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Deacons and the Poor in the Church

Currently, we are in the process of training and electing our first deacons at New Covenant. Consequently, I've had the privilege of studying, in a focused way, the nature and function of this important office. I have found careful biblical and historical research on this branch of ecclesiology to be exceedingly beneficial. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the office of deacon has received little attention throughout the centuries. Additionally, great disagreement exists--even within the Reformed Church--as to how we are to view the office of the deacon. One of the most helpful works I have stumbled across is John L. Girardeau's 1881 Southern Presbyterian Review article, "The Importance of the Office of Deacon." While dealing with many aspects of diaconal ministry, Girardeau offered a fascinating rationale for why God has not ordained the elimination of poverty in this life--and that He has not even done so within His church. He wrote:

"It will require no effort to prove the perpetual presence of the poor in the Church. Our Master determined that matter when he said that, although his bodily presence should for a season be withdrawn from the Church on earth, the poor should never be absent. “The poor you have always with you, but Me you do not have always.” We cannot know all his reasons for a dispensation, which we adore as righteous, wise, and merciful. In the ordinary course of his providence towards mankind in general, he allows distinctions to exist between the rich and the poor; and he does not see fit to obliterate them within the circle of his Church. They constitute a means of wholesome discipline for his people, in their earthly preparation for his heavenly service. But ignorant as we are of the whole case, we have one reason intimated by our Lord himself for this procedure of his providence. It would appear that he retains the poor in his Church as, in some sort, representatives of his earthly poverty, and in this regard, tests of his people’s love to him. He is pleased to identify himself with them, and will treat, in the final distribution of the rewards of grace, every tender office performed for their benefit as done to himself.

In that most affecting portraiture which he gives, in Matthew’s Gospel, of the processes of the last judgment, [Jesus] represents Himself, the diademed Judge upon the great white throne, as accounting every deed of kindness, however humble, which had been done to his poor brethren, as having been done to himself, and as furnishing the evidence of affection for him. “Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye did it unto me.” Jesus still walks in this vale of tears as personated by his poor and needy brethren. A cup of cold water given to a thirsty disciple is as if pressed to the parched lips of the suffering Son of Man. Now, diaconal ministration to the needs of the poor sustains to the Church as an organized society precisely the relation which the private offices of charity hold to the individual Christian. Contemplated, therefore, from this point of view, the deacon’s office assumes an importance which can only be measured by the Church’s love for Christ and by the awards of the last great day."1

Girardeau then went on to observe that the continual presence of the poor in the Church may actually be viewed as a benefit for the Church in God's wisdom. He explained:

"The making of stated and competent provision for its poor members is necessary to the spiritual, and to some extent the temporal, prosperity of the Church...No body of Christians can grow in the divine life who habitually neglect the cultivation of the grace of love, a grace which the Apostle Paul, in his glowing and eloquent description of it in the thirteenth chapter of first Corinthians, crowns as foremost among the three essential and abiding attributes of our holy religion. All the other graces condition the development of this, which is the fulfilling of the law on earth, and shall infuse a thrilling rapture into the praises of the blood-washed throng above. A Christian without love would be a body bereft of the soul. We have seen that, in the judgment of our Lord himself, this sacred principle receives its chief manifestation, so far as creatures are concerned, in offices of charity to the poor and needy members of his body. The Church, therefore, which shuts up the channel of diaconal ministration must expect to be dwarfed in the development of experimental religion."2

Girardeau's observations are not mere intellectual speculation. They have far reaching practical value--both for the members of the church as a whole as well as for the diaconate in particular. God has ordained diaconal ministry to help alleviate the burdens of those in need in His church. He has structured the government of His church in such a way that there would be men, called and uniquely gifted by Him, to oversee the care of those in need and to stir up this desire in the people of God. I would only add one further explanation about the perpetuity of poverty in this life. The Lord uses material poverty as an illustration of our spiritual poverty (Isaiah 55:1; Rev. 2:17). In this way, we learn more about His compassion, mercy and grace to us who, in our natural condition, are spiritually impoverished. This, in turn, serves to make us more thankful and dependent on Him for daily provisions of grace. The Lord Jesus uses poverty to teach us about His own poverty for our redemption; and, He uses this sad condition to illustrate our own spiritual poverty (2 Cor. 8:9). However, He chose not to obliterate all distinctions between rich and poor in the church in order that His people might have opportunity to show forth the Christian love for which they have been redeemed (Rom. 15:26; Gal. 2:10 and James 2). In HIs wisdom, God has appointed deacons in His church to encourage us to care deeply and generously for the poor and those in need (Deut. 15:11; Acts 6:1-6 and 1 Cor. 16:1-2). 1. John L. Girardeau, "The Importance of the Office of Deacon" in The Southern Presbyterian Review, vol. 32, no.1, 1881. pp. 7-8 2. Ibid., p. 9

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