Taking Heed to the Flock: A Study of the Principles and Practice of Family Visitation

Peter Y. de Jong, Ph. D.

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 1, no. 2 (April 1992)


Chapter II: The History of Family Visitation

“Any church which forsakes the regular and uniform for the periodical and spasmodic service of God, is doomed to decay; any church which relies for its spiritual strength and growth entirely upon seasons of ‘revival’ will very soon have no genuine revivals to rely on. Our holy God will not conform His blessings to man’s moods and moral caprice. If a church is declining, it may need a ‘revival’ to restore it;but what need was there of its declining?”

—T. L. Cuyler, Recollections

“The student is to read history actively and not passively,to esteem his own life the text, and books the commentary. Thus compelled, the muse of history will utter oracles as never to those who do not respect themselves.”

—Emerson, Essays

During the first years of the Protestant Reformation the struggle for establishing the true Biblical religion was fierce indeed. Among the bitter calumnies which the reformers had to endure, there was none more contrary to the truth and more grievous to their own hearts, than that they were subverting the good order of Christís church by insisting upon innovations.

In his beautiful essay on The Necessity of Reforming the Church, presented to the Imperial Diet at Spires (A. D. 1544), Calvinís facile pen gives the lie to this accusation. He writes, “Therefore, let there be an examination of our whole doctrine, of our form of administering the sacraments, and our method of governing the Church; and in none of these three things will it be found that we have made any change upon the ancient form, without attempting to restore it to the exact standard of the Word of God” (Calvinís Tracts, Vol. 1, p. 146).

This attempt has been at once the glory and the strength of the Reformed churches.

More than any other Christian group which arose in those turbulent years, the Reformed sought consciously and consistently to model their church life after the apostolic pattern. Thus in distinction from almost every other party in Christendom they have also maintained and defended the practice of family visitation throughout the years. By pursuing this course of contact with the families of the congregation, the ministers and elders insisted that they were not introducing something new but rather reviving a practice which dated back to the early church. Therefore it is profitable for us, too, to give some attention to the origin and roots of this common practice among us.

Supervision in the Early Church

Already very early in church history we meet with a practice which in some respects may be considered the antecedent of our Reformed family visitation.

Both Clement of Alexandria and Cyprian in their writings offer proof that in their days the officers of the churches visited the members in their homes with some degree of regularity. So too the Apostolic Constitutions, when describing the work of the bishop, mention specifically the duty of taking heed to the flock, which included not only seeking those who had gone astray but also encouraging those in the faith who had given no offense because of public sins.

From these and other examples it is evident that the first fathers of the churches did not deem the public instruction given in the church at the time of worship sufficient to meet the demands of spiritual life. They sought to supplement the preaching with a type of spiritual care in which the members were contacted in their homes. Although because of the situation which obtained in those days the emphasis soon fell almost exclusively on the work of discipline, many examples of pastors who took a deep and abiding interest in the needs of their people may be mentioned.

After some centuries the church began to shift the emphasis in the spiritual nurture of the flock. The sacraments were stressed as the chief means of grace and in connection with this a new view of the significance of the visible church arose which did great damage to the work of visitation. Yet for some centuries the two views continued side by side.

Chrysostom, the most distinguished Christian orator of Constantinople, insisted that in spite of the many difficulties which this task worked, it was essential to the welfare of the churches. Many, he realized, desired such visits by the officers of the church only because they flattered personal pride. Yet in spite of the danger of ministering to and feeding such sinful desires, he felt that all the members should be contacted in their homes. Gregory the Great also understood the value of having the pastors know the conditions and needs of all the members of the flock. In his writings Ambrose of Milan placed a high value on the work, claiming that by giving such guidance to individual souls the priest is fulfilling the work which he began at the administration of the sacraments in public worship. One of the chief regrets of Augustine, the best known of all these early church fathers, was that he had not given more consideration to pastoral duties, particularly those of shepherding the souls entrusted to his care.

Decline among the Roman Catholics

Soon after Augustineís day a new theory of the church and the sacraments made rapid headway.

These novel theories concerning the means of grace taught that grace could be wrought in the soul in a mechanical way through a faithful external use of the sacraments. Such a conception naturally left no place for the spiritual care of the members of the church. Thus this work gradually came to be entirely neglected. The glory and power of the mother church rather than the spiritual development of the members was the paramount aim of the priests. The method which was deliberately chosen to attain this goal was the private confessional, by means of which the church was better able to make her members obedient sons and daughters.

The early church, as has been demonstrated conclusively by those who have made careful study of the matter, knew of no private confessional. Indeed, its discipline required a type of public confession of sins and penance, but this differed radically from the practices which became current during the Middle Ages.

Private confession to a priest had its beginnings in the monasteries and cloisters, and only gradually did it force its way into the churches. Nowhere did it receive more wholehearted support than among the Irish monks who as early as the sixth century extended its use to the laity. Here we find also traces of the earliest penitential books, in which proper satisfactions were assessed for certain sins committed.

In many quarters the opposition to this novel practice continued for years. During the reign of Charlemagne there were many places in France which opposed it vehemently. However, the growing influence of the monks presaged the final victory for such private confession. By 1215 the practice had become well-nigh universal, so that the Fourth Lateran Council was able without any significant opposition to legislate on the matter. When once it became canon law, the domination of the priests over the people became an accomplished fact.

As a result of this new practice every Roman Catholic manual on pastoral theology speaks at length of the confessional and its place in the life of the church. It is the heart of the spiritual care which the church exercises over the lives of her members. Everyone is obliged to use the confessional as one of the necessary means of grace. There must, of course, be the reasonable assurance that the individual member is ready and willing to confess all, that he is moved by a genuine repentance and that he purposes to mend his ways. Thereupon, either by listening to the penitent or asking him certain questions, the priest receives the confession. After this is accomplished, he must be competent to judge on the matter of the seriousness of the sins confessed as well as on the restoration which the sinner must make to God, his neighbor and the church. After all this is done, he may by virtue of the juridical authority vested in him pronounce the absolution and impose the penalty. The last consists generally of fasting and prayers and giving alms. At first the aim of this new method of spiritual care was the development of the spiritual life of the believers, but gradually the emphasis fell on the churchís prerogative of governing the lives of the members. To execute this matter properly many directives and manuals have been issued during the last centuries which have tended to simplify the work and lighten the responsibility of the individual priest.

Pastoral Care Among the Protestants

For the many hundreds of thousands who during long years had been in spiritual bondage to this system, the Protestant Reformation was the dawn of a new day. Indeed, the reformers did not introduce anything essentially new. Their aim was to purify the church of all the excrescences of the Middle Ages and thus to return to the faith and practice of the apostolic churches. In doctrine, government and worship they broke radically with the deformations which had characterized the life of Christendom for centuries and brought a real measure of spiritual liberty to the people of God. This work was begun by Luther and his disciples and reached its richest development under Calvin and those who followed him.

In many respects the Lutheran Reformation was still partial and inconsistent. As spiritual leader Luther himself sought to retain as many of the forms and traditions as possible by merely removing the vicious elements and improving what remained. The question which he and others raised was not whether the practice under discussion enjoyed solid Scriptural foundation but rather whether it could contribute to the spiritual edification of the church. This approach was also taken when considering the question of the pastoral care of Godís people. As a result private confession was retained, although it differed widely from the form current in the Roman church. Early Lutheran confessional writings make mention of it repeatedly and insist that the individual must know whether or not he enjoys the absolution.

During the period of the Thirty Yearsí War (1618-1648), when most of Germany was hopelessly divided and tragically devastated, the Lutheran churches experienced a period of spiritual poverty and decline. At that time private confession fell into disuse and never again occupied a place of importance in the churches. However, the public service of confession was still continued as part of the proper preparation for the celebration of the Lordís Supper. Although many early as well as later Lutheran pastors set a worthy example in their faithfulness in visiting the sick and needy, the church never introduced official family visitation. The chief cause for this neglect must be undoubtedly sought in the Lutheran neglect of the office of ruling elder in the congregations.

Family Visitation Among the Reformed

At the outset the Reformed churches under the able leadership of John Calvin broke completely with the system of confessional and the sacrament of penance. They returned to the time-honored practice of visiting the members in their homes. This they also developed to a much higher degree than ever before in the history of the Christian church, no doubt as a result of carefully maintaining the office of the ruling elders in every congregation.

Already at an early date Calvin emphasized that pastoral work included far more than official preaching of the gospel. He insisted on faithfulness on the part of all the pastors in visiting the members of the church, since he realized how beneficial this work was for the development of spiritual life and the edification of the church. Those Reformed leaders who came to Geneva during that time and saw the progress which had been made began to follow the same pattern of church care. Thus the practice of family visitation became current wherever Reformed churches were established.

In Geneva the work was carried on with great regularity. Four times a year, before each celebration of the Lordís Supper, all the members were to be visited in their homes by the ministers and the elders. Special attention was given to the young people, in order that they might prepare themselves for profession of their faith and thus receive the right to use the Lordís Supper. Some have argued that all this was merely part of the iron-clad discipline which Calvin imposed on the town. However, this assertion rests upon a double misunderstanding. First of all, family visitation was regarded as definitely part of the churchís calling towards her members. It had little if anything to do with the civil government of the city. Then too, the reformers made a careful and judicious distinction between family visitation and church discipline. The purpose of the former was never to pry into the hearts of the individuals but rather to exhort and stimulate the believers to a life of sanctification in all its parts. Especially the churches in the Netherlands and Scotland have sought to follow this same practice diligently, in some groups to our very day.

It is therefore a mistaken notion to argue that our Reformed fathers, having rid the churches of the confessional, felt the need of some substitute and hence introduced family visitation. In no sense of the word is the latter a substitute for the former. Rather, in their heroic attempt to purify the church of Christ of unscriptural practices they returned to the Bible and found there a solid foundation for this type of spiritual work. Too long had the church through its leaders ignored an important aspect of her calling. And only by restoring and maintaining the proper spiritual contact between the churchís officers and her members were they able to rejoice in an evident revival of spiritual life in the congregations. (Next issue: The Spiritual Purpose of Family Visitation).


Dr. P. Y. de Jong has served during all of his long ministry in the Christian Reformed Church. He was at one time a professor at Calvin Seminary, and more recently helped to organize Mid-America Reformed Seminary. In the intervening years he has served as pastor in several CRC congregations. We are grateful to him for permission to use this valuable material. Readers will note that Dr. de Jong uses the terminology familiar to Reformed churches of Dutch origin. A footnote is given for any of these that might need a word of explanation.

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