For Elders and Deacons (11): Deacons – Ministers of Mercy (2)

In this eleventh article in his series, For Elders and Deacons, Harry G. Arnold writes: “Let our deacons be the conscience of the church to minister to the physical needs of a sorely distressed world. Thus, in conjunction with the ministry of the Word, the church will minister to the whole man—body and soul.” Arnold is pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church of Lansing, Illinois.

It was stated in the last article that the Reformed community of churches is basically agreed on the idea that the office of deacon originated with Acts 6, and that its central task is that of extending mercy in Christ’s name. Hence, deacons are the ministers of mercy in a Reformed church. They are called to serve and must prepare themselves to serve others in the name of Christ. This is a distinct honor and privilege to be able to represent Christ in His benevolent care of His own.

There are many ways in which deacons may serve others. ]n our minds we often limit the deacons’ service to that of rendering financial aid. No doubt this is a large part of their work of mercy to others. But that is not all that a deacon may do. This article will be concerned to point out some of the ways that deacons may serve others as Christ‘s ministers of mercy.

Be Aware of the Church Order – Since the Church Order regulates the church‘s “organization and activities,” every deacon ought to be aware of its provisions. It is especially important that every deacon concentrate his thoughts on article 25 of the Church Order. Article 25 sets forth the basic task and duties of the office of deacon. While only one article is devoted to the specific task of the deacon’s office, nevertheless, it sets forth a broad mandate which allows for a wide range of activity. It doesn’t take too much imagination to realize how much work could be carried on within the broad scope of the words of part a:

The task of the deacons is to administer mercy toward those who are in need, first of all toward those of the household of faith, but also toward the needy in general.

This task allows the deacons a wide open door through which to enter and carryon mercy in Christ‘s name.

Moreover, parts b and c of Article 25 expand the horizon of the deacons’ service by providing for the “use of Christian institutions of mercy,” and cooperation “with diaconates of neighboring churches when this is desirable for the proper performance of their task.” In addition to the above, the deacons “may also seek mutual understandings with other agencies in their community which are caring for the needy, so that the gifts may be distributed properly” (part d). Please note the change of wording in part band c from that of d. In parts b and c, the deacons shall do the things stipulated. In part d, the deacons may seek understandings with other agencies. Parts band c are mandatory aspects of the deaconswork. Part d is permissible where that is deemed wise and necessary in any given situation. It is not mandatory. Each situation must be judged on its own merits.

Be Concerned with Your Office – Another way in which the deacons may serve others better as Christ’s ministers of mercy is to be concerned with their office. By that I mean that sufficient time should be devoted to the task of being a deacon. There are many incidental assignments that consistory members are given which, strictly speaking, are not related to their office. These were mentioned in an earlier article (No.3) as matters that pertain to the “general government of the church.” These assignments often include those duties which devolve upon elders and deacons by virtue of the fact that they are also the trustees of the church. Thus, “corporation matters” become their concern as trustees rather than as officebearers.

Now while corporation matters cannot be neglected, they must not be allowed to overshadow the matters that pertain to the distinctive tasks of the offices. It seems all too obvious then that separate deacons’ meetings are desirable if the deacons are to concentrate properly on their office. This may not be necessary in a small congregation. But wherever possible the deacons ought to meet separately and devote themselves to their specific task of being ministers of mercy. The church and community will be the beneficiaries where the deacons give special attention to their specific office.

Be Imaginative and Aggressive – It is probably true that most of the assistance given by our deacons has been by way financial help to the poor. However, it is often supposed by some that the deacons must wait for the poor to come to them for aid. Dr. Peter Y. De Jong supplies a much needed antidote to this mistaken conception when he writes:

It is so regrettable that in many congregations the deacons seem to be of the opinion that the poor must apply for aid. This is contrary to the nature and spirit of the office instituted by our merciful and compassionate Highpriest. For surely our Savior did not wait with extending aid until men called on Him. Rather, He came to seek and to save that which was lost. (The Ministry of Mercy for Today, pp. 183–184).

It is proper for our deacons to be aggressive when they see or hear of a need. Let them investigate and consider if their ministry of mercy is required.

It is well that our deacons also be imaginative in today’s world. The ministry of mercy is not limited to paying for rent and groceries, physical and mental health care, and the like. No, people have a variety of needs today and our deacons are the ones who serve others in behalf of Christ and His church. For example, with the decline (and sometimes the demise) of public transportation it is not uncommon for elderly people to need someone to take them to church, to the doctor, or to some other necessary appointment. Let our deacons consider how they may be of help. Again, many of our elderly may be in need of counsel and assistance with regard to finances. Social Security payments will only stretch so far. The church must sec to it that they do not suffer want of essential things for lack of money. Let our deacons give attention to this matter. Think also of the needs of parents raising children in today’s world where constant inflation eats away at people’s buying power. Is it possible that some children suffer lack of proper medical or dental care, or even Christian school education, because of their parentsinability to provide these? Shouldn‘t these be matters for our deacons to consider? Just to mention one more example, consider the great need of many of today’s youth for mental and emotional stability. Some may need the services of trained counsellors but cannot afford the expense. Surely, our deacons could be of great assistance in such cases. A little imagination on the part of our deacons and our churches will soon indicate that there is still much to be done to assist the needy in the name of Christ.

Be Alert to Varied Needs – It is altogether proper for any member of the congregation to bring to the attention of the deacons someone elses needs. Dr. De Jong put it this way:

The presence of poverty and need in the congregation may be brought to the attention of the diaconate by the pastor, the elders or members of the congregation as well as by the investigation of the deacons themselves. Instead of being resented by those who are charged with the work of mercy, this should be greatly appreciated (Ibid., p. 184).

There is no doubt that our deacons have been helped greatly in their work over the years by the members of the congregation who have informed them of someone’s special need. It is my judgment that our elderoften have discovered needy families through the process of family visitation. By referring this information to the deacons they have been of assistance to them in their work of mercy.

Likewise it is altogether proper for the deacons to be alert to the varied needs of the people to whom they minister. All people do not need assistance in terms of dollars and cents, yet they do need the “counsel and assistance” of our deacons. Let the deacons be alert to this matter that even when direct material assistance is not required, there may still be the need for counsel with a family or an individual.

It is especially important that deacons be alert to identifying spiritual needs that ought to be referred to the elders. Here they can render great assistance to the undershepherds of the church by calling to their attention the needs of people who may require spiritual counsel by the elders. It has been my experience that our deacons have been of great help to the elders in this area of church life. Let the deacons continue to be alert to discover the varied needs of people and then see to it that those needs are properly met.

Be Men of Vision – We live in a rapidly changing world and often new ways of meeting people’s needs have to be found. Our Christian Reformed Church realized this when it organized the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee in 1962. The care of the needy is not to be restricted to the people of our local congregations, nor even to Christian peoples outside of our congregation. The whole of mankind is sick and sore distressed. The church must be concerned to minister to all people. Of course, the people of God have the priority in our ministrations. But we must not forget the injunction: “let us work that which is good toward all men” (Gal. 6:10). Let our deacons minister to their own churches and communities, while keeping in view the broad vision of a world in need. In cooperation with our Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, milch mercy can be ministered by our deacons in the name of Christ.

As the CRWRC seeks to show diaconal vision on the denominational level, so our deacons ought to show diaconal vision on the local level. There is nothing wrong with finding new ways to minister in  Christ‘s name. It would be altogether legitimate for our deacons to operate a clothing distribution agency if its given neighborhood could be served by it, provided the Christian character of mercy could be manifested. For numbers of years many of our city missions have supplied food and clothing to the indigent in connection with the ministry of the Word. Would it not be a happy union of the ministry of the Word and the ministry of mercy, if our deacons were involved in such projects of material assistance? The fact that the church‘s first task is to preach the gospel is no excuse to neglect the ministry of mercy. And if one diaconate cannot carryon a project with its own resources, the Church Order allows for consultation and cooperation with other diaconates.

Let our deacons be the conscience of the church to minister to the physical needs of a sorely distressed world. Thus, in conjunction with the ministry of the Word, the church will minister to the whole man’s body and soul.

Let our deacons have a vision as broad as that of Christ Himself . . . “Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me” (Matt. 25:40).