For Elders and Deacons (10): Deacons – Ministers of Mercy (1)

In this tenth article in his series, For Elders and Deacons, Rev. Harry C. Arnold writes: “It is very clear that the Reformed church views the task of the deacons as that of ministering to the needy. While the members of the household of faith receive the priority in this ministry of mercy, there is no exclusion of the needy in general from this ministry.” Rev. Arnold is pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church of Lansing, Illinois.

Article 2 of our Church Order states: “The offices instituted by Christ in His church are those of the minister of the Word, the elder, and the deacon.” Since some attention has already been given to the minister of the Word and the elder, let us now focus our thoughts on the deacon.

It ought to be said, first of ali, that all Christian churches recognize the office of deacon as a permanent office in the church along with that of the office of elder (which includes our ministers). James Bannerman tells us:

The original institution of these offices in the New Testament Church, the appointment of distinct men to exercise the duties of them, and the separate names, commission, and authority assigned to them, are matters lying so conspicuously and markedly on the surface of Scripture, as to have called forth a very general acknowledgment from all parties of the existence and permanent standing in the Christian Church of two orders of presbyter, or elder and deacon. (The Church of Christ, Vol. 2, pp. 296–297 ).

However, while all Christian churches acknowledge the office of deacon, all are not agreed on the task of deacon. Hence, there is sometimes confusion in our minds as to exactly what the deacon is to do. Different denominations use the deacons for different purposes. It is not surprising, therefore, if some of this ambivalence of thinking—with respect to the deaconstask—should carry over into our own attitudes toward the office. Dr. Peter Y. De Jong points out the way that different denominations view the task of the deacons. He writes:

There are deacons, chiefly in the Presbyterian and Reformed churches, charged with the task of relieving the needy of Christ’s flock. In other denominations, such as the Congregational and Baptist, they are regarded as assistants of the pastor who aid him in the spiritual supervision of the congregation. In the hierarchical churches, especially the Roman Catholic and Episcopal, the deacons have been invested with the power to preach, baptize and assist the higher clergy at the time of public worship. (The Ministry of Mercy for Today. p. 43.)

Further, even within our own Reformed community of churches there has been much discussion in late years of the origin, nature, and task of the diaconate. Both in America and Europe, increasing attention has been given to the place of the diaconate in the life of the church. This is good since eventually a clarification of thought should come about by the discussion.

In general, it may be said that within the Reformed community of churches there is a basic consensus that the central task of the deacon is that of extending mercy in the name of Christ. Yet even within this basic consensus there is a wide difference of opinion as to how the deacons must accomplish that task. In this article we shall limit ourselves to the origin, nature, and task of the deacon.

The Origin of the Office – It is true that the New Testament tells us very little about the origin of the office of deacon. It has been generally assumed in the history of the church that the choosing of “the seven” in Acts 6 is the basis for what we have come to know as the diaconate. However, there are those who question this identification of the two. There have been prominent leaders in the church who believe that Acts 6 records the institution of the eldership. More recently, Hans Kung, a Roman Catholic theologian, has come out in support of this view. He writes:

The seven seem to have had a much greater authority than the deacons mentioned by Paul; in addition to caring for the poor, they preach and baptize (cf. Acts 8:16 and 40). . . . And it seems more reasonable to identify them with the later presbyters or elders than with the deacons. (The Church, p. 401.)

I cannot agree with this interpretation. It seems to me that Acts 6:1–4 is a record of the institution of the diaconate, or at least its precursor. Luther and Calvin both turned to this passage for the foundation of the office of deacon. For myself I find Bishop Lightfoot‘s argumentation most convincing for the identification of Acts 6 with the institution of the diaconate. He writes concerning this passage:

I have assumed that the office thus established represents the later diaconate; for though this point has been much disputed, I do not see how the identity of the two can reasonably be called into question. . . The functions moreover are substantially those which devolved on the deacons of the earliest ages, and which still in theory, though not altogether in practice, from the primary duties of the office . . . . Lastly, the tradition of the identity of the two offices has been unanimous from the earliest times. (“The Christian Ministry,” in Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, p. 108.)

It is clear that historically the Reformed Churches have Viewed Acts 6 as the origin of the office of deacon. Our Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons clearly identifies Acts 6 with the origin of the office of deacon; and then adds: “Since that time the Church has recognized this service as a distinct office.” This appears to be a legitimate conclusion from the work assigned the seven and from the tradition of the church which identifies the seven with the office of deacon. As a matter of fact, only if Acts 6 is granted to be the origin of the diaconate do we have a description of its function. For the only places where the office of deacon is mentioned in Scripture simply name the office (Philippians 1:1), or describe the qualifications for those who would hold the office (I Timothy 3). Hence, the Reformed churches ought to maintain that which carries with it the weight of history, namely, that Acts 6 records the origin of the office of deacon.

The Essence of the Office – The deacon is essentially one who serves. The essential character of the office may be determined by the name diakonos which means “a servant” or one who ministers to another. The word is not limited to those who hold the office of deacon. The apostles, for example, were also called ministers as also was Christ Himself. To state it in the words of Martin Monsma:

In general it may be said that in Scripture the word diakonos refers either to the ministry of the Word or the ministry of mercy. (See Matt. 25: 44; Mark 1:13; Luke 8:3; Acts 1:27; Acts 6:4; II Cor. 4:1; Col. 4:17.) In all these passages the word diakonos or a word derived from it is used.

Today we still speak of the servants of the Word as ministers of the Gospel. As a rule they are simply called ministers. These officebearers, on the other hand, who in a special way are required to show mercy, are never called by this name, although the word deacon (diakonos) signifies a minister. The name deacon, therefore, tells us that he is a minister, a minister of mercy. (The Revised Church Order Commentary, p. 102.)

That the deacon is a minister of mercy accords well with the very origin of his office which was “to serve tables.” While the office itself was regarded as extremely noble, and important enough to require men of exemplary qualifications, yet it was a service ministry and a “help” to the apostles. Thus, the Reformed churches have always viewed the office of deacon as one of ministering to the material needs of God’s people. This is beautifully expressed in the words of the Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons as follows:

The office of deacon is based upon the interest and love of Christ in behalf of His own. This interest is so great that He deems what is done unto one of the least of His brethren as done unto Him, thus appointing the needy to represent Himself in our expression of sympathy and benevolent service on earth.

Somewhere along the line in the history of the early church, the office of deacon became deformed. That is, it was pressed out of shape from its original nature as a ministry of mercy and was made into a spiritual ministry; an apprenticeship, so to speak, to the priesthood. Calvin complains against this abuse of the diaconate by the Roman church of his day when he writes:

Similarly, when they consecrate deacons, they do nothing about their true and proper office, but ordain them only for certain rites concerned with chalice and paten. (Institutes, 4.5.4, p. 1088.)

His complaint in another place is that the deacons no longer care for the poor and needy, but rather spend money—that ought to be given to the poor—on church property (Ibid., 4.15.16). Thus, the office became that of an assistant to the priests, and an administrative office for the care of church property.

The Reformed churches, under Calvin‘s direction, restored the office of deacon to its rightful character, namely, a ministry of mercy to the needy. In fact, Calvin believed that there were essentially two kinds of deacons: those “who distribute the alms,” and “those who had devoted themselves to the care of the poor and sick” (Ibid., 4.3.9, p. 1061). In the course of time, the Reformed churches came to emphasize that the essence of the deacon‘s office is to assist the needy. The actual care of the poor and sick has been left to other agencies, such as hospitals and institutions of mercy, as a rule. Nevertheless the deacon remains the minister of mercy in Christ’s church.

The Task of the Office – There are two places where the Reformed churches have set forth the task of the deacon. The one is the Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons and the other is the Church Order. The deacons’ task as set forth in the Form is as follows:

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.

Deacons should note carefully that the church has assigned a large task to them. Sometimes the complaint is heard that our deacons don’t have enough to do. If that is so, then it is only because they have not fully executed their mandate. Theirs is not merely a humanitarian distribution of gifts to the needy; but rather a ministry of mercy in Christ’s name. Hence, they are to seek to prevent poverty, which is a large task in itself. But, above all, they are to become adept at relieving the distressed “both with kindly deeds and words of consolation and cheer from Scripture.” That the Christian Reformed Church takes this task seriously is discerned from the questions regarding the deacons which are to be asked at church visitation. Synod has prescribed that some of the questions to be asked shall be: “7. Do they minister to the distressed with kindly deeds and words of consolation from Scripture?” To be a good deacon—a minister of mercy—one must know the Bible and be able to use it. Like the early deacons, our deacons ought to be “men of good report, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3). Such men will know how to apply the Scriptures in ministering to the needy.

The Church Order is in basic agreement with the above statement regarding the deacons’ task when it states in Article 25a:

The task of the deacons is to administer Christian mercy toward those who are in need, first of all toward those of the household of faith, but also toward the needy in general. In executing this task they shall diligently collect, administer, and distribute monies and other gifts, and shall serve the distressed with counsel and assistance.

It is very clear that the Reformed church views the task of the deacons as that of ministering to the needy. While the members of the household of faith receive the priority in this ministry of mercy, there is no exclusion of the needy in general from this ministry. Surely, if believers are taught to feed their “enemy” (Rom. 12:20), then the church’s ministers of mercy ought to care for the needy in general, even though they be outside of the church.

In order to accomplish their task, the deacons must have adequate funds. It is their duty to request sufficient offerings that the needs of the poor can be met. When funds are insufficient the deacons must not allow the poor to be neglected, but rather request more help from the congregation. The congregation must occasionally be reminded of the charge it received when the deacons were installed:

Provide the deacons generously with the necessary gifts for the needy. remembering that in so much as you do it unto the least of these His children, you do it unto Him.

Deacons, yours is a high and holy calling. You represent Christ in His care of the needy. You are ministers of mercy. Exercise yourselves as men called “of God‘s church, and consequently of God Himself,” to your holy office. Seeking to fulfill your office with all godliness of example, it will be true of you as the Form for Ordination says:

Thus conducting themselves as worthy representatives of Christ’s loving care, and faithfully ministering in His Name to those who are the beloved of God, they gain themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.

May God give us to see in the ministry . . . of the deacons the care and love of the Savior.”