Each year classis shall authorize at least two of the more experienced and able ministers to visit the Churches in that year.
It shall be the task of these visitors to inquire whether all things are regulated and done in full harmony with the Word of God, whether the office-bearers fulfil the duties of their office faithfully as they have promised, and whether the adopted order is being observed and maintained in every respect, in order that they may in good time fraternally admonish those who are found negligent in any thing, and that by their good counsel and advice all things may be directed towards the edification and preservation of Christ’s Church.
They shall submit a written report of their visits to classis.
The institute of church visitation came into existence several years after the reconstitution of the church federation. On the one hand, the Reformed churches were afraid of hierarchical elements while, on the other hand, they were aware of the need to keep watch over each other, not in a supervisory manner, as if they had authority over one another, but in the manner of equals who hold each other to their word and see the need to help and warn one another if the need should arise.
It cannot be denied that sometimes there were hierarchical developments and elements. At times there were “superintendents.” Here and there appointed visitors were authorized to take the oversight over the doctrine and conduct of the ministers in that classis, even to “go and listen to sermons of the ministers, and pay good attention not only to their contents — whether no profane doctrine of human fables or falsifications are mixed with them — but also to the manner of teaching, whether it is edifying and profitable for the people, and whether the ministers are diligent in the reading and studying of the Holy Scriptures; whether also the ministers are using the Form for the Administration of Baptism according to the determined order of the churches.”
Shortly after the Reformation the situation in many churches was chaotic, to put it bluntly. Many ministers, if there was a minister, that is, were ignorant, and this was of great concern to those who were able and desirous to have the churches follow the course which was according to God’s Word. Thus we can understand that ways and means were sought to correct deficiencies and to remove wrong elements in the various churches. Apparently it was sometimes thought that extraordinary situations require extraordinary measures. As a result things were done which were not in accordance with truly Reformed church polity. We do not take this ill of the brothers; we only should not become guilty of it in our days now that church life is well organized; nor should we appeal to such practices in order to
defend similar deviations in our days. What our forefathers did is not decisive but what the churches have agreed upon is.
On the other hand, it would be incorrect as well as unfair to derive from the mistakes in the past an argument which is supposed to prove that church visitation as such is an hierarchical phenomenon and should be removed from the Church Order and from the churches. That visiting ministers sometimes took the chair, demanded that they co-sign the minutes of the meeting, and acted as superintendents, appeared unannounced and showed little or no respect for the autonomy of the church and the authority of the consistory is no valid reason to condemn the institution as such. If conducted properly, it is useful and many a time has yielded great benefits for the churches.
During the first years after the Reformation the mutual supervision was done at classis. The purpose of the now superfluous questions mentioned in the third paragraph of Art. 44 was to find out whether the various consistories lived up to the common accord. Classes were held in the various churches on a rotating basis, and this enabled the brothers to “check up” at the place itself.
The questions asked at classis were also more numerous than the ones retained in Art. 44. From one article in the past we quote the following. “After the president has offered prayer, he will ask everyone separately whether in their congregations they have the regular meetings of the consistory, whether the Christian discipline is maintained, whether they are being attacked by any heresies, whether they are not having any doubts regarding any part of the Christian doctrine, whether good heed is taken of the needy and the schools, and whether for the good government of their churches they need the counsel of help of the brethren, and other similar matters.”
All these questions are asked at our present church visitations. Sometimes various classes have drawn up a complete set of “Regulations for Church Visitation.” This is all right as long as it is only a guide for the visitors, not a list of questions by which they are bound or to which they are restricted.
This writer recalls that in his early years in the ministry the consistory received a printed list of questions to which the answers were written down. At the church visitation, the visitors read the questions, the chairman read the answers, and that was mostly it. Time and money could have been spent in a much better way.
Church visitation is in essence this, that representatives of the churches come to inquire whether this sister church maintains the faithfulness to the covenant of the churches by living up to the adopted order. Any church visitor who goes beyond this assumes an authority which he does not possess and which no one, including a classis, can give him.
Who are to be appointed as church visitors? During the earlier years after the institution of the Canadian Reformed Churches it was almost customary to have all ministers involved in this work of church visiting. The reason for this was not only that, generally speaking, the ministers all belonged to
the same age group, but also that the distances and the financial possibilities of the churches made it necessary to use time, manpower, and finances in the most economical manner. For this reason it was also stipulated in earlier redactions of our Church Order that church visits were to be made each year “unless the great distances render this inadvisable.” This provision has been dropped for obvious reasons.
Gradually, with the arrival of younger ministers and the resulting age-gap more as well as less experienced ministers appeared. Without wishing to claim that those who are most experienced are also the ones who are most able, the churches have maintained this terminology. In previous redactions the adjective “oldest” was also used. And although Scripture teaches us that wisdom is with the very aged, the churches mention only experience and ability. These are the qualities for which a classis is to look when it has to appoint church visitors.
When ministers visit a church according to Art. 46, they may be faced with difficult situations and may have to answer difficult questions for advice. For one who has been a minister for only a relatively short time it will be harder to give an answer which does not worsen the situation but improves it. An experienced minister may have faced similar situations in the past and will be in a better position to deal with the questions. Experience and ability may not always go hand in hand, yet they are often each other's faithful companions.
At least two brothers must be appointed to this task. Also at the classical level care is to be taken that the burdens are as equally divided as feasible. To lay the whole burden of visiting all the churches in the classis on the shoulders of two men would be unfair towards the brothers as well as towards their churches. Besides, neither of the two would be in a position to visit the church he serves, and already for this reason a third one would be needed.
It would appear that a minimum of four ministers will be needed to come to some fair arrangement. These four can then divide the churches evenly among themselves, taking also into account distances and possibilities.
Article 46 stipulates that “each year” classis shall authorize some ministers to the task of visiting the churches. This shows that there is no such thing as a permanent position of church visitor. The appointment is for one year, and the visits should be made within that period. Once the visitors have visited a church, their task towards this church has been completed. They have fulfilled their mandate, and need new authorization if they are to visit that church again.
Church visitors do not form a committee of permanent supervision or even supervision for a whole year. They are appointed and authorized for a specific task: to visit each church before the classis one year from the date of their appointment. Have they been appointed at the September classis of 1989, then their mandate expires at the September classis of 1990, and if the September classis of 1990 should fail to appoint church visitors, there are no more church visitors in that classis.
Sometimes a consistory asks the appointed brothers to come and advise the consistory after the regular, yearly visit has been brought. This is not impermissible, although a consistory would do better if they requested the next classis to appoint a few brothers for a special church visitation. Asking the same brothers to return could easily lead to considering them to be a committee which has a mandate that covers a whole year. They have the mandate to “visit the churches in that year,” but not to be “year-long visitors.”
Occasionally it happened that church members approached the brothers with a request to have a meeting with them to discuss difficulties and to help them with advice. At times the brothers even complied with such a request. Such action was totally wrong in every respect, on the part of the members as well as on the part of the visitors. Visits to a church are made where the church is, that is the consistory. We speak in this manner in Lord’s Day 31, where we confess that unrepentant sinners are to be “reported to the church, that is, to the elders.” No visitor has the right to bypass those who have been clothed with authority in that church.
Likewise, a consistory would do wrong by giving permission to the visitors to meet separately with one or more members who wanted to discuss matters with the visitors without the consistory. If anyone wishes to discuss anything with the church visitors, this is to be done at the visit to the church, that is, at the consistory meeting.
Visitors are not appointed to function as a committee of advice to which consistories as well as individual members can appeal for help; they are appointed to visit each church once in the course of that year to enquire whether the conditions for the bond of churches are being kept faithfully. Usually such visits are announced once or twice to the congregation. The purpose of these announcements is to enable anyone who has something to put before the church visitors to do so.
This “something” is not just any question or difficulty the brother or sister may have. Only in case a member has been unable to solve a controversy with the consistory is he allowed to bring it to the attention of the visitors, to ask them to advise the consistory in his favour. In this manner difficulties may be solved within the local church and thus it may be prevented that the sister churches become involved via an appeal.
Does it need any proof that such a member is to inform the consistory beforehand both of his intention to come to the meeting and of the nature of his complaint against the consistory? We do not think so.
When the word “authorize” is used in this article, any intimation that the brothers have received authority over the churches is totally absent. What a classis itself does not have it cannot give to any whom it deputizes either. The word “authorize” simply means that the brothers do not come on their own initiative or because of any personal privilege, but that they have received the mandate to bring the visit and thus come on behalf of the sister churches.
A visit by church visitors should not be seen as being on a level with the family visits which the office-bearers bring within the congregation. The
office-bearers come with authority, the church visitors do not, even though they have received the right to visit the churches.
Church visitors could be sent and must be received because the churches have agreed that also in this manner they shall take heed of one another and see to it that each and every church abides by the adopted Order. Visitors do not have the right to pry into every aspect of local church life.
This also determines what they ask and the manner in which they ask it. Their guide for their visit and questions is to be the adopted Church Order. When they apply this Church Order, they will touch upon every aspect of the life of each church, and will discover whether this church is faithful to its promises or not. And if it appears that here and there something is lacking, they will “in good time fraternally admonish those who are found negligent in any thing.” This “fraternal admonition” does not come with divinely given authority as is the case when the office-bearers visit the members of the church, but it is the brotherly reminder of what has been agreed upon and the pointing out of the obligation to keep one’s promises.
For this reason we say that “by their good counsel and advice all things may be directed towards the edification and preservation of Christ’s church.”
In the case of “brotherly admonitions” by office-bearers it would be wrong to speak of “counsel and advice.” Although the term “counselling” is being used more and more for the visiting, admonishing and exhorting by the office-bearers, we should reject this term in this connection. It is too neutral, too superficial, and leaves too much freedom to the one who is its object. Office- bearers come with God-given authority and they should not be degraded to persons who just “counsel.” Counsel can and may be rejected; admonitions and instruction by the office-bearers may not.
When it concerns church visitors, however, the term “counsel and advice” is well in place. The final decision is always up to the consistory.
It is important that the “fraternal admonitions” are given “in good time,” that is, at such a moment when the least harm has come from the negligence, and to prevent any future harm resulting from it. Early warnings may cause an early awakening to the dangers.
Perhaps the visitors cannot give a well-considered advice right away. In this case they will ask the consistory to give them time to think things over and to receive them again at a later date, as soon as they are ready with their discussions together and have come to a conclusion. They may have to study the matter for a few days or even a few weeks.
The importance of such early warnings and exhortations should be stressed not only for the church concerned but also for the sister churches. If things go wrong in the one church, this unavoidably spills over into the other churches and the sooner it can be discovered and “cured,” the better it is for the whole federation. Besides, churches live within one federation and must be able to trust each other fully, so that, for instance, attestations can be trusted and members can be accepted on the basis of the attestations they bring along. The minister of one church is allowed to proclaim the Word and to administer the sacraments in the sister churches as well, and this, too, shows the importance of reliability and mutual trust. Visitors have an important task in this connection.
This is not to say that, when suspecting or hearing that there is negligence and deviation in a particular church, the appointed visitors would be permitted to go and start an investigation on their own initiative. They may ask the consistory to receive them on a certain date for the visitation for which they have been appointed; as for the rest, if they are to be involved at all, they may go only when the consistory asks them to come.
As for the purpose of church visitation, we state that “all things may be directed towards the edification and preservation of Christ’s church.” Here we are justifiably inclined to understand the singular “Church” as referring to the church in its federative existence.
“They shall submit a written report of their visits to classis.” Although this report is to be submitted to a different classis than the one which appointed the visitors, it is classis to which they are to report. Committees are always to report to the next assembly of the same nature as the one which appointed them. The obligation to report shows that the brothers did not visit the churches on their own authority, but that they received the mandate to do so. Now they are to show that they fulfilled their mandate and in what manner they did so.
What are these reports to contain? Certainly not all things which were discussed at the visitation or all possible difficulties which the visitors were asked to give their advice in. If, for example, a brother or sister came to present a case which he or she had with the consistory, visitors may mention in their report that there was a brother or sister who wanted to be heard, and that the visitors advised the consistory in this matter; but they are not allowed to mention either what the case was or the advice which they gave.
In the first place it still has to become clear whether, after they gave their advice and the consistory considered it, the matter could not be solved within the consistory; and in the second place it was the very purpose of dealing with the matter at the local level that it should be solved within the local church. Thereby the consistory endeavoured to prevent the matter from reaching and involving the sister churches. Should the visitors describe in their report what the difficulty was and the advice they gave, it is almost certain that the classis to which they report will begin to discuss the matter and make a pronouncement about the correctness or incorrectness of the advice given. The rest can be predicted.
In their report visitors are to make clear that they fulfilled their task. They certainly may mention faithfulness found with the church they visited, and give examples of it. Who would not wish to rejoice when it is evident that the Lord blesses His churches richly and that the fruits of the Spirit are evident, for every one to see? They may also mention the fact that on some points they had to urge the brothers to be more diligent, and that their advice was asked in some difficult cases, but they are to refrain from reporting in such a manner that classis receives an opportunity to discuss things which are not legitimately on its table but about which it heard via the report of church visitors.
What they may and should report is having found the consistory negligent in any point of the adopted Order and whether steps will be taken to remedy the situation so that the churches may know: we all continue in faithfulness to the Lord.
It might happen and did that a consistory brought a matter to classis because it disagreed with the advice given by visitors. This would be unwise and even wrong. The advice of church visitors is not binding upon a consistory. As brothers among the brothers they have tried to offer advice and help to the best of their ability; now it is up to the consistory to see whether it can work with the advice and solve the matter. A consistory would do wrong to ask classis whether it approves or disapproves of the advice of visitors, and a classis would do wrong to accede to such a request.
Should a copy of the report to classis be given to the church concerned? It is not really necessary, as the brothers from that church will hear the report at classis and, since it is not a report to the church(es) but to classis, no obligation exists to send a copy to any church. Visitors are definitely permitted to give a copy, but it would be advisable to give it at classis to the brothers from the church concerned instead of sending it beforehand to the consistory. The assembly to which the report has to be made should hear it first. This is just proper procedure. If visitors misrepresented certain points, the brothers from the church involved will be sufficiently informed to make a correction on the spot.