The Practice of the Ministry of Mercy
Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is begotten of God, and knoweth God.John, the apostle
All thy good Workes which went before And waited for thee at the door, Shall own thee there; and all in one Weave a Constellation Of Crowns, with which the King thy spouse Shall bind up thy triumphant browes."Richard Crashaw
Love is the river of life in this world. Think not that ye know it who stand at the little tinkling rill, the first small fountain. Not until you have gone through the rocky gorges, and not lost the stream; not until you have gone through the meadow, and the stream has widened and deepened until fleets could ride on its bosom; not until beyond the meadow you have come to the unfathomable ocean, and poured your treasure in its depths - not until then can you know what love is.Henry Ward Beecher
In the eighth chapter we considered the main objectives which should be realized by the diaconate. These are chiefly four: the ingathering of the offerings of God's people, the prevention of poverty, the distribution of the gifts according to need and the consolation of those who are in distress. In the ninth chapter our attention was directed to the proper administration of this work. This requires above all that the diaconates shall be organized according to the principles taught in the Bible and recognized by the Church Order. In this chapter the actual prosecution of this work by the deacons is to be studied.
Since there are many who lack the proper insight into the spiritual character of the diaconal office, a discussion of this subject is by no means superfluous.
Many still seem to think that because the deacons deal with finances, their office is far less spiritual than that of the ministers of the Word and the elders. Such a view rests on an erroneous conception of the Christian's attitude to material goods. Too many have failed to free themselves from Anabaptistic and pietistic bias, which regards the material creation as of little or no value for the development of healthy spiritual life. As Reformed Christians we take strong issue with this misconception and should never weary of insisting that possessions of several kinds are by no means sinful in themselves. Rather are we to regard them as gifts which God in His providence apportions to His people as seems good to Him, in order that through their proper and thankful use our lives may be sustained and His kingdom advanced. When therefore the deacons by virtue of their office devote considerable attention to material things, they are not necessarily forsaking the realm of spiritual interests. To the contrary, without these gifts believers cannot under normal circumstances grow in the knowledge and grace of the Saviour and labour for the coming of His kingdom.
Our blessed Saviour has assigned a large place to such matters in the prayer which He taught His disciples. Even before we pray for the remission of our sins and deliverance from the power of the devil, we are commanded to say, "Give us this day our daily bread" (Matthew 6:11; Luke 11:3). The apostle Paul resolves this concern into a general principle which must govern our lives, when he affirms, "Howbeit that is not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; then that which is spiritual" (1 Cor. 15:46). The interrelation of the physical and spiritual well-being of God's people must be clearly recognized by the diaconate. Only then will it be possible to demonstrate that in providing for the material wants of God's children, the deacons are performing a ministry which is distinctly spiritual in its nature and purpose. To carry on this work they as well as the ministers of the Word and the elders must be well armed with the Word of God.
The Deacon and His Bible
The chief duty of the deacons is to bring God's people face to face with the teachings of the Word relative to the physical needs of believers. The Form for Ordination is clear on this point, when it insists that the deacons must speak words of consolation and cheer from the Scripture to the distressed. In the prayer with which the Form closes the petition is added that God may give the rich liberal hearts to all who are in need. Thus the words to be spoken in this ministry must be the very words of God Himself, if His people are to enjoy the abiding and peaceable fruit of righteousness in their afflictions. Here the words of man are of no avail.
Every deacon must be well grounded in the teachings of the Bible especially as these apply to his ministry. He must be able to do far more than quote an appropriate text occasionally. Unless he understands the several principles which reveal God's purpose in the lives of His people, his labours will be in vain. Although some of these have been referred to before, we would take the liberty to list those which are outstanding.
- First of all, let it be remembered that God has constituted man a physical-spiritual being. This is clearly announced in the creation account. Although man is a living soul, created in God's image, that soul dwells in a body fashioned by the wisdom of God as a suitable tabernacle. Thus his physical needs ought to be met with a degree of adequacy, if his spiritual life is to flourish to God's glory. Man under ordinary circumstances is hardly expected to serve his Creator and Redeemer on an empty stomach. The glory of the Christian gospel is that it concerns itself with God's loving provisions for the body as well as with the promises for the soul. Although his physical needs may never be placed on an equality with his spiritual, we do well to realize the tremendous importance of the body.
- Furthermore, the deacons should be thoroughly acquainted with the rich provisions which the God of our salvation has made for the physical needs of His people. These are not merely the result of His gracious care for all creatures. In a very real sense also the physical blessings enjoyed by the Christian are the fruit of His everlasting love in Christ Jesus. We confess that our only comfort in life and death is that we are not our own but belong with both body and soul to our faithful Lord and Saviour. In the Covenant of Grace the Father promises and assures us that He will supply our every need, avert all evil or turn it to our profit. Thus our physical life is not divorced from but rather intimately bound up with our religious relation to the Triune God.
- Scripture also teaches us that all lack is occasioned by the presence of sin. If there were no sin, there would be no sickness or sorrow or poverty or death. This does not imply that those who suffer more from the tragic consequences of the presence of evil in the world are necessarily greater sinners than others. Jesus Himself plainly contradicted this view in John 9:1-3, where the story of His dealings with the man blind from birth is recorded. Yet we must unhesitatingly affirm that because of our sins, we have forfeited every blessing and are subjected to many miseries.
- We are also taught that God's people should always live by faith in His promises. These are "yea and amen" in Christ Jesus our Lord (2 Cor. 1:20). To us He has given these many and exceeding precious promises. They afford unspeakable consolation and strength in our seasons of need. When all else seems to fail us in the struggles of life, there remains the blessed certainty that the God of the promises will fulfil His Word and renew our lives with hope and peace.
These promises embrace our physical as well as our spiritual life. Although the Old Testament seems to place more emphasis on the former than the New, in both the physical and the spiritual are indissolubly connected. We have been assured a full deliverance not only from the guilt and power of sin but also from its consequences. Thus the Christian may recognize in God's promises for the body an evidence of His solicitude and grace. Salvation is one, complete, sovereign work of our gracious Covenant God, embracing both body and soul, time and eternity. Thus the deacons should heed the admonition of Paul, "Wherefore comfort one another with these words" (1 Thess. 4:18).
The passages which may appropriately be used are almost too numerous to mention. However, for the convenience of those who are called to the ministry of mercy the following list has been prepared. This is by no means exhaustive. It serves only to suggest the rich variety which God has provided for the consolation of those in distress.
Much can be learned first of all from the experiences of God's saints which have been infallibly recorded in the Bible. The New Testament insists that these have been penned, that we might enjoy the unmistakable evidence of His unfailing guidance in the lives of those whom He loves. How rich and rewarding for us and our children are the stories about Abraham, the great hero of faith who lived by faith in the promises! The steadfastness, humility, and simplicity of his unwavering trust in God may well serve to inspire us as his spiritual seed to look to the God of our salvation in every situation. Still more detailed is the record of the life of Jacob. Here the power of divine grace is eloquently portrayed in all the moving incidents of his life. The abiding faithfulness of our heavenly Father is demonstrated in the record of Israel's wanderings in the wilderness. God Himself provided food from heaven and water out of the rock. His cloudy pillar led them by day and His fiery column by night. When enemies surrounded them and sought to destroy, He Himself fought for them and scattered all their foes.
So he was their shepherd according to the integrity of his heart, and guided them by the skillfulness of his hands.
Upon the pages of Holy Writ we meet the rich and the poor, the sick and the healthy, the godly and the ungodly. In the blessed light of the unfailing Word alone can we learn to know ourselves and find the solution to all our ills. How beautifully Robert Hall appraises its value in the lives of the saints, when he writes,
The Bible is the treasure of the poor, the solace of the sick, and the support of the dying; and while other books may amuse and instruct in a leisure hour, it is the peculiar triumph of that book to create light in the midst of darkness, to alleviate sorrow which admits of no other alleviation, to direct a beam of hope to the heart which no other topic of consolation can reach; while guilt, despair and death vanish at the touch of its holy inspiration.
Of unique value for the ministry of mercy are the Psalms whose inspired lines have always been precious to the hearts of God's children. In Psalm 1 we find God's wonderful promises to the godly. The favourite in this rich collection, Psalm 23, announces God's all-sufficient care for His people. Psalm 33 tells of the believers confident trust in God as the creator and preserver of His own. He delivers them from all their foes and supplies their every need according to Psalm 34. The perfect security of all who fear and trust Jehovah is portrayed in Psalm 37, while Psalm 49 speaks of the folly of trusting in riches. The righteous and the wicked are unforgettably contrasted in Psalm 73, the last few verses of which constitute one of the most magnificent confessions of the spiritual wealth of the saints. For comfort in old age we may turn to Psalm 71, while believers in their grief are consoled by the words of Psalms 56 and 116. Those who are suffering may find an overflowing fountain of strength in the words of Psalm 38, and in the face of loneliness and death the words of Psalms 88 and 116 are unusually pertinent. Thus it occasions no surprise that God's children in the face of the ills of life have so often turned to these inspired songs which never lose their charm for all who live by faith.
Besides the Psalms there are many other sections which may be appropriately used by the ministers of mercy. Time and again the Bible tells us that God blesses both the rich who show compassion and the poor who look to Him in their need.
In Habakkuk 3:17-19 the prophet confesses his trust in God in spite of the crushing circumstances of life. The Saviour warns against sinful anxiety in view of God's all-sufficient care for His own in Matthew 6:25-34. Again in Matthew 7:7-12 Christ tells us that God knows and supplies the needs of His children. Christ presents Himself as our example in loving and humble service in John 13:1-17. The liberality of the first Christian church is described in Acts 4:32-37, which furnishes a glowing example and pattern for our churches today. Romans 8:28-39 defines the complete security of the people of God. In Romans 15:1-7 the believers are enjoined to live lives of sympathy and helpfulness.
Two chapters of unusually rich instruction are 1 Corinthians 13, in which the virtue of Christian love in extolled, and 2 Corinthians 9, in which the blessings of Christian liberality are described. That God's grace is sufficient for the distressed is plainly affirmed in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. Believers are exhorted to follow the Saviour's example of loving service and obedience in Philippians 2:5-8. In the next chapter, Philippians 3:4-9, the apostle writes about true Christian contentment. Hebrews 12:1-11 announces some of God's purposes in chastising those whom He loves. In James 2:1-13 an overweening regard for wealth is severely condemned, and in James 5:7-11 the believers are urged to be patient in all suffering. Love of the brethren is set forth in 1 John 3:13-24 as a distinguishing mark of true discipleship.
In addition there are numerous isolated texts which contain rich lessons for both the deacons and the congregation. All kinds of subjects relating to the work of mercy are mentioned by the inspired writers of the Bible. Among these the following deserve mention.
In Matthew 6:2-4 Jesus commands almsgiving. Paul in Philippians 4:10 expresses appreciation for help received. Charity is enjoined in such passages as Exodus 23:11, Leviticus 25:25, Deuteronomy 15:17, Isaiah 58:7, Acts 20:35, Romans 15:1, Galatians 6:1, 1 Timothy 6:17-19, Hebrews 13:3, James 1:27 and 1 Peter 4:8. The nature and purpose of God's chastisements are referred to in Psalm 94:12, Proverbs 3:11-12, Isaiah 48:10, Malachi 3:3, 2 Corinthians 4:17, 1 Peter 1:7 and 4:12, and Hebrews 12:5-13. Several instructive statements about the compassion of Christ are recorded in Matthew 9:22, 20:34, Luke 7:13 and John 11:35, 16:33. True contentment is described in Psalm 37:1-7 and Philippians 4:10-20. Deliverance from troubles is promised in Job 5:19, Psalm 91:3, 1 Corinthians 10:13, 2 Corinthians 1:10, Revelation 21:4 and many other parts of Scripture. God's care for the poor is taught in 1 Samuel 2:8, Job 36:6, Psalm 10:14, 12:5, 35:10, Ecclesiastes 5:8, Isaiah 25:4, 41:7, Jeremiah 20:13, Luke 16:22 and James 2:5. The glorious purpose at which God aims in chastising His people is set forth among other places in Romans 8:28 and 2 Corinthians 4:17, while 2 Corinthians 12:9 insists that God's grace is sufficient for His children. Such texts as Psalm 112:9, Proverbs 11:25, 22:9, Isaiah 58:10, Malachi 3:10, Luke 6:38, and 2 Corinthians 9:6 encourage Christian liberality. That old age is blessed by God is affirmed by Psalm 71:17, 18, Proverbs 10:27 and Isaiah 46:4. Very clearly all parsimony is rebuked in Proverbs 11:24, 21:13, 28:17, Ecclesiastes 5:13, Jeremiah 17:11, Matthew 26:7, 8, 1 Timothy 6:11, and James 5:3.
To the believers God promises His protection and help at many times and in many ways according to Psalm 34:7, 91:4, 125:2, 18:35, Deuteronomy 33:27, Isaiah 41:10, 43:1-3, Matthew 10:30, 31, and 2 Timothy 4:18. Sickness and health in their relation to our lives are referred to in Exodus 15:26, Deuteronomy 7:15, Psalm 41:3, 50:15, 94:12, Proverbs 4:22, and Jeremiah 30:17. The sympathy of God is assured us in Psalm 78:39,103:13, Isaiah 63:9, John 10:35, 36, and Hebrews 4:15. Job 23:10, Hebrews 12:1-11 and 1 Peter 1:6-9 stress the necessity of the testing of our faith. Submission is enjoined in Matthew 6:10, Romans 6:13 and James 4:17. Thus over and over again the deacon will be able to take these and similar passages and use them for the consolation of those who are in distress.
In order that God may be magnified in his calling, the deacon should be thoroughly conversant with the principles of the Word of God. And as he understands the nature and purpose of the work and seeks to perform this in the Spirit and after the example of Christ, he will be a blessing to many. Although perplexing practical problems must be faced from time to time, he will find his trusted weapon and guide in the Word.
Perhaps in this chapter on the practical implementation of the ministry of mercy, some would desire case histories with proposed answers to the problems which they posit. These may furnish rather interesting reading, but they will hardly give much help. Also here no two cases are alike. Since there is such an infinite variety in character and temperament as well as in the problems which arise in the lives of God's people, it is practically impossible to provide an adequate classification of the various types with which the deacons must work. Thus instead of studying a few typical case histories, it is far better for the deacons to study the Word of God prayerfully, conscientiously and continually. Upon those who seek in this work to do the will of God for Christ's sake, the Spirit will bestow liberally the gifts of knowledge and wisdom, patience and tact, compassion and the love of Christ in the measure needed. There are, however, a few practical suggestions which may prove helpful in dealing with the three main types of problems which the deacons must face.
The deacons and the poor
Whenever we think of the diaconate, we are immediately reminded of the needs of the poor. This is natural and proper, since Acts 6 plainly informs us that the office was inaugurated for the relief of the distressed widows in the early church.
The Bible often speaks of the church as the family of God. It is the spiritual fellowship of those who belong to Him and have received His exceedingly many and precious promises. In this communion they are to exercise not only their love to the God of all grace but also to those who share the same spiritual blessings. The tie which binds them to their Covenant God also binds them to each other as brethren and sisters of the household of faith. Thus the deacons should both clearly understand and zealously foster the communion of the saints. If one member of the body suffers, all suffer; if one member rejoices, all should rejoice with him. This spiritual unity of the believers is the prerequisite of healthy congregational life. Therefore as much as possible all who are in want should receive the full consolations of Christ in and through the office appointed in the churches for that work. By faithfully gathering and distributing the alms of God's people the deacons are in a very real way promoting this fellowship.
Occasionally the remark is made, sometimes even by deacons, that in certain congregations there are no poor. The conclusion is drawn that then the deacons have no sphere of labour and can content themselves with helping the elders a little. Christ, to the contrary, plainly insisted that the poor we have always with us. Poverty is a relative concept, so that what the one considers poverty will not necessarily be considered so by another. Yet if the deacons would but take pains to become better acquainted with the actual life of the congregation, they would soon find many homes which are in need of the ministry of mercy. In many cases this will not require any large sum. Sometimes a few dollars, especially in time of sickness, together with the assurance that the deacons in the name of Christ and on behalf of the congregation are deeply interested in the welfare of the members of the church will be a source of rich blessing and comfort.
Thus it is so regrettable that in many congregations the deacons seem to be of the opinion that the poor must apply for aid. This is contrary to the nature and spirit of the office instituted by our merciful and compassionate High priest. For surely our Saviour did not wait with extending aid until men called on Him. Rather, He came to seek and to save that which was lost. Many diaconates have come to the realization that often those who clamored for help needed it far less than others who suffered in silence.
The presence of poverty and need in the congregation may be brought to the attention of the diaconate by the pastor, the elders or members of the congregation as well as by the investigation of the deacons themselves. Instead of being resented by those who are charged with the work of mercy, this should be greatly appreciated. In the work of the church we should strive for the ideal of cooperation among the offices. Together we are to labour for the edification of the body in the love of Christ. If the deacons are already aware of the situation, they should give assurance that the matter is being cared for. It goes without saying that no one has the right to dictate to the deacons how they shall deal with any particular case. Those who have complaints that the deacons are not performing their work faithfully must present this charge with proof before the consistory. And all who misrepresent or slander the work of the ministry of mercy are subject to the censures of the church. This needs emphasis, because there seem to be some people who suppose that they may with impunity criticize the work of the deacons. Let it be remembered that when the deacons are doing their work faithfully, they are representing Christ. And any attack on them is counted by Christ as an attack on Himself.
When any particular case is referred to the deacons, usually a committee of investigation is appointed. Here lies, of course, the most difficult task for the ministers of mercy. They will need much love, tact and common sense. The people with and for whom they labour differ widely in temperament and spiritual insight. It need therefore not surprise the deacons, if at first they are none too heartily welcomed. Many members in our churches still labour under the misapprehension that some measure of shame and loss of self-respect is connected with a visit from the deacons. Some may feel this so keenly that they bluntly refuse the proffered aid, even going so far as to insist that they much prefer the help of the state to that of the church. The cause for this sometimes lies with the deacons themselves. There is always the danger of betraying in a measure the confidence placed in them. Deacons, being human and sinful, have often erred in not keeping secret the names of those who receive aid from the church. None but the deacons have the right to know to what extent anyone is receiving help. And should it ever be necessary in certain circumstances to seek the counsel and help of the wives of the deacons, the diaconate must have the full assurance that these women are grave and sober, not given to discussing such personal matters with anyone.
Usually all committees of investigation consist of two members. This has much to commend itself, since at the mouth of two every word can be established. Two also can determine much better than one the actual situation in any given family. Besides, the coming of two makes the visit, as it were, more official. The deacons come not as individual members of the church who are eager to help but as the officially appointed delegates of the diaconate in the name of Christ. Thus, too, many possible misunderstandings can be avoided by the presence of more than one.
Usually the visit of the deacons is occasioned by the presence of some crisis in the family life – sickness, accident, consequent loss of work and income. With this concrete situation the deacons may well begin and ask whether help of any kind is needed. Especially a family with several children will in such a situation present many demands. In order to be able to understand such a family well, it is advisable that the deacons be married men with families. These understand best the actual needs created by sickness and unemployment. The deacons also should know the approximate income of the family. Here there is need for complete confidence on the part of both the poor and the representatives of the congregation. In most instances where the poor refuse to discuss this matter, there is little acute need. Never should it be forgotten that sin is always present in the lives of God's people, attacking both the deacons and the poor, and thus rendering the visit unpleasant and fruitless. Thus they are to perform their work, having prayed for the wisdom of the Spirit and being armed with the Word of God.
At such a visit it is proper for the deacons to discuss with the poor, whether or not close relatives have manifested any willingness to help. Parents should first of all be aided by their children, who should not be excused from this obligation except in unusual circumstances. Children, even if they are married, ought to be helped by their parents in time of need, if such parents are at all able to render assistance. The aid which the church proffers never precludes and should not overshadow the duties which God's Word lays upon the members of the same family. But when such help is inadequate, the deacons should cheerfully supplement this.
All decisions as to the amount of aid to be given must be taken in the full meeting of the diaconate and only after a discussion of the report of the committee of investigation. This is then brought to the family either weekly or monthly. If necessary, the deacon may discuss the needs of the family further. At all such visits he should remind those who receive help of the blessings of God, admonish them to patience and thankfulness, and offer prayer on their behalf.
The deacon and the sick
One of the perennial questions raised in connection with the ministry of mercy is that of diaconal responsibility for the sick.
Several times the Bible speaks of the care and consolation of the sick by brethren and sisters. In fact, James informs his readers that in case of illness the elders of the church should be called in to "pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord." If the elders have a duty towards the spiritual care of the sick, does by that token the diaconate also have a responsibility for his physical welfare?
As was noticed earlier, the church throughout the ages has always considered the care of the sick one of her prerogatives and privileges. In many instances this was limited to the care which Christian believers gave privately. But with the revival of the diaconal office under John Calvin, the sick were again recognized as part of the responsibility of the deacons.
Although poverty and sickness are both results of sin, the difference between them should not be overlooked. While nearly everyone suffers the ravages of disease and illness at one time or another throughout life, by no means all are afflicted with the burden of poverty. Never does the Bible insist that the sick are the special responsibility of the deacons. It may therefore be maintained that the church has a duty to perform in this field only if all other help fails. The care of the sick rests first of all with the family. Thus we may with right appeal to parents and children and other close relatives. The wife should minister to her husband, the daughter to her mother, the sister to her brother. And when none of these is able to help nearly every town and city has excellent hospital facilities. As long as the individual, his family or friends are able and willing to provide, the diaconate has no mandate to enter this field.
Yet there are occasions when the deacons may and even must render assistance. This has been maintained by the Reformed churches ever since the sixteenth century, in spite of the fact that nowhere do we find such a mandate specifically given to the deacons. Even Calvin's appeal to such texts as Romans 12:8 and 1 Timothy 5:10 rests on inference. Much stronger is the case for diaconal help of the sick, when appeal is made to Matthew 25:35-43, where the disciples are admonished to feed the hungry, visit the prisoners, and comfort the sick. Since the diaconate is the instrument through which the congregation exercises these functions officially, it should be maintained that it may not withdraw entirely from this field of Christian mercy. Correctly Dr. A. Kuyper has deduced from this and other passages in Scripture his position,
As Christ went through the land, not only preaching the gospel but also healing the sick, so must the church of Christ today unite the ministry of mercy with the ministry of the Word.1
Only the church, clothed with the spirit of Christ, can perform the works of mercy in love to the glory of God.
As much, therefore, as we appreciate the philanthropic enterprises which have grown up in our Western world during the past centuries, we may never confuse this general love and concern of man for his fellow-men with the spiritual interest which the church in the name of Christ manifests to those who are His. The former merely seeks to alleviate and if possible to escape the effects of sin; the latter is compelled to grapple with the underlying problem, get at the root of man's miseries, and point the way to the saving help of Christ. Thus although it clearly recognizes the physical aspect of suffering and is deeply concerned with the well-being of the body, Christian service to the sick aims above all to give spiritual strength and solace. On this ground there is every evidence for the necessity of Christian institutions of mercy of every sort. And for the establishment and maintenance of these the diaconate has a responsibility. At some length this subject will be considered in another chapter.
Besides what the deacons do in and through these institutions, they will find themselves face to face with the problem of the sick in the local congregation. There are many occasions when sick can be adequately and comfortably cared for in the home. As long as family and friends are able and willing to lend a helping hand, the deacons have no duty. But in some cases such help is not available. This problem becomes acute, when the wage-earner of a rather large family falls ill. It may almost seem imperative that the mother then finds part-time or even fulltime employment. This may have serious repercussions for the spiritual welfare and discipline of the family. In such cases the deacons ought to consider the possibility of giving such assistance that the mother can remain at work. If special help is needed in the home, the deacons may call upon pious and capable women of the congregation. Their position and relation to the diaconate will be discussed in the chapter on deaconesses.
It should be apparent that the responsibility of the deacons for the sick differs from that of the ministers of the Word and the elders. The latter are to visit, instruct and console all who are ill. Theirs is the calling of admonishing them to patience in their affliction as well as preparing them for the hour of death. The responsibility of the deacons is by its very nature much more restricted. It usually limits itself to those who by force of circumstances cannot help themselves or receive this help from their relatives or friends.
The deacon and helpless
Much more specific and urgent is the responsibility of the deacons to the helpless. To this class belong all those who because of immaturity, mental disturbances, physical ailments or old age are not in a position to care for themselves.
The general rule cited in connection with the poor and the sick also obtains here, namely, that the primary responsibility for the care of such individuals rests with the family. But even if the family is able and willing to help, the advice and counsel of the deacons is often highly appreciated and sorely needed.
In several churches the problem of the care of orphaned children will present itself. As lambs of the flock of Jesus Christ they have a right to the kindly ministrations of His servants in their time of need. Usually the Reformed churches have been adverse to the establishment of orphanages, since they recognize the necessity of family atmosphere for the proper nurture of the children of the covenant. The Christian home is the seed-bed of true religion. Thus even when we may not be able to dispense with orphanages entirely, a serious attempt should be made to provide a good Christian home for children who have been orphaned. If at all possible the family, in case there are several brothers and sisters, ought to be kept together. In nearly every congregation we find childless couples who are eager to fill the empty place in their homes and are qualified to bring up children in the fear of the Lord. Here the deacons, by calling them to mind and enlisting their cooperation, may render noble and valuable service to the church. As a rule the deacons should try to prevent having these children given out for adoption by social agencies of non-Christian character. These have little regard for the religious character of the homes in which such children of the congregation should be placed. We may not forget that by administering baptism to children of the covenant the church assumes a positive spiritual responsibility for their training. Thus when the parents die, the diaconate as the Christ-instituted agency of mercy in the church should concern itself with their placement. Since the diaconate is not a child-placement bureau, cooperation with social agencies will be necessary, in order that the state requirements may be met. However, then the church in an official way should bring the necessary pressure to bear on the responsible authorities that such children shall be placed in Reformed homes.
The same principle obtains in the case of unmarried mothers whose parents and immediate relatives are not interested in keeping the child which is born. Here the deacons must of necessity work in closest cooperation with the consistory. The disciplinary measures involved because of the transgression of the seventh commandment are left entirely in the hands of the elders. But both consistory and diaconate must be deeply concerned with the spiritual rehabilitation of both mother and child.
In most of these cases the parents of the delinquent girl are usually ready to render the necessary assistance. When such a girl is separated from her family for one reason or another, the deacons should be ready to help before and during confinement, even to the extent of giving financial assistance when needed. Here it is well to work through the pastor or the elders, who are dealing with the more specifically spiritual aspects of the problem created. Under no circumstances must the girl be made to feel that she should shift for herself as the price for her indiscretion. Should the mother feel the need of presenting her child for adoption, the diaconate can be of much assistance. By corresponding with other diaconates, a home can be provided where no stigma will be attached to the child, and the mother can enjoy the assurance that her baby is receiving the Christian care and love and training which it should have. To do this properly the diaconate must be fully informed on the adoption laws of the several states. Although difficulties may be encountered, they can usually be overcome with the proper Christian legal advice and aid.
Problems occasioned by the mentally deficient and afflicted require close cooperation between diaconates and Christian institutions of mercy. The consideration of this matter is reserved for a later chapter.
The crippled, blind, deaf-mutes and other unfortunates are also a fruitful field for Christian service. Some of them must be committed to institutions. Whenever possible, use must be made of Christian hospitals in preference to those erected and maintained by the state. In comparison with the Netherlands we in the United States and Canada are sorely deficient in providing the proper facilities for such individuals. In order to supply what is still lacking, the deacons should give leadership in the direction of helping our people establish these wherever possible.
In recent years the state has done much to help the blind and crippled become self-supporting. Each diaconate will have to face the question in the light of the principles of Scripture in how far it will be able to cooperate with the existing agencies.
The Bible speaks often of the plight of the widows and demands that God's people assist them. Much of this emphasis was the result of the social conditions prevailing in those days. Although their position was more favourable among the Jews than among most other nations, because God in His law guaranteed them certain rights and spoke of them as the objects of His special compassion, many Israelites before and during Jesus' time still took sinful advantage of their helplessness. Against this background we can well understand the implications of those texts which speak of the duties of His people to them and their children.
Thus Isaiah insists, "Learn to do well; speak justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow."
And James defines the obligations of Christ's disciples thus, "Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world."
The significant change in their status since those days may to a certain extent make it less imperative to help them directly, yet as special objects of concern the widows may not be neglected by the deacons who labour in the name of Christ.
The question is often raised whether today it is necessary to visit all the widows of the congregation regularly. This becomes quite a problem when we remember that some of them are offended when help is proffered. As a rule the deacons will not have to contact them regularly, if they have reasonable assurance that they are provided for. In some churches diaconal calls are made on such women once each year as a matter of routine checking. However, if they know that all is well, even those need not be considered mandatory. Yet it is usually highly appreciated if shortly after the decease of the husband and provider, the deacons send a committee to offer assistance. This is especially advisable, if there are no children or the children are not of age and therefore cannot contribute to the support of their mother.
Similarly the deacons should be aware of the problems which the aged often face. We are no longer living in days in which everyone tries to save for old age. Much as we may deplore this trend, we cannot deny that generally speaking also our people look to the state for help in such circumstances. The implications of this for the diaconates will be discussed in the next chapter.
Let the deacons then test their labours continually in the light of God's Word. Well may they heed the hymn of William W. How.
To comfort and to bless,
To find a balm for woe,
o tend the lone and fatherless,
Is angels' work below.
"And we believe Thy Word,
Though dim our faith may be:
Whate'er for Thine we do, O Lord,
We do it unto Thee.
As long as the deacons seek to perform their task in accordance with the will of Christ, they will find abundance of work. Some of this will be thrust upon them; much of it they will have to discover for themselves. As they seek in the strength of the Lord who has called them to this holy office to be of service to His own, they may be assured that their labour will not be in vain in Him