The Task of the Ministry of Mercy
Beloved, thou doest a faithful work in whatsoever thou doest toward them that are brethren and strangers withal.
John the Apostle
For Christ's sweet sake, I beg an alms;
Sir Launfal sees only the grewsome thing,
The leper, lank as the rain-blanched bone,
That cowers beside him, a thing as lone
And white as the ice-isles of the Northern seas
In the desolate horror of his disease.
And Sir Launfal said, I behold in thee
The image of Him who died on the tree."
James Russell Lowell
He who sent the apostles without gold has also gathered churches without gold. The Church has gold not to keep but to distribute, and give support in necessity. What need is there in keeping what is of no benefit? Are we ignorant how much gold and silver the Assyrians carried off from the temple of the Lord? Is it not better for a priest to melt them for the support of the poor, if other means are wanting, than for a sacrilegious enemy to carry them away?
Ambrose of Milan
In the church of the Lord Jesus Christ there are three offices. The three offices universally recognized by the Reformed churches are those of the ministers of the Word, the elders and the deacons.
With respect to the task of the ministers of the Word there is in the churches today a rather general and fairly clear understanding, although, in some denominations the conception of their calling has deteriorated. Yet wherever the church is conscious of the need of living by the Word, there is a high appreciation of their calling as preachers.
In the Presbyterian and Reformed churches, where the office of the eldership is still maintained, the duty of governing the people of the Lord receives widespread recognition. Those who hold this office are called upon to tend the flock of the Lord, not of constraint or for filthy lucre but of a ready mind, looking to the Chief Shepherd who both empowers them for their arduous work and rewards what they have done in obedience to their heavenly commission.
But with respect to the deacons there is by no means the same clarity of conception in the minds of believers. Even among us, where the office is still held in honour, there is prevalent a general misunderstanding of their position and duty in Christ's church. Very little has been written about the diaconate except among the Reformed people in the Netherlands. The diaconal task is restricted to the gathering of offerings on the Lord's day, the administration of ecclesiastical funds, the rendering of reports to the congregation, and the relief of a few in the congregation who for a season are in dire straits. Thus the glory of their calling has been dimmed. And unless there is a renewal and deepened realization of the work to which the Exalted Head of the church has appointed them, this office will once again pass into oblivion. With the rising standard of living in America and the increasing encroachments of the government on the domain of relief, this danger is by no means insignificant or imaginary.
Since so little has been written about the task of the deacons, we do well to refer for enlightenment on this matter to the Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons. Here at least we find a clear-cut presentation of some of the outstanding duties of the ministers of mercy. This formulary, publicly read in the churches every time elders and deacons are installed, has the advantage of being simple, brief and clear on the principles regarded as authoritative for the churches.
After several early synods of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands has seriously considered the question of the proper method of ordaining and installing these officers in the congregations, the Synod of the Hague (1586) adopted the Form which ever since has been employed in the churches. A brief paragraph outlined the duties of the deacons thus,
"The work of the deacons consists in the faithful and diligent ingathering of the offerings which God's people in gratitude make to their Lord, in the prevention of poverty, in the humble and cheerful distribution of gifts according to need, and in the relief of the distressed both with kindly deeds and words of consolation and cheer from Scripture."1
All four of these duties should be thoroughly understood both by those who hold the ministry of mercy and the other members of the congregation.
The ingathering of the offerings
God's people are under holy obligation to serve their Creator and Redeemer not only in word but also in deed. This is very plainly implied from the beginning of public worship the bringing of offerings.
Already among the Old Testament Israelites a careful distinction was made, in harmony with the duties prescribed in the two tables of the law, between the gifts directly offered to God for the maintenance of public worship and those gifts which were to be used for the relief of the needy. Two fundamental principles constituted the religio-ethical basis of almsgiving among the children of Israel. First of all, God clearly enunciated that the land of Canaan in the deepest sense belonged not to the individuals who occupied it but to the Lord. In consequence, His people were to be regarded as enjoying a God-given right to partake of its fruits. In the second place, the law insisted not only on love to God, but also on love to one's neighbour (Leviticus 19:18, 34). Hence the giving of alms in gratitude for blessings received was clearly recognized as a primary religious obligation.
In the later development of Judaism, especially after the return from captivity and the close of the Old Testament canon, alms-giving almost imperceptibly assumed another character. In some of the apocryphal books it seems to have been regarded as a voluntary act of merit by which sins could be expiated and salvation assured.
Against this overvaluation of external religious acts Jesus protested in His day and emphasized again the principle too long forgotten by the Jews that God's people owed love to their fellow-men. Good works have no meritorious value but are rather to be regarded as the inevitable result and proof of a regenerated life. Thus the highest virtue which can come to expression in the new fellowship with God through Christ, is love.
This was understood and practiced by the early believers. Immediately after Pentecost we find the brethren of the first congregation sharing their possessions with each other. The only compulsion known and recognized was spiritual. No laws were passed requiring the members to show this benevolence. Even Ananias and Sapphira were informed by Peter that the land which they possessed was theirs, and after it had been sold, they had the right to do with the purchase price what they would.
The apostle Paul spoke often and eloquently about Christian love as it came to expression in the bringing of gifts for the poor. That love was to be demonstrated not only in the personal lives of believers but should also come to expression at the time of corporate worship. In 1 Corinthians 16 he regulated the giving and receiving of relief offerings for the believers in Judea. How closely worship and almsgiving were linked in the apostolic churches is evident from the several writing of the New Testament. Moffat speaks of the "three great definitions of worship or religious service in the New Testament," alluding to Romans 12:1, Hebrews 13:15f., and James 1:27. In all of these giving to the poor occupies a conspicuous place.
This apostolic example was closely imitated in the years which followed. Ignatius, who laboured immediately after the death of John, used as a final argument against the heretics that "they have no regard for love; nor care for the widow, or the orphan, or the oppressed; of the bond, or of the free; of the hungry or of the thirsty."2Justin Martyr described in detail how such almsgiving was carried over into Christian worship. Not only was money brought by the believers to relieve the distressed but also gifts of kind. These were placed in the front of the hall in which the Christians were wont to assemble and afterward distributed by the deacons to all who were in need.3
Gradually a new emphasis arose. The idea of almsgiving as an act of merit and satisfaction for sins replaced the New Testament position that such gifts were the fruit of love to God. Thus we read in II Clement, "Good, then, are alms as repentance from sin; better is fasting than prayer, and alms than both."4
The reason assigned was, "For almsgiving lifteth off the burden of sin."
This new theory soon became dominant in the church. Even Augustine conceded that almsgiving could alleviate suffering in purgatory. Thus the traffic in indulgences had begun and would rob the church of the proper spiritual motive for giving to the poor.
Not until the days of the Reformation was the giving of alms restored to its proper place in the life of the congregation together with the restitution of the office of the deacons. Already the Heidelberg Catechism, first published in 1563, stressed the intimate connection between public worship and almsgiving.5
In nearly all the Reformed churches the poor were cared for in love, and one of the chief means of receiving the necessary gifts was provided by the offering for this purpose received on the Lord's Day. Besides this, many of the churches, also in the Netherlands, took over the ecclesiastical properties gathered during the Middle Ages. These were administered either by the church or the state in behalf of the needy. As late as the eighteenth century a Lutheran who visited in this country expressed his amazement at and appreciation for what the Reformed churches did through their diaconates for the alleviation of the distressed. This, he confessed, had been altogether too much neglected by the churches in his own land.6
The practice found in many of our older congregations of receiving the first offering on the Lord's day for the poor ought to be continued. Where it has been neglected, it should be introduced in harmony with the teaching of the Catechism as one of our spiritual privileges and duties on that day. In answer to the question "What does God require in the fourth commandment?" the church confesses, "First, that the ministry of the gospel and the schools be maintained; and that I, especially on the Sabbath, that is, the day of rest, diligently attend the church of God, to learn God's Word, to use the sacraments, to call publicly upon the Lord, and give Christian alms;..." Thus it is appropriate to consider the offering for benevolence as an integral part of our worship.
In order that this may be done properly, certain important matters should be emphasized. The deacons are to remind the people from time to time that these gifts are necessary not only for the relief of the poor but also as part of their worship of God. Furthermore the deacons alone are acquainted intimately with the needs of the distressed. Also here the Christian believers must learn to give intelligently and cheerfully. Since the custom of publishing weekly bulletins has become widespread, the diaconate has a wonderful opportunity for announcing from time to time how much has been received and distributed. In case of special need, this vehicle may be used to good advantage to solicit the necessary help.
In some Reformed churches endowments are still maintained for the poor. Although this affords the undeniable advantage of guaranteeing under normal conditions a dependable income, there are serious disadvantages connected with this practice. For if the members know that the poor are not dependent on their liberality, the regular giving of alms will invariably be neglected. Thus instead of fostering love for the poor and stimulating Christian liberality, such endowments will stifle the work of the diaconates.
Other methods of receiving gifts for the poor have been suggested and used from time to time. In some cities of the Netherlands the custom was followed of having the deacons collect alms from door to door. But wherever the spiritual life of the congregation flourished, this method was soon discarded. However, in times of serious economic stress the deacons may with propriety call on those who enjoy greater than average material prosperity and solicit special gifts. All almsgiving indeed must measure up to the Scriptural standard. Holding bazaars of one kind or another for charitable purposes is entirely out of harmony with the task of the deacons. Nor should they countenance the raising of money by these means through other organizations on their behalf. The Bible is plain in its insistence on voluntary giving, "He that giveth, let him do it with liberality" (Romans 12:8).
In some congregations the practice has been adopted of including offerings for charity in the regular budget.
Several arguments have been advanced for this comparatively recent innovation. First of all, it is maintained that the churches today have few poor and needy. Hence a weekly offering for them is not necessary. In fact, many of the congregations which still follow the practice of having one offering each Lord's day for the poor have large sums on hand for which they find little use at the present.
Further, it is argued that the needs of the poor throughout the year can be fairly adequately and accurately estimated. Thus by adopting a certain sum in the annual budget, the number of offerings is reduced and the poor are still cared for. And thirdly, through the use of this budget everyone in the church receives ample opportunity to contribute for this cause.
Although there is some merit to these arguments, certain strong arguments can and should be advanced against the practice. By this policy, first of all, the giving of alms is no longer on a purely voluntary basis. In the Reformed churches there is widespread recognition of the principle that there is a difference between budget contributions for the maintenance of worship and ecclesiastical work and gifts for charity. The former constitute an obligation which rests upon every member as long as he is able to pay. The latter are spontaneous gifts prompted by gratitude to God and love to our neighbour. The voluntary principle operative in almsgiving is clearly enunciated in the New Testament: "Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth" (Matt. 6:3); "He that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; ... he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness" (Romans 12:8). In the second place, such a system fails to take into account the difference in income which exists among the members of the congregation. For all practical purposes the same amount is expected of those of modest income and those who are rich. This is not in harmony with Biblical teaching. Furthermore, it also restricts the giving to the poor and thus defeats the purpose of almsgiving. Certain spiritual blessings are promised to those who deal liberally with the poor: "The liberal soul shall be made fat: and he that watereth shall be watered himself" (Proverbs 11:25); "Give and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, shall they give into your bosom. For with what measure ye mete it shall be measured to you again" (Luke 6:38); "But this I say, He that soweth sparingly shall reap sparingly; and he that soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully" (2 Corinthians 9:6). By virtually assessing all members of the congregation alike, this system does violence to the message of these texts. Finally, the practice rests on the misconception that offerings for charity should be largely restricted to helping the poor in the local congregations. It is high time that although charity begins at home, the scope of diaconal labours includes ministering to the needy among God's children throughout the world. If a congregation has relatively few poor, it has the duty of stretching out a helping hand to those who are overburdened with the care of the distressed. If this principle were recognized and applied, abundant opportunity would be offered to every congregation for giving to the needy regularly, cheerfully and liberally.
The deacons should further be deeply interested in the place which such offerings occupy in public worship. Although the adoption of a Reformed order of worship is the responsibility of the consistory, it is not amiss for the deacons to discuss this matter with the consistory. In order that the congregation may become more aware of the distinctly important place which almsgiving occupies in worship, it is advisable that the offerings be not received during singing.7
Such a practice too much distracts the attention of the worshippers. Neither the praise of God in song nor the dedication of our lives and goods expressed in the offering receives the proper emphasis. The offerings also should be gathered within a reasonable brief period of time. If too much time is consumed by this part of the service, either a large number of deacons should be appointed for this work or more plates used. After the offerings have been received, an offertory prayer may appropriately close this part of worship.
The prevention of poverty
Of greater significance than the above for the proper discharge of the ministry of mercy is the task of preventing poverty wherever possible.
Poverty is one of those general terms which is frequently used but difficult to define. In general, it is understood as the lack of the means of subsistence, such as goods and money. The cleavage between those who live in varying degrees of want and those who are actually and quite consistently exposed to privation is vague and elusive. This subject has been the object of careful sociological research in comparatively recent times. In 1899 Seebohm Rowntree made a thorough investigation of the problem in one of England's largest cities. In his analysis he distinguished carefully between what he termed "primary" and "secondary" poverty.8
By the former he designated the condition resulting largely from lack of sufficient income to maintain a family of normal size in a state of physical efficiency, even though all the resources were economically and frugally administered. By the latter he designated the result due to the expenditure of some part of the income on objects other than those essential to the maintenance of health. In the main this distinction deserves recognition by us.
Recent studies show that poverty continues to be a persistent problem even in our Western world. In spite of the rise of wages and living standard, many families especially in the larger cities are compelled to live on sub-standard levels. In Great Britain, which has a lower living standard and more poverty than most European and American nations, as late as 1924 at least four percent of the population was indigent. Surveys have also shown that once a family is reduced to such straits, it is exceeding difficult to rehabilitate them.
For our churches and people these surveys have only a relative value. Drawing largely on the middle classes, we do not often come into close contact with poverty-stricken groups. Just how much of this tragic situation is caused by circumstances beyond the control of the individuals, such as unemployment, sickness, death of the wage-earner, etc., and how much is due to mismanagement of income cannot be accurately determined. But since the deacons are dealing with concrete cases of poverty, they ought to become aware of some of the basic problems which poverty creates and take measures to solve these wherever possible.
Just when must the deacons step in and offer assistance? Must this be done only when an individual or a family has become economically so impoverished that they can no longer provide even the barest necessities? This position has been advocated in some diaconates. Yet such a conception is fallacious, since it fails to do justice to the Scriptural teaching that man does not live by bread alone. He needs more that food and shelter. Christ has promised His people the necessities of life for the whole man, in order that their spiritual development may be assured. With this in mind we can understand better what the Form means by the "prevention of poverty" as one aspect of diaconal work.
At first glance this might be understood to imply that the deacons should be thoroughly conversant with and attempt to solve the knotty economic and social problems faced in an industrialized society. In connection with this misconception Jansen has the following sage advice to give to office-bearers,
"The diaconate is not an institute for the solution of the social problems and for the removal of poverty as such. The social question is not an ecclesiastical but an economic and social problem; it belongs to the sphere of common grace, and must be solved there both by society and with the help of the government. The diaconate is a development of special grace, is an ecclesiastical institution and has received from Christ a specific task, namely, the care of the poor. Thus however difficult it may be in many cases to define clearly the precise limits between common and special grace, the rule must be maintained that the diaconate may never concern itself directly with social problems, but only indirectly and in concrete cases may point out the evil relationships which influence society in comforting the poor, in urging them to love and gratitude, and in calling the attention of the rich to their Christian obligation."9
The duty of preventing poverty in specific cases has been recognized as part of the diaconal calling for many years by the Reformed churches. Already Voetius argued in favour of this attempt in his day. He based his position largely on Leviticus 25:35:
And if thy brother be waxed poor, and his hand fail with thee, then thou shalt uphold him: as a stranger and a sojourner shall he live with thee. Take thou no interest of him or increase, but fear thy God; that thy brother may live with thee. Thou shalt not give him thy money upon interest, nor give him thy victuals for increase. I am Jehovah your God, who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God.
From this he concluded that to fulfil the law of brotherly love the prevention of poverty in concrete cases was preferable to waiting with assistance until extreme need had arisen, using as an example that the prevention of disease in the body is always to be preferred to a cure. This basic principle enunciated in the Old Testament legislation ought to be applied diligently by the deacons in the New Testament church.10
Just how this must be done can be stated only in very general terms. Each situation has its own peculiar causes and circumstances and must therefore be dealt with concretely. In some instances the deacons after proper investigation and discussion should be ready to lend sums of money. It may happen that pro‑longed sickness makes it impossible for a family to meet payments on a home. To prevent eviction and loss of shelter, the deacons may decide to meet the payments until the wage-earner is again in a position to help himself. Especially in the case of those who are partially incapacitated by the loss of limbs or sight, the deacons may help them establish themselves in some small business in which they may come to be self-supporting. Such help in most instances need not be considered a gift. Those who are assisted will undoubtedly be ready and even eager to repay what has been loaned. The deacons should also be ready to help such individuals with good counsel, so that the funds may be used to the best advantage.
In connection with the prevention of poverty the deacons should be ready to give advice. This implies, of course, that they themselves are men of some ability and sound judgment. In such situations it may even be necessary to point out the sins and defects which mar the lives of God's people, when these are the cause for the decline of income. That this is far from easy and pleasant need hardly be said. Many of those who need such advice or rebuke will at first greatly resent what they consider improper interference with their lives. But all this makes it more necessary that the members of the congregation realize keenly that "no man liveth unto himself." What we do or neglect to do influences not only ourselves and our families but also the congregation of the Lord. To render effective service in such an ambitious and difficult undertaking the deacons will have to gain the confidence and understanding of those with whom and for whom they work.
Often poverty can also be prevented by extending temporary help and occasional gifts. When there is seasonal unemployment or much sickness in any given family the ministers of mercy ought to render assistance before the pinch of poverty is acutely and disastrously felt. With respect to finding employment for the unemployed they should move with extreme caution. The diaconate is not an employment bureau. Much as we marvel at the exceptionally well-organized system developed by the Church of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) during the economic depression of the thirties, who created work for their unemployed by purchasing and administering farms, factories, etc. for the benefit of their members, the Reformed churches are not willing to follow this pattern, firmly believing that such undertakings are never part of the church's calling in the world.
The distribution of the gifts
The third task of the diaconate is that of administering the moneys which they have received and distributing gifts to the needy. In many respects this constitutes the most difficult and time-consuming work to which they have been appointed. Several important questions may be raised here. Especially three call for attention at this time. First of all, who are entitled to receive the help of the church? Secondly, in how far must they be assisted? Thirdly, how must this help be given?
- According to the Church Order the proper objects of ecclesiastical mercy are "the poor." In some of the earlier regulations adopted by the Netherlands churches a distinction was made between poor who were members of the congregations and those who as stranger were temporarily residing in the community and worshipping with the congregation. Both groups were regarded as the responsibility of the deacons.
That the fathers felt the need for making such a distinction can be explained in the light of the political and religious conditions of those days. Time and again in the early decades of the Reformation believers were persecuted by the government and the Roman Catholic church. Forced to flee from their homes with their families, they would seek refuge in some other town or country and usually arrived in a destitute state. Because of illness, language barriers or economic conditions they were often unable to find gainful employment. As a result they could rely only on the tender mercies of fellow believers. The Convent of Wesel (1568), the Synod of Emden (1571) and the Synod of Middelburg (1581) each in turn reminded the Dutch diaconates of their duties with respect to these unfortunates. In spite of the fact that most congregations supported large numbers of poor and needy who were members, they were obliged to take care also of those who came from elsewhere. Here the principle was enunciated that diaconal help not only could but also should be extended beyond the limits of the membership of the local congregation. This has become the practice of the Reformed churches since that time.
From this was deduced the position that wherever possible the deacons should help all the needy with whom they came into contact. Voetius, the leading Reformed canonist, stressed this duty strongly. This position was based on such Scriptural teachings as the unity of human race (Acts 17:26), the duty of love to one's enemies (Matthew 5:44, 45) and the obligation to tender assistance to strangers (Luke 10:29-37). Great weight was attached to the rule of the apostle Paul, "So then, as we have opportunity, let us work that which is good toward all men, and especially toward them that are of the household of faith." (Galatians 6:10) Although the text does not speak directly of the work of mercy, since the doing of good involves far more than rendering physical and financial aid, it does enunciate a guiding principle for diaconal work.
The first and primary obligation of the deacons is of course the care of the poor in the local congregation. All the needy who belong to the church, without exception or distinction, are entitled to help. The view that professing members are deserving of more than members by baptism only cannot be defended. Even those who are under ecclesiastical censure may not be penalized by withholding support. The discipline of the church recognizes only spiritual weapons and may never stoop to use any others. The law of love requires that believers show mercy and render aid without looking for possible returns. Only when it can be demonstrated that the poor are misusing the gifts which the deacons bring by squandering money for liquor, excessive luxuries, indulgence in sports and unnecessary recreations, must the deacons refuse to help.
Cases may arise in which only one member of the family belongs to the church. If little or no help is received from the church to which the others in the family belong, our deacons have a responsibility to support the whole family. Even un-churched families may be assisted by the deacons, according to the judgment of the Diaconal Conference of the Netherlands held in 1898. However, this last may be offered only if funds are available without neglecting the poor in the congregation.11
What should be done about those poor who have relatives well able to help them? Often situations arise in which children or parents or brothers and sisters refuse to render the needed assistance. Here the deacons face difficult and delicate questions. The Bible insists very clearly and unmistakably that relatives are obliged to help each other in time of need. It proceeds on the principle that the family constitutes a social unity, which in Biblical times was more inclusive that the relation between parents and children. The duty of children to their parents is made clear by the fifth commandment, which is called the first commandment with a promise (Exodus 20:12; Eph. 6:2). Jesus Himself dealt explicitly with this problem in considering the case of children who withheld help from their parents under the guise of bringing special offerings to the Lord. Contrasting the commandments of God with the traditions defended by the Pharisees, He taught the people, "But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or his mother, That wherewith thou mightest have been profited by me is Corban, that is to say, Given to God; ye no longer suffer him to do aught for his father or his mother; making void the word of God by your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things ye do." (Mark 7:11-13)
Although the relation of brothers and sisters is not as intimate as that of parents and children, the ties of blood do impose certain obligations on the believers to help their relatives in need. It is proper therefore for the deacons to consult with the relatives in case of established need before assuming the full responsibility for the poor themselves. Yet, if and when relatives remain unwilling to help, the poor may never be allowed to suffer.
In certain instances older people are willing to receive help from the deacons on the condition that at the time of their death the diaconate is reimbursed from the estate. Although it would be far more proper for them to make such arrangements with their children or other relatives, in principle no objections can be raised against such a procedure. Yet the deacons should never demand repayment as a condition for extending aid. Even though the church may suffer financial loss at the hands of avaricious relatives, the needy should be helped. Such greedy relatives should rather be dealt with by the elders who can apply the proper ecclesiastical censures. In every situation the deacons should carefully guard the reputation of their office and the honour of the Saviour whom they represent.
What must be done in case the poor are compelled by circumstances to change their place of residence and hence their church affiliations? Do such individuals and families become the responsibility of the church to which they remove, or should they still be cared for by the church from which they came? In a general way this question is answered by article 83 of the Church Order which specifies, "Furthermore, to the poor, removing for sufficient reasons, so much money shall be given by the Deacons as they deem adequate. The Consistory and the Deacons shall, however, see to it that they be not too much inclined to relieve their Churches of the poor, with whom they would without necessity burden other Churches." This article, like so many others in the Church Order, clearly reflects the exigencies of the time in which it was adopted. Today its application is rather limited. Those who will need diaconal assistance for traveling are very few. Yet in connection with health problems the matter will arise from time to time. In times past those afflicted with respiratory ailments often were advised to move to Colorado or Arizona. Many of these were poor families, and in consequence the churches in those areas were burdened to an unusual degree. To help them, special offerings were received in the churches at the request of synod. The general principle in all such and similar cases is plain. As a rule the poor who change their place of residence become the responsibility of the church to which they are going. Yet the church which they are leaving has a moral obligation to continue to help through the other diaconate in case of necessity. No diaconate should encourage the poor to move to another congregation, in order that it may be relieved of its God-given obligation. The words of the Lord Jesus are still pertinent and regulative, "For ye have the poor always with you" (Matthew 26:11)
1. The second question in connection with the distribution of alms concerns the degree of help which should be given. Again the Church Order refers to the matter only in a general way by stating that the poor should receive help "as their needs may require it" (Article 25). This allows great latitude in interpretation and application of the principle.
Undoubtedly there will be difference of opinion as to the amount actually needed by the poor. Some will seek to restrict this to the barest necessities, while others will argue for liberal support. The law of love to our fellow-men seems to imply that the latter are far closer to the truth than the former.
However, above all the obligation to seek the welfare of our brethren and sisters makes it imperative that the deacons will be thoroughly conversant not only with the actual situations which have arisen in the families of the poor but also with their ability to receive and use help to the glory of God.
Indeed, the necessities of life must be provided. Everyone needs sufficient food and adequate shelter and proper clothing. A penurious distribution may in practice be far worse than no distribution at all. Never may the poor be made to feel that since they are sustained by the diaconate, they must be satisfied with whatever is given, whether it be little or much. The help which they receive comes not first of all from the congregation but rather from the Saviour. Hence the deacons are to give account to Him whom they represent. They are to seek above all the spiritual welfare of those whom they help. This means pointing them to the Saviour who loves them and supplies their needs. Where this is realized, the distribution will always be adequate. No one would be willing to bring a gift in the name of Christ unless it actually serves to relieve the needy.
This implies that the distribution must not be determined solely by the amount of money on hand. In case of insufficient funds the deacons have the God-given responsibility of soliciting the special gifts of the congregation. If the resources of the local congregation are nearly exhausted and prove insufficient, the diaconate should appeal through the consistory to the churches of the classis for assistance.
Usually the gifts are presented in the form of money. Occasionally the deacons may deem it wiser to assume the added burden of purchasing food and clothing directly. This is quite imperative if there seems to be some mismanagement of funds by the poor. It cannot be disputed that some people seem to be unable to use their money wisely and well. In such abnormal situations the deacons will have to provide help in an unusual way and to an unusual degree. That such gifts of food and clothing may be given directly surely is not open to question.
What should be done if the head of the family is unwilling to discuss the needs frankly and honestly with the deacons? There are certain individuals who refuse to reveal whether other sources of income besides diaconal assistance are open to them and to what extent they are actually receiving help. Usually the deacons refuse to help in such cases and rightly so. After all, they are not dealing with the needy in their own right but come in obedience to the mandate of Christ and clothed with His authority. Those therefore who refuse to discuss their need with them honestly forfeit all right of assistance. In most of these instances it will become evident that assistance is not needed. However, if it can be shown that the family is actually suffering hardship, then the deacons in spite of the lack of proper cooperation may feel obligated to extend some help. In discussing the needs of the family, they of course ought to show the family in every possible way that they are not motivated by idle curiosity. When the poor are aware that the deacons represent the merciful High-priest of our profession, they are usually willing to discuss thoroughly their need.
- As to the manner of distribution the Church Order also has a few things to say.
First of all, the rule is laid down that this should take place only "after mutual counsel." For the sake of God's honour and glory Christ has instituted a plurality of elders and deacons. The latter also deal not with God's children as individuals but as the representatives of the congregation. Since all men are limited in knowledge and fallible in judgment, such mutual discussion and counsel by the several deacons is essential. They must carefully investigate the actual situation and jointly decide on the extent and nature of help to be proffered.
Occasionally emergencies will arise which must be dealt with before a diaconal meeting can be called. In such cases those in distress ought not be compelled to wait. Various courses may be followed to meet such situations. Instead of permitting any deacon to give relief without consultation with others, the diaconate may appoint or elect an emergency committee of two or three to deal with such matters. Otherwise, the deacon who has been made aware of the emergency which has arisen may consult with the president and secretary of the diaconate. With our modern means of communication and transportation, such regulations will work no hardship. In nearly every congregation it is a comparatively simple procedure to convene a special meeting of the diaconate or else to confer with a committee appointed to take care of such cases.
Furthermore, the Church Order informs us that the distribution must be made "faithfully and diligently." That the Lord's work demands these virtues is self-evident. This presupposes that regular visits are made to the homes of the poor. It is highly improper to mail cheques to those who are receiving aid, since this frustrates the spiritual purpose which the diaconate seeks to achieve. Personal contact together with prayer by the deacons is essential, if the poor are to recognize that these gifts are a manifestation of Christ's love for them. To neglect the distribution of the gifts entrusted to him for several days must be regarded as a highly irregular procedure on the part of any deacon. The needy are in large measure dependent on his regularity and faithfulness. If the responsibility for their needs has been officially assumed by the diaconate, the poor ought to feel confident that the gifts will be received by them on time. Should any deacon prove to be unfaithful and slovenly in the discharge of this aspect of his calling, he should be rebuked at the diaconal meetings by his fellow officers. Continued neglect on his part may even make his removal from office imperative for the sake of the welfare of the work and the honour of Christ. Such irregularities should be frankly dealt with at the time of Censura morum.12
That the distribution should be made in secret ought to be self-evident. This is in harmony with the words of Christ. "But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what they right hand doeth that thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret shall recompense thee" (Matthew 6:3, 4). This rule which pertains first of all in private and personal almsgiving should also be applied to diaconal distribution. Surely no one outside of the diaconate, except in very unusual circumstances, has the right to know who is being helped by the church. It is contrary to the principle of love and respect for fellow-Christians that the beneficiaries become widely known. It cannot be denied that many sins have been committed against this basic rule in times past. Not seldom is the statement made by members of the congregation that they would never ask for diaconal assistance, since then their straitened circumstances would almost at once become public knowledge. The deacons should be reminded from time to time that they have no right to reveal the names of those who are being helped. All questions concerning the beneficiaries should be answered only at diaconal meetings and then only to those who have a legitimate reason for asking. Wives and children and friends of deacons have no right to pry into the affairs of the diaconate. In every possible way the reputation of the poor must be safeguarded, and their self-respect may not be made to suffer unnecessarily. The burden of poverty is sufficiently heavy and distressful without in any way adding to it. Although no shame attaches to anyone who receives such help, it seriously disturbs the proper relation between the deacons and the poor, if the condition of the poor is widely and unnecessarily publicized. Perhaps it ought to be added here that the deacons need not wait with proffering aid until the poor themselves make request. Insisting that they must personally appear before the meeting of the deacons is hardly conducive to giving in secret. Usually in our large congregations several meetings are scheduled on the same evening that the deacons meet, with the result that those who come to appear before the deacons for all practical purposes are making their poverty known. Much better is the policy almost universally followed of delegating two of the deacons to contact the poor in their homes. Since the deacons may not always know who are in straitened circumstances, they may look for help from the congregation and especially the minister of the Word. It is to be considered proper that those who are aware of need in the congregation call the matter to the attention of the deacons.
The visitation and comfort of the poor
Both the Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons and the Church Order recognize that the work of the diaconate is not exclusively financial. In both mention is made specifically of the spiritual aspect of the ministry of mercy. This consists of visiting the distressed in their homes and speaking to them words of consolation and cheer from Scripture.
It may not be forgotten that essentially the work of the deacons is spiritual in character. The office has been instituted by Christ to promote His work of grace and salvation among men. Basically, the church has one task — that of preaching the gospel of grace to a lost world. That principle must be dearly recognized by the deacons. Therefore their work cannot be compared with that of a social service center, a relief agency or an insurance company. Whatever the office-bearers do must partake of the nature of bringing the Word. Too many people fail to realize this in connection with the task of the deacons. They still regard the ministers of mercy as either the financial directors or relief agents of the church. The task to which they are assigned is every bit as spiritual as that of the other offices. The diaconate is concerned with the gospel of grace as it applies to the lives of God's people and brings them comfort, peace and security.
In consequence the deacons are exhorted to visit the needy in their homes for the purpose of comforting them. The only solution to the deep-seated and radical evil which has occasioned the problems of poverty and distress lies in the gospel of Christ. It provides the antidote to the spirit of dissatisfaction, ingratitude and rebellion to which the poor may easily fall prey. Poverty creates a myriad of problems which can be successfully faced and overcome only in the light of the gospel. Thus the deacon must be a man of God, well versed in the Scriptures, in order that he may point the way to victory over sin and its tragic results.
Usually the deacons visit the home in pairs. This, however, is not always necessary at the time of bringing gifts. Then the deacon may well go alone. In connection with such a visit it should be remembered that he never takes the place of the minister of the Word or the elders. Thus he does not inquire into the spiritual condition of the family except in so far as it relates to the problems which the family is facing. Since there are peculiar temptations and trials of the Evil One to which the poor are exposed, they are in great need of comfort. To arm them for this aspect of their spiritual warfare the deacon should point out that God's Word is replete with promises for them.
Such a diaconal visit should never partake of the nature of a purely social visit. The deacons must interest themselves in the spiritual well-being of the poor. Of very great importance is the prayer which they offer at such times. In it the note of thankfulness for blessings received and submission to the sovereign will of God should not be forgotten. The needs of the family should be specifically brought to the Throne of Grace. Likewise, the prayer should breathe the spirit of quiet confidence and trust in the unfailing mercies of God manifested in Christ Jesus.
The most difficult part of this visitation will undoubtedly be the holding of spiritual conversation. The deacons may feel rather ill at case and incompetent especially when coming into these homes for the first few times. Those who are helped may not immediately present the officers with a good opportunity to discuss the Word of God as it applies to their particular needs, Also among the needy there are those who seem to be more interested in the gifts that in the Giver. But such unspiritual individuals greatly need the spiritual ministry and should be labored with to the end that their distress may lead them into fuller and richer fellowship with the God of all comfort and grace.
There is no simple way of learning the art of conversing easily and effectively about the full gospel of salvation. Hence it will not be possible to describe just what steps should be taken to perform this aspect of diaconal work successfully. Situations differ widely in the several homes which must be visited. The ideal situation obtains where without any apparent difficulty or hesitation the conversation immediately turns to the rich grace of God in Christ. This can be achieved only when the deacon himself is deeply conscious of coming in the name of the Saviour and the poor are hungering and thirsting for the rich promises of the Word. However, such ideal situations are comparatively rare. God's people in this life have not developed to those high levels where they freely and frequently engage in conversation about God and His Word. To that end the deacon, as well as the minister and the elders, has a contribution to make to the spiritual growth of the members of the congregation, and he must seek to utilize every possible opportunity to its best advantage.
Many other matters concerning the task of the ministers of mercy still must be considered, such as the details of organization, the rendering of reports to the consistory and congregation and the actual use which the deacons should make of the Bible in the discharge of their calling. These will largely be dealt with in the next two chapters. The above, however, has undoubtedly demonstrated the vital place which the deacons occupy in a well-organized and spiritually-minded congregation. These principles controlling the task of the ministers of mercy are sorely in need of emphasis today. They should be widely known in the churches, since they are thoroughly Scriptural and eminently practical for the proper growth in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Where they have been somewhat obscured, voices should be raised urging the churches to a new and deeper realization of the importance of this office. It is the Lord's work which beckons. And those who seek to do His work in the fear of His name and in obedience to His command will experience the blessing of His abiding favour in their lives.