The twenty-third article of our church order states that one of the duties of the office of elder is “to visit the families of the congregation, in order particularly to comfort and instruct the members, and also to exhort others in respect to the Christian religion.” The original rendering of this was much more explicit. It read as follows: “They (the elders) shall faithfully investigate whether they (the members of the church) manifest themselves uprightly in walk and conduct, in the duties of godliness, in the faithful instruction of their households in the matter of family prayers (morning and evening prayers) and such like matters; they shall admonish them to these duties with consideration; but also in all seriousness and according to conditions and circumstances; they shall admonish them to steadfastness, or strengthen them to patience, OF spur them on to a serious minded fear of God; such as need comfort and admonition they shall comfort and admonish, and if need be they shall report a matter to their fellow Elders, who together with them that are appointed to exercise discipline; and besides these matters they shall correct that which can be corrected according to the gravity of the sin committed; nor shall they neglect, each one in his own district, to encourage them to send their children to catechism.”
It was felt that this redaction was much too lengthy for the purposes of the church order and so it was abbreviated to its present form but the original emphasizes the serious importance of this particular work, as well as contains many helpful suggestions which may be profitably heeded even in our present day. If the general thrust of the above article is remembered, the danger of family visitation reverting into a mere custom will be greatly lessened. When the church is correctly instructed in regard to the nature of this work, her members will know what they may expect and when the elders call there will be no attempt to change this official work into a social visit. When the latter is done the whole purpose of family visitation is, of course, defeated. Where this occurs, it is not strange that attempts are soon put forth to abolish this entire practice or substitute it with other measures. This is today’s trend in many Reformed circles but the fault does not lie in the practice but rather in the usage to which it is put. Our church order does not exclude the ministers of the Word from the labor of family visitation although on the surface this might seem to be the implication. Article 16, which speaks of the duties of the ministers, does not mention this work while Article 20, defining the tasks of the elders, mentions it explicitly. It would seem that only the latter are, therefore, to perform this work but this is not correct. First of all, it must be remembered that ministers are also elders. Secondly, their duties as shepherd of the flock according to the Form of Ordination requires active participation in this work. Thirdly, Article 55 of the Church Order states that “the ministers and elders shall use the means of teaching, of refutation, of warning, and of admonition, as well in the ministry of the Word as in Christian teaching and family visiting to ward off false doctrines and errors, etc.” And, finally, the church visitors annually ask the question of the consistory, “Does the minister take part, in house visitation?” Nevertheless, the work itself belongs primarily to the office of overseers, the elders of the church, and the latter should, therefore, not assume the role of a silent companion to the minister but should also take an active part. It is part of their office.
The institution of family visitation is one of the fruits of the Reformation of the 16th century. It is strictly a usage of Reformed Churches and was originated by John Calvin, who also was greatly instrumental in restoring the office of the elder to the churches. It is the loss of this office in both the Romish and Lutheran churches that explains the absence of anything resembling the institution of family visiting. Lutheranism held to the traditions of Rome as much as possible, retained the Confessional and other usages though different in form from those of Rome. This has proved over and again to have been to her detriment. The break from the deformations which characterized the church during the centuries preceding the Reformation was more clear-cut in the Reformed Churches. They abolished the traditions of men and reestablished the churches in the faith and practices of the apostolic church. The offices were properly restored. The people of God were given a real measure of spiritual liberty and the Word of God was elevated as the sole canon of faith and life. In harmony with this the practice of family visitation was instituted in its present form.
We write, “in its present form” because there are many intimations in the writings of the early church fathers that the early church had some practice which may to a certain extent be considered the antecedent of our Reformed practice of’ family visiting. In its present form family visitation originates with Calvin but the idea of pastoral care of individual sheep as well as the collective flock is of a much earlier date. That idea is found in Scripture and adorns the office which we are now discussing. The writings of Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian, Chrysostorn, Gregory, Augustine, and others indicate clearly that already then there was some form of systematic visitation of the members of the church by the officebearers. And this is certainly necessary for the effective preaching of the Word as well as the spiritual wellbeing of the church as we will make clear a bit later.
In this light it is clear that our system of family Visitation is not designed or intended as a substitution for the Romish Confessional. Many have and undoubtedly some still entertained this thought. Even Monsma and Van Dellen in their “Church Order Commentary” offer this suggestion although they also add that it cannot be verified. We quote from page 109, “But in the second place it must be remembered that home visitation as established by the Reformed Churches took the place of the Roman Confession before the priest. None are permitted to go to mass unless they have been to confession just previous to the celebration of the mass. It may be that our fathers stipulated visits before and after the celebration of the Lord’s Supper because of this Roman Catholic usage. We merely suggest the connection, inasmuch as we are not able to verify it at this time. This much is sure, inasmuch as a good many Church members had recently left the Roman Church, and were not well founded in the truth, repeated instruction and constant conferences would be very necessary. It should also be noted that the very first ‘major assembly’ of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands, the Wezelian Convention of 1568, ruled that home visitation should be conducted by the Eldersevery week. Today, as we know, loyal Roman Catholics still go to confession every week.”
The idea of the Romish Confessional is clearly described in a little booklet entitled, “Chats With Prospective Converts,” written by a Rev. M.D. Forrest. He writes:
“To obtain pardon of our sins we must go to confession—that is, we must tell the priest all mortal sins we have committed since our last good confession, or if one is making his first confession, all mortal sins he has committed since Baptism. We need not to tell venial sins in confession, though it is praiseworthy to do so. You will learn in due time all about sin and its distinctions. Mortal sin is grievous sin—one which destroys our friendship with God and deserves everlasting punishment. Venial sin is a lesser offence against God—one of those faults into which even just souls may fall. A little Catholic girl was once asked by a non-Catholic companion why Catholics went to confession to a priest. The Catholic girl is reported to have given this simple beautiful answer: “When Jesus was on the earth, He forgave people their sins. But He knew everyone’s sins, because He is God. When He was leaving this earth, He gave His priests power to forgive sin. But the priest does not know the people’s sins, and so they must tell them to him.”
Certainly the Reformed practice of family visitation is nothing like this. It is quite the reverse. It does not give the members of the church a periodic opportunity to expose themselves as to their gross and less serious offences. Neither is this necessary for the daily conduct of the members of the church is in itself an open book. The elders in conducting family visitation do not purpose to pry into the hearts of the individual but rather they purpose to instruct, exhort and stimulate believers to a life of sanctification in all its parts.
With the following quotation, taken from Dr. P.Y. De Jong’s book, ‘Taking Heed to the Flock,’ we can agree:
‘It is therefore a mistaken notion to argue that our Reformed fathers, having rid the churches of the confessional, felt the need of some substitute and hence introduced family visitation. In no sense of the word is the latter a substitute for the former. Rather, in their heroic attempt to purify the church of Christ of unscriptural practices they returned to the Bible and found there a solid foundation for this type of spiritual work. Too long had the church through its leaders ignored an important aspect of her calling. And only by restoring and maintaining the proper spiritual contact between the church’s officers and her members were they able to rejoice in an evident revival of spiritual life in the congregation.”
Very significant then is this work of the elders of the church. Because of this we purpose, the Lord willing, to consider briefly different aspects of this work, such as, its Scriptural basis, it spiritual nature, objections that are raised to it, methods employed in performing it, and the like. With the above quoted author we too would say, “And those who give it (family: visitation) more than passing consideration must agree that it has done much to keep the church strong and pure. This, however does not exclude the possibility of danger. Always when a practice has long continued in the churches, signs of degeneration put in their subtle appearance.” May this never happen. May we in the Protestant Reformed Churches faithfully hold fast to this Reformed tradition, arduously cherish this wonderful practice and long enjoy its spiritual blessedness. And for those who desire to read more on this subject, we recommend for the Holland readers, P. Biesterveld’s “Huisbezoek” and for the English readers, P.Y. De Jong’s ‘Taking Heed To The Flock.’ (To be continued)