The Poor Relieved and Comforted - Belgic Confession, Article 30
by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of Limerick Reformed Fellowship in the Republic of Ireland
Article 30: We believe, that this true Church must be governed by that spiritual policy which our Lord hath taught us in his Word; namely, that there must be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God, and to administer the sacraments; also elders and deacons, who, together with the pastors, form the council of the Church: that by these means true religion may be preserved, and the true doctrine everywhere propagated, likewise transgressors punished and restrained by spiritual means: also that the poor and distressed may be relieved and comforted, according to their necessities. By these means everything will be carried on in the Church with good order and decency, when faithful men are chosen, according to the rule prescribed by St. Paul in his Epistle to Timothy.
Ephesians 4:28: “… Let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.”
Poverty is a reality in this fallen world. The unbelieving world imagines that with enough social programs they will be able to eradicate poverty. Jesus Christ said that there would always be poverty (John 12:8). God has always commanded that His people show a concern for the poor. However, what many Christians have not noticed is that the primary concern for the poor must be for the poor among the people of God. In Israel, God commanded that the poor brethren (fellow Israelites within the covenant community) be cared for by the generosity of fellow Israelites. There were various provisions in the Law. For example, the poor could glean the fields of the rich; the poor could be “redeemed” and the sacrificial offerings were less demanding for the impoverished (Lev. 19:10-11, 25:25; Deut. 15:7-11; Lev. 5:7). When the prophets preached against the exploitation of the poor by the rich, they had primarily the poor within Israel in mind (Amos 5:11-12, 8:4-6). In the New Testament, the apostle Paul did not seek to help all the poor of the Roman Empire. He did help his neighbour when opportunity arose. Paul’s primary concern, however, (apart from the preaching of the Gospel, of course) was the poor in the church. To that end, Paul organized collections for the impoverished saints in Jerusalem (Acts 24:17; Rom. 15:26; II Cor. 8-9; Gal. 2:10). Both James and John make the same application to the poor in the congregations (James 1:27, 2:14-16; I John 3:17-18). This does not mean that the church refuses to help the poor who are not members of the congregation, but it does mean that the primary focus of the work of the deacons is the poor of Christ.
The poor in the church of Jesus Christ must not be despised or neglected. They must not be viewed as a burden or a nuisance. It must be seen as a great privilege for us to help the poor for in so doing we serve Jesus Christ Himself (Matt. 25:34-40). But at the same time we must not be naïve. It is not the Christian’s calling to give money to everyone who claims to be poor. This is where the deacons need much wisdom. Paul gives some principles to Timothy in his first epistle. First, the primary responsibility for the poor within the congregation is with their own family. Paul has sharp words for Christians who neglect their impoverished relatives. The church should not be charged with their financial support (5:3-2, 8, 16). Second, Paul insists that people work, and those who refuse to work may not eat. Idleness and dependency by the poor are to be discouraged (Eph. 4:28; II Thess. 3:10-12). Indeed, it is good for the deacons to encourage budgeting, thrift and stewardship for often poverty is caused by mismanagement of funds. Third, those who are poor indeed must be helped, not only financially and generously, but with comfortable words of Scripture.
The deacons are not mere social workers. They are not like the clerks in the social welfare office of the secular state. They are the official representatives of the merciful Christ who comes to relieve the poor in the churches. Their work is as spiritual as that of the ministers and elders.
Let them be received as such.