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).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.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)."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).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.
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