Question & Answer Forum: Letters of Commendation
by John Dennison
When and where is there a need for a letter of commendation?
Since the basis of assembly fellowship is the apostles’ doctrine (Acts 2:41), it is incumbent to know whether visitors share the same beliefs as the assembly they are visiting. But how? How can an assembly have enough confidence in a visiting brother to ask him to preach?
A solution is to just ask him. However, most visitors arrive close to the start of a meeting and there is little opportunity to discuss their doctrines and conduct. Practically, it is not always feasible.
The Lord Jesus said, “If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true. There is another that beareth witness of Me” (John 5:31).” He did not testify on His own behalf, but relied on outside, objective witnesses such as John the Baptist, the Spirit, the Father, His miracles, etc. No brother or sister should consider their own word as sufficient. Therefore, God instituted the use of letters of commendation. For example, Paul wrote to the Romans, “I commend unto you Phebe our sister” (Rom 16:1). He wrote to the Corinthians, “If Timotheus come, see that he may be with you without fear” (1Cor 16:10). Even Apollos, “an eloquent man, and mighty in the Scriptures” (Acts 18:24), took a letter.
The purposes of a letter include introducing a believer, confirming his doctrine, describing his testimony, and denoting any particular abilities or activities in which he has been found faithful. To the Corinthians Paul wrote, “He worketh the work of the Lord, as I also do.” Therefore, they could ask Timothy to preach the gospel or teach the Scriptures and have full confidence that what they would hear would be in complete agreement with the apostles’ doctrine. Phebe’s letter said she was, “a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea” (Rom 16:1-2). So, whether a letter to visit or to reside, information commending a believer’s history and abilities will allow the assembly to channel him or her into further service for the Lord.
Letters of commendation should also indicate the purpose of a visit. Paul made it clear to the Corinthians that Timothy, “shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church” (1Cor 4:17). If a believer is in the area for work, vacation, or to reside, it would only be courteous to make his intentions known in the letter.
Paul also presents the one exception where a letter is not needed. He wrote, “Need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you? Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men” (2Cor 3:1-2). The believers in Corinth knew Paul and his gospel work, and they served as a living letter commending his doctrine and practice. Where a believer’s doctrine and life is known by the spiritual work they have been involved in, it would be redundant and unnecessary to bring a letter. This would apply to all believers. A full-time servant, whose work, doctrine and history is not known, would be wise to take a letter of commendation when visiting a new area.
One final benefit of this practice is that it promotes fellowship between assemblies. Besides being a form of connection between assemblies, the letter would give them an opportunity in Rome to show Phebe hospitality. While respecting autonomy, inter-assembly kindness leads to good relationships and mutual respect. Therefore, the use of letters of commendation is not an assembly tradition, but a wise, Biblical practice, for the benefit of the individual, the commending assembly, and the receiving assembly.
In a letter of commendation of a couple, is it important to have the name of the husband first and the wife second because of headship?
We are not explicitly given an example of a letter of commendation for a couple in the New Testament. However, the general teaching of Scripture on the marital relationship is instructive.
In the beginning, “God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam” (Gen 5:1-2). He made them both equal in their value and importance, but distinct in their genders. At the same time, being united in marriage, he called them Adam. God appreciates their oneness and unity by calling two people by one name. He also recognizes the leadership of the husband in calling this couple Adam instead of Eve, or some 50-50 combination such as “Adeve” or “Evam.”
All instruction and practice in the New Testament is consistent with Paul’s teaching that “the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church” (Eph 5:23). Therefore, almost always, the New Testament introduces or mentions couples by placing the man’s name first. For example, “Salute Andronicus and Junia” (Rom 16:7). Paul also wrote to Philemon and Apphia” (Phi 1-2). Matthew begins with the genealogy leading to “Joseph the husband of Mary.” Luke begins with Zacharias and Elisabeth (Luke 1:5) using the same order with unsaved couples such as Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1), Felix and Drusilla (Acts 23:24), and Agrippa and Bernice (Acts 25:13).
The case of Aquila and Priscilla is most relevant. They are mentioned six times in the NT (Acts 18:2,18,26; Rom 16:3; 1Cor 16:19; 2Tim 4:19) and always named together. They stand out for their unity in service for the Lord, and yet three times Aquila is mentioned first and three times Priscilla is mentioned first. Luke introduces them as “Aquila … with his wife Priscilla” (Acts 18:2) and puts Aquila first when there is official or public mention of the couple. When it came to officially counseling Apollos, Aquila is mentioned first (Acts 18:26). When they are greeted officially as hosting the local assembly in their house, Aquila comes first again (1Cor 16:19). Priscilla is mentioned first when their personal friendship (Acts 16:28) and personal help (Rom 16:3; 2Tim 4:19) is in view.
Therefore, while there is no specific law or commandment about the order of names in a letter of commendation, it is consistent with the Biblical teaching on headship, the practice of NT writers, and the example of communications to and about Aquila and Priscilla, to place the husband’s name first. Since fellowship between assemblies is based on doctrine, a letter of commendation of a couple is a great way to underline the appreciation by both assemblies of the doctrine of headship.
– John Dennison