Family visitation is, of course, a part of the elders’ work in the congregation. It is not my intent to call attention to this aspect of their work, for the Church Order commentaries deal with this matter at length. But the believers, functioning in their office, have also a role to play in this important part of the work of the church. I want to deal, though briefly, with this latter.
The Purpose of Family Visitation
The purpose of family visitation is defined in our Church Order as follows:
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 (Article 23).
While Article 23 connects family visitation with the administration of the Lord’s Supper, in more recent times the purpose of family visitation has been broadened considerably, and the frequency of family visitation has been sharply reduced. We are interested in its broader purpose.
Family visitation is, within our churches, conducted once per year. It is a time for the elders to visit the families and individuals of the congregation in their homes, with their children when children are in the home. Its purpose is to make the rule of the elders over the congregation more directly applied to the individual needs of the family by inquiring into their spiritual well-being. In this way the rule of the elders can be specifically applied to the life of the individual families and members by comfort, instruction, and exhortation— to use the words of Article 23.
This broadening of the purpose of family visitation does not preclude the necessity of elders inquiring into the spiritual preparation of the family for the administration of the sacrament. But it does give the elders wider scope in this aspect of their work.
The Believers’ Calling in Family Visitation
The believers have certain responsibilities in family visitation, and it is well to speak briefly of it.
Quite obviously, believers are to open their homes eagerly for this annual visit of the elders. It is part of their calling to submit to those who in the church have authority over them. They ought to be conscious of the fact that in the rule of the elders is to be found the rule of Christ Himself, whose rule is gracious and loving. Opening their homes to the elders, the family ought also to be open and frank with the elders when questions concerning their spiritual welfare are put to them. They ought not to take an attitude in which they view the elders’ visit as an unwarranted intrusion into private matters and motivated by sheer curiosity. They ought not to be reticent in expressing themselves openly concerning the spiritual well-being of their family life.
The elders are, according to the pertinent article in the Church Order, to comfort, instruct, and exhort the members. Family visitation is a wonderful opportunity for the elders to do this. But their work in this area will be much more effective if the members speak freely of their own lives as they attempt to live it in obedience to God. Members are not to be alarmed about speaking of their failures and their weaknesses, their sorrows and their disappointments, but also their joy in God’s goodness towards them and their thankfulness for God’s rich grace. Such frankness will open the way for the elders to address themselves directly to the needs of the family.
The members of the family ought not to “save up” various items which they want to discuss at family visitation. If the family as a whole, or any individual members of the family, have problems of one sort or another, it is never good to wait for family visitation. Their elders are always there to help them in the problems of life. It is well to emphasize that God’s people ought more readily to seek the help and guidance of their elders when they are uncertain as to what their calling is in the circumstances in which God has placed them. In fact, it is frequently preferable for believers to seek the help and counsel of their elders rather than their minister. Various reasons underscore this point. 1) Elders are frequently in a better position to give counsel than the minister because their acquaintance with the members and the circumstances of their lives is broader than that of the minister, especially when the minister has been in a congregation only a short time. 2) The work of the minister is concentrated in the ministry of the Word, and it is not profitable for the congregation for the minister “to leave the Word of God and serve” other needs — to apply the apostles’ word to our present situation (Acts 6:2). More pastoral work can be done from the pulpit by strong preaching than in countless pastoral visits which take a minister from his study. When a minister gives himself to the preaching, he lays a foundation for the work which elders can then perform in fulfillment of the responsibilities of their office. 3) It is sometimes thought by believers (and, perhaps, some pastors) that pastors are the “experts” in advice and counsel, while elders are not as skilled in pastoral work as one trained for the work. But we must be careful with such reasoning. The sole calling of ministers and elders is to bring the Word of God. Elders can do that in the rule of the congregation as well as, and sometimes better than, ministers. If attention is paid to that one qualification Scripture lays down for elders, “apt to teach,” the congregation does not need “experts.”
But family visitation is especially an opportunity for the elders to comfort, instruct, and exhort. And the family as a whole ought to be submissive to this work of the elders.
Sometimes matters of a more private nature may come up on family visitation. A husband and wife, for example, may be having some problems in their marriage, but wisely do not want to discuss these problems in the presence of their children. Or parents may be having problems with one of the older children, but do not want to discuss them in the presence of the younger children. The elders ought to be informed of this prior to family visitation, and arrangements made for the parents to discuss these matters privately with their district elders or with elders who come on family visitation.
Children have the same right. If they have problems they would like to discuss with their elders, they have the right to do this. Generally speaking, especially when children are still quite young, they must discuss these matters with their parents, and they ought to talk with their elders only with the knowledge and consent of their parents. But when children become young adults, they too should be free to seek the comfort, instruction, and exhortation of their elders.
Family visitation can be of great blessing to the congregation.
Perhaps it is well to add here a note concerning proper practice in family visitation. It is becoming increasingly characteristic of this work that the consistory decide, when family visitation is to be conducted, what text will be used. The minister preaches a sermon on the text; the consistory discusses the passage at a meeting; and the elders go from home to home delivering a brief exposition of the passage to the family visited. This is not family visitation.
The elders must inquire into the spiritual well-being of the family, and they must take the opportunity to instruct the family in various aspects of their walk and calling in the world. Certainly it is proper and necessary to read from a select passage of Scripture and to use it as the basis for instruction in some aspect of the believer’s walk. Many such aspects of the believer’s life in the world suggest themselves: prayer and its importance in family life, personal devotions, worship services, etc.; Christian stewardship, including discussions of such things as debts (and the growing tendency of people to refrain from paying them), support of Christian schools and other causes of God’s kingdom, etc.; family life, emphasizing the responsibilities of fathers, mothers, older children, etc.; the problems which teen-agers confront in their lives; the proper way of worshiping God in spirit and in truth, including listening to and receiving the preaching — the list could go on. Nor need children be excluded from these discussions, for not only are the problems of children in relation to their parents, classmates, and siblings important, but all the different aspects of a life of godliness and piety apply to children as well as young people and adults.
It is even an enrichment of family visitation if it is possible to engage the entire family, including the children, in discussions concerning these and other subjects. While this goal of discussion is easier with some families than with others, it is a goal desirable to pursue.
In the use of a method such as described, the elders have opportunity to learn of the spiritual strengths and weaknesses of God’s people, to instruct them in the Scriptures, to encourage the struggling saints in the difficulties of their pathway in life, and to rebuke when the occasion requires it.
Such family visitation will prove a blessing to God’s people and the church.