The Task of the Deacons for Today
At the last Officebearers Conference the topic for today's speech was suggested. The request was to look at the task of the deacons in our present day society and to give some attention to the cooperation between elders and deacons. For practical reasons I have shortened the title to "The task of the deacons for today."
I am somewhat at a loss in dealing with this topic. The reason for this is simple. So much has already been said and written about the task of the deacons that one may wonder: What new insights can I bring? Very little, I'm afraid. What you will hear from me this morning has all been said or written before. This is by no means a handicap. Rather, we should all be appreciative of the fact that in recent years many articles have appeared in print in the English language thanks to the publication of DIAKONIA. This magazine is essential reading for all officebearers.
One final introductory comment: If you want to gain deeper insight in, understanding of and appreciation for your task as deacon, then I advise you to take the time to read carefully the article by Dr. C. Van Dam, The Diaconal Task: Some Old Testament Roots and their Continuing Significance 1and Diaconal Visits2by Rev. W. Huizinga. For those of you who can still read Dutch you do well to consult the various articles that have appeared in Dienst.3
2. Set up
After these preliminary remarks, let me now give you the set up of my address to you. I will closely follow the section "The Ministry of Mercy" as found in the Form for Ordination of Officebearers. We shall touch upon each paragraph and make some comments. The first paragraph may be summarized as follows:
The ministry of mercy as an expression of God's Fatherly love
From God's fatherly love and care for his people, the work of the deacons receives its heart-beat. The Form describes this task as "The Ministry of Mercy."
This description truly says it all. It is the work of mercy. The Form rightly begins by pointing us to the Old Testament from which we get our first introduction to the God of mercy.
Scripture reveals that God is the Creator of all things. The earth and its fullness belong to him (Psalm 24). The earth and all it produces is God's exclusive property to which he constantly lays claim. On that earth the Lord God has placed man and to mankind he gives all the things they need for daily life. By God's decree all mankind would live out of his hand and share in his abundance.
The fall into sin caused an imbalance in God's created order. One of the consequences of this rebellion against God was the emergence of individualism and egoism. Man began to live a life apart from God and began to live strictly for himself, often at the expense of others.
In this fallen world the Lord God, by his grace and fatherly love, established a special people for himself. In that covenant relationship the Lord laid down some unique stipulations by which he set his people apart from other nations. His command was and is that all God's people should and shall share equally in the joy of belonging to Him.
We read especially how God had concern for widows, orphans and strangers (Lev. 19; Deut. 16). These people often were the poorest of the poor, the oppressed and the forgotten class in society. But God did not forget them. He ordained that they, too, should share in the abundance which he supplies. With the others they should share equally in the joy of their Master.
Now when I say that the needy should share equally then I do not mean equality of possessions, but equality in being cared for from day to day. God gives to the one more than to the other. But he treats all his people equally by giving them enough to live on without worrying how to stay alive. Among his people the Lord did not want to see any beggar. That is why he laid upon his people the obligation to care for each other. In fact, the Lord promised that if Israel would live by his stipulations, then the poor would cease to exist among them (Deut. 15:4f). That is God's mercy and fatherly love towards his people.
It is good to reflect on this Old Testament background which forms the basis for the task of the deacons. The ministry of mercy is the result of God's fatherly goodness and special care for his people, a care which he established right from the beginning.
But something seems odd. If you search the Old Testament for the special office of deacon, your search will be in vain. The reason is simple. The care for the needy and oppressed did not lie with a specific group of people. The ministry of mercy among Israel was the duty and obligation of every Israelite. Failure to help those in need would bring God's anger upon them.
Why did the Lord give this command and why did he warn Israel of his great wrath in case they should fail to help the needy (cf. Ex. 2:22-24)? Because the Lord did not want his people to forget that he, the Lord, had once led them out of the house of slavery and oppression of Egypt. He set them free so that they could live in joy and thankfulness to him. God's people should never forget that they themselves were once oppressed. Therefore, deliverance forms the backdrop to the ministry of mercy which the Form for Ordination summarizes with these words,
In the old dispensation the needy and suffering were protected and provided for by God's fatherly love: His ordinances taught the covenant people to imitate that love as beloved children.
Book of Praise, p. 631
That brings us to the second paragraph:
The ministry of mercy as carried out by the Lord Jesus Christ
The coming of Christ into the world was not a radical turning point or a new direction in showing mercy. Rather, Christ's coming is another milestone in the continued expression of God's fatherly love. That is an important consideration. We usually associate Christ's coming with his suffering and death on the cross. But we may not think of Christ apart from his ministry of mercy. His whole life is a life of service. The Lord Jesus mentioned more than once that he did not come to be served but to serve (cf. Mk. 10:45; Mt. 20:28). The Lord Jesus was not ashamed to be a diakonos. Jesus was not ashamed to be a servant.
The New Testament sets Jesus before us as the shining example to follow. Nowhere is this stated more clearly than in John 13:1-17 which records how at the feast of the Passover, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. We hear Jesus speak,
If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done.
Jn. 13:14, 15
And Jesus concludes with these words, "If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them." (Jn. 13:17) Blessed are those who stand ready for the unselfish service to others.
The Lord Jesus carried out his ministry of mercy in different ways. Who will not recall his compassion towards the oppressed, the needy, the sick? He turned against materialism, individualism and egoism. His command is: Seek first the kingdom of God (Mt. 6:33).
By word and deed he has shown us the way. He calls upon his followers to be compassionate, to love one another, to care for each other. And so Christ, through his own ministry of mercy shows us the way. No one in his church may live uncomforted under the pressure of sickness, loneliness, and poverty. He shows us how to use our God-given gifts. We use his gifts through diakonia, that is serving and helping others. Jesus said,
As you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.
If anywhere, then, these words of Jesus get there full meaning in the ministry of mercy.
Now we begin to see the task of the deacons unfold before us. God did not want his Old Testament people to forget their freedom from slavery and oppression in Egypt. He does not want Christians to forget their freedom from sin in Christ. Christians may and must share in the joy of their Lord. He wants all Christians to live free from the cares of this world in joy and thankfulness.
So it is not surprising that in the third paragraph we are told that.
The ministry of mercy must follow the example of Christ
The New Testament church understood this requirement to follow the example of Christ. In their new found joy and freedom there was no room for individualism or egoism. For what do we read about the effects of Pentecost? Just check the book of Acts and you will see.
In Acts 2:44, 45 we read that "all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need."
Similarly in chapter 4:32ff we see this generosity and sharing for the good of all. And what is the result? The congregation flourished and grew. They shared in the common joy which they have in Christ. And the world around them took notice.
Up to this point the Christians had carried out the ministry of mercy themselves. They did so in a bond of fellowship just as God's people in the Old Testament were expected to do. Why then did the office of deacon become necessary? Because gradually the work became too much. The believers brought their gifts to the apostles for distribution. Church growth was phenomenal. Everything went well until one day mutterings were heard in the church of the Lord. The apostles were so busy providing 'spiritual' food and guidance that some of the widows were neglected in the daily distribution of food (Acts 6:1ff). This was a serious matter because such neglect threatened the joy of God's people.
To remedy the problem, seven men were chosen to take care of the daily distribution. The apostles appointed the seven for the diakonia, the service at the tables so that they themselves could devote their attention to the prayers and the diakonia, the service, the ministry of the Word.
The last word has not been spoken whether these seven men are deacons in the same sense as we know the office of deacon today. Personally I believe that Acts 6 points to more than the office of deacon as we know it today. Later on we read that Philip preached the Word and baptized the Ethiopian (Acts 8:4, 5; 38; 21:8). Was it then only a temporary office as has been suggested? I am convinced the apostles instituted a permanent office. Everything points in that direction. There was an election and an appointment to office with the laying on of hands. The apostles instituted a permanent office with diaconal aims and contents.
It was not a temporary office but a permanent one indicating that there definitely is an ongoing task for deacons in Christ's church. This brings us to the fourth paragraph.
The ministry of mercy for today
The first remark I wish to make here is that the task of deacons for today is the same as the task of deacons of yesteryear. It is the same as last century, or in the time of the apostles. In fact, the task of the deacons for today must reflect the ministry of mercy as God laid it down in the Old Testament. No one may live uncomforted in Christ's church.
And that brings us precisely to the main task of the deacons. Just as in the Old Testament the believers had to be charitable to their needy brothers and sisters, so the deacons must point out this duty in the communion of saints. Of first importance is, therefore, that deacons mobilize the congregation. The mark of a vibrant church is the fellowship believers have with one another in the unity of faith and with mutual responsibilities toward each other.
Here, too, we find ample scriptural support. Even though the church of Christ is made up out of many believers, they form the one body of Christ (Rom. 12:44, 45). And just as in our physical body we feel when something is amiss, so in the body of Christ we need to become aware that if one suffers, we all suffer (1 Cor. 12:26).
So then, your first and perhaps your most important task is to stimulate the congregation to help each other. The New Testament church after Pentecost was not passive, but active in caring for the needs of others. So we need to be today.
Of course, as the deacons you also have a special task in alleviating need in the church. But now the difficulty: How do you know when someone is hurting? What sort of symptoms do you look for? In order to have an eye for the kinds of needs you may be facing, you need to keep abreast with the various influences that can and do play a role.
I am going to share with you some insights that I gleaned from the magazine Dienst.4Two deacons have written an extensive study and they alert us to the following influences for which to look.
- Mobility. During the past decades people have become extremely mobile. It is easy to get away, which brings with it the danger of withdrawal into one's own world. Mobility opens up many positive possibilities. It also brings with it the danger of exclusion which stand in the way of making lasting contact with others. This can lead to loneliness.
- Individualism. Under the influence of technology, science, and economics, individualism is on the increase. People begin to live in their own world. Specialization can lead to isolation. People can become so absorbed in their own little world or in their work that they are out of touch and estranged from one another. Is lack of communication not one of the greatest stumbling blocks and obstacles that leads to marriage break-up and divorce?
- Prosperity and well-being. It has taken nearly 2000 years to raise the prosperity plateau to an even level for most people. But in the last twenty years that prosperity threshold has doubled. On the one hand we live in a very prosperous time. However, prosperity has its own built in danger. There are adjustment problems at work, such as facing the impersonal nature of the automated working environment. There is also the need for continuing education in order to keep one's job. This in turn robs the family of spending time together. Then, of course, there is also unemployment.
- The idea that religion has no place on the job-site, contributes greatly to the growing tendency to regard one's life of faith as something strictly personal, a private affair. As a result the communion of saints becomes less and less important, and the danger of neglecting the service of the Lord becomes very real.
These are some of the influences and changes we face in the society in which we function. What are their impact? The speed and the enormity of these events does not leave us untouched. For some it brings tension. It creates an inability to assess things properly. People can't see their way out any more. What happens next is all too common. People try to flee from reality; begin to live in a dream world; become apathetic; need something to calm them down and turn to alcohol or drugs.
Such are the needs you may face as deacons. Every age has its own needs. At one time the most pressing need was poverty. Today it is more of a social nature. To be needy means: lacking something which you yourself cannot readily supply. Such a need can be of a simple nature or very complex. It may be temporary or permanent.
All this means that your task as deacon becomes more complex. You can't just look at someone and deduct from the worn-out shoes he wears that there is a need. So what should you do? First,
Expectation and reality
As deacons you may have the expectation that someone in your section who needs help will come to you for assistance if there is a need. This expectation is logical. After all, our people should know that God has given the ministry of mercy to people whom he has called to office. People who stand ready to help.
The reality, however, is far different. Deacons will often find that a brother or sister is too proud to seek help. At least from the deacons or someone they know in the congregation. Reason? Stigma. Fear to be labelled. Fear that things leak out. So officebearer is passed-by. Why? Probably because the brother or sister feels uncomfortable since he or she does not really know you as deacon. They recognize your face but do not see you as officebearer. You are not familiar to them. Some synonyms for the word familiar are: accepted, habitual, intimate, frequent, confidential, well-known. In short, that you are known by them as someone they can trust.
How then can you be of help? By acquainting yourself with the existing needs and difficulties in the families. Which means of course that you need to make visits. In order for you to work effectively and fruitfully you need to KNOW the people in your section. And they need to know you. If you want to reach them and reach out to them, you have to make yourself approachable. One visit in the three years hardly means you know the family in your charge or they know you. So the first and most important task is to get to know the brothers and sisters. People do not entrust any of their burdens and difficulties to others unless they know the person well.
That in the first place. But a close second is that you learn to see the need in the family as a real need. What does that mean? Sometimes people cannot figure out how others can get into such a pickle. For them it is an act of stupidity. But for the person involved it is a real dilemma which needs to be solved. Therefore, do not minimize or trivialize the person's needs. They may not seem much to you but they are real to him.
And, therefore, one thing you need to learn is to look around you at your visit. You need to be perceptive. The condition of the home and the behaviour of the children can tell a lot. But above all you need to listen. If you want to be of help and gain the person's trust you need to be a good listener. There is nothing worse than that he feels that you are not interested in his needs.
Things to Look (out) for
Be aware of pride. There may be an appearance of well being. But looks can be deceiving. Speaking with the person and gaining trust is what opens the door. This takes time.
Does the mother have to go out to work to support the family? Do husband and wife see each other enough? If not, then it is not uncommon that problems will arise. Also, in such a situation children become essentially 'one parent' children. Either mom is at home or dad. But seldom together. This fosters lack of communication.
Do you see that the children are running the show? Does mother give in easily? This is probably a sign that she cannot handle the continued stress and the easiest way out for her is to capitulate and give in to their demands. Perhaps all she needs is an outlet to vent her frustration or a day off.
As deacons you need to know the needy and the well-to-do. You may have to call on them to be of assistance. E.g. by giving employment to a handicapped brother or sister so that the person feels useful in society and is bolstered in his or her self-esteem.
Know your limit. There are times when you just cannot help because professional help is necessary. Be able to give counsel where they can receive the help they need.
What if you are so fortunate that there are no specific needs in the congregation at the moment? Are you then semi-retired officebearers who count money once a month? Deacons cannot be an 'idle' lot. There is plenty to do! Deacons must stimulate the congregation to help others.
Do you have handicapped brothers or sisters in the congregation you serve? Encourage others to take care of these special children of God for a day or so, and give the parents a break.
If you live near a correction institute you could try to set up a ministry of mercy among those in prison.
Finally a few words about the last paragraph which I call:
The ministry of mercy as building block in the church
When the first Christians shared all things in common, this had a positive effect on the whole church community. It welded a bond of togetherness. It created a feeling of belonging. There was true joy which also the others in Jerusalem noticed (Acts 2:47). The ministry of mercy made the church flourish and grow.
In the same way through your ministry of mercy you make the church flourish and grow. Loving care for each other builds up. That is why I call the ministry of mercy the building block in the church of Christ. But also in the community in which we live. For we have been called upon to do good to all men (Gal. 6:10).
But to be the building block means that you know what you are doing. Therefore, I want to make a plea for the continuity in the office of deacon. By that I mean: Appoint former deacons again as deacons. Practical experience is extremely helpful. It is easier to take up contacts with the same people again if assistance is of an ongoing nature.
3. Cooperation between elders and deacons
Elders and deacons serve the same flock of Christ. They do so from different angles. The elders are more concerned with the doctrine and life of the believer. At the family visits they come to seek the fruits of faith. Does the preaching have an impact? Is the believer a living member of Christ? Does he dedicate his life to the service of the Lord?
The deacons, on the other hand, come for a different reason. Their reason for visiting is to see if there is any need, be it caused by loneliness, poverty or otherwise.
Still there are areas where the two offices touch and maybe even overlap somewhat. That is where elders and deacons need to be in touch with each other. For it is not uncommon that certain problems the deacons face are the result of poor Christian living. And vice versa, when the elders sense a lack of spiritual wholesomeness, they may also discover problems where the deacons should be involved.
What then is the right course of action? I have always been a staunch advocate that confidentiality is of greatest importance. So if the brothers elder and deacon do not have to be in touch with each other about family 'A' in their section, they should leave well enough alone.
On the other hand, however, it will be helpful to remember that confidentiality is not the same as secrecy. Secrecy is when you promise never to reveal information to anyone, regardless of the circumstances. Confidentiality is when you promise to keep information to yourself and to share it with others only if this is in the best interest of the person you are trying to help.
Precisely because deacons and elders serve the needs of the same family it is probably advantageous for them to be in closer contact and consult each other. It can be helpful to exchange views and perceptions. As long as confidentiality is maintained, i.e., do not say more than necessary, and as long as the brothers do not begin to tread on each others "territory."
I have given you only a brief survey. Much more could be said. But I hope this is enough to give food for thought.
As deacons you have a highly responsible task. Your task is to see to it that in the church of Christ there is equality for all; equality in being satisfied so that all the brothers and sisters may share in the joy of their Lord and no one lives uncomforted under the pressure of sickness, loneliness, and poverty.