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. 4 (October 1993)

Chapter VII: Objections to Family Visitation

“We admit, therefore, that ecclesiastical pastors are to be heard just like Christ Himself, but they must be pastors who execute the office entrusted to them. And this office, we maintain, is not presumptuously to introduce whatever their own pleasure has rashly devised, but religiously and in good faith to deliver the oracles which they have received at the mouth of the Lord. For within these boundaries Christ confined the reverence which he required to be paid to the Apostles; nor does Peter (I Pet. 4:11) either claim for himself or allow to others anything more than that, as often as they speak among the faithful, they speak as from the mouth of the Lord” (John Calvin: Reply to Cardinal Sadolet).

“Saints, by profession, are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification” (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXVI, 2.

To anyone who has followed our discussion to this point, it will be apparent that some careful attention must still be given to the many objections which are raised against the practice of family visitation, if the practice is to profit the churches in the years to come.

We have with us those who claim that in spite of all the good features of this venerable practice, the insurmountable difficulties are so many, that we do best to dispense with it at once and perhaps substitute some other type of spiritual care.

In dealing with the difficulties we ought to bear in mind that it is not necessary to give more than a passing glance to those who refuse to be convinced. Perhaps there are some also in our churches who have closed their minds to all arguments in favor of this official church care of the families. These, however, are not motivated by genuine love for the church of Christ and may be dismissed together with all their protestations without more ado.

But others who are sincere in raising objections are entitled to a fair hearing.

In the main the objections are of two kinds. First of all, there are some who maintain the principle that ideally in the Reformed churches there should be no supervision of the membership by those in authority, since all believers are equal in rank before Christ and God in the New Testament church. Others point out the many practical difficulties which arise wherever this custom is followed and argue that it would be beneficial to spiritual life to dispense with it. In this section we would look into the arguments which the opponents of family visitation have raised.

A Poor Substitute for the Confessional

Occasionally we will still hear individuals make the claim that family visitation, as we know it, should have no place in the churches, because it is at very best but a poor substitute for the Roman Catholic confessional.

On the surface this argument seems to have the support of history, for Calvin did institute the practice in the churches of Geneva after the confessional was rejected. In many respects there are striking similarities between the two forms of membership supervision. Both are deeply concerned with the spiritual life of the believer and proceed on the assumption that the church through her officers has the divinely-given duty of watching for the souls of those entrusted to her care.

A more careful scrutiny of the matter, however, will prove that this similarity is only superficial. Calvin never suggested that it was a substitute for the confessional in any way. There were very positive Scriptural objections to the Romish confessional which made its rejection imperative. Thus family visitation was only part of the broader positive reformatory ideal of bringing the life of the church closer to the New Testament pattern.

Family visitation should not be confused with personal work among the members required by the consistory. This last has a province all its own. Time and again it will be necessary for the elders to call upon individual members of the congregation, in order that they may be strengthened in the faith and warned against the ways of sin. We need only mention that family visitation in the Reformed churches has never displaced the visitation of the sick, the spiritually distressed and the wayward.

What the Bible teaches plainly is the close relation between nature and grace. When bestowing His salvation, God does not take us out of this present world. Neither do we become “new creatures” in this sense that the social relationships found among all men can be ignored by us. Therefore it is a fallacy to suppose that the spiritual problems of the believer can be considered in isolation.

The fact that we have been created as social beings for whom it is not good to live alone comes to its fullest and richest expression in our relation to the families. Our whole life consists of relationship—to God, ourselves, our families, our neighbors, our fellowmen in general. As a result we cannot live out our faith in a vacuum. The spiritual life controlled by love to God and His Word can never be practiced solely in the recesses of our hearts. In family visitation this truth becomes a guiding principle for the spiritual labors of the elders. Our religious life is organically related to all that we think and speak and do, and this is not only of the greatest consequence to our families with whom we live most intimately but can also be properly understood and evaluated only when considered in this light.

Thus Reformed family visitation differs radically from the practice of the confessional. It alone can do justice to the organic character of human life.

Even more, we reject the whole Romish system of penance which is intimately bound up with the practice of auricular confession. For it there is no place in our churches. Thus the elders may never pry into the recesses of the heart, in a vain endeavor to bring secret sins to light. By emphasizing so strongly the priesthood of all believers the Reformed churches reject the notion that the visible church is the necessary mediatrix between God and the soul. What we possess in the type of spiritual care of the members of the church is not a poor substitute for the confessional but a practice which is in principle far different from anything known to the Roman Catholic church and vastly superior to it.

A Denial of the Equality of All Believers

Others insist that family visitation ought to be discarded, because it conflicts with the democratic ideal of the equality of all members before God. These claim that no group in the church ought to possess the right of ruling the others.

Now if we are at all aware of the confusion which characterizes Protestant thinking today, we will realize at once that this objection can only be raised by those who either consciously or unconsciously have rejected the Reformed theory of the church of Christ. It was among the Anabaptists of the days of the Reformation that such claims for the absolute equality of all believers were made.

Reformed Christians indeed believe strongly that in the sight of Almighty God all men are equal and therefore have the right to be treated alike. God is no respecter of persons; hence rich and poor, bond and free, learned and ignorant stand alike under the condemnation of the law by nature and can receive salvation only by sovereign grace. However, this is something far different from the Anabaptist insistence on equality which repudiates authority in the visible church.

Although there is a basic equality of person in the sight of God, there is no equality of function or calling. The Scriptures plainly teach that God Himself makes distinctions for the sake of the good order and the edification of His people in the church. “And He gave some to be apostles; and some, prophets; and some, pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints, for the building up of the body of Christ....”[1] Likewise are the faithful enjoined to “submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you, be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility.”[2] Still stronger is the language used by the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves; for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief; for that is not profitable for you.”[3]

From these passages it must appear that government in the churches is necessary. For our spiritual welfare God has entrusted the rule to men of good repute who have been chosen in the lawful way by the members themselves. Though in no way enjoying any personal preeminence, they are charged with the rule of the congregation. And since it is a ministry or spiritual service, it may never lead to tyranny. To prevent such a calamity there are always several in office, so that each elder in turn must submit himself to the government of the rest.

Instead of being contrary to the New Testament teaching of the spiritual equality of the believers, the Reformed practice of family visitation is in complete harmony with its insistence that officers have been appointed for the strengthening of the body of Christ in the true faith and godliness. Without such official supervision grievous heresies and wicked practices would soon overwhelm the church in this present evil world and threaten her with total extinction.

A Legalistic Conception of Spiritual Life

At times the objection is raised that family visitation roots in a legalistic conception of spiritual life and the relation of the officers of the church to her members. On these grounds it should then be refused a place of honor in our church life.

By legalism is meant the theory that spiritual life can be reduced to external compliance with a set of rules or principles adopted to regulate the conduct of God's people. On this basis the elders would act in the capacity of spiritual police with the duty of enforcing the laws. If the laws are obeyed, they may conclude that all is well. Such a policy of enforcing obedience, so the objectors counter, robs the Christian of his New Testament liberty in Christ and hinders rather than promotes true spirituality. On this basis they would not hesitate to compare family visitation with the medieval inquisition which insisted on strict conformity in all matters religious and arrogated to itself the right to judge the heart.

It need hardly be said that this representation rests entirely upon a misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of family visitation. The proper supervision of the members, as has been demonstrated before, must not degenerate into a system of policing and spying on the congregation.

Yet it ought to be added that the tendency of our modern age is revolutionary. There is little respect for law and government. The individual, as a result of the insidious influence of much of modern philosophy, regards himself as the final authority in spiritual matters. He claims for himself the inherent right of deciding how and when and where he shall serve God and his fellow-men. Should such fallacious theories become widespread in the church, its spiritual life would suffer appreciably. All insistence upon law is not per se legalism by any means. Would that we had more regard for the authority with which Christ promulgates His laws in the church!

Instead of being an inquisition, family visitation is a discussion of spiritual life and its problems, to be conducted in such a way that both elders and members of the church profit thereby. Because the work is spiritual and positive in character, aiming at the edification of the believers, it requires the whole-hearted cooperation of those who are visited. If at any time this objection can be leveled against the present practice with any degree of justification (a possibility which may never be ignored!), it ought to be regarded not as an objection to family visitation as such but rather to the way in which it is conducted by certain individuals.

A Fruitless Work Because of Its Formal Character

An objection of a somewhat different color is that this work is necessarily fruitless, because of its formal approach to spiritual life.

Voices are raised in protest occasionally against the formal character of this work. They argue that since the announcement of the day and hour of the call is made, with the result that all the members of the family are adequately prepared, no true judgment can be made of the spiritual condition of the people under those circumstances. A conscious effort is made by every individual to present himself in the best light. All the questions are answered most cautiously. When the elders leave after an hour, they carry with them an impression of the family which is far from being a true reflection of what they really are.

Again, this is not an objection to the principle of family visitation at all, but rather to the way in which it may be conducted. That there will always be certain families who try consciously to present such an unreal picture of their spiritual condition can hardly be doubted. Yet would we dare claim that this is true of the majority in our churches? Has not every minister and elder in

seriously attempting to perform this work effectively been gratified upon many occasions with the unaffected and frank response on the part of many of the people? That we do not see our people at their worst ought to occasion no surprise. However, that they would definitely try to deceive the officers of Christ's church by posing as better than they really are can be maintained only by the most thorough-going pessimist. And should this situation obtain among a sizable number of members, it can be overcome by regularly and patiently explaining to the people the true spiritual purpose of the visits which are made.

An Unwelcome and Unappreciated Work

But our church members, so some would claim, do not like family visitation at all; they tolerate it simply because it has been the rule for so many years and the consistory still insists on it. If the members of the congregation were permitted to decide on the matter, the vote in favor of its abolishment would be overwhelming.

Now this objection is a very serious one, if it can be substantiated with facts. It would prove that the spiritual life of the congregations has sunk to a new low, both because the members are unwilling or unable to discuss spiritual matters and because the elders have not learned the art of conducting this part of their calling properly and profitably.

We are convinced that this is a totally inaccurate picture of the church today. That there are some who do not appreciate these visits at all need not surprise anyone. If the spiritual life of the believer reveals no depth, he will feel very uncomfortable indeed, when these matters are considered and he finds himself with little or nothing to say. Also those who have hardened themselves in sinful practices of one kind or another will resent any supposed interference in their lives by the elders on the fallacious ground that they have the right to live as they please.

Let us remember that such unpleasant and unspiritual conditions in the church argue strongly in favor of family visitation rather than against it. When conducted in the spirit of Christ, be it with weakness and imperfection, most believers will soon learn to appreciate this work deeply, convinced that this spiritual counsel and comfort is administered in the name of the Savior Himself. If for one reason or another a large element in the congregation continues to resent this aspect of pastoral work, the consistory should nevertheless patiently and lovingly bear with such individuals and persevere in instruction and admonition, knowing that the appreciation of men is never the standard by which we are to judge the value or effectiveness of a Christian ministry. Often the most necessary labors in life are the least appreciated.

An Unnecessary Work in a Normal Church

When all is said and done, there will still be individuals who, while admitting many of the principles which underlie this work, hold that it is unnecessary in a congregation where spiritual life is normal.

To reinforce their contention they will argue that in the days of Calvin and shortly thereafter, it was absolutely essential to visit the families, because so many of the members of the Reformed churches at that time had but recently left the Roman Catholic fold and were still strangers to most of the practices of the true religion. Therefore they admit that the Convent of Wezel (1568) did right in instituting family visitation. However, with centuries of Reformed teaching and tradition behind us and with all the excellent facilities which we enjoy for the development of spiritual life such as Christian homes and schools and churches, it is sheer waste of time and effort to visit our families annually.

Granting for a moment that spiritual life in many of our churches is rather normal, should we not add immediately that family visitation would still be necessary, in order that the elders may be reasonably assured of this healthy condition? How else, if this practice were discarded, would the supervisors of the church be able to discharge their duty and give a good account of themselves and their work to Christ who is the Head of His church? Is not the preventative work which is performed every time a visit is made worth all the time and effort expended? Surely no one can with any show of reason deny these facts.

But more than this, we ought to consider seriously the question of what constitutes normal spirituality in the church. Just what do those who object to family visitation mean by that phrase? Is it ever possible to find “normal” spirituality in this abnormal world, so full of sin and temptation on every hand? Spiritual life consists of our religious fellowship with God through Jesus Christ by the operation of His Holy Spirit. And nothing less than perfection may be considered normal, since it involves our relation to the infinitely perfect and holy Covenant God and prepares us in this life for an eternity of unbroken and indescribably blessed fellowship with Him.

Here we find so many ailments and diseases which constantly undermine and seek to destroy that blessed covenant relation. The eye of our faith is often dimmed by both the trials and pleasures of this life. The desire of the heart to serve the Lord with undivided affection is not nearly so fervent as it should be. Instead of an unhampered growth in the grace and the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, we must often complain of spiritual coldness and uncertainty resulting from our apathy to and neglect of the things of the Spirit of God. And since such disturbing factors impinge upon our lives not once or twice but are a constant source of danger and discouragement on the way of sanctification, we should become increasingly convinced of our need of instruction and encouragement in this life.

This is, of course, first of all worked in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel and the administration of the sacraments. Yet who can deny that it is also admirably reinforced by the personal contacts made by the elders at the time of family visitation? In a word, spiritual life can never be said to be “normal” in the true sense of the word as long as we are in this life. For that blessing we must wait for the dawning of the eternal day, when we shall serve God perfectly and shall be satisfied with beholding His face forever. Until then the eldership in its spiritual work should help the believers grow unto full salvation.

A Disregard of the Needs of the Individual

Yet one more argument against the practice of family visitation should be considered at this time. It is presented perhaps more often than any other today. Modern psychology has reminded us of the inestimable benefits of personal discussion with those who are spiritually distressed. But, so the argument runs, no one feels free to discuss his individual problems in the presence of the other members of the family.

There is, to be sure, much truth in this presentation of the case. Still more if we suppose that these visits should be patterned after the policy of the Roman Catholic confessional, they will never attain their goal. In spiritual life there is much which we confess only to God and can occasionally reveal only to some intimate and trusted friend. To uncover these hidden thoughts and troubles of the heart and discuss them in the presence of others violates the dignity of human personality.

But let us remember that this is not the purpose of these visits, any more than it can be the aim of the gospel preaching to make a direct application to all the needs of the members of the congregation. Because family visitation offers a wonderful opportunity for considering the needs and nature of spiritual life from time to time, it will stimulate the members to examine their lives in the light of God's Word and regulate them accordingly. At the time of preaching we are taught to make the application of God's truth to our own lives. The same holds true of family visitation. Furthermore, when this work is carried on in the spirit of Christian sympathy and helpfulness, confidence in the elders is awakened in the hearts of the members. Then those individuals who still have perplexing problems which ought not and cannot be revealed in the presence of all will meet one of the elders privately for counsel and help.

We should never forget that family visitation may and often must be supplemented with calls of a more personal character. Such followup work yields rich and satisfying results for all concerned. The good undershepherd will learn to know his sheep better as he meets them regularly and will be prepared to help them when occasion requires. But this can hardly be successfully realized, unless the groundwork of mutual trust and respect has been laid. For this last no time is so propitious as that of the annual visit to all the families of the church.

Home-visitation is a unique part of the pastoral oversight of the congregation. The congregation is divided into a number of Elder-districts, each of them preferably containing no more than 12-15 families. The District-Elder is responsible for the families in his own district. Home-visits are made by a team of two Elders; this ought to be the norm. A lack of qualified and available Elders may force a Session to allow visits to be made by the District-Elder alone, but that should be regarded as a temporary emergency only and not accepted as a normal practice. Of course this does not exclude visits by the District-Elder on his own to show some specific concern and share some of the joys in the ho me. Visited families must never regard their Elders call as a social visit. They have come to tend the flock of God and for that they have received spiritual authority. Their visit has a spiritual purpose [which is] to challenge the members to use their talents and gifts for the advantage of others in the communion of the saints. Home-visits are a necessity for the Elders of the Church to gauge the spiritual condition and needs of the members. There is great value in this practice both for the Elders and for the families in the Church Elders must make an effort to follow a definite plan in their visitation.—The [New Zealand] Church Order Commentary by D. G. Vanderpyl (1992).


[1] Ephesians 4:11-12.
[2] 1 Peter 5:5.
[3] Hebrews 13:17.

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