The references for this article are: Acts 18. 24-28; Romans 16. 1-2; 2 Corinthians 3. 1-3
It is quite clear from the passages referenced that it was the practice of the early church to give letters of commendation to those who were either moving permanently from one area to another or when they were visiting on a temporary basis. I take it that in Acts chapter 18 it was the mind of Apollos to reside in the region of Achaia for some time and thus the brethren wrote a letter commending him to that area. In Romans chapter 16, it would appear that Phoebe was only visiting Rome from Cenchrea and, therefore, the commendation was temporary. The same would apply to what Paul says in 2 Corinthians chapter 3, as he would only be visiting Corinth on a temporary basis. However, we see that letters of commendation were used for both permanent and temporary circumstances.
As they are found in the scriptures in the practice of the early church, then it would seem appropriate that they should be used today. From what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians chapter 3 verses 1 and 2, he was recognizing the principle that others, when they visited Corinth from elsewhere, needed to bring with them letters of commendation. However, because Paul had been used of God to found the assembly at Corinth, he did not require such a letter to them.
In normal circumstances the answer to the question is ‘the assembly’ to which the person being commended belongs. It is not the overseers who commend but the assembly or local church. The elders may write and sign the letter but they are doing so on behalf of the whole assembly, which is normally made clear at the end of the letter. It may be noted that in Acts chapter 18 it was not Aquila and Priscilla who commended Apollos but ‘the brethren’ who wrote ‘exhorting the disciples to receive him’, v. 27. It would be wise practice for responsible elders to write the letter and for at least two of them to sign it on behalf of the whole assembly. When the letter is for a permanent commendation then the assembly should be informed that such a letter is being given. The principle should always be ‘let all things be done decently and in order’, 1 Cor. 14. 40.
There were times when an individual commended another. For example, Paul wrote in Romans chapter 16 verse 1, ‘I commend unto you Phebe’. It should be said that here was one with apostolic authority and such authority is not vested in anyone today. We do, however, find another individual speaking for someone who was seeking to be received into fellowship – Saul of Tarsus in Acts chapter 9, when he tried to join himself to the assembly at Jerusalem. Clearly, the assembly was not happy to receive him on his own commendation, but Barnabas vouched for his genuineness. If, for some reason, it has been impossible for a letter of commendation to be obtained, there should be no reason why an individual should not vouch for the one seeking fellowship. This assumes that the individual giving assurance is either in fellowship, or is well-known to the receiving assembly and knows the individual and his or her circumstances well.
It is evident from Romans chapter 16 that Phebe’s letter was very personal to her. Paul mentions things about her that would not have been true of others. The example set before us in scripture is that each letter should commend the person or persons in a personal way, stating something of their spiritual experience and exercise of gift. A letter of commendation on these lines would give the receiving assembly confidence to give a believer every opportunity for the exercise of their gift.
A letter of commendation also provides an opportunity for sending the greetings of the saints in the commending assembly to those in the receiving assembly. On a very practical note, because letters of commendation have been known to be misused, it is a wise practice to date every letter that is written.
Although we have sought to show the value of letters of commendation, it is important to avoid legality, particularly when it comes to a temporary commendation. Although it could be said that it saves much trouble and embarrassment if a letter of commendation is always taken, there will be times when a letter is not essential. For example, if I visit another assembly this coming weekend and, four weeks later, I have occasion to visit again, I would not think it necessary to take a second letter of commendation. However, if I were visiting that same assembly again in twelve months’ time, I would think it right and proper to take another letter, because my circumstances could have changed during that time. Similarly, if, as a speaker, I was invited by an assembly to be with them for a weekend, I think it would be legal for that assembly to insist on a letter. After all, they should have verified my credentials before they invited me to speak in the first place!
There is also the instance when a believer may have suddenly been called to an area in an emergency (for example, to visit a relative who was seriously ill) and so had no time to obtain a letter before they left. In such a situation, it would be unwise and uncaring for an assembly to take a legal stand and always insist on a letter in every circumstance. Again, if there is an individual in the receiving assembly who knows the believer concerned, there should be no reason for excluding that individual from the fellowship because they do not have a letter of commendation. If one is a complete stranger to the assembly and has been unable to obtain a letter, it is important not to generate concern in the receiving assembly who have a responsibility to protect it from danger. In such instances, a gracious response would be to not participate in whatever gathering is attended.
A letter of commendation should always be accepted for what it is. It would be wrong not to accept it unless someone in the receiving assembly makes it known that they are aware of moral or doctrinal problems. Sadly today, I think the answer to our question may well be ‘no’. We are living in strange days when some assemblies have grown lax in relation to doctrine and morality. As a result, many now make it their practice, when receiving letters of commendation regarding believers who are seeking to settle in an area permanently, to say to those bringing them that they are happy for them to be received initially, but that some of the overseers would like to visit them in their home in order to enquire further. This will overcome many problems and save much embarrassment. By taking a letter at face value and receiving a person or persons who are carrying it, we may unwittingly receive into fellowship someone who holds serious doctrinal error.
This may seem legal or harsh. However, we must remember that the elders in the receiving assembly have a responsibility before the Lord in respect to their own company. To fail to exercise that responsibility properly would be to displease the Lord and put at risk fellow believers in Christ. After all, those received are, in effect, given all the privileges of assembly fellowship and, for the brethren, opportunity to teach the saints. Such a privilege should be given wisely and exercised wisely!
It should be said initially that there is no point in the commending assembly going to the trouble of writing a letter and sending their greetings if the letter is not read out to the gathered company by the receiving assembly.
There is a very simple answer to this question but it may not be the one that most people would expect: at the first meeting the person bringing the letter attends, whether that be the prayer meeting, the Bible-teaching meeting, or the breaking of bread. Most people would expect the answer to be ‘the breaking of bread’ meeting, because that is standard practice amongst many companies. Why is that? Because the letter of commendation is looked upon as being ‘a passport’ to break bread! This is not the case, because you cannot be received to an ordinance. Therefore, as the letter is commending an individual to the full fellowship of the assembly the letter can be read at any of the gatherings.