This article was written by Rev. G. VandenBerg in the March 1, 1956 issue of the Standard Bearer.
Frequently, even among those who are members of Reformed churches, there emits rather strong sentiments of discontentment with the venerable practice of family visitation. In some circles these dissatisfactions are catered to, resulting in either the complete abolition of the practice or in its being substituted with something less poignant and official. Since generally the objections that are raised are tendered by those who for carnal reason detest any form of spiritual investigation of their faith and walk, such a surrender on the part of the church characterizes her as spiritually weak and more willing to appease men than to unstintingly perform her spiritual duty. Thus the flesh prevails and the communion of saints is reduced to a common society. Order and decency as maintained by spiritual rule are lost and each member does without restraint as seems good in their own eyes. The salt hath lost its savor!
Every instance of protestation to the practice of family visiting, however, is not hereby judged carnal. We can conceive of sincere and legitimate criticisms being offered, not for the purpose of destroying the institution or reducing it to an absurdity but rather, in an earnest effort to improve upon the present practice. One may feel that family visiting does not attain its real spiritual purpose and wish to seriously inquire into the reason for its defect. Another may honestly judge that the manner in which the work is performed is not wholly beneficial and may, therefore, offer legitimate protestations along this line. Another may sincerely question whether the official character of this work obstructs the procuring of spiritual information that is sought. One may question the necessity of family visiting where the consistory is aware before the visit is made that normal spiritual circumstances prevail. Or one may doubt the validity of dealing with the individual in the presence of the entire family.
Where such objections are raised, two things ought to be kept in mind. In the first place, the objections are not raised against the institution of family visiting as such, but although they differ in form, the criticism are all against the method which is used in executing this work. On the latter point there is always room for criticism and improvement provided that this criticism is constructively offered and aims at the betterment rather than at the destruction of the institution. On the former point there is no room nor possibility of protest. Let me illustrate. I may offer many objections to the manner in which the government of the state is conducted but I may never protest to government itself. The latter is instituted by God who in his word commands me to be subject. To this I may never rebel. Thus we have shown in previous writings that family visiting belongs to the institution of the office of the elders, is based upon God’s word and, therefore, against it no complaint may be lodged. To rebel is to rebel against God. And the church must not surrender to rebels but must fight them with the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God. We repeat, however, that there may be legitimate criticism of the methodology. This is something quite different.
In the second place, where such objections are properly raised they should not be brushed aside and ignored but seriously considered by all concerned. On the part of those who raise the objections, there should be open-mindedness and a ready willingness to be shown if and in how far their objections are inconclusive because of a lack of understanding on the part of the objector of the purpose and nature of family visiting. This may very well be the case since often sincere objections result from a lack of mature understanding. Further, the objector must then not be a chronic complainer but must be ready to offer a concrete improvement in regard to the matter he contests. He must be positive as well as negative. If he is not, his objections cannot be constructive and helpful. It were better that he, in that case, either kept still or simply sought information instead of protesting. And on the part of the church there must always be a readiness to consider in order that the very best in all things may be sought. This spirit is conductive to further development of sound institutions.
Now then, let us briefly note some of the common objections that are frequently heard. In his “Poimenic Notes,” the Rev. G. M. Ophoff enumerates the following:
“(1) Family visiting is too mechanical.
(2) It tends toward clericism.
(3) It prevents the officebearers from really learning to know the sheep since a false front is often presented. It fosters hypocrisy.
(4) It is the ban of intimate contact of fellowship between the officebearer and the sheep.
(5) It partakes more of the character of church discipline than of soul care.”
In his book, Taking Heed To The Flock, the Rev. P. De Jong points out that the objections to this institution may be regarded as two-fold. Firstly, there are those whose objections are based on the principle that there should be no supervision of the membership in the church by those in authority since all believers are equal in rank before Christ. Secondly, there are those who object for various practical reasons.
He then proceeds under separate headings to discuss the following objections to the practice of family visiting: It is
“(1) A Poor Substitute for the Confessional.
(2) A Denial of the Equality of All Believers.
(3) A Legalistic Conception of Spiritual Life.
(4) A Fruitless Work Because of its Formal Character.
(5) An Unwelcome and Unappreciated Work.
(6) An Unnecessary Work in a Normal Church.
(7) A Disregard of the Needs of the Individual.”
Our space does not permit a detailed discussion of each of these objections. Neither is that necessary since the burden of proof lies with the critics. It is not for us to disprove these claims but rather it is the task of those who make them to show clearly that they are true and of such weight as to require the cessation of the work of family visiting. Until this is done we are impressed but little by these criticisms.
However, a few words concerning them in general may be in place. In evaluating them as a whole we would classify these objections in four separate groups.
The first group contains those criticisms that are positively untrue. As an example of this we cite the following: “That family visitation is a poor substitute for the confessional; or that it is an unnecessary work in a normal church.” These, arguments can easily be shown to be entirely false.
The second group contains arguments which are mere conjectures or simply wrong conclusions which the objector draws as a matter of opinion and for which he offers not the slightest proof. Thus, for example, the argument that family visiting fosters hypocrisy or that it assumes the character of church discipline or that it disregards the need of the individual. That the possibility of some of these things becoming a reality exists does not have to be denied but that such things are inherent in the institution itself is certainly false. Neither can this mode of reasoning serve as a sound basis for the abolition of this work. We cannot reason that way with respect to other things, nor do we do so. For example, the possibility exists that there may be poison in my food that will kill me. It does not follow from this that all food is poisonous or that I should, therefore, cease to eat. Such reasoning is folly.
The third group, which is also the group most worthy of careful consideration, contains those objections that are really directed against the manner in which this work is performed rather than against the work itself. As an example of this we cite the arguments that family visiting tends toward clericism; leads to a legalistic conception of spiritual life; is fruitless because of its formal character, etc. We do not say that these things are true but only admit that when this work is done in a wrong manner the criticisms may be valid. However, even if they are true they do not prove the necessity of discontinuing the work but only point to the need of reforming it. This is true on general principles of virtually everything. When things are done wrong harmful effects will result. When I drive my car contrary to the law I will be involved in accident in which I may get killed or I will be indicted for traffic violation. This is no reason I should not drive my car but is a strong argument that I should always drive it properly. So it is with family visiting. If it is improperly conducted more spiritual harm will result than good. It is imperative then that this work be done properly “in good order and decency.”
Finally, there are those objections that are based upon wrong conceptions of other things. Thus, for example, the objection that family visiting denies the equality of all believers. Of course this is not true. No Reformed person having a Reformed conception of the church and its offices would voice such an objection. It is the Anabaptist whose insistence upon equality repudiates the authority in the visible church who reasons this way. He can do so only because his view of the church is a distorted one.
Hence, in conclusion, we insist that none of these objections give good reason to discontinue this venerable practice. The spiritual benefits of family visiting are many for the church as well as for the individual. And it need not be considered strange that there always have been and will continue to be objections raised against any practice that promotes the spiritual. This is to be expected as long as the church is on the present earth. She need not become alarmed at these criticisms but let her beware when her practices meet with the approval of all men and arouse the ire of none. Then assuredly something is wrong.
“Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word or our epistle” (2 Thess. 2:15).
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