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 Romans 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 "procedure" 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 na?vely) 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 which takes 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 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.
First, Paul did not need a letter when going to Corinth (others did). His own work there was commendation enough (2 Cor 3.2).
Second, an urgent and hasty departure from Damascus had led to Pauls 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 just as much weight as a letter would.
Applying this to circumstances today, we should not reject people automatically if they come without a letter. 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 or not. 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 danger 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 individuals 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 now desires to seek fellowship elsewhere. The receiving assembly has a responsibility to discern such and, if possible, make appropriate enquiry with the assembly which wrote the letter.
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. 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 are first present at the Lords Supper. It is not simply a matter of each individual who wishes to take part examining themselves. Whilst this is important, 1 Corinthians 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 that 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 Lords 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.