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. 2, no. 2 (April 1993)

Chapter V: The Necessity of Family Visitation

“To be a dutiful undershepherd is, in another view, to be a faithful sheep, following the Chief Shepherd whithersoever He goes. Pastors are not lords over God’s heritage, but mere servants of Christ, the great Head of the Church, bound to regard His will as their law, and His life as their model....

“It is well that our Lord made this plain by the words addressed to the representative man among the apostles, for Christians of active, energetic, and earnest natures are very apt to have very exaggerated ideas of their responsibilities, and to take on themselves the care of the whole world, and impose on themselves the duty of remedying every evil that is done under the sun.”

—A. B. Bruce, The Training of the Twelve

Perhaps many of us can hardly imagine that a Reformed Christian would ever doubt the value of a practice like family visitation which enjoys such a venerable history and is inspired by such a worthy spiritual aim.

And yet we have such individuals among us, no doubt many more than we are willing to acknowledge.

They contend, and their contention is not devoid of some merit, that the aims of this spiritual work can better be attained in other ways. It is therefore not without reason that we briefly look into the matter of the necessity of family visitation.

Preaching and the Christian Life

In arguing that this practice has long ago outlived its usefulness, these individuals put forth the claim that the triple purpose of encouraging faith, pointing out the believer’s Christian obligations and promoting the proper relation between the individual and the church can be attained and should be attained through the preaching of the gospel.

None of us will dispute that the preaching and teaching of God’s Word is paramount in the development of spiritual life. It is the chief means of grace, to which is appended the administration of the sacraments. The New Testament emphasizes the relation of the believer’s life to the means of grace upon many occasions. Already of the church at the time of Pentecost we read that “they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.”[1] By doing this, so we read further on in the same chapter, they received the benefits of eating their meat in gladness and singleness of heart and of enjoying favor with all the people. Likewise the writer to the Hebrews warns his readers against forsaking the public gatherings of God’s people which contributed greatly to the building up of their faith.

That the strengthening of spiritual life is most intimately bound up with a faithful use of the means of grace has always been believed and strongly urged by our Reformed fathers. In the Canons of Dort they propounded their view of the matter in this language:

As the almighty operation of God whereby He brings forth and supports this our natural life does not exclude but rather require the use of means by which God, of His infinite mercy and goodness, has chosen to exert His influence, so also the afore mentioned supernatural operation of God by which we are regenerated in no wise excludes or subverts the use of the gospel, which the most wise God has ordained to be the seed of regeneration and food of the soul. Wherefore as the apostles and teachers who succeeded them piously instructed the people concerning this grace of God, to His glory and to the abasement of all pride, and in the meantime, however, neglected not to keep them, by the holy admonitions of the gospel, under the influence of the Word, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical discipline; so even now should it be far from those who give or receive instruction in the Church to presume to tempt God by separating what He of His good pleasure has most intimately joined together. For grace is conferred by means of admonitions; and the more readily we perform our duty, the more clearly this favor of God, working in us, usually manifests itself, and the more directly His work is advanced; to whom alone all the glory, both for the means and for their saving fruit and efficacy, is forever due. Amen.[2]

Those therefore who reject the means of grace, specifically the proclamation of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments, do despite to their own souls and despise the gracious gifts of God.

Supervision as the Outreach of Preaching

Such an emphasis on the official preaching of the Word and all that which is connected therewith, how-ever, should in no way be understood to exclude official work of a more restricted and personal nature.

We have already pointed out that from the very beginning of the history of the Christian churches many leaders insisted that for the sake of the well-being of spiritual life something additional was necessary. That the work of the elders even in the apostolic age was not restricted to the public gatherings is plainly taught by James in the epistle which he wrote to the churches. “Is any among you sick? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: and the prayer of faith shall save him that is sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, it shall be forgiven him.”[3]

That the members of the congregation might receive this personal supervision by the elders, the early leaders of the Reformed churches enjoined a system of family visitation at their first synodical (broader) gathering. Monsma and Van Dellen in their valuable The Church Order Commentary offer the following translation of the article which governed that work:

They (the Elders) shall faithfully investigate whether they (the Church members) manifest themselves uprightly in walk and conduct, in the duties of godliness, in the faithful instruction of their households in the matter of family prayers, (morning and evening prayers) and such like matters; they shall admonish them to these duties with consideration, but also in all seriousness and according to conditions and circumstances; they shall admonish them to steadfastness, or strengthen them to patience, or spur them on to a serious minded fear of God; such as need comfort and admonition they shall comfort and admonish, and if need be they shall report a matter to their fellow Elders, who together with them are appointed to exercise discipline; and besides these matters they shall correct that which can be corrected according to the gravity of the sin committed; nor shall they neglect, each one in his own district, to encourage them to send their children to catechism.[4]

Although the Synod of The Hague (1586) deemed this article too long for incorporation into the Church Order and greatly abridged it, the chief contents were retained together with specific mention of official family visitation. In harmony with this our present Order in Article 23 insists that one of the duties of the elders is “for the edification of the Churches to visit the families of the Congregation, in order particularly to comfort and instruct the members, and also to exhort others in respect to the Christian Religion.” The last could be done both at the time of family visitation, if such occasions arose, or whenever any opportunity presented itself to them.

It is almost superfluous to add that all this work was regarded as an extension of the proclamation of the gospel. The officers of the church were called to bring to the attention of all those under their jurisdiction the holy demands of their Covenant God and to enjoin them to take seriously the demands of the gospel of salvation.

Arguments for the Necessity of Family Visitation

Is this work, then, necessary for the spiritual well-being of the church of Christ? We are deeply convinced that it is and, chiefly, for the following reasons.

First of all, by means of this custom the elders in the churches are able to carry out the mandate of God’s Word which insists upon the duty of watching for the souls of the believers and their children.

This part of their calling should weigh heavily upon all who are called to the sacred office. Christ has bought His church with His precious blood and guaranteed to her all the benefits of His atoning work. However, He has been pleased to leave her here for a while in a wicked and perverse world, in order that she might give a living witness to the power of divine grace. In this world there are countless enemies, appearing in many guises and forms, all of whom would, if possible, seek to lead her astray on the road of ruin. Although Christ is clothed with all authority and thus guards and defends His Church with His almighty power, He is pleased to make use of human agents as His representatives. They are to point out the enemies and present the antidote of the gospel. They must with perseverance and patience exhort all to a life of faith and obedience. They should, above all, constantly remind the people, who are bought with the price, of their heavenly inheritance and the rich grace of the Savior which alone is able to keep them standing in the evil day.

If this work is to be carried out effectively, the elders must know the spiritual conditions and needs of the flock over which they have been placed. How can this ever be done, unless there is some form of intimate contact between the officers and members of the congregation? One day each elder must give account of the stewardship entrusted to him, and in that certain knowledge none can fail to be deeply impressed with the seriousness and solemnity of his charge. Until it is proved that there exists some better form of supervision than that of family visitation, we do well not only to safeguard this institution for future generations by faithfully discharging it but also to improve it constantly by studying and discussing its nature and methods.

Moreover, if we understand the high spiritual purpose of Reformed preaching, we will appreciate the necessity of this practice at once.

We believe that the principles of the gospel never change. They are valid everywhere and under all circumstances. However, because spiritual conditions and needs vary greatly with individuals and times, the particular emphasis of the preaching will change occasionally.

All true gospel preaching consists of exposition and application, that is, of the explanation of the meaning of God’s Word and indicating the use to which it must be put in our lives. These are not two separate items in the sermon but closely related and interwoven as the objective and subjective aspects of the same gracious word of life. In order that the second element may rightly come to its own, it is essential that the elders who supervise the preaching of the minister also understand the condition of the congregation. Effective preaching must be specific and pointed. Glittering generalities cannot edify the people of God. The gospel must make a deep and permanent impression upon the lives of those who hear. Only then may we hope for the much-needed fruit.

But how shall the elders know whether or not the preaching is edifying and fruitful, unless they visit the members from time to time in their homes? Throughout the history of the churches it has been demonstrated that there is no better means to a rather adequate knowledge of the spiritual condition of God’s people than that presented by family visitation.

Let those who are called to carry on this work be guided by the spirit of love and helpfulness, indeed, having an eye for the reflection of God’s glory through the lives of the believers. Let the members of the church be ready and even eager to discuss the power of the gospel in the lives of themselves and the members of their families.

Then the spiritual level of the congregation may be discerned with a fair measure of accuracy, and the minister of the Word will be able to preach the gospel in such a way that with God’s blessing it will meet the needs of saints and sinners alike.

But if any now reply that this work of supervision can be better discharged by calling upon the members individually, we would answer that such a method can-not do justice to a very important aspect of spiritual life.

All life is organic, that is, it exists in relationship to other, similar lives. Thus spiritual life, too, cannot be treated in isolation. It is not to be considered a hot-house plant, some exotic bloom that flourishes only in the secret recesses of the heart. It must come to expression in daily contact with family, friends and associates. Too often has this been forgotten, with the tragic result that the individual believer makes little progress in effective Christian living. Although we may not agree with many of the emphases in Horace Bushnell’s presentation of the gospel, he certainly sounded the trumpet clearly in his day, when he wrote on this matter in Christian Nurture in these words, “It becomes a question of great moment, as connected with the doctrine established, whether it is the. design of the Christian scheme to take possession of the organic laws of the family, and wield them as instruments, in any sense, of a regenerative purpose? And here we are met by the broad principle, that Christianity endeavors to make every object, favor, and relation, an instrument of righteousness, according to its original design.”[5]

Much easier is it to speak of spiritual matters with only one or two than in the presence of a whole family. But why should this be so? Are we to conclude that the profession of many of our Reformed people is so often contradicted by their daily conduct, that they are compelled to silence about such important matters, when in the presence of those with whom they live daily?

Many times Reformed family visitation has been caricatured. The picture too often drawn is that of a large family, all properly scrubbed and dressed, patiently waiting for the visit which has been previously announced to the whole congregation. The children have been instructed to say as little as possible, preferably limiting their answers to “yes” and “no.” As footsteps are heard without, the tension mounts and almost reaches the breaking-point when the elders enter the room. Thereupon a few pleasantries are exchanged about work and weather, but all know that the dread questioning about spiritual matters will soon begin. First the father is interrogated at length, then the mother, and finally the children from the oldest to the youngest. What a sigh of relief, when prayer has been offered and the brethren depart! For another year life in the family, having successfully weathered another crisis in its routine, can resume its usual course. And if the dread ordeal has been survived without the betrayal of too much on the part of any member of the family, all are happy.

Without endeavoring to argue that family visitation never answers to the above picture, we dare affirm that this is by no means the general situation. If it were, we would do well to lament the fearful plight of a church which had sunk to such low spiritual depths.

If both elders and members would remember the real purpose of these official calls, family visitation would seldom if ever seem like an unpleasant ordeal. Since Christ through His officers supervises the lives of the members of His church, we may confidently expect from the elders the manifestation of the sympathetic spirit of our heavenly High Priest who “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” They come not to find fault but rather to comfort and encourage, in order that the Lord’s people may be strengthened in their faith and deepened in their love for the Savior and the saints. If believers are thus to be benefited, they should manifest the same sincerity and frankness which ought to characterize their prayers to God for help and strength.

Dare we, then, discuss the conditions and needs of spiritual life in the presence of other members of the family? Surely if there is a striving to manifest the spirit of Christ, this will present no difficulties. Here the words of Paul to the Corinthian church are much to the point. “Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunted not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not its own, is not provoked, taketh not account of evil; rejoiceth not in unrighteousness, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.”[6]

It is true that there will be matters demanding utmost privacy. These may never be discussed at family visitation but definitely require consideration at another time. However, if we bear in mind that basically all Christians have the same spiritual struggles, it is both proper and helpful to discuss them with each other. From the experiences of the parents the children may learn much. There will result a far better understanding of each other’s failings and an earnest desire to help each other in love which will draw all the members of the family together. The responsibilities of children towards parents and of parents towards children will be seen and appreciated more clearly. And in this way the Christian family will become one of the most influential factors in the spiritual development of believers, old and young alike.

What hampers this work most is false modesty on the part of all. It is often engendered by a wrong conception that family visitation attains its goal, when all the members can successfully persuade the elders that they are very good Christians. Even as Christ came not to save the righteous but to call sinners to repentance, so the elders who come in the name of Christ can be of no help to those who feel no need. Only those who know the power of indwelling sin, are sincerely repentant of their sins, turn daily to Christ, and earnestly resolve to live for Him will experience a rich blessing through the exhortation, admonition and encouragement of the servants of Christ. Then this practice which has stood the test of history will prove spiritually fruitful for years to come.


[1] Acts 2:42.

[2] Chapter III-IV, 17

[3] James 5:14, 15

[4] Monsma and Van Dellen; Church Order Commentary, p. 110

[5] Bushnell, Christian Nurture, pp. 110, 111.

[6] 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.

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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