The 44th Article of our Church Order reads as follows:
“The classis shall authorize at least two of her oldest, most experienced and most competent ministers to visit all the churches once a year and to take heed whether the minister and the consistory faithfully perform the duties of their office, adhere to sound doctrine, observe in all things the adopted order, and properly promote as much as lies in them, through word and deed, the upbuilding of the congregation, in particular of the youth, to the end that they may in time fraternally admonish those who have in anything been negligent, and may by their advice and assistance help direct all things unto the peace, upbuilding, and greatest profit of the churches. And each classis may continue these visitors in service as long as it sees fit, except where the visitors themselves request to be released for the reasons of which the classis shall judge.”
The above article, though quite lengthy, consists of only two sentences. In the Christian Reformed proposed revision of the Church Order, the first sentence of this article is left unchanged but the second sentence is made to read: “Permanency in the committee is to be sought, so that continuity of supervision may be obtained.” And, to the article the following new element is added in the proposed revision: “The churches are free to call on their church visitors whenever serious problems arise.”
Our churches have appended to Article 44 of the Church Order the following decisions:
“Church visitation which is required to be done in the congregations, requires for its efficient prosecution the following:
1. Each classis shall appoint from her midst at least two ministers and their alternates.
2. The visitors shall give the congregations at least eight days’ notice of the day and hour of the proposed visit.
3. The consistory shall see to it that all the consistory members are present at the meeting which is appointed for church visitation. Any member failing to be present shall be required to give the meeting good reason for his absence. If one-half of the members are absent the visitation cannot be carried out.
4. The consistory shall see to it that the record books are at hand for the inspection by the visitors.
5. of the visitors, one shall function as chairman and the other as secretary. They shall record their findings and actions in a book, which can be consulted at the next visitation, and which can be kept in the classical archive.
6. After completing the visitation of all the congregations, the visitors shall with requisite discretion, compose a report of their activities to be delivered at the next following classis.”
In addition to all of this, we find on pages 59-61 of our Church Order, a list of some thirty-six questions that are asked by the church visitors of the consistories they visit. To these questions we will refer a bit later for in the light of all of this material we are to discuss the important matter of church visitation.
The readers of our Standard Bearer will perhaps recall that about a year ago the Elders’ Conference of Classis East requested Rev. H. Hoeksema, the editor of our paper, to answer a question regarding the origin and history of this article of the Church Order. Thereupon the consistory of the First Church asked that his answer to this question be published in The Standard Bearer. This it was and those who are further interested will find this instructive article on p. 198 of Vol. 35 of our periodical. We intend to incorporate some of the pointers of this article in our future comments on this article.
In his mimeographed notes on Church Right the Rev. G. M. Ophoff also makes several striking observations on the matter of Church Visitation. For the benefit of our readers we will reproduce these notes in full here before we proceed to treat the contents of Article 44 and related matters. Rev. Ophoff writes:
“1. The character of the function of the church visitors. The church visitors form a committee of two appointed by the Classis. We thus dea1 here with a committee of the Classis. Thus the church visitors no more than the classis are a higher power over the churches. They are not vested with key-power over the churches. They cannot place members of the consistory or the whole consistory under the first, second and third step of censure, depose them from office and excommunicate them in a body or singly out of the Christian church. Hence, the church visitors are not a substitute of the monarchial bishop in the Roman Catholic Church. Like the classis they can only advise the churches. In and through these visitors the churches take heed to one another as autonomous members of the church federation.
2. The function of the church visitors. Their function, as stated by Article 44 is to take heed to the churches and the office bearers thereof and to admonish the negligent, and advise, assist, and help.
3. Their purpose. Their purpose is to help direct all things unto the peace, upbuilding, and greatest profit of the churches.
4. The question whether the institution of church visitors had the sanction of the Scriptures. We believe that it has. As it is the calling of nil the common members of the church to take heed to one another and admonish one another if there is need; so certainly it must also be the calling of all the churches of the same household of faith to take heed to one another and to be of mutual spiritual help to one another without the one setting itself up as a higher power over the other, or over the others.
5. The article requires that the church visitors be at least two of the oldest, most experienced, and competent ministers, the reason being that the task that must be performed is a weighty one.
6. The church visitors are not appointed by the president of the classis but they are chosen by the whole classis.
7. There is the question whether the coming of the church visitors should be announced to the congregation. Some say it should be announced and give their reason that the common members in the congregation, if they have a grievance against the consistory, should have opportunity to reveal the same to the church visitors in order that the difficulty may be settled and removed. We do not favor this view. Certainly such members must first reveal their grievance to the consistory and from the consistory the way leads not to the church visitors but to the classis, and the classis meets four times in the year.
8. The question might also be asked why the churches should be visited by the church visitors, seeing that the Classis could place these very questions to the consistories on the classical meeting and actually does put some of these questions to them. The only answer is that our Reformed fathers deemed the institution of Church Visiting necessary.
9. The complaint has often been made that church visiting is so mechanical and bears so little fruit. To the complaint that church visiting is mechanical, it may be replied that this is not the fault of the institution but of the church visitors and the consistories. Church visiting, like family visiting is exactly what men make it. The question put must be truthfully answered and the consistories admonished according as there is need. In the degree that this is done, will church visiting bear fruit.
10. Should the church visitors report to classis their findings? Ordinarily not. But certainly serious cases of disorderly behavior on the part of a consistory that will not mend its ways after having been admonished by the church visitors should be reported to the classis.”
Apart now from various questions and problems that may arise in connection with the subject of church visitation, we may observe in the light of all the above that this work is of a very serious and important nature. We do not mean that it is serious simply because it may involve the churches in the expenditure of a rather large sum of money. That too, of course. Any work of the church that involves large monetary costs must certainly be important. No church may spend large sums for non-essentials.
We have in mind, however, that it lies in the very nature of the work of church-visiting that it is a serious work. The task of the classis is the task of all the churches and to this belongs the function of exercising mutual supervision over one another. The necessity of this follows from the Reformed conception according to which one church does not stand above another but all are equal in rank and autonomy. In a federation of such churches there must be some form of supervision but since there is no higher ecclesiastical order above the local church to enact this, the only way it can be done is by mutual agreement and the mutual delegation of authority which is done through the Classis in the appointment of church visitors. And the purpose of this work, as the Article itself states, is “the up building of the congregation.” This spiritual aim or objective must be constantly kept in mind because where it is ignored or forgotten the work of church-visitation will be unfruitful regardless of how it is performed and if it is properly kept upon the foreground, many of the problems, difficulties and questions that frequently arise in connection with this work will dissipate.
If, therefore, the church visitors are regarded as a couple messenger boys who are sent around to all the churches to simply ask of each consistory a series of form-questions, it is certainly far better that these questions be printed in the form of a questionnaire and either mailed to each church or distributed to the delegates at the classis. If, on the other hand, the church visitors are erroneously regarded as a super-power in the church sent to lord it over consistories and to introduce tyranny in the church of Jesus Christ, it would be better if they were not given so much as a hearing for such evil cannot possibly serve the spiritual welfare and up building of the congregation.
Neither must the church visitors be regarded as “troubleseekers.” Although it is unavoidable that they will be confronted with problems and troubles that exist in the churches, their aim is not to see how much trouble they can uncover. Their primary purpose is not to investigate but to help direct all things unto the peace, upbuilding, and profit of the churches” by their advice and assistance.
Regarding these brethren then as competent, experienced advisors who are authorized and empowered by all the churches to perform this work of mutual supervision in which the welfare of the churches is sought, the labor will be performed with joy and profit. Then they will not be bound to a set of stereotyped questions and the consistories will not feel that they are overstepping their bounds when they inquire into matters that are not specifically mentioned in the “book.” There will be a certain measure of latitude in this work which will be healthy for all concerned and the danger of its becoming a meaningless, mechanical process will virtually be obliterated.