The Office of Deacon
The specific duties of the office of deacon are to see to the good progress of the service of charity in the congregation; to acquaint themselves with existing needs and difficulties and exhort the members of Christ’s body to show mercy; and further, to gather and manage the offerings and distribute them in Christ’s Name according to need. They shall encourage and comfort with the Word of God those who receive the gifts of Christ’s love, and promote with word and deed the unity and fellowship in the Holy Spirit which the congregation enjoys at the table of the Lord.
It was again the Reformation which restored the office of deacon to its proper place and function. As mentioned before, gradually the office of deacon had become degraded and the deacon had become merely the helper of the bishop. With some of the religious bodies that trace their origin back to the Reformation the office of deacon is a step on the way to the priesthood.
Among Reformed people, too, we sometimes get the impression that the office of deacon is regarded as being the lowest in rank among the three offices and that, when one has served well as a deacon, he may, after some years, be “promoted” to the position of an elder. Is it, perhaps, a result of such an erroneous idea that frequently younger brothers are nominated and chosen as deacon?
Let it be said that often the execution of the office of deacon requires more experience and wisdom than the work of an elder and that in many instances it is more difficult to be a good deacon than to be a good elder. It is imperative, especially in larger congregations, that at least some of the deacons are experienced and well-acquainted with the various “problems” connected with the diaconal work. This is the more necessary since chronic need for assistance is very seldom, if ever, solely a matter of finances. Much more is needed than the ability to determine how much financial assistance is to be given.
The work of the deacon is sometimes called the “ministry of mercy,” and this is wholly correct. Did not the Lord Jesus rebuke the leaders of His people because with all their disputations and regulations they had neglected mercy? Among His people the Lord did not want to see any beggar. There would, of course, be differences among His children, because the one is more skilful and industrious than the other, even apart from illness and other adversities; but the Lord forbade the joining of fields to fields and saw to it that the original owner received his property back in due time.
If there was one who saw his brother have lack of necessary things, the Lord commanded, he should not keep his purse closed and his hand on his wallet. It was the Lord’s will that the needy brother should be provided with what he needed. Moses could justly say, “What nation is there that has such righteous ordinances?”
The New Testament church also understood its obligation to take care of those who were having lack of things. The members took care of one another, and the churches, too, sent assistance to where it was needed. Especially to prisoners and slaves the Christians extended the mercy of Christ and many who were in need came to the bishop for help. The fame of the generosity of the bishop of Myra lives on in the legend of Saint Nicholas.
The work of the deacons could be described very briefly with the words of the Form for the Ordination: “to see to it that no one in the congregation of Christ lives uncomforted under the pressure of sickness, loneliness, and poverty.” This does not imply that the deacons have to do everything themselves. They are not the servants of the congregation but the servants of the Lord and have to give leadership to the congregation in the showing of mercy. We therefore begin our description of the specific duties of their office as follows: “to see to the good progress of the service of charity in the congregation.”
It will never be known here on earth how much love and mercy, how much compassion has been shown in secret and how much help is extended which is never reported by and to anyone. Nor will it ever become public knowledge how often the deacons have approached a brother or sister with the request to give some personal assistance. Such action would be the first step to be taken when need is discovered.
The task of the deacons is described as “to exhort the members of Christ’s body to show mercy.” They do this not just by appealing to the congregation for funds and by urging the brothers and sisters to remember the collections generously. They are far more than channels through which the gifts and financial support are passed on from the one part of the congregation to the other. They give leadership to the congregation so that, indeed, the “unity and fellowship in the Holy Spirit which the congregation enjoys at the table of the Lord” is promoted and practised.
It is clear that the deacons must know the congregation so that they not only are acquainted with existing needs and difficulties, but also are aware of the resources that are available among the brotherhood not only financially but also, and even in the first place, in terms of “manpower” and “womenpower.”
Bearing in mind that chronic need for financial support is seldom simply a matter of finances, we can easily see that the care of the deacons might be far more effective when they succeed in finding a brother or sister who provides the necessary assistance in removing the underlying cause(s).
This is not to say that the deacons put the responsibility on the shoulders
of others; they remain the ones who provide leadership and will maintain contact with those whose help they enlisted. They retain the supervision.
Here the help of the sisters in the congregation is invaluable. Already very early in the history of the New Testament church sisters of the congregation extended help, especially where men had no access or where assistance by men would have been deemed highly improper.
When looking for ways and means to relieve the need of a family or single member, the deacons are to see first of all whether there are any relatives who could offer assistance. Especially when it concerns parents who are in need, the children have the first duty to assist them. The Lord tells us very clearly that children and grandchildren are first to “learn their religious duty to their own family and make some return to their parents,” and that “if any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” 1 Tim. 5. In our days of extensive social provisions the above may easily be overlooked or forgotten.
The deacons need funds in order to be able to extend the help needed. Families or single members who need financial assistance should not have to wait for some time until the deacons have found ways and means to gather the amount needed. Oftentimes help should be given immediately. For this reason it is advisable that the deacons have some funds readily available. It is difficult to determine how large the reserves should be. They certainly should not take the place of the trust in the Lord who will provide for His people. Nor should we ever go again into the direction that many deacons followed many years ago, when the college of deacons sometimes owned stocks and bonds and houses, frequently — judging by what stories have been passed on to us in personal recollections as well as in literature — at the cost of those for whose benefit the offerings had been gathered in. If the deacons are afraid that their balance becomes too large and could constitute a threat to true piety and generosity, they will always be able to find needs and misery elsewhere that they could help alleviate to some extent.
They should also keep the congregation informed about their needs, so that the congregation may be able to determine from time to time what the size of their offerings should be. If less is needed, less should be given; when the needs increase, the offerings are to be increased.
In smaller congregations it may be advisable not to publish the total amount of financial support given each month. It can be found out so easily who is being supported, as every one may know every one else. There is, of course, no blame or stigma attached to being financially assisted. The assistance comes from the Great Shepherd who in this manner looks after the needs of all His own. It is a privilege for the congregation and for the deacons when they are allowed to help the needy of whom the Saviour said that we shall always have them with us. It would be a loss to the church if it were no longer enabled to show mercy and compassion in this manner.
On the other hand, the honour and dignity of those who receive assistance should be preserved as much as possible. When financial assistance
is given in cash, a receipt should be signed. This receipt should be destroyed after the disbursement has been verified by two brothers and has been properly recorded in the books as a legitimate disbursement. In case assistance is passed on by means of a cheque, the cheques should bear only the account number and no further identification, such as “Welfare Fund,” or the like. After the amount has been properly verified and recorded, the cheques should be destroyed as well.
Fortunately we have come a long way from the time when the needy had to go to a certain place where the deacons “held office,” there to receive the amount set aside for them or to receive assistance in natura. Speaking of assistance “in natura,” we mention that this may be an even better way of providing than giving money. Especially if poverty is largely due to mismanagement or the inability to control expenses, it would be advisable if the deacons inquired about the need for food, clothing or other necessities of life and then went and purchased what is needed either personally or with the help of someone whom they engaged to put the family back on its feet.
According to Need
The more difficult part of the deacon’s task is to determine how much and in what manner financial support should be given. It is possible that a family is afraid that it will ask too much and thus continues under the pressure of lack of necessary things. On the other hand, there may be some who go overboard the other way.
Deacons need much wisdom, not only with the decision how much support should be given, but also with keeping an eye on the manner in which the support is being used. We would wholeheartedly disapprove of it if — as reportedly was done sometimes in the past — a deacon lifted the lid of the cookie jar and berated the family for having purchased a better grade of cookies. If, however, a deacon saw that a family that was being assisted loaded its grocery cart with TV. dinners, he definitely would be remiss in his duty if he did not take this up with the family and did not point out to them that they, too, have the responsibility of using God’s gifts wisely and of living economically. When support is given, a family does not have to make do with the lowest standard of living possible; at the same time it should also consider the other families in the church through whom Christ provides for their needs.
Should it be demanded that the family first live off the equity in their house, or first must use up their savings before the deacons may come with support? There are two considerations which would appear to forbid this. The one is more fundamental and the other one is more practical. As for the first one, we are to let ourselves be guided by the manner in which the Lord instructed His people in Old Testament days regarding property and freedom that returned to His children when they had lost it for one reason or another. This care of the Lord’s appears to lead us into the direction of letting needy members retain what equity they have. The honour and self-respect of the members should be preserved, and when they are still able to provide partially for their needs, they should be enabled to continue doing this. The
“pressure of poverty” of which our Form speaks would not be alleviated but rather increased if members were told that they first have to kill the goose that lays the — not golden but — small eggs.
Our second consideration is of a practical nature, although closely connected with the first one. Deacons are there not only to alleviate but also to prevent poverty as much as they are able to. A stitch in time saves nine, it is said. Poverty would not be prevented but rather increased if it were demanded that every source from which at least some income is being derived be discarded. Besides, ultimately the burden on the congregation would become greater when also the primary sources have dried up. It is hard to see how anyone would benefit from such a course of action.
If the deacons are to acquaint themselves with existing difficulties, it is mandatory that they visit the families in their section. Only in this manner can they gather the necessary information. Their visits are different from those by the elders, and should be conducted in a different manner. At no time are the deacons in competition with the elders.
When they come to distribute Christ’s gifts, they are to see to it that they also “encourage and comfort with the Word of God those who receive the gifts of Christ’s love.” But when they just visit members with the purpose of discovering where there are gifts or whether there is need, it is not necessary at all that they conduct a visit in the same manner as the elders conduct them. Most likely gifts as well as needs are more readily discovered when the visit is conducted in an informal manner.
If they discover pressure because of “sickness, loneliness, or poverty,” they will, of course, open God’s Word and approach the throne of grace in prayer of intercession. It is not necessary at all that this procedure becomes a regular part of their visit.
If anywhere, then here it becomes evident how much elders and deacons need each other and how much they can benefit from each other’s experiences and “discoveries.” These offices complement each other, and, with both elders and deacons taking heed and care of the flock, the congregation will experience that the unity is promoted and will more and more enjoy the fellowship in the Holy Spirit which it experiences so clearly at the table of the Lord.