Rev. Cammenga is pastor of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.
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 tied 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.
Church Order, Article 44.
The practice of church visitation is of long standing in Reformed churches. Already the Synod of ‘s Gravenhague, in 1586, adopted the practice. Our present article is in essence that adopted by the Synod of Dordt, 1619-’19. The Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, in 1914, revised the article in theChurch Order of Dordt in one respect. Dordt had specified the purpose of church visitation as “. . . discern (ing) whether the ministers, consistories and schoolmasters fulfill their office faithfully . . .” and that the church visitors “… direct everything to the peace, upbuilding and the greatest profit of the churches and schools.” The CRC revision of 1914 dropped the references to the schoolmasters and the schools.
Although the practice of church visitation is long-standing it was not immediately introduced into the Reformed churches. Early there were many who feared that such a practice would encourage hierarchy and rob the local congregations of their autonomy. The question was put to the Synod of Middelburg, 1581: “Whether it would be good besides the classical meetings also to introduce annual visits to the churches, or to appoint Inspectors or Superintendents, but with proper limitations. Answer: It is unnecessary and dangerous.” Nevertheless, in a short time the fears of what such a practice might lead to were overcome and the benefits of annual church visitation were seen.
Principle on Which Church Visitation is Based
The principle on which church visitation rests is the mutual responsibility that sister churches have towards each other in the fellowship of a denomination. It is not a matter or lording it over another consistory or prying into the private affairs of a consistory. But it is a matter of all the churches of the classis being concerned for the welfare and faithfulness of each other.
This principle is well put by the following writers.
Church visitation is mutual in character. By means of this institution the churches watch for each other’s welfare and advise and admonish each other when necessary. Church visitation is not an institution of supervision, exercised by superior officers over inferior officers. Neither is it supervision exercised by an authoritative superior body over inferior bodies. The various churches comprising a classis, being all equal in authority, supervise each other. (VanDellen and Monsma,The Church Order Commentary, p. 195.)
On the one hand, the Reformed churches were afraid of hierarchical elements while, on the other hand, they were aware of the need to keep watch over each other, not in a supervisory manner, as if they had authority over one another, but in the manner of equals who hold each other to their word and see the need to help and warn one another if the need should arise. (VanOene, With Common Consent, p. 216.)
Church visitation is in essence this, that representatives of the churches come to inquire whether this sister church maintains the faithfulness to the covenant of the churches by living up to the adopted order. (VanOene, p. 217.)
There is a clear, biblical basis for the practice of church visitation. According to Acts 11:22, 23 Barnabas was sent by the church at Jerusalem to the church at Antioch to investigate reports which they had received about their sister congregation. In Acts 15:36 Paul leaves on his second missionary journey in order to “… visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they do.” Clearly, the apostle was not merely interested in “visiting” socially with the brethren. But it was his purpose to make inquiry with respect to the spiritual condition of the congregations and officebearers—to “…see how they do?” Essentially, this was church visitation.
The Church Visitors
The church visitors are appointed by the classis. Each classis appoints at least two ministers to do this work. Two are required so that they may function officially as a committee on behalf of the classis. “At least two” implies that, if the classis deems it necessary, the number may be greater. Three ought to be appointed, or an alternate to the two, since circumstances may prohibit one of the appointees from being able to function and because neither of the two appointed is in a position to visit his own consistory.
Church visitors are “authorized” by the classis. They are appointed to their position by the vote of the classis. But they are not simply “appointed,” they are “authorized.” That bespeaks authority. The church visitors come with the authority of the classis that sends them.
The appointment of the church visitors is an annual not a permanent appointment. Within the year of their appointment they are to visit all of the churches of the classis. At the end of the year, their term as church visitors expires. And although the same men may serve again, they must be reappointed by the classis.
The article requires that the church visitors be competent “ministers.” This is not for principle reasons. It would not be improper for elders to serve as church visitors. There can be no principle objection to the appointment of elders as church visitors, perhaps a team of one minister and one elder. TheChurch Order of the CRC, Article 42a states: “The classis shall appoint at least one committee composed of two of the more experienced and competent officebearers, two ministers, or one minister and one elder, to visit all its churches once a year.” It is more for practical reasons that our Church Order assigns the work of church visitation to ministers.
According to the article, those appointed are to be the “… oldest, most experienced and most competent ministers….” The main requirement is that the church visitors be the most competent of the ministers of the classis. Generally, the most competent are also the oldest and most experienced. The work demands this experience and competency. Church visitors find themselves in many different situations. They are confronted with different problems and are asked advice in perplexing situations. It stands to reason that they must be men well versed in the principles and practices of “Reformed church government, as well as possessing practical wisdom that comes only with a number of years of service in the ministry.
The Actual Visits
The annual visit by the church visitors must be announced to the congregation. The consistory must be informed in time to make such an announcement. The decisions which our churches have appended to Article 44 include that, “The visitors shall give the congregations at least eight days notice of the day and hour of their proposed visit.” The congregation as a whole must be aware of the visit. One reason for this is to make it possible for any member to meet with the consistory and church visitors.
At the visits, one of the visitors functions as the president of their committee, asking the questions and directing the discussion, and the other functions as the secretary and examines the consistory minute books. For the visits, an adopted set of questions is followed (see insert). First there are questions put to the whole consistory. Then follow questions to the elders and deacons in the absence of the minister, to the minister and deacons in the absence of the elders, and to the minister and elders in the absence of the deacons.
Although the adopted questions must be asked and answered, the visitors are not restricted to these questions. There may and ought to be more extended discussion of certain of the questions. Related additional questions may also be asked.
It is profitable that the church visitors choose a theme and conduct the visitation from the perspective of this theme. Possible themes include: mutual supervision among the officebearers; denominational responsibility; the importance of the example of the officebearers; the officebearers’ attention to the youth of the congregation (in light of the fact that Article 44 itself calls special attention to the youth); the importance of holding to the traditions; the church’s calling to be a witness in the community; the unity of the church and the calling of the officebearers to promote the unity of the congregation.
Although the church visitors are to conduct, an annual visitation of every congregation in the classis, they ought also to be available to consistories for special consultation. Usually special visits will be made at the request of a consistory. It is not impossible, however, that the church visitors take the initiative and call for a special meeting. This is certainly within their rights and “authorization” by the classis. The visitors may feel the necessity of doing this if there are reports of serious problems in a congregation that perhaps threaten its continued existence. If a consistory is facing a difficult problem and feels the need for help and advice, it ought to feel free to call upon the church visitors before having to apply to the classis itself for help.
Church Visitors’ Reports
Having been appointed by the classis, the church visitors must also report to the classis: “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.” Church visitors must give an account of their work to the classis. The obligation to report indicates that they did not visit the churches in their own authority, but received their mandate from the classis. This report is to be given with “requisite discretion,” for the protection of individuals and of consistories.
Besides the annual report read on the floor of the classis, the church visitors are also to keep a record of their visits in the various congregations: “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.”
Purpose of Church Visitation
As far as the individual churches are concerned, the purpose of church visitation is the upbuilding of the congregations. Since the upbuilding of the congregations depends on the faithful labors of the officebearers, inquiry is made into the faithfulness of the officebearers, including the godliness of their talk and the purity of their doctrine. Since the future of the congregations his with the children and young people, special attention is paid to the labors bestowed on the children and youth. And since the upbuilding of the congregations is served by observance of “the adopted order,” the church visitors, must inquire whether all things are done according to our Church Order. This is the main reason for the inspection of the consistory’s books, to be assured that the adopted order is being followed by the consistory.
If the officebearers are found negligent in their calling, the upbuilding of the congregation demands that the church visitors “fraternally admonish” them.
As far as the officebearers are concerned, church visitation serves to encourage them to faithfulness and diligence in their respective offices. Church visitation affords an opportunity to remind the officebearers of the importance of their labors, and to stir them up to even greater diligence.
As far as the classis and, even more broadly, the denomination is concerned, the purpose of church visitation is the preservation of the purity of the churches. It is the means to assure that all the sister churches are living faithfully within the denomination. It is the means by which the churches carry out their calling of mutual supervision. And it is the means to protect and to strengthen the unity of the churches.
May God continue to use this institution for the blessing of our churches!
Questions for Church Visitation
Question to the Full Consistory
1. Is the Word administered at least twice on the Lord’s Day?
2. Is the Heidelberg Catechism regularly explained in the services for divine worship, so that no doctrine is left untreated?
3: In the reading services, are sermons used as much as possible which are produced in our own circle?
4. Is the Lord’s Supper celebrated at least four times a year preceded by a preparatory sermon and followed by an applicatory sermon?
5. Does the consistory see to it that catechism classes are regularly conducted? Does the consistory determine the material for instruction? And does it see to it that the classes are regularly attended?
6. Are consistory members chosen in agreement with the rules of the Church Order?
7. Does the consistory meet regularly in accord with the needs of the congregation, at least once a month?
8. Are all matters coming before the consistory treated according to our Church .Order and are the minutes properly recorded and kept?
9. Is censura morum conducted among the members of the consistory before each Lord’s Supper?
10. Is family visitation conducted faithfully, so that each family receives an official visit once a year?
11. Is church discipline faithfully exercised according to God’s Word and the Church Order?
12. Is the consistory aware whether there are members of secret organizations in the congregation, and if so, is church discipline applied to them?
13. What is the spiritual condition of the congregation? Is there unity, peace, and love?
14. Do the children of the congregation, when they come to years of discretion, seek admission to the Lord’s Supper? And if they are remiss, are they pointed to their obligation and treated as the need requires?
15. Is the congregation busy in the extension of God’s kingdom, especially in the promotion of missions, to the best of its ability?
16. Are the synodical assessments faithfully paid, in agreement with the stipulated regulations?
17. Are the funds of the church; and the poor fund and all proofs of possessions kept in a safe place so that no occasion is given for mistrust nor difficulties can arise on leave of office or death, and is the congregation properly incorporated with the State? Are the archives in order?
18. Does the consistory see to it that the parents send their children to the Christian school?
19. Are the Forms of Unity signed by all the members of the consistory, the ministers, elders, and deacons?
Questions to the Elders and Deacons in the Absence of the Minister
1. Does the minister in the preaching and in the administration of the sacraments do his work faithfully according to the Word of God, the Forms of Unity, and the Church Order?
2. Does the minister faithfully explain God’s Word so that the congregation is built up through his preaching?
3. Does he regularly conduct the catechism classes, visit the sick faithfully, and does he take part in family visitation?
4. Does the minister reveal himself as a worthy example?
5. Is he devoted as much as possible to the exercise of his office?
6. Does he receive sufficient income to take care of the needs of his family, taking in consideration the character of his work?
Questions to the Minister and the Deacons in the Absence of the Elders
1. Do the elders regularly attend the services for divine worship as well as the consistory meetings?
2. Do they at set times attend the catechism classes to see how they are conducted and attended; and do they assist the minister when the need requires it in catechizing?
3. Do they see to it that Christian discipline is exercised, and that everything is done honorably and in good order?
4. Do the elders visit the sick and others in agreement with the calling of their office?
5. Do they try to prevent and remove all offense in the congregation, and try to comfort and instruct the members?
6. Do they conduct themselves as examples to the congregation in their family and outward walk of life?
Questions to the Minister and Elders in the Absence of the Deacons
1. Do the deacons attend regularly the services for divine worship as well as the consistory meetings; and in case such meetings are held, do they also attend deacons’ meetings?
2. Are they diligent in the collecting of the alms and do they faithfully realize their calling in the care and comfort of the poor and oppressed?
3. Are the collections counted in the presence of the minister or one or more of the elders?
4. Do they administer the finances wisely in consultation with the minister and the consistory?
5. Do they in their family and outward life and walk reveal themselves as exemplary Christians?