St. Paul on Visitation

Found on Mercy Journeys with Pastor Harrison:


St. Paul

If we try to discover something like visiting activity with Paul, it is necessary to realize what role, according to his own words, he had to play in “his” congregations. Paul saw his life’s work in bringing the saving Gospel to the gentiles. God lets the apostle take part in his saving activity, since he called him as a witness to Easter. He (co)founded several congregations. From this Paul derives a permanent obligation to take care of these congregations, to strengthen their faith, to comfort where necessary, where necessary to admonish and to help in building up the congregation. He does not want to leave the congregations alone. It is clear to him that on his missionary journeys he often had a chance only for a first proclamation to awaken faith. After he left, questions concerning doctrine and life arose. After the founding phase, almost everywhere problems and conflicts arose. The apostle was bothered by the question “concerning your faith, whether the tempter had tempted you and that our labor had been in vain” (1 Thess. 3:5).

From the letters of the apostle we learn, how he wanted to accompany the congregations: through prayer, visits and letters. He emphasizes the prayer for the congregations in every letter. The letters themselves are somehow a substitute for his presence (2 Cor. 13:10). [endnote 36] Of course Paul expresses in his writings again and again his longing to be present in person (1 Thess. 3:1). His relationship to the Christians apparently was much more than just business- like. Together with the visits there appears a certain pattern: The visits of the apostles, the remaining of his coworkers in the place, the letters to the congregations, the letters from the congregations to Paul and congregational delegations remaining with Paul and his coworkers. All these together form a relatively lively exchange.

In his letters (perhaps more clearly than in his visits) [2 Cor. 10:10] Paul can show great severity and exercise his apostolic authority over the congregations in a way, which does not tolerate any backtalk (1 Cor. 5). Of course he very much loves to praise congregations, even though at times his expressions of appreciation in the opening of his letters sound a little stereotypical.

At the same time Paul stands back, and sees himself not as “lord” over the faith in the congregations, but as a helper of their joy (2 Cor. 1:24). His authority does not mean an authoritarian claim of importance of his own person. It is rather related to a third issue, which confronts both Paul and the congregation: The gospel of Jesus Christ. This also is the measuring stick for the admonition of the apostle. Thus, with all the urgency of his speech and the strictness of his pronouncements, he nevertheless gives the congregations the freedom of their own judgment – guided by the Gospel.[endnote 37]

Thus we find very different “acts of speaking” with the apostolic visitor. He can plead (e.g. 1 Thess. 4:1) or counsel (e.g. 1 Cor. 7:12). He can order (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:17, 34), reprimand and give rather harsh directions (e.g. 1 Cor. 5:13). Sometimes he is convinced that a request is sufficient, even though an order would have been possible (Philemon. 8) Behind everything there stands the authority of the witness of Easter, the full power of the apostle of the gentiles and the founder of the congregation. But it is always limited and made concrete through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Authority for the visitor also consists only in his being bound by the Word of God. This makes instructions subject to testing and advances, but also challenges, mature congregations. Therefore the action of visiting also includes the struggle for the truth of the Gospel. Not everything can peacefully exist side by side if it contradicts the Gospel. Paul asserts his authority by summonsing doctrine and confession (e.g. in Galatians). Therefore Paul in his “fool’s talk” criticizes “the false tolerance and blasphemous foolishness of the fact that the Corinthians suffer apostles that preach a different Jesus than the crucified (cf. 2 Cor. 11:1-4, 16-21; 13:3f).” [endnote 38]

The coworkers of the apostle play a role that cannot be under-estimated. Certainly they were not coauthors of the letters just by accident. If Paul is prevented, in prison, or if serious conflicts do not permit a visit of the apostle, his coworkers can represent him, examine the situation, and in his stead offer direction or work as intermediaries. Delegation and sharing of the work play an important role in the “visitations” of St. Paul.

What is the goal of apostolic “visitation”? In 1 Thess. 3 we find hints for the meaning of apostolic visitation that are veritable examples, e.g. how Timothy was perceived by the congregation in Thessalonica: “We sent Timothy…to strengthen and encourage you in your faith” (1 Thess. 3:2)

Thus the strengthening also includes the Paraklesis (encouragement, admonition) [endnote 39]. The Greek word parakalein has different nuances of meaning: “comforting”, “encouraging”, “cheering up” and “admonishing.” “Paraklesis” as the original form of pastoral care shows its concern for the life and the growth of the faith of individual Christians and of whole communities, by comforting and admonishing. But this description now needs more details in regard to the individual areas of congregational life.

So that no one would be shaken by these persecutions…” (1 Thess. 3:3)
Paraklesis encourages [congregations] confidently to maintain the faith, even under great hardships. This underlines the pastoral character of the “visitation.” Paul experiences in his own body what for the congregations often is part of everyday life: Disdain, isolation, persecution, even massive suffering for the sake of the faith in Jesus Christ. But he experiences just as intensely the nearness of God, who is the God of all comfort (2 Cor. 1:3-5). In this he sees himself united with the congregations, so they together experience how God lets them feel his nearness especially in suffering, and that he comforts them. By mutual prayer for each other, suffering is also a place of fellowship between the apostle and the congregations. [Compare for instance I Thess 1:2ff.; Rom. 1:9 and 15:25]

“To restore whatever is lacking in your faith…” (1 Thess. 3:10)
Even in the highly praised congregation in Thessalonica there are still things lacking that need fixing. These things can include doctrine (e.g. the question of the resurrection of Christians who have already died) [I Thess. 4:13-18] or questions of life. Paul also deals with the proper relationship between man and woman, with business life, and how to deal with such different people like those who are disorderly, those of little faith or the weak. Finally Paul wishes that at the end one can expect “fruit,” and that his work would not be in vain.

“And may the Lord make you increase….” (1 Thess. 3:12)
The “visitation” serves the building up and the growth of the congregation. The condition of the congregation should not stagnate. Christians should not fall back to the behavior of their pagan past. Rather faith should become more certain, love stronger, and hope more able to persist. With this, Paul is thinking not only of the inner life of the individual Christian, but also of the love “for everybody,” including those of skeptical or even aggressive bent. The life and doctrine of the congregation are oriented also toward the outside. In both cases for the Thessalonians it is a matter of working according to the “entrusted gospel,” so that others also would “turn to God from idols” (1 Thess. 1:9f).

With his letters and visits Paul also wants to further the unity of the congregation. In Corinth this proved to be especially difficult in view of the formation of parties among the Christians. In Thessalonica he is thankful for the “work of love,” which apparently was an energetic holding together of Christians (1:3). Nevertheless, it runs like a red thread throughout the letters: The congregations should do their utmost, so that the local fellowship, but also that fellowship with other congregations, and with the apostle and his coworkers, would not be destroyed.

This also means that the example of the apostolic “visitation” would lead to the beginning of a sort of “inner visitation.” Just like the apostle and his coworkers comfort and admonish the congregation from the outside, the Christians of Thessalonica should also comfort and admonish each other. Thus the building up of the congregation happens in the best sense (1 Thess. 5:11).

“Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Cor. 4:20)
There are differences in the methods the “visitor” Paul used to address congregations [from afar]. And there can be no doubt that Paul, if really needed, was also ready for extreme interventions from above. Of course, the punishing intervention is “ultima ratio,” [“a last resort”] for Paul, without question, who would rather come with “love and a gentle spirit.” Nevertheless, he cannot exclude the fact that harsher means are necessary if the congregation does not demonstrate any insight. If one looks at the Pauline writings as a whole, it becomes clear that such severity can be directed against false and vain claims for power in the congregation (thus the talk about the “those who are puffed up” in 1 Cor. 4:19) or against a life style (e.g. 1 Cor. 5:1-5) or against proclamation and doctrine contrary to the gospel of the crucified one. This severity is an expression ultimately bound to the word of God, but at the same time of a love, which does not leave the other (or a whole congregation) to their disastrous conduct.


Endnotes —

36 See H.J. Klauck, Die antike Briefliteratur und das Neue Testament, Paderborn 1998. 

37 See H. von Campenhausen, Kirchliches Amt und geistliche Vollmacht in der ersten drei Jahrhundert, Tübingen 1963 (3rd ed.) (BHT 14), chap. 4.

38 U. Heckel, Paulus als ‘Visitator’ und die heutige Visitationspraxis, KuD 41 (1995), 265f.

39 On this point see various references in M. Herbst, “Lasst uns nach unsewren Brüdern sehen’ – Visitation aus praktisch-theologischer Perspektive, in K. Grünwaldt und U. Hahn (eds.), Visitation – urchristliche Praxis und neue Herausforderungen der Gegenwart, Hannover 2006, 93-120.

VELKD, Die Visitation (2010), trans. W. Knappe with M. Harrison

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord,, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at


St. Paul on Visitation — 1 Comment

  1. Is there such a thing as the congregation of the clergy in an ort? We have our circuit meetings and our district meetings. Why do we shy away from biblical (suitably translatd) phaseology for these things. Sometimes the name tells us what a thing is and what it is supposed to do.

    So would the congregation of the clergy in SID, do the same as always in ciruit and ditrict meetings, or would the meetings of the Congregation of the Clergy in the SID make us realize or remember or affirm the religious purposes of these meetings.

    The Overseer will be chosen by lot and will wash the feet and hear the confessions of each each of his servees. He will dip the morsel of bread and give it to those who are betraying us.

    The randomly selected (by lot in that ort) Overseer will serve for 1 year, visiting and preaching to and performing the sacraments for the Congregation of the Clergy. He attends all circuit and district meetings in his year as their (the clergy’s) pastor, father confessor and overseer.

    Synod supplies a temporary, though called, pastor for the Overseer’s congrgation during that year. The Overseer will report each place and activity weekly to the Overseer of the Overseers, who is chosen by lot for a 5 year term.

    Both the ort Overseer, and the Overoverseer will make weekly reports with suggestions for improvements in religous belief and behavior in each ort.

    The reports will be edited by the Overseer of the Synod Internet Face, then posted with no names or places, other than district level ort, listed, displayed. Such reports will be behind a password for privacy sake. We are not overseeing chorus girls.

    The Synod President will read each monthly report, with special attention to the red lettered “issues.” He will discretely address the issues first with the Overover, to better understand the issues. The he will talk to the local clergy who may need it, after hearing his confession and absolving him. The Synod President is not serving a row of chorus girls either.

    Most clerical selections should be done by lot to, if not exactly kill the monster of politics among us, to at least give him a very bad aversion to us.

    I wasn’t born yesterday and I can read. I know that most of this has been tried over and over in the course of the church, not just our own beloved Synod. It always falls apart from the insatiable desire for preferrment and the absolute joy of getting money for doing nothing.

    But, I am dead honest of getting to our pastors pastoral care. They need it desperately from their piers flung hither and yon. Our men need the bonding of washing feet and having a beichtvater and being a beichtkind to their very own pastor.

    I don’t believe the rite of ordination stops the need of a pastor to need a pastor. Luther certainly had his. And when he was a vising overseer for a section of Augustianian Monasteries he was especially known for his pastoral care and seelsorge.

    Now, when the Bible says your an elder, you have to be old, at least 45, but surely no younger. Likewise, if pastors have to be careful about being young, certainly overseers must also be older, say at east 20 years in the parish. No work done outside of a parish is to be counted for this duty. Everyone won’t be eligible for the choice by lot (too young, but never too old).

    And that other eternal abuse in the church, preferment. How do be set up our house so that everyone know immediately that our parish pastors are our highly preferred servants, who do what the Master left them here to do. That being clergy board members is also done by lot and means only more work with no more money. Can we get our clergy to think that I’m on this committee or I hold this extra position because God chose me to be on it for his reasons only.

    The greatest among you is the best foot washer. God bless you all.

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