If you mention the term “church visitation” in the broader evangelical community, people might think you are talking about the common practice of visiting churches in search of making one your home church. This is totally different from the historic practice of church visitation according to the Church Order of Reformed churches, which is greatly beneficial if practiced properly. It is a way whereby churches can give mutual help to each other and help guide the body of Christ through prosperous times as well as difficult times. The Reformed practice of church visitation helps avoid the improper development of hierarchy and lording it over each other, while it also guards churches against falling into a spirit of isolation and independentism.
Our Church Order stipulates in Article 44 that the “Classis shall authorize at least two of its most experienced and competent ministers to visit all the churches” to take heed whether the office bearers perform their office in the congregation for the edification and preservation of Christ’s church.
The early church already practiced church visitation. The bishop had the responsibility of overseeing the churches under his supervision. However, during the period of the church deformation that followed, church visitation became a means that promoted the development of the hierarchy of the church. Church visitation deteriorated to the point that its basic function turned into giving the bishop authority in establishing a system of collecting ecclesiastical taxes.
During the Reformation period, church visitation was reintroduced. In Germany, however, it was used as a means to reform the church by which the princes tried to influence the church. In Scotland, the office of “superintendent” was introduced. It was designed to remedy the shortage of ministers and to further the work of evangelization through the country. So the reasons for conducting church visitation were practical and theological.1
The Reformers, repudiating the traditional hierarchy of the Roman church, placed emphasis on the pastoral ministry of church visitation, which they considered as a tool to be exercised within the context of a congregation or extended more widely over the whole district. Therefore, when in The Netherlands, the Reformed Churches were being established and the question surfaced whether it would not be good to appoint church superintendents to visit the various congregations, strong objections were immediately voiced. It was feared that even if they would be given a limited task this position might lead to hierarchy in the church of Christ.
Nevertheless, it remained a topic of discussion. The Dutch Reformed recognized church visitation as a necessary and beneficial means to be used in the ecclesiastical community. Eventually, it was adopted as a church orderly practice. It was decided to regard church visitation as a means for the churches in a classis2 to practice brotherly oversight over each other by watching out for each other’s welfare. This was not to be practiced in a supervisory manner, as if churches could exercise authority over one another, but as equals who hold each other accountable, and look out for each other’s needs, and advise and admonish each other when necessary.
Church visitation has proved to be an essential function in our church federation. In the history of our church federation it has had a blessed effect and has been of significant value.
Church visitors receive their authority from the classis. They are commissioned to focus on purity of doctrine and just and fair dealings in the church. In Article 44, the Church Order outlines the mandate of church visitors. It is:
to take heed whether the minister and the Consistory faithfully perform the duties of their office, adhere to sound doctrine, observe all things according to the adopted order, and properly promote as much as lies in them, through word and deed, the upbuilding of the congregation, in particular of the youth, to the end that they may in time fraternally admonish those who have in anything been negligent, and may by their advice and assistance help direct all things unto the peace, upbuilding, and greatest profit of the churches.
So they must first of all take heed whether the ministers and the other members of the consistory faithfully perform the duties of their office. The spiritual life of the congregation cannot develop appropriately if the office bearers are not upright and diligent. Secondly, they shall give particular heed to the doctrinal position of the office bearers. False doctrine destroys both the church and the souls of the members of the congregation. And it always dishonours God. Thirdly, they must determine whether the adopted Church Order is observed in all things. Fourthly, they are to note whether the office bearers are properly promoting as much as in them lies, through word and deed, the upbuilding of the congregation, particularly of the youth. The power of sin constantly seeks to undermine the church. Decay must continually be warded off. Forces within and without the church always threaten the welfare of God’s heritage.
The words “in time” underline the preventative character of church visitation. When a physician “in time” recognizes a certain illness, sometimes something can be done about it. When church visitors “in time” recognize the difficulties in a congregation and know how to deal with them in a pastoral way, much misery may be prevented. This is one of the greatest blessings connected with church visitation.
Experience teaches us that some church problems would not have led to such dreadful consequences if they could have been recognized and remedied “in time.” Many painful issues in congregations could have been avoided if church visitors would have faithfully fulfilled their annual appointments as a means to promote ecclesiastical and brotherly unity. If in accordance with the intention of the Church Order, annual church visitation is conducted, one can prevent tensions in a congregation from growing out of control.
Church visitation is the realization of mutual assistance and help. Scripture teaches this negatively in Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9), and positively in the apostolic command to “bear ... one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2). It should be remembered that it is not proper for anyone to address the church visitors with a complaint without first having addressed the consistory about the matter. On the other hand, a brother who has been having significant difficulty with his consistory must receive the opportunity to speak about the matter again with the consistory in the presence of the church visitors. For that reason the date and the time of church visitation is announced to the congregation prior to church visitation. By the same token, the consistory can speak with the church visitors about a brother or sister with whom they have been having significant difficulty.
Under the Lord’s blessing, good advice can indeed edify and preserve Christ’s church. I stress “good advice” because of the necessity of exercising wisdom, drawing on experience, and using tact and a pastoral approach.
If a consistory disagrees with the advice of the church visitors, the consistory must know from Scripture, the Confessions, or Church Order why it disagrees. It is also important that church visitors present an accurate report of their visit so that no new information is given of which the consistory is unaware. What a blessing it is when church visitors can report that a difficult case in a church, where the consistory has difficulty with a certain brother, has been resolved.
A Heavenly Church Visitor
Ultimately, Christ is the only and great Church Visitor. Have the seven letters to the churches in Asia Minor (Revelation 2 and 3) not been rightly called the reports of the great Visitor? His advice is binding. May our practice of church visitation be a means that Christ uses to bring the rule of the Scriptures to bear on the congregation for growth and edification.