This article looks at the historical background and merits of the annual church visitation in Reformed churches.

Source: The Messenger, 2010. 3 pages.

Church Visitation

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.

Historical Background🔗

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.


  1. ^ Mainly to meet the emergency confronting them during the time of the Reformation, the Scottish Reformers decided not to restrict the best ministers to individual congregations but to distribute the ministry across the nation, as best as they could, by selecting as ‘a thing most expedient for this time five ministers as superintendents, whose task was to plant and erect kirks, to set, order and appoint ministers’ so that all who had ‘never heard Jesus Christ truly preached shall come to some knowledge.’ In 1571 the General Assembly returned to its earlier device of commissioning ministers to serve as visitors.
  2. ^ A classis is a gathering of churches meeting for mutual counsel and support and for united action concerning certain matters common to the interest of all the churches.

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.