Letters of Commendation
by Ken Cooper (Bromborough)
The words “commend” or “commendation” in our English New Testament are a translation of a variety of words from the original Greek text. The original words include the idea of praising or speaking well of a thing or a person (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:2), of giving a recommendation (e.g. Acts 15:40), of committing or entrusting (e.g. Acts 14:23) or of speaking well of a person in introducing them (e.g. Rom. 16:1). It is this latter thought which forms the basis of letters of commendation. The word literally has the idea of introducing or “placing things or people together” (W.E. Vine).
In Old Testament times letters of introduction were frequently used (e.g. 2 Kings 5; Neh. 2:7). In New Testament days the commendation of fellow saints, given in various forms of letters, was established practice from early days (see Rom. 16:1; Acts 18:27; Col. 4:7-10; Phm. 12, 17; Acts 15:23-27; Eph. 6:21-22). An excellent example from this list is found in Acts 18.27 where the brethren in Ephesus wrote a letter concerning Apollos, asking the believers in Achaia to receive him.
The provision and receipt of letters of commendation is therefore in accordance with New Testament practice.
The use of letters of commendation is closely related to the broader issue of reception to the local assembly.
Where a person is saved the desired outcome will be that the person is received into the fellowship of the local assembly. The scriptures show that for a person to be received there must be evidence of salvation, baptism by immersion, a clear understanding by the person concerned about the step they are taking and confirmation of their moral and doctrinal position.
The scriptures also show that a local assembly has the liberty and the duty to receive visitors subject to similar guiding principles. Those received should be true believers as members of the body of Christ (1.Cor. 10:17); baptised and therefore giving evidence of salvation and subjection to the Word of God; sound in doctrine (2 John 10-11); consistent and pure in life and walk (1.Cor. 5:9-13) and pure in associations (2 Tim. 2:19).
Reception in both cases is to full fellowship in the local assembly, not simply to the Lord’s Supper (sometimes mistakenly called the Lord’s Table). There is no such thing as casual or occasional fellowship in the Word of God. This is not to deny that, with the availability of modern travel or business commitments, visits to other assemblies may sometimes be for a limited time.
Recognising the different circumstances that may arise, godly wisdom is required to ascertain the spiritual position and condition of those to be received. In certain circumstances, because of time constraints, it is not always possible for receiving assemblies to clarify the position without information being provided by others. In such circumstances letters of commendation are helpful. Consistency of walk is the most eloquent testimony but this needs time to detect and a letter of commendation serves a more immediate purpose where time is not available.
The assembly as a whole should recognise the difficulties that arise on the broader issue of reception. Mistakes will sometimes be made. This should not be the basis of unforgiving criticism or open dissent when those who are confronted with difficult circumstances have to make instant decisions. The saints should support the elders in their actions and subjugate personal opinions for the good of the whole company.
New Testament Principles and Practice
As indicated it was the practice of local assemblies in apostolic times, when receiving visiting saints, to seek the commendation of the assemblies from which the believers had come.
2 Cor. 3:1-2 is an important passage on this subject. The word for commend (v.1) means to “stand beside” or “to introduce” or “to approve”. These verses confirm that the use of letters of introduction was common practice in the early church. They were necessary and advisable because of the social, political and religious climate of the day. They were both a helpful means of introduction and also a guard.
Emphatically this passage is not saying that letters of commendation are not needed. It shows that Paul was an exceptional case. The words “as some others” indicate that the majority would need and used letters when visiting another assembly. 2 Cor. 3 indicates that it is perfectly correct to expect a letter from visitors. It is possible that the false teachers in Corinth had gained entrance to the church because of the inadequacy of the letters they had been given. The words “some others” (v.1) also suggest this. Their letters may have been forged or obtained under false pretences. We learn from those cases it is possible to carry a letter or even be given a letter which has very little value.
Rom. 16:1-2 is another important passage. In this chapter a letter is written to commend Phoebe from Cenchrea to Rome. She was either unknown to the saints there or had not visited for some time. The content of the letter is to be noted. It is a personal note from Paul. It is entirely appropriate to receive a person based on the personal commendation of a respected spiritual person. The letter was written by one who knew the person to those who did not know her. Paul speaks about Phoebe’s personality and Christian character in honest terms. Letters should speak about a person’s faith and service. They should be an honest statement about the person being commended. The letter would remove any anxiety about receiving Phoebe. Although a personal note, in this chapter other brethren stand associated with this commendation (see vv. 21-23).
Based on these Scriptures we learn that it is appropriate for letters of commendation to be sent between assemblies as a means of introducing individual believers. Such letters were generally accompanied by personal or collective greetings.
A close examination of the scriptures cited shows that these letters were:
- Letters of introduction (sometimes where a person was previously unknown or new to an area).
- Letters of greeting.
- Letters bringing assurance and confidence. (1 Cor. 16:3 speaks of some being approved “by your letters”).
- Expressions of courtesy to the assembly being visited.
- Letters setting out the spiritual qualities or service of the person commended.
- A request for help for the visiting person (see 1 Cor. 16:10-11).
Such letters were a recommendation to others of like mind in the faith to receive the one commended. They made reference to their character, service and needs. Their purpose was to provide an adequate testimony of that person. J. R. Charlesworth has written that these were letters of “confirmation, confidence, consolation, concern, confession, conviction and consideration” (see Church Doctrine and Practice, Precious Seed Publications, pages 125-126).
Assembly Practice Today
Taking account of all the related scriptures on this matter we learn that:
- Letters may be an expression of spiritual unity.
- Letters should not be reduced to a meaningless formality. They serve an important purpose in guarding the testimony from evil.
- Letters should not be written, demanded or accepted as a matter of routine. Their real value and purpose must be appreciated.
- Letters should be personal. Pre-printed letters should be avoided.
- Letters should be positive, short, honest and an accurate description of the person in question.
- Letters should take up appropriate scriptures pertinent to their object. For example 15:7 is often cited but this really refers to personal relationships.
It is not unknown for an assembly to determine that the only ground of reception is the production of a letter of commendation. This is not entirely scriptural and it may in turn cause later and unintended difficulties. Consider:
- It is likely that such a “policy” will not be applied consistently, with a move away from such a “policy” when family members or visiting speakers attend.
- An absolute insistence on letters may mean we refuse those who ought to be received. Sometimes unplanned circumstances may arise where the obtaining of a letter is not possible.
- A wholesale reliance on letters may mean we receive those who should not be received because it assumes (rather naively) that all commending assemblies appreciate the significance of their actions or set out the full information that would be pertinent to the receiving assembly. Sometimes letters are generated which do not convey the full facts. So for example one assembly may take a certain view on doctrinal matters (e.g. prophetic truth, truth relating to the person of Christ) or practical matters (e.g. divorce and re-marriage, recovery of an immoral person) which could be compromised by reception based on a letter from an assembly who take an entirely different view on the matter.
- There may be other circumstances or information known to receiving assemblies which make the production of a letter unnecessary.
- There may be other circumstances or information known to receiving assemblies which make reception inappropriate despite the production of a letter.
The exchange of and insistence upon letters, irrespective of circumstances, may therefore cause its own difficulties. W. Kelly has said “It is mischievous when that which God uses for our mutual comfort is perverted by legalism into an instrument of spiritual torture, as may be sometimes the lack of a commendatory note or some kindred informality”.
The use of letters is to be commended and encouraged because some problems can be avoided. Recognising that the whole assembly receives, a letter can give the whole assembly confidence about the person who attends. Letters should therefore be addressed to the whole assembly (see Acts 18:27, 1 Cor. 16:10).
Reception Without a Letter
Letters of commendation are not the only ground upon which a person may be received. Scripture presents some circumstances where a letter was not required. There are two examples of reception without a letter in the New Testament.
Firstly Paul did not need a letter when going to Corinth (others did). His own work there was commendation enough (2 Cor. 3.2). Paul questions why they would require a letter concerning him given his previous ministry among them. The assembly at Corinth was his letter of commendation. Despite their faults and failures there was evidence of God working in that place through Paul.
Secondly an urgent and hasty departure from Damascus had led to Paul’s appearance at Jerusalem uncommended, but Barnabas bore clear testimony to his conversion, commission and confession (Acts 9:26-28). These scriptures show us that a personal introduction may have equal weight as a letter. Where a letter of commendation is unobtainable a personal commendation is in order. We should not therefore reject people automatically if they come without a letter.
Applying this to circumstances today, it would seem unnecessary to require brothers and sisters well known to us to produce a letter of commendation on every visit. Letters are not always necessary where an assembly is aware of the personal spiritual history of the one being received. To demand a letter for a known and honoured servant of Christ is arbitrary and unwarranted. A letter does however give a measure of confidence and an endorsement of character for those who are unknown to a local company.
If a believer from another assembly has been known and respected for some considerable time then it should be sufficient for them to be welcomed and announced to the assembly without a letter. Notwithstanding this if that believer has not presented himself or herself to the assembly for some years, a letter brought in that situation would be a good way of giving the receiving assembly confidence that in the lapse of time the person has not become uncommendable. Thus the writing and receiving of letters of commendation should not degenerate into a binding tradition – a “must have”, no matter how many times the same assembly is visited.
The Obligation on Receiving Assemblies
This is often an understated aspect of this subject. Those who receive must exercise judgment before the Lord as to whether a person should be received. There needs to be godly care in the receiving of visitors to an assembly.
The overriding principle that should be observed is that elders need to be careful in receiving all visitors. There is a potential of receiving unbelievers. There is a danger of receiving persons excluded from other companies. There is a danger of receiving people who will hinder the spiritual progress of the company. There is a danger of receiving those who hold false doctrine.
Unless there is a full knowledge of an individual’s circumstances, it is unwise and unsafe to receive people with or without a letter. If no letter is provided it is not unreasonable to err on the side of caution. But even receipt of a letter should go alongside fuller enquiry where possible and especially where a person intends to reside in a locality for an extended period of time. No right minded believer will resent such legitimate enquiry.
There are times when saints move from one assembly to another under unclear, unexplained or unsatisfactory circumstances. The question might be raised as to whether a letter should be given in such circumstances. It should be recognised that there is a responsibility on those providing a letter to ensure that the wording does not misrepresent the position. In such circumstances a letter given may not necessarily be one of commendation. Not all letters should be perceived to be a positive commendation. A letter may be a simple confirmation that a person has been in assembly fellowship and of their desire to seek fellowship elsewhere. The receiving assembly has a responsibility to discern such and if possible make appropriate enquiry with the assembly who wrote the letter. It would seem wise that the assembly that provides such a letter should also (and through separate communication if necessary) provide elders of the receiving assembly with additional information which will help them in their consideration of relevant matters.
Today there seems to be a preoccupation with a person having a letter per se, rather than taking account of its content. Whilst letters should be carefully worded there is also a responsibility on the receiving company to make appropriate enquiries where there is no obvious reason for a move to another company or where the potential for that company to be misled is present.
It is recognised that it is the whole assembly that receives and commends. It is possible that the elders in an assembly may be aware of certain circumstances which it would be inappropriate to make known publicly and therefore the assembly will have to accept the lead given by those in responsibility. Some may find this difficult to accept but those who are spiritual will recognise the wisdom of submission.
This can be a particularly difficult problem. When believers desire to have fellowship with an assembly, when on vacation, a commending letter is to be preferred irrespective of the duration of the stay. The receiving assembly needs to be careful. Without any means of knowing the persons visiting, there is a great burden on the receiving elders. Holiday visitors frequently first present at the Lord’s Supper. It is not simply a matter of each individual who wishes to take part examining themselves. Whilst this is important 1 Cor. 11:28 applies to those already in the assembly. The elders have a responsibility to preserve the sanctity and order of the assembly. This will not be helped by visitors showing a complete disregard for the views of a local company, represented by local elders, by seeking to impose their own views and by a spirit which treats with contempt the requirements of the local company.
The question of how to respond to visitors who arrive a few minutes prior to the meeting without a letter is very stressful to local brethren. Often older brethren are confronted with the forthright views of those who think they know better. The provision of letters of commendation removes much of this anxiety.
It should further be noted that those who carry a letter should attend all the assembly gatherings convened throughout the week and not simply the Lord’s Supper.
Elders are responsible, acting on behalf of the assembly, to guard the assembly from immoral practice and erroneous teaching. A scriptural approach on reception, supported by the scriptural use of letters of commendation, helps fulfil this responsibility. Elders and assemblies will be safer and happier where the scriptural use of letters of commendation is observed.