G. I. Williamson
When I answered the call to serve a congregation of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand in 1963 I was introduced to something I had never known before. The ruling elders of the Auckland Reformed Church were reporting on their annual home visits at the very first session meeting I attended as their new pastor. Every family (or individual, if an individual lived alone) received a visitation by two elders at least once each year. These visits were made at the initiative of each of the elders who were responsible for the section of the church membership assigned to his care. As part of his primary responsibility he was expected to enlist the assistance of a fellow-elder to join him in visiting each household, and to assist fellow elders in a similar way. At the regular session meetings the elders reported on visits they had made, seeking the counsel of the whole body of elders where there were problems. The result was a level of pastoral oversight that far surpassed anything I had ever seen in any of the Presbyterian churches I had known.
In recent years, in semi-retirement, I have seen something similar again. With the approval of our presbytery and the consistory of the Cornerstone United Reformed Church in Sanborn, Iowa, my wife Doris and I have been received as associate members. We have therefore received a visit by two elders every year since we have been part of this local church, as do all of the other members. We value these visits very much and appreciate the way in which this real oversight by the consistory (like our session) enables it to report to our OPC presbytery, periodically, on our activities and participation in this local church. I have even had the privilege of sharing in the annual visitation with various elders as a part-time assistant to the elders. And, again, I am impressed by the benefits of this time-honored practice and have had a renewed desire to see this excellent practice emulated in the OPC.
But is it scriptural? I believe it is. Let me give a brief summary of my reasons. They are based on the inspired account of Paul's ministry in Ephesus in Acts 20:17–38. Toward the end of the apostle Paul's third missionary journey in 57 A.D. he called for a meeting with the elders of the church of Ephesus. At this early period in the growth of the Christian church it is unlikely that all of these elders would have been those who "especially ... labor in preaching and teaching" (1 Tim. 5:17). And we know that, regardless of how small the apostolic churches were, they were always organized with a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23). Yet Paul sets before all of these Ephesian elders his own ministry as a model for them. He exhorts all of them to "pay careful attention ... to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers" (Acts 20:28). "You yourselves know" he reminds them, "how I lived among you the whole time from the first day ... how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house ... (and) for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears" (20:18, 20, 31). And then he adds these telling words: "I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak" (20:35). The nearest thing that I have ever seen to the living out of this exhortation is in the home visitation practice I have seen in all three churches of the Dutch Reformed tradition that I have had the privilege of serving.
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church has a body of elders (both teaching and ruling) that are second to none in their understanding of, and commitment to, the Reformed Faith. It is also well known that we owe a great debt from the early years of our existence to men who came to us from the Christian Reformed Church. I believe we all recognize that this blending of the two traditionsDutch and Scottishhas greatly enriched and strengthened us. Yet, as I see it, one of the best elements in the Dutch Reformed tradition has never been fully assimilated by us. The result, I believe, is a denomination that is stronger on the upper level (what we see in the level of the ministry, the work of the Presbytery and the General Assembly), and this is very impressive. But what we see on the local level (evening church attendance for example) is not so impressive. I am convinced that one of the principle reasons for this is the lack of personal, individual and persistent "house to house" ministrysometimes with tearsin the "day and night" care of the sheep by the shepherds.
I am aware of the fact that what I have said thus far may be taken to suggest that I think we have a poor body of elders. Not so! I have a high regard for the ruling elders of the OPC. I know of no better. However, I do not think our tradition has encouraged ruling elders to shepherd the flock to the same extent or degree that the Dutch Reformed tradition has. Here I want to try to illustrate my point by something that recently happened. My first years in the OPC were spent as a home missionary in New England. We began with a very small nucleus of fourteen souls. I regularly visited a new section of the city, house to housedoor to dooras I sought to win lost souls for the Lord Jesus. One of the people who responded was a single mother, with four little children! She had already had two husbands. Well, shepherding her into the Reformed Christian Faith was, for a while, a full time business. It took a lot of work, person to person, but that lady went on to confess her faith in Christ. Later on she remarried a fine Christian. She and her husband worked to give their children a Christian education. She is now in old age, like I am. But my point is that this never would have happened without the Pauline model of shepherding. And, in those days, I (like Paul in his first days in Ephesus) had to do this alone. The difference is that in all three of the churches of the Dutch tradition (mentioned above) I did not have to do it alone. Yes, I still had to do iteven intensivelybut I did not have to do it alone.
In the Cornerstone URC in Sanborn there are new members who have virtually no background in biblical knowledge and nurture. But there are elders who are doing the kind of person-to-person work, counseling, instructing and correcting, that simply must be done to build up the Church of the Lord Jesus. One ruling elder can only do a small part of what needs to be done, of course, in a congregation of two or three hundred. But think of how impossible it would be if it was almost all left to the pastor! This "leaving it all to the pastor" may be possible in a very small church. It may even be unavoidable, but I am firmly persuaded that it is not right to let such a situation continue. I think that is why Paul called for the whole body of the Ephesian elders, urging every one of them to follow his own good example. It is no doubt true that ruling elders may do what Paul did without setting up any regular system, but when Jesus first sent out his apostles to visit households he sent them "two by two" (Mark 6:7). The kind of work that elders need to do is not something that comes naturally. It is, in fact, very much against the preferences of our weak human nature. So we need the kind of prodding that comes from having a well-organized system. I have seen menwho would probably never have considered themselves able to do home visitation at all if they were left to do it alonewho have been able to begin to do it with another elder's assistance, and not only do it but become adept at doing it.
And now, in conclusion, let me mention a few of the benefits that result from a well-organized pattern of faithful elder visitation.
1. It enhances the office of the eldership. People are much more aware of the fact that the church is governed by a plurality of men, not just one manthe minister. They also realize that these men stand together. They stand behind the teaching of the minister.
2. Where there is a well-organized system of house visitation, the elders can more often become aware of potential problems before they become serious.
3. When there is regular annual visitation, there is at least one opportunity each year for the members to express any concerns that they may have about what is going on in the church. This helps the elders to "nip in the bud" potential problems.
4. Those that might otherwise tend to be neglected are shown, by the elder visits, that they are valued members of the church. More than once I have seen people significantly encouraged and comforted when I would not otherwise have realized how much they needed it.
5. As my own experience as a home missionary indicated, the need for person-to-person shepherding can be even greater in a church planting situation. It may be unavoidable that a home missionary will have to bear this burden alone for a time. This can be quite exhausting because many people reached by our church today will need much shepherding. Therefore it is very important for elders, as soon as possible, to share this shepherding work with their pastor.
6. Perhaps the greatest benefit of all is found in what this kind of work does for the elders themselves. Many times I have seen growth in maturity, spiritual depth, doctrinal knowledge, and pastoral skill as elders haveagainst their own natural inclinationsfaithfully carried out the duties of home visitation.
7. Let me mention one thing more; and to me this is very important. In all three of the congregations that I have been privileged to serve, which have had a long tradition of home visitation, I have also seen the attendance at the evening worship services become virtually equal to the attendance at the morning services. I know of nothing that does more to encourage a minister than that. When people came faithfully to hear God's word both morning and evening, in my own ministry, I certainly wanted to do my very best for them. And I know for a fact that persistent and patient elder visitation is an essential part of what brings this to happen.
In conclusion, let me reiterate what I said in the very first issue of Ordained Servant. It is "my strong conviction that regular home-visitation by elders is one of our greatest needs in the OPC ..." (vol. 1, #1, p. 7). It is my prayer that God will be glorified as our Orthodox Presbyterian congregations are strengthened and blessed by the faithful practice of home visitation!
G. I. Williamson, a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is now retired but still active in part-time ministerial work in the Presbytery of the Dakotas of the OPC and Cornerstone United Reformed Church in Sanborn, Iowa. He was editor of Ordained Servant from its inception in 1992 through 2005. Ordained Servant, December 2009.