A Reformed Perspective on Home Visitation

Mark James Larson

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 4, no. 2 (April 1995)

It is important that we as the people of God have a clear understanding concerning some of the major biblical and Reformed perspectives on the whole matter of what we often call “home visitation.” The following discussion presents several aspects of family visitation: its biblical rationale, its frequency, its types, its purpose and climate, its procedure, and its nature.

We begin by reflecting upon the reasons why a session engages in the work of home visitation. Obviously enough, elders assume this responsibility because such duty is rooted in the teaching of Scripture. The apostolic example by itself would be a significant reason for ministering in the houses of God’s people. Paul could say this concerning his three-year ministry in Ephesus: “I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house” (Acts 20:20). Clearly, in a ministry modeled after that of the apostles, there is a place for teaching the saints of God in their homes. In fact, it is significant to note that James alludes to the ministry of the church’s elders in the homes of the people when he says, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him in the name of the Lord” (James 5:14). Surely we can assume that the sick in many such cases will receive the ministry of the elders of the church in their homes. Thus, we can see that at least two biblical texts (Acts 20:20 and James 5:14) underscore the legitimacy of home visitation on the part of the rulers in Christ’s church. But it is also self-evident that such a ministry is a practical way to implement the basic purpose for which the Lord gave elders to his church: “to shepherd the church of God” (Acts 20:28); to “take care of the church” (l Timothy 3:5); and to “watch out for...souls” (Hebrews 13:17).

As we have seen, there is a scriptural basis for the well established practice of visiting Christ’s people in their homes. Now what shall we say about the frequency of such visits? How often shall the session do this noble work? The Scripture, of course, provides no explicit mandate. Accordingly, there has been a considerable range of different practices in the Reformed community. Most modern writers in the field of pastoral theology advocate a minimum of one visit each year. This, indeed, is a realistic expectation for a session in ordinary circumstances. Of course, it goes without saying that such visits must be made with greater frequency in the presence of greater need. Situations involving serious illness, grieving widows, etc., will necessitate more frequent visitation.

We visit because it is biblical. And we visit at least once a year. Under most circumstances in a well established local church, the annual sessional visit may be accomplished in four types of arrangements. The session may be represented in its visit by any of the following situations: the pastor alone, a ruling elder alone, the pastor and a ruling elder, or two ruling elders.

Why do members of a Presbyterian session—the pastor and/or elders—take the time and effort to visit their people? Here we must reflect upon the purpose and climate of the home visitation. The objective of such a work is fundamentally two-fold: (1) to learn the needs of God’s people; and (2) to seek to provide the help which they need. The purpose, here articulated, indicates that the visit of the sessional representative (be it the pastor alone, a ruling elder alone, a pastor and a ruling elder, or two ruling elders) is not a day of gloom and judgment. Rather, the climate of the visit ought to be one of love, joy, and hope.

How then does such a visit proceed in its actual practice? The key term to remember, at this point, is flexibility. There is not one standard and orthodox approach when it comes to the procedure of sessional visitation. Such visits may be more formal (with the setting up beforehand of an appointment) or somewhat informal (with the pastor dropping by unannounced to have a word of prayer at a time of need). The conversation may progress quite naturally (handling issues as they spontaneously arise), or it may proceed by means of questions and answers (such as, Do you believe that you are growing spiritually?).

In conclusion, a final word needs to be stated concerning the nature of elder visitation. First, it is good to keep before us what such a visit is not. On the one hand, it is not merely a social visit, just another opportunity to enjoy the Christian fellowship of one another. On the other hand, the coming of the sessional representative(s) is not the arrival of the Inquisition, which has the intention of uncovering every secret sin and heresy for the purpose of measuring out harsh ecclesiastical discipline. Thus, the elders of Christ’s church do not come to socialize, and they do not come bringing condemnation. But it should also be stated that such visits are not to be construed as an opportunity for the people of God to whine and grumble about one to a thousand things that they do not like. Paul warned the church in Corinth about the sin of complaining: “Nor let us...murmur, as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed by the destroyer” (1 Corinthians 10:8-10).

If home visitation is not an occasion to socialize, to punish, or to murmur, what exactly is it, in terms of its nature? It is clear that Paul viewed it as an extension of his public ministry of preaching and teaching the Word of God. The apostle states that in Ephesus he “taught publicly and from house to house” (Acts 20:20). It is in response to the questions which may be raised and the needs which may surface that the elders of Christ’s church are able in family visitation to provide teaching, encouragement, comfort, and exhortation. May the Holy Spirit be pleased to bless the ministry of the Word as it goes forth both publicly and from house to house.

Our thanks to the Rev. Mark Larson, pastor of the Madison Wisconsin Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which is one of our newer churches. Before becoming pastor of the Madison church, Rev. Larson served the Orthodox Presbyterian congregation of Hamill, South Dakota.