Rev. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.

One of the main duties enjoined upon the elders in Article 23 of the Church Order is family visitation: “The office of the elders (is) . ..both before and after the Lord’s Supper, as time and circumstances may demand, for the edification of the churches, 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.”

Family visitation is a distinctively Reformed practice. No other churches that I am aware of regularly and systematically conduct visitation of all the membership by the elders. Family visitation was first introduced into the Reformed churches by John Calvin.

Besides the reference to family visitation in Article 23 of the Church Order, there is also reference to the practice in Article 55: “To ward off false doctrines and errors that multiply exceedingly through heretical writings, the ministers and elders shall use the means of teaching, of refutation, or warning, and of admonition, as well in the ministry of the Word as in Christian teaching and family-visiting.” One of the questions put to the consistory at the time of the annual church visitation is: “Is family visitation conducted faithfully, so that each family receives an official visit once a year?” In the “Ministerial Call Letter,” among the duties expected of the minister, mention is made of his participation in family visitation.

Various names have been used to describe the practice of family visitation. The name “consistorial” or “elders’ visitation” has been used, the emphasis being on those who conduct the visits. The name “house visitation” has been used. This designation is a carry-over from the Dutch huisbezoek, the common name for family visitation in The Netherlands. This is a poor designation because it is not the house, the building, that is being visited, but the home. The best designation is “family visitation.” This name reflects the purpose of the visits, and is also the name that is used in the Church Order.

There is no specific text of Scripture that mandates annual family visitation or gives a description of family visitation. Family visitation is rather implied in those passages of Scripture that call the elders to watch over the souls of the people of God, the sheep as well as the lambs:John 21:15-17Acts 20:20, 23I Thessalonians 5:12-14Hebrews 13:17I Peter 5:1-5.

Anyone who is interested in further reading on the subject of family visitation may refer to the following: Taking Heed To the Flock, by P.Y. DeJong; “Visiting the Membership,” chapter 7 inThe Elders Handbook, by Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster; “Family Visitation,” Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, December, 1972, Vol.. VI, No. 1, by Prof. H.C. Hoeksema (copies available through the Theological SchooI of the Protestant Reformed Churches, 4949 Ivanrest Ave., Grandville, MI 49418).

History of Family Visitation

The history of family visitation is reflected in the decisions made regarding this practice by various Reformed synods. It is worth quoting the decisions of these bodies, not only for their historical value, but also because the decisions express rather clearly what the Reformed intended family visitation to be.

The very first synod of the Reformed churches of The Netherlands, the Synod of Wezel, 1568, called for weekly family visitation by the elders.

No doubt therefore their (the elders’) office demands that each diligently keep watch over his own parish or district, and visit the members under their care from house to house at least once a week, and furthermore as often as is the custom according to the regulation of each church. This shall be done especially close to the time of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. They shall faithfully investigate whether they (the church members) 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, or spur them on to a serious-minded fear of God; such as need comfort and admonition, and if need be they shall report a matter to their fellow elders, who together with them 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 district, to encourage them to send their children to catechism.

The Synod of Dordrecht, 1574, ruled:

The ministers shall pay careful attention at home visitation of the members of the congregation whether they have detrimental books in their homes so that they may exhort them to get rid of such books.

The Synod of Dordrecht, 1578, decided:

Before the Lord’s Supper ministers and elders shall visit the members of the church, especially the weakest ones and those who need it the most, so that they may, as much as in them lies by teaching, admonition, comforting, and removal of difficulties that have arisen, properly prepare the congregation for this sacred activity.

The Synod of Middelburg, 1581, decided:

The office of elder is, besides what is said above that they have in common with the ministers of the Word, to exercise supervision that the ministers together with their other helpers and deacons faithfully exercise their office, and when the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is approaching, to visit those who have planned to partake so that they may better prepare themselves for it.

The Synod of ‘s Gravenhage, 1586, ruled:

The office of elder is. ..according to the circumstances of time and place to conduct family visiting for the edification of the congregation insofar as this can be done before and after the Lord’s Supper, to teach, and also to exhort others to (profess) the Christian religion.

The decision of the Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-19, is essentially the same as Article 23 of our Church Order.

Purpose of Family Visitation

An important question is: “What really is the purpose of family visitation?”

Prof. Hoeksema writes:

We may summarize the purpose (of family visitation) as follows:

1) To inquire into the spiritual condition and well-being, the life and walk, of the sheep.

2) To inquire into their knowledge of the truth and into their growth in grace and knowledge.

3) To give comfort, guidance, admonition, and warning, according to need.

4) Thus to render to the individual members, the families, and the congregation as a whole spiritual benefit and upbuilding in the faith and in a sanctified walk (“Family Visitation,” PRTJ, Dec., 1972, Vol. VI, No. 1, p. 36).

Dr. P.Y. DeJong states a threefold purpose to family visitation in his book Taking Heed To the Flock: 1) Encouraging the faith of the individual believer; 2) Pointing out the believer’s Christian obligations in home and in society; and 3) Promoting the proper relation between the individual believer and the church.

The Church Order specifies at least four purposes for family visitation. First, family visitation is an important means by which the elders guard the sacrament of the Lords Supper. It is often forgotten that this was one of the main reasons for the introduction of the practice in the first place. Still today this ought to be an important purpose of family visitation, that by means of family visitation the elders are assured that the confessing members of the congregation are worthy partakers of the Lord’s Table. For this reason, too, family visitation provides an excellent opportunity for the elders to confront the young people with their calling to make public confession of faith and partake of the sacrament.

Article 23 lists two other purposes: “For the edification of the churches,” and “to comfort and instruct the members.”

Article 55 of the Church Order adds a fourth purpose for family visitation: “To ward off false doctrine and errors.”

Who Should Conduct Family Visitation?

There can be no doubt that primarily family visitation is the work of the elders, the ruling elders. Mention of family visitation is made in Article 23 which describes the office of the elders, not in Article 16 which describes the office of the ministers. In its origins, too, family visitation was primarily the work of the elders.

For this reason the elders ought not to shirk this duty or delegate it to the ministers. Neither ought they to suppose that they are not qualified to do the work of family visitation, or that the ministers are more qualified. This is not at all the case. From a certain point of view the elders are more qualified than the ministers to do this work. For the most part they have lived many years in the congregation, probably grown up in it. They know the weaknesses, problems, and needs of the membership better than the ministers often do.

Besides, there are good benefits for the elders themselves, as well as for the congregation, when the elders conduct family visitation.

Nevertheless, family visitation does also belong to the work of the ministers. As already pointed out, it is mentioned as a duty of the ministers in the “Ministerial Call Letter” and in the questions for Church Visitation. Article 55 of the Church Ordercalls both the elders and the ministers to ward off false doctrines and errors by conducting family visitation.

The ministers ought to assist the elders in family visitation, therefore. The elders must be careful, however, that the demands of family visitation do not become so great upon the minister that they begin to interfere with the other equally important aspects of his calling. In a congregation of 30 families or fewer the minister may well be able to go out on all the family visits. But in congregations much larger than 30 families, the elders ought to take half of the visits, and in congregations larger than 70 or 80 families the elders ought to take two-thirds of the visits. This way every other year, or at least every third year, each family will have the minister for family visitation.

As far as the frequency of the visits is concerned, strictly speaking, Article 23 calls for as many as eight visits per family per year—one before and one after each celebration of the Lord’s Supper. However, the article does add the qualifying phrase, “…as time and circumstances may demand . . . .”

Two questions for Church Visitation speak of at least one official visit of each family of the congregation in the course of the year: “Is family visitation conducted faithfully, so that each family receives an official visit once a year?” This is the practice generally followed in our churches.

….to be continued