Pastoral Care in the Christian Reformed Church

A nurse in our hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, once made this remark to the writer of this article: “No pastors are more faithful in calling on their sick at the hospital than the pastors from your church.” Of course the writer was most pleased to hear this praiseful remark regarding the pastoral work of his church and its ministers, and he has always hoped that the nurse was indeed speaking the truth.

mind the pleasure and gratitude experienced by the writer when as a boy he received a call from his pastor. When a lad of eight the writer had to be taken to a hospital some sixty miles from the very small Iowa town in which he lived. A high point in the stay at the city hospital was the visit from his pastor, a visit that required a full day to complete due to the conditions of travel that prevailed. The kind thoughtfulness of the pastor, his words of reassurance arid his prayer at the bedside left an indelible impression.

There are reasons to believe that in the main the faithfulness of the village pastor referred to above has been characteristic of the pastoral ministry of the Christian Reformed Church. What are these reasons? The reasons for such an evaluation fit into three main groups. First of all these reasons are found in the principles that have governed pastoral work in the Christian Reformed Church. But principles never appear in pure culture in the actual historical situation. Therefore, there are in the second place certain factors of a cultural and historical character that have made their contribution to pastoral work in the church. Then, in the third place we must look at the facts and see what has been and is being done in this important area of the church’s responsibility.


In developing the subject matter of this article we shall look first of all at the story of pastoral care in the Christian Reformed Church as that unfolds in our presentation of the three sets of reasons referred to in the previous paragraph. In a second section the purpose and nature of pastoral care will have to be scrutinized a bit more closely. A third section will present certain observations by way of evaluation and positive suggestion.

I. The Story of Pastoral Care in the Christian Reformed Church

A. In seeking to present this story we look first of all at the main principles that have guided and governed this work in the church. And of prime importance at this point is the answer to the question, Just what is the church? In this communion a very high and definite view of the church has always prevailed. The church is a distinctive institution. It is the body of God’s people. It is that, not by human decision, but by God’s sovereign choice, A person is a member of the church because the living God has so ordained that he be one of his flock. Furthermore, the membership of the church is not only divinely established; it is also divinely maintained, kept. The superbly rich language of the Heidelberg Catechism very expressly brings out the distinctive nature of the church when in Lord’s Day XXI we are taught that “the Son of God…gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself, by His Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith, a Church chosen to everlasting: life.” This blessed teaching comes into its own in this added statement of personal reality: “and that I am, and forever shall remain, a living member thereof.”

The church, therefore, is not merely another significant social or cultural fact. It is that, of course, but in its essence it is much more than that, In its very being the church is not a center of social activity. It is the center of divine activity. God’s action, God’s definite and specific saving action has ever brought and ever brings the church into being and ever keeps the church—keeps it as institution and keeps it in the individual member. And this keeping activity of the divine Head and Lord of the church forms the domain of pastoral work, also through the human instruments that God has appointed to perform this work of preserving his church. Because the church is the church, therefore a very special kind of labor is bestowed upon her so that she in her membership may ever be the true church of the living God. Therefore pastoral care may never become simply social work or psychology or psychiatry, or any combination of these, useful as such forms of personal work may be and are in pastoral care. Pastoral care must always be a unique and specific area of concern of and in the church of Jesus Christ.

An added fact as to the nature of the church must briefly be brought in· to view. Every member of the church is, of course, an individual. Nothing should blind us to that obvious and meaningful fact in the whole area of pastoral care. Yet, this fact should not obscure the organic nature of the church. The church is a “flock.” It is a “communion of saints.” Therefore pastoral care. though it often means the care of an individual soul, is never a wholly individualistic affair. “Believers, all and every one, as members of Christ,” the Heidelberg Catechism further teaches in Lord’s Day XXI, “are partakers of Him and of all His treasures and gifts;…every one must know himself bound to employ his gifts readily and cheerfully for the advantage and salvation of other members.” The Christian church as a “fellowship of the Spirit” means much for the nature and carrying out of pastoral work. Here lie personal and social resources of which sociologists and psychologists fondly and distantly dream.

A second principle is closely related to the conception of the church. In this fellowship of faith and love there are many blessed influences of an inter-personal kind that certainly contribute to the total pastoral care of the church. But the pastoral ministry of the church is not left to this indirect, incidental type of mutual support. Being determined that “all things be done decently and in order,” the Head of the church has established offices through which the ministry of the church is to be carried on. They are the offices of elder and deacon. It is especially the elders to whom the oversight of the flock has been committed. They are also called bishops or overseers in the New Testament. And among these are those who “labor in the word and in teaching.” These we call ministers or pastors, though the pastoral work of the church is not theirs alone but is rather the task of the entire eldership, and in certain respects of the deacons, also. It is their task, officially given them by the Head of the church. They represent Christ, not themselves nor the organized church. Theirs is an official responsibility, to be discharged with faithfulness and with keen sense of divine assignment. Pastoral care is then not just a human inter-personal relationship of a high order, as so many think of it. It is a divine-human encounter through the human instruments that God has ordained. Therefore pastoral care in the Christian Reformed Church has not been conducted on the level of human whim or sentiment, or even of a professional ethic—although, of course, such and other earthly factors are always present. This is Christ’s care of his sheep. Christ’s ministers work from a sense of holy duty. Hence this pastoral ministry has for the most part been marked by a loving authority on the part of those who perform it, and by an appreciative respect on the part of those who receive it.

The third principle at work in the story of pastoral care in the Christian Reformed Church has been church discipline. It may be said without danger of effective rebuttal that in the main this church has taken seriously the Reformed teaching that discipline is a mark of the church of Christ along with the true preaching of the Word and the proper administration of the sacraments. Membership in the church is not a human right; it is not a matter of social acceptance. It is a privilege conferred by none other than God himself. Therefore church membership requires a mode of life in keeping with that high privilege. It is the duty of the office-bearers of the church to keep a .watchful and loving eye on the lives of the members with a view to the high requirements of church membership. Church discipline in the strict sense of the word has to do with those measures that are taken with members who lead sinful and offensive lives. But there is a broader usage which is well stated by Van Dellen and Monsma as follows: “Church discipline in the broader sense includes all protective and corrective pastoral work.”1 Thus understood, church discipline in the Christian Reformed Church has meant a watchful concern for regularity in church attendance, for faithfulness in observing the sacraments, for due participation in those church functions that are set up for the spiritual enlightenment and enrichment of the members, for faithfulness on the part of the parents in the Christian education of their children in home, church and school.

A fourth principle at work in this story has been the Covenant of Grace. I n the Christian Reformed Church this important doctrine has been much more than n narrowly soteriological conception (that is, having to do with man’s personal salvation). This doctrine and the forms of conduct and practice which it has fathered have been in harmony with the character of the covenant as originally formally established with Abraham, “the father of us all.” Involved in the establishment and carrying on of the covenant has been the principle that salvation, man’s highest spiritual good, is achieved by supernatural grace within the stream of natural life. In making his covenant with Abraham, God graciously declared that he would be “a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee” (Genesis 17:7). The terms of this divine arrangement are echoed by Peter in his address on Pentecost, the birthday of the New Testament church, in these words, “to you is the promise, and to your children” (Acts 2:39). In the covenant God takes his own original creation, the family, and uses its powerful and basic natural and spiritual elements unto the building up of his spiritual family, his church. Therefore the family has been of central importance in the pastoral work of the Christian Reformed Church. In the administration of infant baptism the church has exercised a powerful claim on the family by requiring that the parents acknowledge that the children are “members of His Church,” and by requiring the parents to vow that they will do their “utmost” to further the nurture of the children in harmony with the teaching of the church. Family visitation has been an important part of the pastoral work of the church, as required by the Church Order (Article 23). Great spiritual benefits have come to the membership of the church from the church’s insistence that the total education of the children is primarily the family’s responsibility and it may not transfer that responsibility to any other agency. All such practices have served as effective forces in the total pastoral ministry of the church. Such practices, all growing out of the stress on the covenant doctrine, have raised crucial areas of responsibility within the family that could be discharged only with much prayer, deepening spiritual insight and alertness, and with watchful and often sacrificial devotion—all buttressing the pastoral ministry of the church.

Cultural and Historical Facts

As already noted, the above four main principles have not grown in hothouse isolation from their historical setting. As is usually the case, there has been an intertwining of principle and fact, of truth and history. God is God of both the Word and history. Therefore certain elements in the historical situation have had their bearing on the outworking of these principles. We mention some of these historical and cultural elements briefly.

From the start the people making up the Christian Reformed Church have borne the stamp of distinctiveness. One obvious reason for this is that they all came from one national background, namely, the Netherlands. And throughout its history the membership of the church has been largely, yes, almost exclusively of this same national background. This has made for a solidarity and cohesiveness that have definitely abetted the pastoral care of the church. Living in the church and participating in its total pastoral care has been a prominent part of the continuing life of a rather sharply defined social group.

It would be quite inaccurate to relate this distinctiveness simply to oneness of national background. Other related facts definitely add to the color of this distinctiveness. A fact of outstanding importance is the Secession of 1834 in the Netherlands. At that time a considerable group broke with the Established Church, with the leaders of the group suffering deposition. The founders of the Christian Reformed Church in this country were part of that separation. The Secession grew out of a deep concern for the spiritual purity of the church after the government had imposed certain changes that threatened the Reformed character of the church as that character had been established by the notable Synod of Dort in 1618–19. The break resulted in persecution and in severe social and financial straits for the Seceders. One result was the emigration of a group of these harassed and dedicated folk for America in 1846–47 under the leadership of Dominie Van Raalte. Just ten years later the group’s concern for the spiritual integrity of the church led them to break their earlier tie with the Dutch Reformed Church to form what is now the Christian Reformed Church.

The above brief historical resume makes quite clear something that cannot have failed to bear significantly on the pastoral ministry ‘of the church. In the historical roots and beginnings of the Christian Reformed Church is the inescapable fact that the church is the institution holding the position of highest importance and spiritual authority for the families making up the church. Furthermore, the church is this, not primarily because it satisfies certain social and psychological urges and needs of the people, but because it bears that stamp of doctrinal and spiritual integrity required by the Word of God and the subordinate standards of the church. The church as the object of such jealous concern gains a special prestige that strengthens the church in its pastoral ministry.

Another factor that has contributed to this distinctiveness with its support of the church’s pastoral ministry is the broad sweep of the message preached by the church. This message has not stopped with personal exultation at salvation in Christ. The church has challenged its membership to spend their redeemed lives in grateful service in all legitimate areas of human interest and concern. They have been called to extend the Kingdom of God into all of life, all to God’s glory and praise. Involved in this aspect of the church’s teaching is the frank acknowledgment that there is an essential difference between the church and the world, between the Christian way of life and thought and non-Christian ways of life and thought. The church has called upon its membership to bring this real difference to bear upon all aspects and dimensions of their lives. This stress received great impetus from the writings, labors and example of a man of genius and childlike devotion in the Netherlands. In the versatile efforts of Abraham Kuyper, theologian, statesman, prolific writer and humble man of God, the idea of the antithesis between Christian and non-Christian modes of thought and action greatly contributed to the distinctiveness of the message and program of the Christian Reformed Church. A church that is conscious of its distinctive message and of a distinctive way of life is a church that has a real grip on the lives of its members. Obviously this grip adds significance to the pastoral labors of the church, especially when this distinctiveness is bound up with the central message of Christianity and not with oddities and peripheral matters. As a matter of fact, the Christian Reformed Church has looked upon herself as carrying on the great main tradition of Christian faith and life as that tradition is traced back to her mother church in the Netherlands, to the Synod of Dort, to the Reformation, to St. Augustine and to St. Paul. This sense of solid historical continuity has contributed its own measure to the stability and prestige that have supported the pastoral labors of the church.

The factors mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, along with others not mentioned, had much to do with the development of what J. Kromminga calls a policy of “deliberate cultural and ecclesiastical isolation.”2 It is certainly true that this church with its roots in a foreign land has for most of its one hundred years of existence felt like a stranger in a strange land. And it is not at all hard to see how the immigrant mentality of the people contributed to this sense of apartness from the American scene. But, as indicated above, it would be grossly unfair to attribute this “cultural and ecclesiastical isolation” simply to such cultural and historical facts. The very establishment of the Christian Reformed Church as a separate organization was motivated mainly by a jealous concern for the maintenance of the purity of the church over against certain tendencies and practices in the American church that the founding fathers regarded as definitely harmful to the hue Reformed character of the church. Furthermore, although other factors were no doubt at work in the complex area of human motivation, yet it is doubtless correct to maintain that the deliberate character of this isolation has been mainly motivated by a jealous concern for the purity and orthodoxy of the church. The mere fact of this isolation has rendered real service to the pastoral ministry of the church in that a group in such a position of isolation naturally tends to seek mutual support within the bounds of such a group. That is a simple fact of sociology. When we add to this the consideration that this isolation was for the most part maintained for the high and worthy reasons mentioned above, then there is present a basic sense of spiritual solidarity that adds importance to the ministrations of the church for the continuance and growth of the people within the framework of the church. Without a doubt such factors have contributed more than a little to the character and effectiveness of pastoral care in the Christian Reformed Church. As the cultural phase of this isolation diminishes, as is true today, the church must ask herself this question: By what means can we compensate for the loss of the support this isolation gave to our pastoral ministry?

(This article is to be concluded in the next issue.)

1. Van Dellen and Monsma, The Church Order Commentary, p. 77.

2. John Kromminga, The Christian Reformed Church, chapter 4.