Prayer in the Official Task of Deacons
The Deacon and Prayer
In the Form for ordination of elders and deacons it is stated that “the ministry of mercy proceeds from this love of our Saviour.” This is said in the section that deals with the place and the duties of the deacons. After all, for the sake of this ministry of service God has given deacons to the church. In the Form the institution of the deacon office is based on Acts 6:1-7.
The relevant section from the Form reads, “When the apostles realized that they would have to give up preaching the Word of God if they had to devote their full attention to the daily support of the needy, they assigned this duty to seven brothers chosen by the congregation.”
Among exegetes there is a difference of opinion as to whether in Acts 6 we are reading about the institution of the office of deacons. In the framework of this book we will not go deeper in this matter. We concur with what is mentioned in the earlier quotation of the Form. Even if Acts 6:1-7 would not be dealing with the institution of the office of deacon, it is clear that the apostles assign special men who have a duty in the congregation that is substantially the same as what the deacons are doing nowadays in the congregation.
In the reading of Acts 6:1-7 someone may arrive at the conclusion that prayer does not belong to the duty of the seven men who are assigned to serve at tables. After all, the apostles divest themselves from this task in order to concentrate on prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). Apparently prayer belongs to the specific task of the apostles.
Such a conclusion is incorrect. It does not say anywhere in Acts 6 that it does not belong to the duties of deacons to pray in their official service with and for those who are entrusted to their diaconal care. It only appears from Acts 6 that prayer is not a separate task for the deacons. It is however a separate task of the apostles. The deacons must serve tables. The manner in which this is to happen is not recorded.
“Both the elder as well as the deacon encourage and stimulate the members of the church by ensuring that they hear God’s Word and by praying together with them. With the elders this is placed in the framework of their care for the life of faith of those in their care; they will therefore often, with the help of God’s Word, provide correction, warning, and where necessary apply discipline. This falls outside of the scope of the deacons, for their speaking based on the Bible, and their praying with the other person(s) is placed in the framework of care for the mutual bond within the congregation” (Van der Leest, 1987). Rev. Van der Leest assumes without any reservations that prayer has its place in the diaconal service, and rightly so. In the Form for ordination prayer is presumed as being functional. For through the service of the deacons it is prevented that there would be brothers and sisters in Christ’s congregation who live uncomforted lives under the pressure of sickness, loneliness or poverty.
A deacon who provides financial support in poverty and who yet does not pray will look like a civil servant of social affairs, seated behind a counter, rather than an office bearer of Christ. In the Form for ordination it says, “They are called to encourage and comfort with the Word of God those who receive the gifts of Christ's love.”
It bears no doubt that in the execution of their office deacons are also armed with prayer. Yes, their prayer will have a different content that that of the elders. For the content of the diaconal prayer is determined by what specifically belongs to the diaconal area.
The Diaconal Home Visit
It is a good thing when deacons bring home visits in the congregation. In earlier days this did not happen, or perhaps only sporadically. A deacon would only visit families or singles who experienced financial difficulties. Fortunately that has changed. The deacon has become a more familiar person in his district.
In the Church order of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands the following is said in article 22: “The duty of deacons is to fulfill the office of mercy. By going on home visits they will acquaint themselves of the difficulties...”
In the Form for ordination the matter of home visits is also mentioned in connection with the task of the deacons: “Through home vistis they shall acquaint themselves with existing needs and difficulties, and shall exhort the members of Christ’s body to show mercy.”
The diaconal home visit is distinguished from the one brought by the elders. The elders will always come in the company of a fellow-elder when they do their annual home visits. In some congregations the deacons also visit with two people, but in many congregations the district deacon goes by himself. The diaconal visit does not always take place once a year, and neither is it announced beforehand.
Start With Prayer?
As a rule the elders start their annual home visit with prayer. In many cases the deacons will not do so. This will depend on the status that they assign to their visit. When they give it an official character — by arranging it beforehand, and visiting with two people — they will sometimes start with prayer. But when they visit unexpectedly they encounter the family, or a part of it, or the single person, in the middle of his situation in life. In itself that can be a great advantage, especially for a deacon. But such a situation may make it challenging to begin the visit with prayer. That is not strictly necessary either. The deacon did not come in the first place to look for fruits of faith. He comes to inform himself of potential difficulties and to encourage helping others. Of course these are extremely important matters. Of course such things are part of the relationship to God and our life with God. These too are matters that have everything to do with faith. They are not of a lesser order than the things about which the elders will speak, but they are in a different category.
When deacons begin a home visit with prayer, it should be brief. There should be gratitude for the fact that we are mutually part of the congregation and the prayer will be that there may be a good conversation with as fruit the fact that we are given to one another may also be seen within the communion of the saints.
End With Prayer?
It will be a good thing when deacons are eager to close the visit with prayer. In special cases they will always do so. For example, when certain difficulties have been discussed that are clearly of a diaconal nature; or when a strong sense of loneliness became apparent.
However, the home visit can also be concluded with prayer at those addresses where the people are zealous in terms of providing help and service, and where no special financial issues are present. This prayer will be mainly one of thanksgiving. The Lord is thanked for his mercy; for the fact that he makes the members faithful in supplying the deacons with the necessary means. Thanks may be given that the Lord gives deacons to his congregation. It is also good to pray for those who are especially dependent on the work of the deacons, obviously without mentioning any names. Finally there will be prayer whether the Lord will work the readiness in the hearts of those who were visited to provide service such that in the functioning of the communion of saints no one needs to live without comfort.
The Diaconal Visit to the Sick
It belongs to the tasks of the deacons to also visit the sick. No one may live uncomforted in Christ’s church. They need to be comforted by the deacons, through the Word of God. Where necessary the deacons also need to provide practical help in various situations. However the first thing is to comfort with God’s Word. In a certain respect, the sick find themselves in a special need. For it is indeed a need when church members have to miss out on the exercise of communion in the worship services on Sundays. There is a need when they cannot participate in that exercise in ecclesiastic as well as societal regard, and when they miss out on the joy that is connected to that communion. Sickness can take away a big portion of joy in life, especially with those who have a long-term illness.
It is especially for these reasons that the visiting of the sick belongs to the duty of the deacons. They are the office bearers who need to stimulate the exercise of communion. It is the deacon’s task to arouse the joy that accompanies the exercise of communion.
Much of what has been said about prayer in a visit to the sick by the elders is also applicable to the visit of the deacons. In the prayer of the deacons extra attention can be given to the experience of the communion of saints. The Lord may be asked that the sick person may also experience this communion in the time that he is sick. The prayer will also ask that the Lord will make other members willing and ready to serve, such that the sick brother or sister does not get lonely.
With more emphasis than the elder, the deacons will pray also for the other members of the family. After all, they are directly confronted with the sickness. As a rule, they will spend more energy in their attention for the sick person. The deacon dedicates them to God and prays for strength in order to be able to do their extra activities.
Obviously a district deacon will need to have good contact with the district elder. This certainly holds true in the case of a chronically ill person or one who is incurably sick. It may not be a situation where in the prayers the deacon accentuates the request for healing, while the elder stresses the request for grace in dying.
Deacons have the duty to encourage mutual care. Especially with chronically ill people deacons will talk about the people’s own calling to pray. Often the sick are tied to their home. As far as they can see they can no longer be of significance to the communion of saints. Often that is their difficulty, especially when it concerns brothers or sisters who have always been very active in church life, and who have done so much in the exercise of the communion of the saints. These sick people now feel disengaged.
The deacon will let them know that they have not become disconnected when it comes to the factual communion of saints. It is true, in many cases the sick people cannot get out. They can no longer visit lonely people, or the elderly. But they can pray! They can in a very concrete way pray for the lonely and other sick people by dedicating them by name to the Lord in prayer. The deacons can assist them in this regard, for instance by mentioning the names of those who are sick. In this way the sick are still engaged and they again become active in the communion of the saints. Immobile patients and seniors become mobile and active again — in prayer. Strength will flow from their prayers to others, for the God of the communion will provide this.
When deacons stimulate the sick to pray for others, the sick know that the deacons are also encouraging other sick people in prayer. So they know that there are also prayers for them. It is a great thing when the sick practise the communion of saints with each other. What a shining task for the deacon when in this way he can bring a piece of joy of life that accompanies this exercise of mutual communion into the life of a sick person. Are the sick perhaps deactivated when it comes to the communion of the saints? On the contrary: they are engaged through the means of mutual prayer for each other.
The Diaconal Visit to the Lonely
It is also the duty of the deacons to see to it that no one lives uncomforted in Christ’s church under the pressure of loneliness. This passage from the Form for ordination assumes that there can be lonely people in the church. We can think especially of people who are homebound: elderly brothers and sisters, widows, widowers and other singles, such as for instance those who have become divorced.
People who are tied to their home often live in a small world. They do not experience much anymore. This brings loneliness with it. When these people have children, they will visit every once in a while. With a certain regularity a member of the congregation may be visiting. But even if someone comes every day, the pressure of loneliness can yet be felt. For really, what is one hour of company in a day that starts in the morning at 8AM and ends in the evening at 11PM?
The elderly can feel lonely. People of their age group are falling away. The circle of friends becomes smaller. In a church congregation the number of brothers and sisters of the same age group may be small. Families with growing children have their own concerns. And so the elderly often get lonely sooner than we think. Deacons need to watch out for this problem.
We mentioned also the singles as people who are in danger of becoming lonely. Widows lament the fact that they get so few visits from a couple. There are younger people living around them who only go for a coffee visit with each other.
Divorcees often may have the feeling that they are being avoided. They are not respected as “full” people, on account of which they can feel terribly lonely at times.
The person concerned can also cause this loneliness: widows and divorcees will not go visiting by themselves. “They can see me come already...”
Loneliness can also be present with people who become hard of hearing, or who are losing their vision. The former have great difficulty to communicate; the latter have a hard time to keep up with the news, such that they are in danger of ending up more and more isolated from the world in which they live. Fortunately reformed deacons can point partially sighted persons to the possibilities offered by helpful institutions. (In the Netherlands there is for instance the Bralectah Foundation, which aims to provide reformed reading material via Braille or sound recordings to church members who are visually challenged).
It belongs to the task of the deacons to pay careful attention to the ever-increasing occurrence of loneliness. Especially at a time when people are often strongly self-centered, loneliness will increase. Through the services of the deacons this should be prevented in Christ’s church as much as possible.
Pray Loneliness Away?
As a rule a deacon will pray with a lonely brother or sister, every time that he visits him or her. After all, he needs to comfort the lonely from the Word of God. He reads from the Bible and he prays. He will also talk with those where he notes the problem of loneliness. He will continue to ask questions as to why they have such a hard time being lonely. He can teach them how to deal better with the loneliness that he has noticed. A deacon will therefore help the lonely also in practical matters. He will also pray with and for those who are lonely. Of course he is not able to pray their loneliness away. But in his prayer he can give evidence that the lonely are never truly alone. God is filled with a special care for them. God looks upon all his children in his care, not in the least the lonely. God recognizes their difficulty and their sorrow. He also evaluates those. No, the Lord does not always that the trouble away, but he does provide perspective: to all brokenness — including that of loneliness — there will be an end.
Deacons will pray with the lonely for the brothers and sisters who have many friends. They will ask that those brothers and sisters will at times forego a visit to friends in order to see someone who is lonely.
Deacons will pray for possibilities through which the pressure of loneliness will be decreased for those concerned. Sometimes there can be a prayer for practical possibilities. When a deacon has talked to a widow and she has given clear indication that it is her desire to marry again, a deacon may present this matter before the Lord, together with her.
When a deacon has talked with a single, lonely brother, and the brother has told him that he has placed a notice with a view to finding a partner for life, the deacon will ask the Lord that he may bless the means used, in the sense that the loneliness will actually be resolved.
A deacon must not hesitate to also mention these types of things during a conversation. That way he can also pray more concretely at the conclusion of the discussion. The prayer of the office bearer will encourage the lonely person such that he or she can continue in comfort. He or she knows: lonely, but not alone. He or she again knows with certainty: lonely now, but not forever.
The Deacon’s Visit with Those in Need
The Need for Support
In comparison to earlier times it will happen less that deacons will need to offer financial support to members of the congregation. This does not mean that it no longer is happening; on the contrary. Situations continue where people cannot provide for their own basic needs.
Rev. C. Van der Leest enumerates some instances. It is not impossible that there will again be more emphasis on the diaconal task of offering financial aid.
I am thinking especially of the usually challenging financial situation with people who have become divorced. Besides the fact that they may feel very lonely, the pressure of the lack of sufficient financial means can also rest heavily on these brothers and sisters. It is even possible that at a time when many people do not have financial worries the lack of sufficient financial resources even increases the feeling of loneliness.
When a deacon becomes aware that there are financial problems he may point the people concerned to God’s mercy. This mercy implies that in the communion of the church there should be no poor. In Christ’s church each member should live unencumbered in a life of joy before the face of God. The Bible is full of this.
Scripture clearly shows God’s care for those who are poor or oppressed. In the old dispensation the care belonged to the entire community. It had to take care of the needy, the widows and orphans. God had given special rules for this; we offer some examples.
Leviticus 23:22 states that the owner of a field should leave the gleanings of the harvest for the poor.
In Deuteronomy 14:28-29 it tells us that the poor will also share in the revenue of the tithes.
Deuteronomy 17:11 says that someone who organizes a festive offering or a meal should also be inviting the poor.
It is remarkable that via the community the Lord involves the poor in the annual feasts. I am thinking of the Feast of Booths (Deut. 16:13ff), when the harvest of the threshing floor and the winepress had been gathered in. The command is to be happy and to celebrate, together with the widow and the orphan. That feast lasts for seven days. This number seven occurs frequently. The idea of Sabbath plays a significant role with the feasts, which the entire community has to celebrate. The Sabbath is the concentration of the covenant community. This covenant communion needs to be experienced tangibly, also by the poor who perhaps have no harvest from the threshing floor or the winepress, but who nevertheless lacked nothing and will lack nothing on account of that covenant community.
From this it becomes apparent that it is not only a question of material help, but that the bigger picture is in view: to share fully in the joy of God that is given to the congregation. The congregation needs to ensure that there will be equality in being satisfied (not in possessions). The reason given is that they have all been slaves in Egypt.
In the old dispensation the care for the poor does not take place in an official capacity. The help for the poor stems from a proper functioning of the office of all believers.
In the New Testament the diaconal work is treated in the same manner, as a task of the congregation.
The church needs to care for the poor (1 John 3:17).
The church needs to look after the hungry (Rom. 12:20; 1 Cor. 11:21).
The church needs to care for the thirsty (Rom. 12:20; Matt. 25:35-44).
The church needs to look after those who are naked (Matt. 25:35-44).
The church needs to care for the sick (Luke 10:33-37).
The church needs to invite to a meal those who cannot return the favour: the beggars, the handicapped, the blind and lame (Luke 14:12-14).
The church must be prepared to show hospitality (Heb. 13:2).
Many of these things are commanded at a time when the office of deacon was already functioning. How does that work? The church needs to do it but does it have its “puppets” to do this? No way! The office of deacon came about precisely with a view to a proper functioning of the above-mentioned service through the congregation.
After all, the congregation to whom the care for the poor has been entrusted, falls short in the work of mercy. This happened already in the old dispensation. I am thinking of the history of Ruth. Ruth says to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain after him in whose sight I shall find favour” (Ruth 2:2). From these words it appears that not everyone was inclined to allow the poor to glean the grain.
We see a revival right after Pentecost. The congregation sees it as its duty to ensure that everyone had according to their need (Acts 2:45).
But the congregation is growing, and that includes then also the number of the poor. This leads to a decision to regulate the care for the poor. In Acts 4:32 we read that the proceeds of the sale of goods were brought to the apostles. They distribute it such that there is not anyone who is needy. In the meantime some sort of charity has come about which is handled by the apostles.
When this task becomes too much for them, special people are appointed to take care of the needs of the poor (Acts 6).
In summary: the office of deacon has come about in order to make the most of the care for the poor in the church.
It is the duty of the deacons to ensure that in Christ’s church no one lives without comfort or under the pressure of poverty. Those who need help need to be comforted. It is not possible for a deacon to pray the neediness away, but he can eliminate it. In this regard there is a difference with sickness and loneliness. There will be prayer with the sick and the lonely. Wherever possible the deacon will also give practical help to them. But this prayer and this help do not remove the sickness and the loneliness.
That is different when it comes to poverty. The deacons can eliminate poverty through their support, by which God’s mercy is made visible. It will also need to be visible in actual fact. The deacons provide money, or a cheque, to the person concerned. In a way, the money is handed over prayerfully. The deacons — as a rule two deacons hand out diaconal funds — will pray and give thanks with the person. They may thank God that the congregation is prepared to provide the necessary means so that the needy too may experience the joy of an unencumbered life. They thank the Lord that the congregation understands its duty.
They pray that the poor may accept the money joyfully and may spend it well. At the same time they may ask the Lord whether he will bring about a change in the situation such that he or she can provide for their own basic needs.
When the need has come about through an irresponsible financial approach, the deacons will have an extensive discussion and afterward will also pray for wisdom for the concerned person(s) to manage their funds in a financially responsible way such that help from the deacons is no longer needed. They will pray the Lord to bless the discussion that took place, in which the deacons have also provided directions for a proper way of money management.
The people concerned may not conclude, either from the discussion or from the prayer, that they are receiving a favour, but that it is grace alone. It is grace that makes life enjoyable again. Such a prayer is not possible if the financial support is sent in a roundabout way, for instance via the mail. There needs to prayerful support.
No Civil Servants
Deacons are Christ’s office bearers, and no civil servants of social affairs. The latter often leave people with no comfort. The government gets no further than a wicket, an official form to fill out, and a civil servant — all formalities. Therefore the state can never replace Jesus Christ. Christ redeems life. Christ does not dampen poverty with hard coins, but through his grace he liberates life from a situation of poverty.
The state supports with money only. But that shows exactly its inability to address the real needs there are in life. But when the Saviour comes by means of the deacons, then the gospel of Easter (and of Pentecost) starts to blossom. When the office bearer opens the door to provide support, then for the people who are visited the door of God’s grace opens up. Then people will understand again what it means to live by grace. And that alone will entirely and radically change life.
Deacons in the congregation, armed with prayer — that means that in Christ’s congregation no one may live uncomforted under the pressure of sickness, loneliness or poverty.