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. 1 (January 1993), pp. 19-22

Chapter IV: The Spiritual Purpose of Family Visitation

To consider the purpose of any activity is always a very important matter, since it is purpose which gives meaning to life. Ruskin has aptly said, “There is no action so slight, nor so mean, but it may be done to a great purpose, and ennobled therefore; nor is any purpose so great but that slight actions may help it, and may be so done as to help it much, most especially that chief of all purposes, the pleasing of God.” Before we therefore dismiss family visitation with a wave of the hand as ineffective and wasteful of time and energy, let us pause to consider its purpose. This alone may be able to convince us of its value in the life of a Reformed church, especially when we bear in mind the development of true spirituality as a means to glorifying our God.

It is apparent at once that our conception of this spiritual ministry of the church is largely governed by our views of the nature and growth of spiritual life. Here again the uniqueness of the Reformed position is clearly demonstrated when compared with the views held by other Christian groups.

Types of Christian Piety

The Roman Catholics, who never weary of emphasizing that they alone represent the true continuation of the apostolic church, have adopted as their chief purpose in working among the members of their communion, the welfare of the instituted church. According to them the institution is always of far greater significance than the individual. Gregory the First, one of the most influential popes ever to occupy the see of Peter, clearly presents this as his conception, when he argues that the purpose of all spiritual work among the members is that they may be able to order their lives according to the will of the church. This idea was strongly stressed during the Middle Ages, when the life of the individual was completely wrapped up in that of the church. The pope received the distinct honor of being regarded as the vicar or undershepherd of Christ, and all those who were saved owed him obedience. Any who dared to flaunt the authority of the church were severely dealt with, as many instances of ecclesiastical discipline prove.

During the modern era the Jesuits have done much to perpetuate the influence of the church by their insistence upon obedience. By making auricular confession obligatory upon all the members at least once each year and teaching that salvation can only be found within the walls of the visible church, the Roman Catholic church has firmly bound her members to the organization and to this very day exerts a tremendous influence over their lives.

In the days of the Reformation the emphasis once more was made to fall on personal faith. Luther particularly stressed justification by faith only, which was to be preached as the heart of the gospel. However, in order that the people might clearly see the necessity of a diligent use of the means of grace, he retained the confessional. By means of its regular use for a time the influence of the church in the lives of her members remained dominant. Although he paved the way for the development of pastoral work by insisting on regular visitation of the sick and the needy, he did not grasp the significance of regular spiritual work among the families. Thus the Lutheran membership, far more than the Reformed, has been inclined to satisfy itself with a rather passive faith which accepts the teaching of the church and thus has failed to see the implications of the gospel for daily Christian living.

The Spiritual Purpose of Family Visitation

The present-day Fundamentalists, whose theory and practice betrays close kinship with that of the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century and that of the Pietists of the eighteenth century, have emphasized the individual at the expense of the church and the family. With their “passion for souls” they have encompassed land and sea to bring others to Jesus, forgetting often that the lives of those who have been brought must also grow and develop to spiritual maturity.

Because the Fundamentalists believe that all teaching must root in the heart, they have little appreciation for the official preaching of the gospel. As a result the New Testament regard for the place of officers in the congregation has not come to its own among them. Believing that the congregation is a voluntary association of experiential Christians, they insist that all are clothed with equal authority. Thus there is much room for mutual edification but none for the official visitation of the members by the authorities of the church.

Likewise, their insistence on personal piety has often been so one-sided, that the implications of the Christian message of salvation for the whole of life have altogether too easily been overlooked and ignored. (This is the main contention of a recent work by Dr. Carl F. H. Henry entitled The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, which has occasioned much debate in those circles.) The result has been very little appreciation for Christian education in the schools and for Christian action in the spheres of politics, industry and culture.

Much of this can best be explained by the fact that the Fundamentalists, quite like their forerunners some centuries ago, have little appreciation for the Biblical conception of the relation between nature and grace. In their estimation the believer is a “new creature” in Christ in the most radical sense of the term. He must necessarily live a dualistic life as long as he is in this world, accommodating himself to life as he finds it for the time being. Since it lies under the curse of God and the power of sin, nothing in it can be restored to the service of Christ and the glory of God. The sole hope of those who believe is regarded to be the imminent return of the Saviour, who at His coming will make all things new and give the believer a redeemed sphere in which his life can become completely integrated.

The Reformed churches have consciously sought to avoid the pitfalls inherent in the conceptions outlined above. As a result of their peculiar insight into the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ and its cosmic implications, they have tried to apply their principles to every relationship in which they were involved. To live by the rule of the gospel so completely is an arduous task. It requires not merely preaching the full counsel of God but likewise an appreciation on the part of the believers of the many-sidedness of the gospel message. Christians who were called upon to carry out the will of God at all times felt themselves particularly in need of instruction and encouragement, and to meet this need family visitation was instituted and maintained.

Developing Spiritual Life

The first conscious aim of Reformed family visitation is the development of the spiritual life of the individual.

The importance of this has been seen clearly by the Rev. J. J. Knap, outstanding pastor of one of the large Reformed churches in the Netherlands, who in his little volume on Spiritual Growth writes, “The church is duty bound to be a blessing to the world. But how can she be, if her members have no growing, energetic spiritual life? The influence of the church in the world rises or falls with the inner power of its members. The energizing Spirit, from whom a renewing power goes out upon the world through the preaching of the Word, does not live in temples made with hands, but in living hearts which are woven together with the strands of faith and love.”[1]

The uniqueness of the life which the Father has given us through the Son by the operation of the Holy Spirit requires much spiritual care, if it is to flourish and bear fruit. Salvation is never our work, but God’s alone. Since we are by nature dead in sin, it is impossible for us to turn to God apart from the regenerating operation of the Holy Spirit. His work has so beautifully and accurately been described for us in the Canons of Dort:

“But when God accomplishes His good pleasures in the elect, or works in them true conversion, He not only causes the gospel to be externally preached to them, and powerfully illumines their minds by His Holy Spirit, that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God; but by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit He pervades the inmost recesses of man; He opens the closed and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised; infuses new qualities into the will, which, though heretofore dead, He quickens; from being evil, disobedient and refractory, He renders it good, obedient and pliable; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree, it may bring forth the fruits of good actions.”[2]

Faith, thus, is far more than knowledge of and assent to the teachings of the church. It is rather the exercise of that personal religious fellowship which the believer has with God through Jesus Christ. The activity of faith is the result of God’s renewal of the entire life of the individual. And “grow in the grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.”[3]

All who live by the power of faith consecrate their lives entirely in His service. Yet since the power of sin is never wholly removed in this life, the believer finds within himself a daily conflict. Time and again he is tempted to indulge in the lusts of the flesh, and often he stumbles and falls. Such sins, though fully pardoned by God on the grounds of the effficacy of the atoning work of Christ, nevertheless leave their scars and render the Christian’s witness less effectual than it might be. Often the believers will doubt the sincerity of their faith and consequently of their saving relationship to God through Christ. Periods of spiritual darkness and barrenness may darken the light of their souls. In fact, a child of God may stray so far from the blessed communion, that for a time he seems completely callous to the demands of the divine law and the joy of salvation.

In such circumstances, which are by no means rare among God’s people, the church must minister to the individual. In order that the tender plant of faith may again be revived and bring forth fruit in its season, the Word must be personally administered and applied. Though the Holy Spirit can alone render these labors effectual, we are to remember that He makes use of human agents. By wise and patient exhortation and rebuke the elders of the church help the believers to “lift up the hands that hang down, and the palsied knees.... that that which is lame be not turned out of the way, but rather be healed.”[4]

Challenging the Lives of Believers to Service

God’s people have a peculiar calling in this world. They are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In their every endeavor they must show forth the excellencies of Him who called them out of darkness to His marvelous light.

However, to meet this challenge their spiritual life must be not only strong but also active. Faith demands expression; it must be translated into effective Christian service.

Contrary to the emphasis of many Christian groups, the Reformed churches have always insisted that spiritual life, as well as natural, is organic in character. By this is meant that the believer does not and cannot live in isolation. Salvation is far more than a matter of securing and enjoying personal peace with God. It indeed governs our individual relation to God, but just as surely and completely must it give direction to our relation to our fellow-men in all areas of society. The principles of the second table of the law are also regulative for the life of the New Testament believer. We must not only love God above all but also our neighbors as ourselves.

Thus Christian calling embraces all of life. No part of our daily walk lies outside the scope of our faith-relation to God. This follows from the plain Scriptural teaching that God loved “the world”, that is, the created order, and redeemed it to Himself through the Son of His eternal love. Never for a moment should we forget the intimate relation between nature and grace. The latter aims to restore the former, to reconcile the whole created order to the God who has fashioned it for His own glory. And, although the full realization of that divine program of cosmic salvation will not be seen and enjoyed fully until God Himself makes the new heavens and the new earth in which dwells righteousness, already in this life the first principles of it must become evident in the attitudes and actions of His people.

Such is the comprehensive calling of every believer.

Of this he must be constantly reminded, and to this he must be repeatedly challenged.

And although the preaching of the gospel will provide the chief opportunity of pursuing this course, the Reformed churches have used family visitation as an additional means to challenge the lives of their members. When that challenge personally confronts the believers in their daily walk, we may confidently expect them to utter the prayer

“Fill Thou my life, O Lord, my God,
In every part with praise,
That my whole being may proclaim
Thy being and Thy ways.
Not for the lip of praise alone,
Nor e’en the praising heart,
I ask, but for a life made up
Of praise in every part.”

Promoting tbe Communion of the Saints

Such a well-rounded Christian life needs much encouragement and help in its daily struggle. To enjoy this the believer must live in the closest possible relationship to the officers and members of the church.

God has been pleased to use means for working out His plan of redemption. Therefore He has established His church among men. In that organization there are many members, each having received unique talents and enjoying a unique position. Paul therefore likens the church to a body, a spiritual unity or organism. Each member is necessary to the wellbeing of all the others, and is in duty bound to employ his gifts and talents for the advantage of the whole. Knap has described this beautifully, “If we had been created as so many separate entities, without any living connection with the millions of men, we would not need each other for the development of our gifts and powers. All human beings would have many traits of similarity. But the inner relationship would be lacking. Every one would be living as it were, on some glass non-conductor. And that would cut off the possibility of giving spiritual and moral strength to one another.”[5] Now, however, God has made us of one blood. In Christ the relationship which was broken by sin has been restored. And in consequence we must remember the law of spiritual growth. “Not in isolation, but in the full flowing stream of life, full-grown personalities are formed.”[6]

In an age in which individualism is rampant and has wreaked havoc everywhere, it is essential to stress the organic aspect of life. We cannot live without each other. Nowhere is this more valid than in the church among the communion of saints.

Where this law of life is understood, the elders do not regard themselves as policemen of the congregation. Theirs is not the duty of trying to uncover all the sins which mar the hearts of God’s people who as yet are imperfect. But, realizing the almost insurmountable obstacles in the way of a well-rounded Christian life, they visit the families for the purpose of helping all to see their duty more clearly. This makes for the closest possible fellowship between the officers and members of the church on the one hand and between the members among each other on the other. They learn to stand shoulder to shoulder in the great spiritual struggle against the common foe and learn to wage this war more successfully. It makes of the church truly a “militant”church. As each soldier has his own position and duty and obliges himself to carry it out in strict obedience to the commands of his superior, so too in the church all the members find their calling outlined by Christ in His Word. The purpose of the work of the elders is to remind the believers in the name of the Commander-in-Chief of their personal and social responsibilities. Where this is found, the words of the well-known hymn are immortalized in the life of the congregation:

“Like a mighty army
Moves the church of God;
Brothers, we are treading
Where the saints have trod.
We are not divided,
All one body we,
One in hope and doctrine,
One in charity.”

As this is progressively realized in the life of the church, she marches forward from victory to victory in the name of the Captain of her salvation.

[1] Knap, Spiritual Growth, p. 19

[2] Chapter II-IV, 11

[3] 2 Peter 3:18

[4] Hebrews 12:12, 13:22

[5] Knap, Spiritual Growth, p. 115, 116

[6] Ibid, p. 117.

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