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. 3 (July 1993)

Chapter VI: The Requisites for Family Visitation

“We have said that love to Christ does not impose on all His disciples the duty of a shepherd; showing itself rather in by far the larger number in simply hearing the shepherd’s voice and following him, and generally in a willingness to be guided by those who are wiser than themselves. We must add that all who are animated by the spirit of love to the Redeemer will be either shepherds or sheep, actively useful in caring for the souls of others, or thankfully using the provision made for the care of their own souls” (A. B. Bruce, The Training of the Twelve).

In the stirring days of Oliver Cromwell there was great concern on the part of many for the reformation of Christ’s church in England. During those years the highly esteemed pastor and preacher Richard Baxter published his work on The Reformed Pastor which to this very day is still an invaluable guide for those who have the oversight of the flock of the Savior.

“We must have a special eye upon families,” so he wrote, “to see that they are well ordered, and the duties of each relation performed. The life of religion, and the welfare and glory of both the Church and the State, depend much upon family government and duty. If we suffer the neglect of this, we shall undo all. What are we like to do ourselves to the reforming of a congregation, if all the work be cast on us alone; and masters of families neglect that necessary duty of their own, by which they are bound to help us? If any good be begun by the ministry in any soul, a careless, prayerless, worldly family is like to stifle it, or very much hinder it; whereas, if you could but get the rulers of families to do their duty, to take up the work where you left it, and help it on. what abundance of good might be done! I beseech you, therefore, if you desire the reformation and welfare of your people, do all you can to promote family religion.”[1]

Much of the effectiveness of this type of work, however, will depend upon the manner in which it is accomplished. Therefore we do well to consider some of the basic requisites for family visitation. These may be reduced to three which are the most comprehensive and important. If any congregation is to derive spiritual benefit from it, the work must be done officially, regularly and with due regard for its purpose.

The Official Character of This Work

Although we have already touched on the official nature of this work, it requires some broader and more detailed consideration now. The Reformed churches, in contrast to many other Protestant denominations, have always esteemed the offices highly. Although they reacted vigorously against the usurpation of power of which the Romish hierarchy had made itself guilty during the centuries immediately preceding the Reformation, they refused to fall into the opposite extreme. In fact, the Reformed fathers saw much more clearly than the Roman Catholic church authorities the value and use of the New Testament offices.

By a careful study of the several parts of the New Testament these leaders saw that the good government of the church of Christ required three types of officers—the ministers of the Word, the elders and the deacons. Each in its own way represented some aspect of the triple office of the Savior, who as Head of His church remained the final seat of all authority and the source of all power in the life of the congregations.

This power which He delegated to His representatives was defined as regulative and spiritual. Although the officers were clothed with authority, this was not inherent in their persons, and therefore they were to regard themselves as shepherds and servants of the flock of Christ. As a result abuses of power could not creep into the church easily, if it was aware of and safeguarded its right. Abraham Kuyper in his work on Calvinism remarks on this matter as follows: “This government, like the church itself, originates in heaven, in Christ. He most effectually rules, governs His church by means of the Holy Spirit, by whom He works in His members. Therefore all being equal under Him, there can be no distinctions of rank among believers; there are only ministers, who serve, lead and regulate; a thoroughly Presbyterian form of government; the Church power descending directly from Christ Himself, into the congregation, concentrated from the congregation in the ministers, and by them being administered unto the brethren. So the sovereignty of Christ remains absolutely monarchical, but the government of the Church on earth becomes democratic to its bones and marrow....” [2]

The Requisites for Family Visitation

This idea of the officers as pastors who serve the flock is thoroughly Scriptural. However, it was felt at once that certain distinctions had to be made for the sake of good order. When speaking of pastors, the Reformed fathers used the term in two ways. First of all, they might use the word in a more restricted sense, when they designated the work of the ministers of the Word to whom fell the task of preaching and teaching the Word. But they could also speak of it in a broader sense and thus hold that all spiritual work by the officers is pastoral in its nature. All three offices are bound to the Word, and the purpose of each is to show the members how to conduct themselves as sheep and lambs of the flock.

Thus the work of the elders, too, is definitely pastoral. The power which is delegated to them is for the purpose of ministering to the spiritual needs of the people.

This ordinary office in the New Testament church, in distinction from the work of the apostles, prophets and evangelists, was of a permanent nature. Elders were to be appointed in all the churches, in order that the work of the gospel might go forward even when the apostles and their helpers fell away. These men were called by two names: presbyters or elders, and bishops or overseers. Both terms are self-explanatory. The first refers chiefly to the dignity with which the office was clothed, and the second to the specific work which was enjoined upon those who were called to it. These men were to take heed to the whole flock of the Lord, carefully supervising both the doctrine and conduct of all the members. In order that this might be done adequately, it was deemed necessary by the Reformed churches at the very beginning of their history to visit the members in their homes at stated times. By a frank and free discussion of the nature and development of spiritual life with the members, the elders could instruct and comfort and admonish as need required.

Indeed, it was recognized cheerfully that upon many other occasions spiritual life could be discussed profitably. The members by virtue of the office of all believers were to help and comfort and admonish each other. Likewise, both minister and elders could upon special occasions visit the members for the same purpose. Even in the execution of their tasks the deacons were to remember the pastoral nature of their calling. However, none of these instances could relieve the elders of their responsibility. They, as watchmen upon the walls of Zion and shepherds of the saints, were to know the needs of all and help them from time to time.

When therefore the elders come into the homes of the members, they come in the name of their Exalted Savior. Instead of seeing only the persons of the elders, the members should recognize the presence of their Savior and Lord in the ministrations of men.

It may be asked, What is the place of the minister of the Word in family visitation? This question is proper, especially in view of the fact that in many churches most of this work is expected of him. Too often many of our members labor under the misconception that the office of the minister is higher in rank than that of the elders and deacons. Anyone who carefully studies the New Testament texts which refer to the offices will be able to point out the fallacy of this idea at once. Although his office differs from the other two in kind, it is in no way inherently superior. Thus when he accompanies an elder at family visitation, he too comes as a ruling elder of the church.

It has generally been recognized in the Reformed churches that the minister of the Word labors in a double capacity. He has two offices which he must discharge. Not only is he to labor in the official teaching of the Word, but he is also appointed to assist the other elders in the ruling of the church. This is plain from the Form for the Ordination of the Ministers of God’s Word, where his several duties are outlined in great detail. There we read, “Fourth: the task of the ministers of the Word is with the elders to keep the Church of God in good discipline, and to govern it in such a manner as the Lord has ordained; for Christ, having spoken of the Christian discipline, says to His apostles: Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven (Matt. 16:19) And Paul would have the ministers know how to rule their own house, since otherwise they can neither provide for nor rule the Church of God. This is the reason why in Scripture the pastors are also called stewards of God and bishops, that is, overseers and watchmen; for they have the oversight of the house of God, wherein they abide, to the end that there everything may be transacted with good order and decency; and that they may open and shut, with the keys of the kingdom of heaven committed to them, according to the charge given them by God.”

Thus the members of the consistory, when calling upon the families to discharge their office of supervising the flock, should be regarded with honor. They come in the name of Christ, and for the purpose of ministering to the needs of His people. Their call should be announced beforehand, in order that the whole family may be present. When we feel the need of medical or legal aid, we do not hesitate to make and keep appointments with physicians, dentists and lawyers. Can it then be considered improper that official appointments are made for this spiritual work? Only in so far as the work is properly respected can it be effective in the life of the church.

The Need of Regularity in the Work

Another requisite for the proper conducting of family visitation is regularity. During past years much has been said and written about its frequency. In discussing the matter we ought to guard against two dangers. It may be carried on so infrequently and irregularly, that the membership of the church loses sight of its spiritual nature and necessity entirely, with the tragic result that family visitation degenerates into a social call. However, it may also be done so often that the elders and members fall into meaningless repetition.

It is very significant that already at the first broader assembly of the Reformed churches of the Netherlands (Convent of Wezel in 1568) this question was discussed, and as a result it was decided that all the families of the churches should be visited by the elders once a week. The decision is not at all strange, when we consider the need of those days. At this assembly the first Church Order by which the congregations were to govern themselves was drawn up. Only shortly before many of the members had left the Roman Catholic church, where weekly confession to the priest was a general practice. Moreover, many of these new members were quite ignorant of the rule of the gospel. Family visitation, then, provided the elders with a wonderful opportunity for instructing and admonishing the members. Without a doubt, where this was done properly, rich spiritual blessings accrued to the churches. Some time later the present reading of Article 23 of our Church Order was drawn up, in which it was stipulated that these official visits should be made to all the members “before and after the Lord’s Supper, as time and circumstances may demand.”

All are agreed that it is no longer necessary to conduct this work weekly among the whole congregation. Not only would this be practically impossible in all of our churches, but both members and elders would fall into endless repetition after a few times. Actual supervision of the members does not require knowledge of all the details of individual spiritual life. On this basis the Reformed churches have as a general principle repudiated the practice of inquiring into all the details of the believer’s relation to God and his fellow-men, as was so often done in the Roman Catholic confessional. The church as the mother of the faithful is required to assist with counsel and comfort instead of lording it over the lives of her members.

With these facts in mind we can understand why the churches have adopted the custom of conducting family visitation in such a way that all are contacted at least once a year. This ought to be considered a minimum requirement. If longer periods are allowed to lapse between the official visits, there is great danger of ineffectiveness. The confidence of the members in their officers will greatly suffer, and the elders on their side can hardly claim to know the needs of the congregation as a whole, if two or three years expire between visits. That large congregations because of their size make it extremely difficult to conduct the work systematically each year has often been advanced as an excuse for not adhering to the custom of annual visitation. However, if both ministers and elders are convinced of the importance and necessity of the work, they will take the necessary time. It is significant that often elders in the large congregations are fully as conscientious about this part of their calling as those in smaller churches. Indeed, the minister in a congregation of more than two hundred families cannot possibly visit every family annually without neglecting some other part of his work. Yet, if we but remember that this is part of his work as ruling elder rather than as minister of the Word, we will realize that he is not required to do much more of this work than the other elders in the consistory. And should the complaint be heard that family visitation is effective only when the minister calls on the members, the solution to this problem lies not in the direction of visiting the congregation less frequently (say, only once in two or three years in order that the minister may be present at every visit) but rather in the direction of training our eldership for its own peculiar work.

Keeping Its Purpose in Mind

One other requisite for family visitation demands our attention. The work, if to be done effectively, must be conducted purposefully. The officers should be able to give a clear account of their calling, when they visit the families, and thus give direction to the conversation in which they engage the members.

We have reacted strongly against what has often, but improperly, been called the “inquisitorial” method of family visitation. By this is understood the method of direct questioning in order to stimulate conversation on spiritual matters. It cannot be denied that the elders are often rather shy about directing such questions and prefer to allow the conversation to take whatever course it will. As a result some of the most important matters are conveniently dodged.

In opposing such a desultory way of carrying on the work let no one think that we are defending those individuals (and there have been such! ) who because of the dignity of their eldership have deemed it their prerogative to inquire into every secret of the believer’s life. Those who so “lord it over the flock” forget that they are servants for Christ’s sake.

However, we may not forget that the elders are clothed with spiritual authority. It is therefore their duty to see to it that spiritual matters are discussed at family visitation. And should there be those who try to steer the conversation, whether consciously or unconsciously, in another direction, the elders must remind themselves and the members of the purpose of their call. Of course, this must be done as unobtrusively and charitably as possible. Only when it is apparent that the individual who is being visited deliberately refuses to speak about his relation to God and his fellow-men should he be rebuked, and even then in the spirit of love and kindness.

How can we do justice to the demand of purposeful family visitation? Because we resent the use of any stereotyped set of questions, it is not easy to answer this question. Spiritual life is organic and must always be approached with this knowledge in mind. It is therefore so dangerous to classify the members into groups depending upon the level of spirituality. As in the realm of nature no two snowflakes are alike, so in the kingdom of grace we find an infinite variety among the believers. Yet a few general remarks are not out of place here.

First of all, we should lament the fact that family visitation too often has degenerated to mere routine in our churches. Once a year all the members must be visited. Thus long lists of calls are prepared in advance. The more calls made in one evening, the sooner the work is finished. Thus there is danger that the work loses all spontaneity and naturalness. Those who do the calling should remember that every visit is a challenge. As believers differ from each other, their needs and wants will vary. It is the business of the elders to know and understand these needs, as well as the gospel of Christ which alone can satisfy the requirements of the spiritual life of His people.

Thus, too, it is essential that the elders themselves be spiritually equipped for their work. This cannot be done without prayer and study. To fulfill this part of their calling they must enjoy the constant guidance of God’s Spirit. Only when consciously and completely leaning upon Him will they receive the words which they are to bring to the people.

Whenever possible, the elders ought to know the particular needs of the families which they are to visit. Thus it is profitable that the consistory (in strictest confidence, of course, and prompted only by the purest motives) discuss the spiritual condition of the several families in so far as these are known to the elders. This allows for noting the changes which take place, whether for good or ill.

But above all both elders and people must be constantly reminded of the goal of the work—the spiritual equipment of the congregation to serve God in singleness of heart. Many opportunities for doing this will present themselves during the year. In public worship and catechetical classes remarks on the nature and purpose of the work are often in place. An announcement from the pulpit or in the bulletin at the time family visitation is carried on, will often prove effective. The more clearly the purpose is understood by all, the easier it will be to cherish high hopes that also this arduous spiritual labor will benefit consistory and congregation alike.

“We must have a special eye upon families, to see that they are well ordered, and the duties of each relation performed. The life of religion, and the welfare and glory of both the Church and the State, depend much upon family government and duty. If we suffer the neglect of this, we shall undo all. What are we like to do ourselves to the reforming of a congregation, if all the work be cast on us alone; and masters of families neglect that necessary duty of their own, by which they are bound to help us? If any good be begun by the ministry in any soul, a careless, prayerless, worldly family is like to stifle it, or very much hinder it; whereas, if you could but get the rulers of families to do their duty, to take up the work where you left it, and help it on. what abundance of good might be done! I beseech you, therefore, if you desire the reformation and welfare of your people, do all you can to promote family religion” (Richard Baxter).

[1] Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, p. 91.

[2] Kuyper, Calvinism, p. 77.

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