ARTICLE 21 – Task of deacons
The deacons shall perform the ministry of mercy. They shall acquaint themselves with difficulties; visit, help and encourage where there is need, and urge church members to render assistance where necessary. They shall collect and manage the gifts of the congregation, and, after mutual consultation, distribute them where there is need. The deacons shall give account of their policies and management to the consistory.
ARTICLE 23 – 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.
Der Diakenen eygen Ampt is / de Aelmoessen ende ander Armen-goederen neerstelijck te versamelen / ende de selve ghetrouwelijcken eñ vlijtighlijck naer den eysch der behoeftighen / beyde der Inghesetenê ende vreemden met ghemeyn advijs uyt te deelen / de benauden te besoecken ende te vertroosten / ende wel toe te sien dat de Aelmoessen niet misbruyckt en worden / waer van sy rekeninge sullen doen inden Kercken-Raet / ende oock (soo yemandt daer by wil zijn) voor der Gemeenten / tot sulcken tijdt als het de Kercken-Raet goet vinden sal.
De Diakenen sullen ter plaetse daer Huys-zitte-Meesters ofte andere Aelmoesseniers zijn / op de selve begeerê goede Correspondentie met hen te willen houden / ten eynde de Aelmoessen te beter uytghedeelt moghen worden onder de ghene die meest ghebreck hebben.
English translation of the Church Order of Dort (external link)
Decisions of FRCA synods
Topics related to this article
VanOene, With Common Consent
VanRongen, Decently and in Good Order
The view on task of the deacons is very much determined by the circumstances in a particular country or time. The view of a church federation on the office of deacon can often be found in its church order. In this article I will focus on the church order of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, and compare it with the church orders of the Canadian Reformed Churches, as well as the church order adopted in 1978 of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. And I will look at the Church Order of Dort, on which these three church orders have been based.
Church orders can change over time and in different countries. We don’t need to determine which one is better. Reformed Churches base themselves on the Bible, which gives direction regarding the office of deacon. However, it does not give a specific and detailed description of the work of deacons. It is in the freedom of the churches to fill this in, depending on their own circumstances.
Article 21 of the church order
The Church Order of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia is an almost literal translation of the church order of 1978 of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. The only real difference is the last sentence: “The deacons shall give account of their policies and management to the consistory.”
Canadian Reformed Churches
Article 23 of the church order of the Canadian Reformed Churches starts with “The specific duties of the office of deacon are to see to the good progress of the service of charity in the congregation”, whereas the Free Reformed church order just states that “The deacons shall perform the ministry of mercy.” The following sentences in both church orders say more or less the same, even though the wording is different. At the end, the Canadian church order adds that the deacons shall “promote with word and deed the unity and fellowship in the Holy Spirit which the congregation enjoys at the table of the Lord.” All in all, the Canadian church order follows more closely the form for the ordination and emphasises the task of the deacons to activate the congregation. On the other hand, the FRCA have added to the Canadian version of the form for the ordination in the charge to the deacons “to encourage the congregation to” before the words “do good to all men”. Also in the FRCA the importance of activating the congregation is well understood.
Church Order of Dort
The Church Order of Dort, in article 25, only speaks about the task of the Deacons as collecting, managing, and distributing the offerings of the congregation to the poor, and to visit and comfort them. It also has the words that the deacons shall give an account of their work to the consistory and to the congregation at a congregational meeting. The church order of the FRCA is the only one in which these words have been taken over, but limited to giving account to the consistory.
More than financial
The task of the deacons is now seen as broader than just give financial support. We live in a time that the government has taken responsibility for the support of the unemployed, disabled, elderly, the poor, and others who are needy. The need for financial support has decreased significantly as a result of that. Hence the deacons have time and opportunity to focus on the functioning of the communion of saints more broadly than only on the financial aspect of it. The form for the ordination mentions that nobody in the congregation shall live uncomforted under the pressure of sickness, loneliness, and poverty, as part of the ministry of mercy. Visiting the sick and the lonely is in the first place a task of the congregation and the deacons. In those days the churches had the official position of visitors of the sick. We can also read about the early Christian church as well as in the time of the Reformation, that women were actively involved in the care for women and were supervised by the deacons, or sometimes by the bishops (ministers). It certainly shows that deacons can and should involve members of the congregation and can even appoint committees or specific people for tasks in the congregation. An example is that deacons in the Netherlands have set up hospitals or care homes for the elderly and handicapped. Eucalypt and Fairhaven have been set up by the members of our churches working together, which is a very good example of communion of saints, but sometimes the deacons have to take initiative if they see a need.
Involve the congregation
Involving the congregation is receiving more attention in our time, compared to the seventeenth century. It is not that the congregation was not involved in those days. Families in those days were much more dependent on each other and within communities it was often much better visible or known who needed help. The change of our society and the increasing individualism has made the extra attention for the involvement of the congregation necessary. It also is Biblical. We read in the Old Testament that Israel was told to be active in looking after those in need. Not only in bringing the tithes once every three years to the gates of their towns, which were administered by the government in those days (the elders), but also in every-day life. That can still teach us that it is important that the entire congregation is active in caring for all those who are in need, whatever that need may be (not only financially).
Outside the household of faith?
The Church Order of Dort stipulated that the deacons should extend help to both residents and strangers. Residents were generally members of the church, strangers were not. This matter has raised quite some discussion in later time. With the increase of secularisation it is not realistic to expect that the poor outside the church can receive help from the deacons. The churches would not be able to afford it. The government has taken over that task. However, we still should consider the question whether the deacons can from time to time give help to non-members if that comes on their path. I know of several deaconries which have helped on an incidental basis those who came to the church doors and requested help. We must be careful with that, because there are many people who know how to abuse the system and visit all the churches for financial handouts. It is generally recommended that churches do not provide money but can help with food or other needs, as long as they can make sure these gifts are being used for the right purpose.
Give account to the consistory
Deacons must be accountable for their work, to the consistory as well as to the congregation. They should not inform the consistory or the congregation whom they are helping but give an account of the way in which they work and how they acquaint themselves of the need in the congregation. And also inform the congregation regularly of the amount of help that has been given, in general, and about the existing need, so that the congregation can adjust its giving.
However, it is important that the office of deacon is not seen as subordinate to that of elder and minister. The Bible speaks about elders and deacons as two offices at the same level (or three offices if we see the teaching elder or minister as a separate office.)