congregation. It points to the connection there is between those who need assistance and those who help. So, not assisting from a certain haughty attitude and thereby looking down on each other, but helping from love for each other. That is not a favour, but a duty out of love. Therefore, acts of mercy must be accompanied by emotion and empathy and faithfulness. It is not a fleeting thing, like two people who give each other something in passing, but it must be a life attitude. Of the mercy of God, it is said that it is an eternal mercy.

And then mercy has specifically to do with the recovery of damaged relationships. Concerning the Old Testament, we can think of the caring for the lonely, the widow and the stranger. Think of the right of the poor to take home a portion of the harvest. Also, everything which grew in the Sabbath Year and the Year of Jubilee (Lev. 25) was also purposed for these weak (members) in society. The poor also received a portion of the tithe (Deut. 14:29), and for the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Booths they must be invited as well (Deut. 16:11, 14). Through this work of mercy, there must be a “social peace” among the nation, where no one falls short.

In the New Testament the care for the needy blooms even further. For God’s Son, the Saviour who is the Healer of all damaged situations, has come. He is filled with mercy and shows his mercifulness through deeds. He heals the sick, he raises the dead, he restores relationships and forms communion with sinners. He comforts and teaches. He shows mercy, but also demands mercy: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Matt. 12:7). God asks from us generosity and a giving heart. This is what is pleasing to God (Heb. 13:16). How clear is the teaching of the Lord in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). A lawyer put Jesus to the test. What must I do to inherit eternal life? That is the question he asks Jesus. The Lord, in his answer, does not emphasize one of the ten commandments, as the lawyer had expected, but the Lord gives all the commandments in a summary: to love the LORD with all your heart and to love your neighbour as yourself. But who is now that neighbour? In the eyes of the people of that time, the neighbour was limited to someone who belonged to your own nation, and at best the stranger who lived in your neighbourhood.

But then the Lord shows that you must show mercy in a broader way. Then it is not about the question: to whom do I have to show mercy? Perhaps it is hard to even start with this, there is so much coming toward me… The question in the parable is: who actually showed mercy? For you can talk for a long time about theoretical questions: who is eligible for assistance, while nothing is being done. The Lord says: go and do it, just like that Samaritan.

And is Matthew 25: 31-46 not clear? That passage is about the judgment that Christ pronounces as Judge. But that judgment has to do with the attitude we have toward the neighbour. It is about giving clothing, and to help people with the necessities of life, it is about caring for the sick and to visit those who are in prison. In all that your faith speaks (for itself). Do you want to serve the other or not and what is your motive? It is not just about showing mercy to your neighbour, but that you do this based on the mercy that God has shown to you. Then it becomes clear that those who showed mercy are counted as righteous. That is why we read in Acts about the Christian congregation who puts that into practice. The members of the congregation care for one another (Acts 2:42, 44 and Acts 4:33-35). And a lack of mercy is condemned (James 2:13). The conclusion can be drawn that the relationship between God and his people, which is founded on the reconciliation through Christ, must be the source for our mercy for others. The task of the deacons now is to convince the congregation that mercy is rooted in the rights and obligations of the covenant.

As God reveals himself as the One who shows mercy, therefore the congregation of God is first of all merciful. Mercy and empathy, caring for, and giving yourself to; these characteristics are distinct marks of the Christian walk with those who are weak and are unable to look after themselves. I would also like to point to what Jesus said in Luke 6:36: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” And that is why the deacons must stimulate the congregation members to practise mercy. And then God does not ask from us what is impossible to do. He does not ask us what we cannot do. You cannot give more than what you have, as long as we are prepared to give. These are the instructions according to the form (for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons — as per the Book of Praise): “Also today the Lord calls on us to show hospitality, generosity, and mercy, so that the weak and needy may share abundantly in the joy of God’s people.”

4. Gifts🔗

To serve is an assignment to the congregation. But Christ makes it possible (for us) to serve. After all, it is he who gives us gifts of grace, divine gifts, to the congregation. These are his presents, his gifts (Eph. 4:7; also compare Rom. 12:3-8 and 1 Cor. 12:4-11). He distributes to each person and there is no one in the congregation who does not get something. Among the gifts that he gives is also the gift of serving (others) and to show mercy. These gifts are spoken of in Romans 12:7, 8. Prof J. Van Bruggen notes that in these verses it is not about the very general activities done by every Christian, but that this is about persons who take it on as their specific task to show mercy. And as there were clearly prophets in the time that the letter was written to the church in Rome, so we can also speak of deacons, who make it their task to serve and show mercy, and they do that as per the analogy of God’s grace given to us. God created a body (of believers) and now we must look after it. God created the communion of saints and we need to serve one another.

The divine gifts which Christ has given to the congregation must be activated and stimulated. The gifts must be managed, so that they benefit the whole congregation. But the gifts are God’s capital/domain. We have received the management of them with the purpose to seek the good of one another, and so that God is being honoured. That is why we read in 1 Peter 4:10 and 11: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace…by the strength that God supplies.” Serving one another is inseparably connected to being a church. The disposition of Christ must be ours as well, and then Paul emphasizes specifically sympathy and mercifulness (Phil. 2:1). Christ praises the church at Thyatira (Rev. 2:19) for her faith and service, and Paul writes about love as a fruit of the Spirit and through this love you start to serve one another (Gal. 5:13).

5. The Congregation Serves🔗

To be clear: deacons should not take over the task of the congregation members, but they should stimulate and coordinate the works of mercy. In general, we can say: “Office bearers serve, so that the congregation serves.” For the serving by the deacons does not mean that they take the work off the hands of the congregation members, but that they show this work of serving to the congregation. Serving is not a monopoly of office bearers, but a calling of the entire congregation. The office (of office bearers) does not function in the place of the member of the congregation, but for the sake of the member of the congregation. Not to make him passive, but to serve him and to train him to active obedience. It is after all to equip (people) to serve. We can even express it so explicitly, “that the deacons do not equip the congregation when they take over the task to serve”. In this connection, we can use the term diaconal congregation. With this term is being indicated that the congregation should not watch, without doing anything, the work the deacons are doing. Christians may not become stadium-seated Christians. With that I mean that they ought not to remain seated and merely watch what others in the church are all doing. They are seated nicely, pay their ticket and that is it. (Rev. Kooy uses another example. He speaks of a TV-congregation, which watches to see if the office bearers are doing a good job). But the congregation members must put themselves into gear! The deacons have the task to find the needs and those needing assistance and secondly to stimulate the members of the congregation to give to the neighbour in need. They must see what is going on in the congregation and in the world. Yes, the world is included in this as well. When the Holy Spirit has come, the gospel spreads throughout the world and in accordance with this the serving becomes broader as well. That is a fruit of Pentecost. When we pray for the world, as commanded by Christ in 1 Timothy 2:1, then as church we must make every effort to assist this needy world. Not only with words, but also in deeds we must let the world know that we have a good message (for them). And the form of ordination (for Elders and Deacons) also rightly points to this (see also Galatians 6:10 and 1 Thessalonians 3:12). The deacons are also to teach the congregation to see this. Let me then just point briefly to the parable of the Good Samaritan. There, the emphasis is also on the word “see”. The Lord says that the priest saw the wounded man lying but passed him by. Also, the Levite saw him but continues on his way. But the Samaritan saw him and does something (Luke 10:31-33). We do not read why the priest and the Levite did not do anything when they saw the wounded man, but you can say that they did not look at the man with love and compassion. They had cold and hard eyes, which, although they saw the man, stayed closed to his needs. Yes, you can close your eyes to the existing need of your neighbour. Therefore, deacons should encourage us to see with open and searching eyes. They should teach us to ask the question: Can I do something for you? And then the deacons must, if the congregation has not seen it yet herself, notify the congregation of specific needs. For she must discover the neighbour, who needs assistance.

We can tell beautiful basic stories about the neighbour, like who would be a neighbour to us and who would not. We can hold a firm debate about the question: Are the deacons in the church allowed to hold a collection in church for an organization like the Servants Anonymous Foundation, or the Red Cross Foundation? Can the deacons collect for needs due to hunger in the world, or for material or medical assistance for the victims of natural disasters?

But we can also say it very briefly: the neighbour is someone whom God places on our path, and this is how we discover his situation.

The question of who exactly my neighbour is, is the question which the lawyer asked Jesus (in Luke 10:29), and it betrays the thought behind it: I am doing so much already. Therefore, the important discussion is not about: who can we help, but it is about: do we understand our task as helpers? We can discover a much broader field then, than we see at first glance. The deacons must not hold themselves to one goal, e.g. to look after the needy in the congregation, but they ought to see a broader field to work in. And then it is not even most important if everything has been well organized. For a superbly organized congregation can also be dead if her assistance activities are not done out of love and out of faith (Rev. 3:1).

6. Home Visits By the Deacons🔗

When we conclude this to be the task of the deacons, then the home visit by the deacons is the appropriate way to involve the congregation. These visits serve (to get) information back and forth, the building of a good relationship between office bearer and congregation member, to stimulate, encourage and admonish members of the congregation. You can distinguish the home visit into two facets: A. Visits to discover and address needs, and B. Visits to encourage members to see their own task in this.

  1. First something about the first-mentioned aspect. If a need is established and assistance is being offered, then this can be taken care of by members of the congregation, but at times it is necessary to involve the deacon. I think specifically of the financial side of the assistance provided. For often this kind of work is to be carried out with integrity. It is confidential work and often this assistance is done in secret. The deacon then not only must bring the funds, but also speak an encouraging and comforting word (see Article 23 of the Church Order, and the Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons — “They are called to encourage and comfort with the Word of God”, page 652 and 626 in the Book of Praise). It is important to find out how the needy members of the congregation experience the need and receiving of assistance from the deacons and how they process this (in their minds).

  2. The other aspect of the deacon home visit is that the congregation members are being encouraged to see their own task in this. The deacon home visit seems to be something new from the past years, and this is how the deacons see it, and often the congregation members see it like this as well. And yet, this is not the case. A short bit of research makes clear very quickly that Prof. H. Bouwman already wrote in 1907 about a home visit by deacons, and not just for poor families either. “But to visit the more affluent members of the congregation in their homes, to speak with them about the existing needs, and to request of them a special donation (for this).” And Prof. Veenhof wrote in 1967 about the home visit by deacons. The character of this home visit will often be educational, as the deacons are teaching the congregation members to be merciful. They must ask questions and do much listening. “There is a lot of energy present in the congregation, that never is tapped into; for the large and especially for the small things that needy congregation members have, which need to be addressed. Therefore, the deacons must at times visit all the members of the congregation to stimulate the (use of) energy, which is the mutual love among members.”

We can distinguish the official home visit by deacons from all the in-between short visits. These visits are necessary to keep in touch, and to keep the line open to the family, so that, if there arises the need for help, the family members feel comfortable to approach the deacons. I will not say more here about the short visits in the realm of “just stopping by”.

We can ask many questions about the home visit by the deacons. Like e.g., should this be done with two deacons, what about prayer and Bible reading. Should it be a yearly visit, etc.?

  1. Concerning the first question, I believe this visit can best be done by two deacons. I will give the following arguments for this. In the first place, and then I consider the recently appointed deacon, you can assist one another in the office of deacon. Let the inexperienced deacon go on a visit with a more experienced deacon. This way he can learn things. After all, is this not the way elders are working together? Then it is also beneficial that two deacons can complement (not compliment!) one another, so, you are not facing these issues all on your own. Also, with two deacons you can pick up more vibes, signals and see things in the family, as compared to just one deacon. They can also prepare themselves together, and they can have a chat afterwards about how the visit went, what they saw and heard. They can help each other by pointing out possible snags in the conversation which could have been addressed differently and better. In short: with two deacons you stand much stronger than by yourself.
  2. I deem it very appropriate that a portion of the Bible is read during such a visit. Through the reading of Scripture, which can best be done at the beginning of the visit, you place the deacon visit in the frame of God’s covenant. You make the family hear and see, through the reading, that also the deacons are coming with the command of Christ. And from that portion of Scripture, which must have the content of serving one another, the communion of saints, merciful sacrifices, or something similar, the conversation may be started. The reading is definitely part of this. And I think the same about the prayer. Especially at the end of the home visit there must be a time to express thankfulness and petitions to God in prayer. It should be a blessed visit. You may, no, you must then together (deacons plus congregation members) ask for God’s blessing. A good rule is that the ward deacon leads the conversation and also ends with a prayer of thanks. Reading the Bible and prayer are not divine requirements (also not for the home visit by the elders), that we can just pull out of the Bible, but it gives us a framework, within which we can have a conversation. Reading the Bible and prayer can also be left out at a home visit, due to a hesitation of the visiting deacon, but then allow me to point to the promise of Jesus who wants to send his Spirit to his servants. First, they must personally pray for strength to do this task among the members of the congregation.
  3. The shorter in-between visits can be done at any moment, but the visit by the deacons ought to be arranged beforehand. The family can also then prepare itself and in this way it will work out better for everyone. A yearly home visit is perhaps not possible, but I think perhaps to visit every two years, or minimally one visit at each address per the period-in-office of the deacon. Then the youth should be included as well. As they are present when the elders visit, they should also be present when the deacons visit.

7. Similar To the Elders?🔗

Often, I hear criticism that the deacons are copying the way home visits are made by the elders. It is a form of undervaluing that the congregation members say the deacons do not have to come on a home visit, for the elders are coming already. Ask someone the question: Did the deacons come to visit you, and you can expect the answer: me?? I do not need any financial assistance! And yet, this should not be holding the deacons back to keep making home visits. For in the first place, when the deacons visit, they do not copy the home visit done by elders. A home visit is a very nice way to engage the congregation members in conversation. It is a way which can be used by elders as well as by deacons. The elders have “the oldest papers” where it relates to home visits, but the deacons may catch up as quickly and as well as they can. You do not achieve acceptance by the congregation by not doing the deacon home visits, because the congregation is not yet used to them. Especially the office bearer — be they elder or deacon — is the appropriate person to speak (from) the Word and pray with the members of the congregation. Therefore, what the deacon does is also pastoral work. He is busy as shepherd, in a different way than the minister or the elder, but he does look after the flock (Eze. 34).

When the command is to encourage and comfort the congregation members who receive Christ’s gifts of love with the Word of God, then surely this should be possible when there is no direct pressing need. The deacon must train so that he can utilize the Word of God…Practicing God’s Word is important for every office bearer, and therefore for the deacon as well.

It is no extra luxury when the congregation is visited from two, or even three sides (from the elders, the deacons, and also from the ministers of the Word).

8. The Content of the Home Visit🔗

What can be talked about during a home visit? The subjects which the elders can bring to the fore are much more (varied) then what the deacons can raise. But we must not think that there is only little which can be discussed with the deacons. I find that Van der Leest is not enthusiastic enough when he writes: “Deacons have in this regard only two options: depending on how well they know the person, they will emphasize at the one address if someone perhaps needs assistance in some or other form, and at another address they check if someone is doing enough for their fellow church members”. That which he calls can be done “at another address”, is a bit more than just asking if someone is doing enough. I think that the deacon has several choices. In the first place, he can speak about mercifulness in general and about the task that the members of the congregation have in this, and a lot can come to the surface here — see the aforesaid. Secondly, the deacon can speak about organizations which show mercy, what is available and what is the purpose. With this topic it is recommended that the deacons compile a list of organizations and their particulars, which can serve as information material (for the congregation), but also to support the deacons themselves. A third visit could have as theme: spending your money, being good stewards over what we possess. A last subject could be: what can you do for someone else, and what is the task of the deacons in this? So, there are plenty of items to discuss together. Therefore, I do not think that the deacons are sitting silently by or is prone to repeat himself when he visits a family more often than once in four years.

Beside the home visit, there are still other ways to inform people. The congregation can be encouraged to serve by means of special collections — sometimes it still is the case that every collection by the deacons is labelled as: for the deaconry. But we can also name this in a more precise way as e.g., The Servants Anonymous Foundation, the Salvation Army, Red Cross etc., and other organizations the deacons wish to support. The local Church News can be a channel through which can be heard regularly about what the deacons are supporting. They could for example place a Deacon Report of past meetings — as a report from Consistory meetings is also regularly published. And have at times, in consultation with those who teach Catechism, the deacon teach a Catechism lesson. And if a broader discussion is warranted, organize a ward evening where a deacon topic can be discussed. It is a pity that the congregation is often just informed about the “situation of the deaconry” via yearly totals shown to the congregation. This does not particularly enhance the practices of mercy.

The diaconal congregation must be stimulated by the deacons. That is a beautiful, but often a difficult task. But if the congregation allows herself to be encouraged to show compassion and mercy, then she may know that God loves a cheerful giver (2 Cor. 9:7). And then we notice as well that where Christ’s Word reigns, life which is damaged and threatened find protection and healing.

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