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. 3 (September 1992)

Chapter III: The Scriptural Basis of Family Visitation

“The church is not only not bound to be guided by any other rule or standard, but is not at liberty to have regard to any other; as this would be virtually to withdraw herself from subjection to Christ’s authority, and voluntarily to submit to a foreign yoke. No mere laws or statutes of men—no mere regard to worldly or secular advantages—should ever regulate the conduct of the church of Christ, or of any section or branch of it. She should be guided solely by the revealed will of Christ, and she should ascertain what that will is by diligent and prayerful study of His word” (William Cunningham, Historical Theology).

Although it is both appropriate and valuable to know something about the history of the venerable custom of conducting family visitation, we who are Reformed realize full well that it is of far greater consequence to consider whether or not the practice has the approval of the Holy Scriptures.

For surely if this spiritual activity is rooted merely in the whims and fancies of men, it can accomplish little if any lasting good. Then those who engage in it are arrogating to themselves spiritual functions and powers which do not belong to them by right. Should purely practical concerns move the church to carry on this work, we are convinced that the practice could not long continue and much less carry away the indispensable blessing of God. Sound practice can result only from sound theory. Therefore if there is no Scriptural foundation for this work, the sooner we rid ourselves of it as an improper as well as an unnecessary encumbrance, the more readily the spiritual life of the congregation will develop in a wholesome direction.

The Biblical View of the Church

In order to answer the question under consideration it will be necessary first of all to have regard for what God’s Word teaches us concerning the church.

The Bible never wearies of informing us that the church is the spiritual body of the Savior. Paul in the epistle to the Ephesians speaks of “the church, which is his body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:22, 23). Her life is entirely bound up with Christ Himself, for He is “the Head, from whom all the body, being supplied and knit together through the joints and bands, increaseth with the increase of God.”

Reformed Christians have therefore always insisted that all the activities of the church must find their justification in the blueprints which God has provided for well-regulated congregational life. These are found only in His inspired Word. The church is not the product of the mind or will of man. Instead of believing that the organization owes her being to religiously-minded men and women who have voluntarily united themselves in a visible society, we confess that the church has been established and is maintained by Christ through His Holy Spirit (Colossians 2:19).

Thus we agree with the statement of the Belgic Confession, which reads, “We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by His blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit” (Article 27).

Likewise the Heidelberg Catechism in answering the question “What do you believe concerning the holy catholic church?” replies, “That the Son of God, out of the whole human race, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself, by His Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith, a Church chosen to everlasting life; and that I am, and forever shall remain, a living member thereof” (Lord's Day XXI, 54).

In order that those who are such members may attain to spiritual manhood and womanhood, Christ has been pleased to institute the offices in His church. Through them as the usual means which He is pleased to employ, He works for their salvation.

Thus all the activities performed by them must be done in His name and according to his will. The work of ministers, elders and deacons is in a very real sense the work of Christ accomplished by them. They have been officially called and qualified for their task. And, as they engage in it, the members of the congregation must recognize in their labors of love and patience the ceaseless work of Christ on their behalf.

Is family visitation, then, based on a solid Scriptural foundation? In the light of the teaching of Holy Writ on the relation of Christ to His church, of the church to its officers, and of these officers to the Savior Himself, we firmly believe that it is.

Christ as Our Chief Shepherd

The Bible teaches us that the great work which Christ does on behalf of His church is basically pastoral. He is first and foremost the Great Shepherd of His sheep.

This very name, so rich in meaning and inexhaustible in comfort, is applied to Him in the benediction found at the close of the epistle written to the Hebrews. “Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant...”(Hebrews 13:20). The Savior refers to Himself similarly, “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd layeth down his life for the sheep” (2 John 10:11).

Such passages teach us that He has been sent by the Father into this world, in order that He might seek and save His own. As a faithful shepherd He brings them together into one flock and leads them by His Spirit and Word. With loving care and tenderness He watches over them all, lest any go astray. And when one has wandered from the safety of the fold, He leaves the ninety and nine to seek him who because of waywardness has forfeited the safety of the flock and is in danger of his life on the wild mountainsides of the world. Even as a shepherd by virtue of his calling is obligated to provide food and drink for the sheep, lead them into pleasant pastures and defend them against all enemies, so Christ as the Good Shepherd guarantees that all the needs of His own will be abundantly supplied. He has purchased His flock not with gold or silver or precious stones but with His life-blood. Therefore in life and death they are not their own but belong with both body and soul to Him.

That unique ownership of Christ is stressed in several of Paul’s epistles. We read, “For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (I Corinthians 6:20).

In the next chapter a similar exhortation is expressed, “Ye are bought with a price; be ye not the servants of men.” (I Corinthians 7:23). Thus in the sight of God He rules His people with perfect right. He alone is their Head and King, and the holy obligation of all who belong to His flock is to render constant and loving obedience to His will.

From this we must conclude that the church is in no position to rule and care for herself. It is both her glory and the guarantee of her safety that she belongs to another. In our days when we hear so often of the right of the church to make her own rules, how necessary it is to remember that the life of God’s people must be grounded entirely in the unique relationship which obtains between them and their Shepherd.

The Undershepherds Whom He Appoints

When we consider the Scriptural basis for family visitation, we must always bear in mind also the relation in which the members of the church stand to the officers. Since Christ has ascended into heaven, He has been carrying out His triple office from the place of highest glory and power at the right hand of the Father. This He does in a double way—not only through the immediate operation of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of those chosen to eternal life, but also mediately through human agents appointed by Himself in connection with the express choice of the members of the congregation themselves. These are the officers of the church. In distinction from the deacons, who also have certain pastoral duties to perform, it has pleased the Head of the church to charge the elders as undershepherds of the flock to watch for the souls. Paul speaks in this vein of the diversity of gifts which Christ has communicated to His people. “And He gave some to be apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11,12).

Likewise in the epistle to the Corinthians he counsels the believers to submit themselves to all who labor in the work of ministering to the saints. The attitude of those who enjoy this spiritual care may be inferred from the plain teaching of Hebrews 13:17, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit to them: for they watch in behalf of your souls, as they that shall give account; that they may do this with joy, and not with grief: for this were unprofitable for you.”

The same apostle charged Titus with setting in order those things in the church at Crete which were still lacking, thus appointing elders in every city that the churches might prosper. The story of the election of the first deacons speaks of the express choice of the believers in the matter, although the work was carried on under the direct supervision of the apostles as the rulers of the church.

No one can read the New Testament with any degree of care and without prejudice and still deny the necessity of officers in the church. In order that the work of edification may prosper, it is essential that the spiritual power of Christ be vested in certain men chosen to be leaders and examples of the flock. They must perform their duties in the spirit and according to the example of the Savior, being clothed with humility and always ready to serve, and it is incumbent upon the members of the congregation to submit themselves willingly and cheerfully to such government as unto the Lord.

The Responsibility of the Officers to Christ

Yet one more consideration calls for our attention. To establish the Scripturalness of family visitation, it will be necessary to see clearly the relation in which the officers as undershepherds stand to Christ. Contrary to the popular construction that elders and deacons are the servants of the church and its members, the Bible teaches that they are responsible not first of all to men but rather to the Exalted Savior Himself. This is the plain implication of Hebrews 13:17, where mention is made of the account which each must render of his work. Paul likewise teaches this, when he speaks of himself as being zealous with a godly zeal for the spiritual advancement of the church.

Indeed, because the members are anointed with the Holy Ghost to be prophets, priests and kings and must therefore perform the duties inherent in the office of all believers, the officers of the church are their servants. But as Paul plainly teaches, they are “your servants for Jesus’ sake.”

Knowing that their calling has come from Christ, the officers may often be compelled to act contrary to the wishes of many in the congregation, in order that they may be able to give a good account of their stewardship in this respect. They must watch carefully, as Peter warns, lest they arrogate to themselves powers which are not rightfully theirs or make misuse of the position to which they have been lawfully called of God. Never may they lord it over the flock in an attempt to force their will on the believers. But as they perform their work in the spirit of love and with patience, they must be aware that they are ambassadors of God and servants of Christ.

It is true that in this survey we have nowhere discovered a text which speaks directly of family visitation. However, beyond the shadow of a doubt we have seen that the officers must do far more than preach and teach the Word in public worship. They are undershepherds appointed by Christ, and these must watch for the souls of God’s people in the name of Christ Himself. This work demands careful supervision of the faith and conduct of those who name the name of our Lord. This they do in the name of Christ, because of the abiding interest which the Savior sustains in the welfare of His flock. Thus in approaching the believers the elders come not merely with good advice and counsel, but being clothed with authority they must instruct and admonish, warn and comfort. Their words, when conforming to the Word of God, come with the official authority of Him whom they represent; and all who refuse to submit to such good government in the church do violence to the welfare of their souls and cannot, while in such a state, experience the blessing of the Lord.

“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 to exhort the members of Christ’s body to show mercy; further, to gather and manage the offerings and to 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” (Articles 22 and 23 of the Church Order of the Canadian Reformed Churches).

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.

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