What is the purpose of letters of commendation? Some Christians dismiss them as outdated and irrelevant.
Where fellowship is “open”, and visitors to a Christian gathering are received solely on their own testimony, then what the Bible refers to as “commendatory letters”, (2 Cor. 3: 1), do seem irrelevant. Under such a system, a complete stranger might be received just because his profession appears genuine. A letter then, would be superfluous. All this, though, is based on a false premise, for so–called “open” fellowship has no Scriptural warrant. Yet it is undeniable that the very letters referred to so disparagingly by some people today formed an integral part of the apostolic system of fellowship.
In NT times, when a believer visited a Christian assembly where he was not known, he took a written recommendation to be received by the saints. This is what is called a “letter of commendation”.
The first mention of such a letter concerns Apollos. Acts 18: 27: “And when he purposed to go into Achaia, the brethren wrote to the disciples engaging them to receive him”. The context clearly indicates that Apollos was unknown in Achaia, (at least as a Christian), and thus required written support from the brethren then with him in Ephesus.
Why this caution over the reception of visitors? In 1 Tim. 5: 22 we read of Timothy being told to “Lay hands quickly on no man, nor partake in others’ sins”,—that is he was not to use undue haste in identifying himself with others. Fellowship should never be rushed into—if I walk with a man, I agree with, or at least condone, all that he says and does. In the more narrow sphere of the Christian household, the elect lady was expressly warned not to receive those adrift as to the Person of the Christ, (2 John 10). How solemn then that there are companies that have unwittingly received such, simply because those persons stated that they were believers! Quakers, and others may call themselves Christians but this does not make them so in God’s sight! If the elect lady was warned that “he who greets him partakes in his wicked works”, (v11), what should be said of those that accept such to the Lord’s Supper?! Nor should we admit those believers who hold, or associate with those who hold, doctrines subversive to the Gospel. They might deem themselves worthy of fellowship, but Scripture does not, (see Gal. 1: 6–9; 1 Cor. 15; Rom. 16: 17 etc.). A commendation from a known source would keep saints from unwittingly according fellowship to such.
Not all visitors need a letter. It is only for those unknown in the place. Thus Paul can write to his familiar Corinthian brethren: “Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or do we need, as some, commendatory letters to you, or [commendatory] from you?”, (2 Cor. 3: 1). They were too well–known to each other to need letters. Yet when Phoebe was going to Rome, the apostle had to tell the Roman saints who she was: “I commend to you Phoebe, our sister, who is minister of the assembly which is in Cenchrea; that ye may receive her in [the] Lord”, (Rom. 16: 1,2). Paul, however, was known to them, (at least indirectly), and can thus commend her to their fellowship.
A letter is not, however, a passport to the Lord’s supper, a ticket guaranteeing admittance to the privileges of the assembly! The letter can only commend—it cannot command. A meeting is not bound to receive someone simply because they have a letter—this would make void the conscience of the saints. The letter recommends and nothing more. It is the saints, not the letter, who ultimately decide reception. Of course to refuse a letter–holder could have widespread repercussions, for to reject the one commended is effectively to reject the one commending. Nonetheless a letter cannot force acceptance.
For a letter to be of any value, both the writer and the recipient must be mutually acquainted. I stress this because some make everything of having a letter, forgetting that the real value of the letter is in the identity of the writer. If the writer is unknown to the recipient, then the recommendation is valueless. We do not have to go far in every–day life to see the same principle operating. I might, for instance, have a plumber recommended to me, but unless the recommendation comes from someone I know, then it has no credibility whatsoever! Normally, of course, the best person to recommend me is someone who attends the same gathering as I do since he should know me best. However such a recommendation will be worthless, unless he is known to those to whom he writes.
Thus it is the signature at the bottom of the letter, not the meeting address at the top, that gives a letter its authority. If letters of commendation were properly used, (that is, as communications between mutually acquainted persons), then address books of meetings would be largely redundant.