The words "commend" or "commendation" in our English New Testament are a translation of a variety of words from the original Greek text which include the idea of praising or speaking well of a thing or a person (1 Cor 11.2), of giving a recommendation (Acts 15.40), of committing or entrusting (Acts 14:23), or of speaking well of a person in introducing them (Rom 16.1). It is this last 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 (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; Philem vv.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 that person is received into the fellowship of the local assembly. The Scriptures show that for someone 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 Jn vv.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 Lords Supper (sometimes mistakenly called the Lords 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 Corinthians 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 safeguard.
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 Corinthians 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 that it is possible to carry a letter or even be given a letter which has very little value.
Romans 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 an individual on the basis of the personal commendation of a respected spiritual person. The letter was written by one who knew Phoebe to those who did not know her. Paul speaks about her personality and Christian character in honest terms. Letters should speak about a persons 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 (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 Corinthians 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 Corinthians 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 (Church Doctrine and Practice. Precious Seed Publications, pages 125-126).
To be continued.