Mr. Martin Swart was for many years a member of the First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI. He served as elder many times, which involved him in the work of family visitation. This article, discovered among his papers after his death, was first delivered as an essay to the First Church Men’s Society.
The subject concerns the proper manner of family visitation. By way of introduction, this subject can only be treated in a general way. It is impossible to state in detail what would be the proper manner of procedure in every individual case. Much depends upon the circumstances and conditions as they exist, not only in the various families called upon, but also in the congregation as a whole, and especially upon the spiritual state and condition of the individual members. All that we can really do is to consider the fundamental principles that lie at the basis of family visitation, in order that, guided by these principles, we may conduct the work according as circumstances and conditions may demand and according as the need of the individual member may require.
This being the case, I would like, first of all, briefly to call attention to the history that lies back of our custom of periodically calling upon the members of the congregation. I do this, not only because of the fact that this history, to a large extent, determines the purpose of family visitation, but also because it provides us with many valuable suggestions as to the proper way of conducting it.
In the first place, our custom of periodically calling upon the membership of the congregation really took the place of the Roman Catholic practice of auricular and sacramental confession, i.e., the acknowledgement of sin to the priest in order to obtain forgiveness through him. In the Roman Church no one is permitted to go to the mass unless he has been to confession just previous to the celebration of the mass.
Now the Reformers did not favor this Roman confession to the priest. They not only found no scriptural basis for this practice, but they also were aware of the many evils which attended it. But although this custom in the church which they had left did not appeal to them, the Reformers did feel the necessity of personal supervision by the overseers of the church, and personal consultation by the overseers, in order to instruct, correct, and comfort each one according to his individual need. They believed that this could best be carried on through periodic visits on the part of the officebearers at the home of the members. This was necessary especially in view of the fact that many in the Reformed churches had only recently left the Roman Church and were not well-founded in the truth, making repeated instruction and constant conferences necessary.
It is interesting to note that the “major assembly” of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands, the Wezelian Convention held at Wezel in the year 1568, ruled that these visits should be conducted every week. It may be that in this they simply followed the practice of the church of Rome. Loyal Catholics, to this day, still go to confession every week. However this may be, the ruling of the Wezelian Convention, in part, reads as follows:
They (the elders) 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 they shall comfort and admonish, 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 own district, to encourage them to send their children to catechism.
It must be admitted that we have in this designation a wealth of suggestive material for conducting family visitation, also for our own day. Nevertheless, it was soon felt that this formulation was too long. Hence the Synod of 1586 gave a summary of what the Wezelian Convention had formulated, as we have it today in Article 23 of our Church Order:
The office of the elders, in addition to what was said in Article 16 to be their duty in common with the minister of the Word, is to take heed that the ministers, together with their fellow-elders and the deacons, faithfully discharge their office, and 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.
We may notice that this article stipulates that the elders shall visit the members not only before but also after communion. Also this gives us a valuable suggestion with respect to conducting family visitation. It may be that the fathers stipulated this because of the Roman Catholic custom of going to confession before partaking of the mass, although there is no proof for this. But at any rate, the fathers were convinced that a personal talk by the elders with the members of the congregation concerning the significance of the Lord’s Table and the spiritual attitude of heart and mind in which they should come would be of great benefit. They thought also that a personal visit after the celebration, to speak on the benefits derived from it, would be of great value. They had witnessed the corruption of mere formalism in the church they had left and keenly felt the need to promote true spirituality in the churches that had been liberated from this corruption.
We should also take note of Article 55 of the Church Order:
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.
Also this article sheds light on our subject. This article originally dealt with the censuring of books. Briefly, the Reformed churches of Holland, following the example of Rome and the general conceptions of their day, decided that no one should publish a book or writing without the approval of the ministers of his classis or particular synod or the professors of theology. The first synod of the Reformed churches of the Netherlands, the Synod of Emden, held in Emden, German, in 1571, even went so far as to rule that no one, regardless whether he was a member of the Reformed churches, should be permitted to publish a book without proper authorization. They evidently nursed the mistaken hope that the government would become wholly Reformed and eventually take the same stand. This was confirmed by other synods. This hope, of course, did not materialize. Hence the synod of 1586 limited the restriction of Article 55 to those who professed to be Reformed, and therefore to those over whom the churches had supervision and control.
But for various reasons the censuring of books in the above sense proved to be impractical. Therefore the Synod of Utrecht, in 1905, changed the article to its present reading. The intent of the present reading is that undesirable books and literature shall be counteracted, not by prohibiting their publication, but by teaching, refutations, warnings, and admonitions, not only in the preaching of the Word, but also in family visitation.
Now all this certainly throws much light on the subject under discussion. It tells us, in the first place, that the purpose of family visitation is to promote true spirituality in the midst of the congregation. But if that purpose is to be attained, it certainly will have to be conducted according as circumstances, conditions, and need may require. These circumstances, conditions, and needs vary. There is, in the first place, a difference among the families as such. In some homes you have only husband and wife; in others you have young people; in still others there are small children. This difference among families certainly must be taken into consideration in family visitation. So, for example, in a family of young children, that father and mother must not only be addressed as persons, but also as parents in their relation to their children. In a family where there are young people, these young people must be instructed and warned against the many temptations by the which they are surrounded. If they have come to years of discretion, it should be pointed out to them that it is their calling before God to confess the name of Christ in the midst of His church and willingly and consciously to assume their place in the church. Also the parents should be exhorted to use their influence in this respect.
Conditions vary in the different families. In some families you meet with a condition of true godliness in their family life, in their family worship, in the instruction of their children, in their attitude to the things of this world. Other families live just on the border line, and in their family life there is but little manifestation of true godliness. In other families you meet with a spirit of indifference, a laxity with respect to church attendance and with respect to admonishing their children and sending them to catechism. Also the needs of the individual members differ. The need of the father, as head of the family and his position in the broader sphere of life, is different from the need of the mother in the home and in the bringing up of her children. The need of the young men, especially in our modern age, differs from the need of the old man who is nearing the end of his journey here below. Then there are some who live in the assurance of faith, while others are weak in the faith and lack this assurance. Some are burdened with the weight of their sins, while others rejoice in the forgiveness of sins. Now with a view to all these various circumstances and conditions and relationships of life, the elders in family visitation must edify, instruct, admonish, rebuke, comfort, and encourage, according as the need may be. The purpose of family visitation is to guide the lives of the people of God and to help them in their spiritual battle of faith. Family visitation, therefore, is a serious business.
From all this it ought to be plain that we cannot properly conduct family visitation by approaching people with a topic determined upon beforehand. That would defeat the very .purpose of family visitation and make it unfruitful. We must not make of family visitation a sort of individualized catechism class. Surely in family visitation people must be instructed. But they must be instructed, not in certain points of doctrine, but with respect to their own personal spiritual life and walk. Besides, we must remember that, although the elders may prepare themselves for the topic they plan to discuss, the people will not be prepared for it. The result will be that there will be little or no response on the part of the people.
What is more, the different circumstances and conditions that you meet with do not allow it. The topic to be discussed cannot be determined beforehand, but is determined by the need of the various people you call on. It is sometimes said of certain officebearers that in family visitation they talked about nothing but the weather. That is a figurative way of saying that they talked about everything except the spiritual things. But taken literally, the occasion could arise that the elders would be obliged to talk about the weather. If, for example, a farmer, is faced with complete crop failure due to weather conditions, and he is in rebellion against that weather, or discouraged because of it, it certainly would be in order to admonish that farmer, or comfort him, as the case might be, with respect to that weather, and to point out to him that also that weather is in the hand of God, who causeth all things to work for the salvation of His people.
So it is with everything. If one is negligent in church attendance, he must be admonished with respect to his neglect. If one complains that he is not edified by the preaching of the Word, the elders should inquire as to the reason for this. If it becomes evident that the fault lies with the member himself, this should be pointed out to him, and an attempt be made to correct the situation.
Instead of approaching people, therefore, with a pre-determined topic, we must conduct our family visitation according to the circumstances and conditions as we meet with them, and speak with each member according to his or her individual need.
Of course, this must all be done by means of the Word of God. That simply implies that we must diligently search the Scriptures and be founded in the truth, in order that we may be able to meet the needs of the flock of Jesus Christ over which He has made us overseers, not with our own philosophy, but with the living Word of God, which alone can edify, instruct, comfort, and build up in the most holy faith. Family visitation has undoubtedly been one of our strongholds in the past. Let us keep it that way. Most Protestant churches have done away with it, undoubtedly to their hurt. For others it has become no more than a mere social call. Let us beware, lest also in our circles it become a mere formality. If we continue to conduct our family visitation according to the purpose for which it was instituted, it will prove to be a power for good, also in the future.