This article was written by Rev. G. VandenBerg in the February 15, 1956 issue of the Standard Bearer.
“The authority of the holy scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God, the author thereof; and, therefore, it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.”—Westminster Confession
B. The Scriptural Basis
It is both proper and necessary for those who are called to engage in the work of family visitation, as well as for those who are the objects of this labor, to consider seriously whether or not this practice has the sanction of holy writ. Is it perhaps a manmade custom which can quite properly be relegated to the adiaphorous traditions of the church? Is it no more than an ingeniously devised means whereby a few in the church have for several centuries retained dominant supervision over the masses? Do purely practical considerations move the church to institute and maintain such a practice?
If the answer to all of the above is to be given affirmatively, it would certainly be a spiritually wholesome gesture to rid ourselves of this practice immediately. Its retention is then no longer desired. Certainly no blessing of God can be expected upon it and we will look in vain for any profitable fruits to ensue from it. The serious minded elder who seeks to perform the functions of his office according to the word of God has little or no incentive to engage in a labor that has its basis solely in antiquity and borders dangerously on the serious sin of arrogating to the officebearers of the church spiritual powers which they do not rightly possess.
But is this the true nature of the case?
Can a proper basis for the work of family visitation perhaps be found in the word of God? If so, there can be no question as to the validity of this practice nor can there be any doubt concerning its future retention for the authority of holy scripture is above all other and must be obeyed simply because it is the word of God. In considering this question, therefore, it is important that we do not take the negative approach. If, after studying the word of God, we find that there is nothing that directly condemns the practice of family visiting and may, therefore, conclude that within its confines this labor may be tolerated, such a basis can hardly be termed adequate. The work of family visiting has too important a place in the life of the church to be sustained by negative proof. We can be satisfied only with the firm conviction that Christ himself commands this of the church. Only then can it be performed with a strong incentive and a firm confidence that those engaged in it truly wield the sword of Christ.
Does scripture then provide such a basis? One may search hard and long to find a text that speaks directly, and specifically of the work of family visitation. To our knowledge such a text cannot be found. This, however, does not warrant the conclusion that scripture does not endorse this work. Often you meet people who refuse to be convinced of the scripturalness of certain things unless they are given a text or texts that plainly designate that particular thing. Take, for example, the practice of infant baptism. How frequent do you not hear the argument raised that since there is no direct or specific command in the Bible to baptize infants, this practice is to be entirely condemned. Of course such reasoning is absurd and superficial. It manifests no small ignorance of holy writ, refuses to acknowledge the fundamental rule that, “scripture interprets scripture,” and denies the essential and organic unity of the whole word of God. No amount of argumentation, even though it is based directly on scripture, will convince such persons to alter their views. And, of course, following this kind of reasoning they would also be compelled to judge the Reformed practice of family visiting an unscriptural one for there is no text in the word of God that directly sustains or commands it.
A solid and reasonable inferential basis for this work, however, may be found in many parts of God’s word. There can be no doubt about this. The term “elder” (episkopos), as we wrote before, denotes “an overseer” and that necessitates not only a general supervision of the preaching of the word but also a personal and periodic interrogation of the family and social life of the members of the church. Elders are appointed to exercise careful supervision over the faith and conduct of those under their care. The manner in which this is done, as long as it is a legitimate one, is quite irrelevant but there should be some instituted practice through which this phase of the elder’s work can be accomplished.
Thus it is also with the term “pastors” or “shepherds.” Christ is the chief shepherd of the flock (1 Peter 5:4). He is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10). In the church he appoints some “pastors and teachers for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12). This labor of the under shepherds requires: (a) feeding the flock by leading them into the green pastures of the word, (b) leading or guiding the flock, directing them in the way of the truth and warning, admonishing and rebuking them concerning every sinful departure from that way, and, (c) protecting them from the wolves that seek their destruction. This all is implied in such passages of holy writ as the following, to which others might easily be added:
Acts 20:28: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.”
Hebrews 13:17: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves; for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief; for that is unprofitable for you.”
1 Peter 5:2–3: “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.”
Now this labor plainly requires some official work comparable to that of family visitation. To accomplish this it is indispensable that there be an intimate relation between the elders and the members of the church so that the former is thoroughly acquainted and constantly aware of the needs of the latter. Only then can they be ministered unto effectively. And family visitation as a spiritual institution is a proper means through which this knowledge can be obtained. Not only this but even more so, while they, the elders, are engaged in this work itself, they are able to fulfill their calling to look after the welfare of the sheep of Christ’s flock and being vested with his authority they do instruct, admonish and comfort them as is fitting. If this is not the case, the visit has failed to attain its scriptural objective. Let no elder then shun this duty or ever feel that Christ would not have him perform this labor but rather let him do it with firm confidence. Let them “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:2). And let no sheep refuse submission to this divinely authorized rule of Christ’s church for to do so is to injure their own soul and to make impossible, while in such a state, the conscious joy and experience of the Lord’s blessing.
C. The Spiritual Nature of Family Visiting
In the treatment of this sub-division of our subject we shall be brief, not because the nature of family visiting is less important but because, firstly, this should be evident already from what is written in the foregoing so that we can avoid mere repetition and, secondly, we will have opportunity to write more about this in connection with our last sub-division.
It is necessary, however, that we clearly understand the spiritual purpose of this work lest we be too easily dissuaded by the common objections that are often raised against it. Family visitation is a spiritual work throughout. In his “Poimenics,” the Rev. G. M. Ophoff emphasizes, and correctly so, that family visiting is ministering the word of God. In the words of scripture, it aims at the “perfecting of the saints…the edification of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12).
It might then be objected that this practice is quite unnecessary since the ministry of the word in the services of public worship is sufficient to realize this objective. This, however, is a very erroneous conclusion. No one would care to deny the sufficiency of the preaching of the word nor desire to degrade its importance in any way. However, the mere fact that the word is preached in public assembly and that this preaching has its effect upon the members of the church does not at all exclude the necessity of that word being administered to the members individually and in their respective families. Such an informal ministry is of great value to those who minister as well as to those who are ministered unto.
This special ministry of the word is designed to develop and enrich the spiritual life of the individual. Essentially, of course, all of the children of God are the same and have need of the same spiritual nourishment which they receive together each Lord’s day. Nevertheless, there is also a wide variation in each individual’s circumstances, environment, personal weaknesses, needs, temptations, and shortcomings. No two are in this respect alike and unto all these different needs the word of God must be adapted and ministered.
The same is true of the family. No two families are the same. And the individual does not exist solely for himself but is a part of the broader unit, the family. The individual then must be regarded in the light of his position and calling in the family and the light of God’s word must be made to reflect upon his circumstances so that not only he is spiritually enriched but so that the whole family may be spiritually uplifted and the sins of the individuals which disrupt and degenerate the home life may be successfully combated.
Furthermore, the family in its individual members must be brought to the consciousness of its calling in relation to the church and, in general, to society and the world. Family visitation must purpose to bring each one in the church to the daily consciousness of “knowing it to be his duty, readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts, for the advantage and salvation of other members” (Lord’s Day 21, Heidelberg Catechism). And in the world, the far reaching implications, which touch every sphere of life, of the calling of God’s people to walk as children of light, opposing the darkness, may well be emphasized again and again.
Family visitation, therefore, aims to bring the individual the word of God so that it can direct him in his personal daily conflict with the powers of sin, aid him in realizing his calling in the midst of the family, the church, and the world. When this is thoughtfully considered, no objection to this practice can stand and the real child of God will not repel from family visitation, regarding it as an annual abhorrence, and seeking the meagerest excuse to be absent from the occasion but will rather meet it with eager spiritual anticipation and regret only that it is not performed more frequently. He will understand that this labor is designed for his spiritual welfare, and, knowing himself, will realize the necessity of his being constantly stimulated to walk in a new and holy life.