In Part 1, last month (The Tidings, February 2013), we looked at the 1st Century practice of letters of commendation, along with a Biblical study of the words used, and considered some examples of NT usage. This we continue this month.
We are introduced to Apollos in Acts 18:24 where we learn that he is a Jew, mighty in the Scriptures and who preached the things of the Lord, but only knowing the baptism of John. It seems he was a traveler having come from Alexandria in Egypt all the way to Ephesus, and he had the intent to spread the word in other places. Once Aquila and Priscilla had instructed him more perfectly in the way of God they encouraged him to go to other areas and preach, but not before writing a letter of recommendation.
“And when he was disposed to pass into Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive (apodechomai) him: who, when he was come, helped them much which had believed through grace” (Acts 18:27).
One wonders how Apollos would have fared without this letter in hand? It seems an ecclesia would not receive a travelling stranger without a recommendation, even though he might confess to believe the same things. Aquila and Priscilla followed practical measures that would allow Apollos’ acceptance into fellowship with open arms wherever he went among the established ecclesias.
A great example of a letter of commendation is where Paul commends Phoebe to the ecclesia in Rome.
“I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea: That ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you: for she hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also” (Rom 16:1-2).
This follows the typical form and structure of the period’s letters of commendation. It is fair to assume that the Apostle sent Phoebe, who personally delivered the whole epistle to the ecclesia in Rome. This sending and commendation of Phoebe may have been Paul’s original task, but he decided to also write a lengthy dissertation in front of the letter of commendation.
She comes highly qualified in glowing terms, yet Paul still urges them to “receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints”. The qualifying phrase “in the Lord” (seen also in Phil 2:29 and Philemon 15-17) indicates that it had to do with welcoming somebody into fellowship.1 This was something reserved or worthy of only for the saints.
The Jerusalem poor fund
Much of the epistles to the Corinthians involve a collection made by the Gentile ecclesias to support the poor brethren suffering through a famine in Jerusalem. In matters involving money there would have to be an extreme sensitivity that those bearing the funds would be trustworthy and beyond reproach. Paul left this decision up to the Corinthians.
“And when I come, whomsoever ye shall approve by your letters, them will I send to bring your liberality (mg. gift) unto Jerusalem” (1Cor 16:3).
It was not enough just to pick some nice brethren to do the job. Paul expected them to write a letter of recommendation so that he could in all good conscious “send” them for the work. Paul gives his reasoning for doing this:
“We take this course so that no one should blame us about this generous gift that is being administered by us, for we aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of man” (2Cor 8:20-21 ESV).
In this context, Paul writes a highly complementary recommendation for those doing the work and is very careful to show that this was not of his initiative but was a recommendation by the ecclesias. That the ones he was “sending” (v. 18, 22) were “chosen” (v. 19) by the ecclesias and therefore were “messengers (apostles – ones sent) by the church” (v. 23).
Paul’s letter of commendation to Philemon
While many of the New Testament epistles have embedded letters of commendation (e.g. Timothy and Epaphroditus in Phil 2:19-30) the epistle to Philemon stands alone as a letter of commendation in whole. The story goes that Onesimus, a servant of Philemon, runs away and eventually is converted by Paul in Rome. Paul instructs Onesimus to go back to his master with this letter in hand. Onesimus as a runaway slave faces certain punishment, but Paul uses the method of writing a letter of commendation, in standard form and function for Roman society, to persuade Philemon not to do this but to receive Onesimus as a brother in the Lord.
While the word “commendation” is not used, the nature of the letter is apparent by the loving terms Paul uses for Onesimus and his use of the key words “send” and “receive”.
“Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels” (Philemon 1:12).
“For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever; Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord? If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself” (Philemon 1:15-17).
Paul implored Philemon to receive him back. Not just as a servant in bonds, but much more, as a brother in Christ. The receiving had to do with fellowship in the Lord. The special nature of the case has insured its preservation in our Bibles but it makes one wonder how many other letters of recommendation were written among the ecclesias of the time? There can be no doubt that it was a standard practice.
The apostle John hints at his use of letters of commendation for travelling brethren (verse 3) that had come back to him with a report of those who were walking in the truth. With a careful reading of 3 John we can safely assume that John sent these brethren on a mission with a letter of commendation because they would be unknown to the other ecclesias. The letters would then ensure ample support and help by the local ecclesias for the work they were doing. John thanks them for their service and generosity in verses 5-6,
“Beloved, thou doest faithfully whatsoever thou doest to the brethren, and to strangers; Which have borne witness of thy charity before the church: whom if thou bring forward (propempo) on their journey after a godly sort, thou shalt do well: Because that for his name’s sake they went forth, taking nothing of the Gentiles. We therefore ought to receive (apolambano) such, that we might be fellowhelpers to the truth.” (3John 5-8).
The King James translation of verse 5 reads as if there are two classes “the brethren, and to strangers” but it should read more like the ESV, “for these brothers, strangers as they are…” They might have been strangers at first but as soon as they would have read the letter of commendation, they would have quickly bounded in the truth and been welcomed.
Our keywords “send” and “receive”, used in these verses, indicates the practice of commendation. John encourages the ecclesia to “bring forward” such missionaries, which most modern translation have as the word “send”. For instance the NKJV reads, “If you send them forward on their journey in a manner worthy of God, you will do well.” This is paired, as we have seen now so often, with the aspect of “receiving” in verse 8, which is all centered on the aspect of proper fellowship practice so that we might be “fellowhelpers to the truth.”
To not “receive” someone who had been “sent” was a serious matter that spoke not only against the travelling missionaries but also against the one who had sent them in the first place. This was Diotrephes.
“I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth (epidechomai) us not” (3John 9).
John says at the beginning of verse 9 that he “wrote unto the church.” What letter is John referring to here? Based on the context, this was most likely the letter of commendation John had sent with the brethren, which Diotrephes had rejected. We can imply this as well when John says that Diotrophes “receiveth us not” (v. 9) and that “neither doth he himself receive the brethren” (v. 10).
John took the rejection of his commendation very personally when he says Diotrophes “receiveth us not” (v. 9). This follows the principle, so often in Scripture, that he who receives you, receives me and he who rejects the one sent, rejects the one who did the sending (Matt 10:40-41; 18:5; Luke 10:16; John 13:20). Therefore, Diotrephes’ rejection of John’s commendation of these travelling brethren was truly a rejection of the apostle John himself.
Practical implications for our day
The apostolic and ecclesial practice of commendation is a guide for our personal and inter-ecclesial conduct. Personally, it shows forth a spirit of humility and not wanting to boast. Secondly, it shows an ecclesial carefulness to ensure proper fellowship.
Paul had a problem with the Corinthians who were questioning his motives and qualifications. It upset Paul so much that these brethren and sisters whom he knew so well were treating him as some sort of stranger. In an exasperated tone he says to them:
“Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you?” (2Cor 3:1).
At once, the practice of letters of commendation jumps out, but in this case, such a letter would be needless. Paul bemoaned the fact that he had to boast about his own qualifications to those who knew him. Yet throughout the epistle, he battles and succumbs to “commending” himself.
“… by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2Cor 4:2).
“For we commend not ourselves again unto you, but give you occasion to glory on our behalf, that ye may have somewhat to answer them which glory in appearance, and not in heart.” (2Cor 5:12).
“But in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses…” (2Cor 6:4).
“For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” (2Cor 10:12).
“But he that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord. (18) For not he that commendeth himself is approved, but whom the Lord commendeth” (2Cor 10:17-18).
“I am become a fool in glorying; ye have compelled me: for I ought to have been commended of you: for in nothing am I behind the very chiefest apostles, though I be nothing” (2Cor 12:11).
Paul had felt compelled to become foolish in defending himself to the Corinthians. Having to qualify ourselves should not be a comfortable position for any humble servant of Christ. Approval of who we are and what we stand for is best coming from others. Paul always looked for approval from the ecclesia. This is a model for us to follow, that when we travel and visit other ecclesias we should be taking with us the commendation of our ecclesia. If we do not have that, then looking to be “received” into fellowship is questionable.
Approval of men
Certain brethren and sisters may chaff at the thought of seeking approval from men. There is no doubt that a Pharisaic attitude could arise where we seek the praise of men rather than the praise of God (Matt 6:1; 23:5; John 12:43; Acts 5:29; 2Thess 2:4) but the Scriptures are also clear that it is not always a bad thing if the motives are correct. In fact, it is better for us to seek praise from others rather than ourselves as it says,“Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth; a stranger, and not thine own lips” (Prov 27:2).
The spontaneous approval of men that naturally arises out of the recognition of a good character is admirable. It is said of Jesus2 “he grew in favour with God and man” (Luke 2:52). This he did by following the principles in Proverbs:
“Let not mercy and truth forsake thee: bind them about thy neck; write them upon the table of thine heart: So shalt thou find favour and good understanding in the sight of God and man” (Prov 3:3-4).
Therefore, if we are a brother or sister, known of others to be standing fast in the Lord, then the praise of others is what really matters. It should not and does not need to come from ourselves. The approval of men then is not something to disregard for in the right context it is desirable. Paul shows this to be the case:
“For he that in these things serveth Christ is acceptable to God, and approved of men” (Rom 14:18: see also 2Cor 8:21; Acts 2:47).
The responsibility of an ecclesia is to watch over and encourage the spiritual development of its own members. In a healthy environment, the shepherds of the ecclesia know the attitudes and standing of those in the ecclesia. They are the ones best fit to provide a true assessment of a brother or sister’s character. It would seem right then that ecclesias would still seek to affirm and encourage the practice of commendation both of those who are “sent” and “received”.
Similarly, the ecclesia must make decisions on whom to receive into fellowship. Did any first century ecclesia accept anybody without a letter of recommendation? Even if the visiting brother commended himself, would fellowship be offered and left to his conscious? We have no commandment given to the ecclesias but with so many examples given it would seem reasonable that the answer in practice is “no”.
In terms of fellowship, Bro. Thomas wrote in 1869,
“Declare what you as a body believe to be the apostles’ doctrines. Invite fellowship upon this basis alone. If upon that declaration, any take the bread and wine, not being offered by you, they do so upon their own responsibility, not on yours.”3
While this might seem at first to be reasonable, it does not correlate with what we have just seen as the ecclesial practice of recommendation before a person’s reception into fellowship. Leaving the decision of breaking bread and wine solely in the hands of a visitor is to abdicate a responsibility of the ecclesia.
From the earliest years of the Christadelphians, there has been recognition of the need to write letters of commendation when transferring membership from one ecclesia to another. Examples fill the intelligence section of the magazine. Sometimes the lack of such a letter created problems as is apparent in this notice from 1872,
“Brethren Removing from one place to another. — Such should always provide themselves with a letter of recommendation from the ecclesia with which they have been assembling. There have recently been several instances of awkwardness from want of the necessary introduction.”4
Even in terms of visitation, some ecclesias adopted a rule,
“Chicago , Ill.—Brother W A. Harris says “We have thought it necessary to adopt the rule adopted in England and elsewhere, that when a stranger visits us, he be required to produce a letter of recommendation before we receive him into our fellowship; failing which, we appoint a committee to confer with him as to the identity of his faith and practice with ours.”5
While these brethren state it as a rule they nevertheless are basing it off sound Scriptural principles.
This became the norm throughout the Central Christadelphian brotherhood. As the number of ecclesias grew, the practice developed into acceptance of anybody in good standing from a Central ecclesia. The article in The Christadelphian Magazine of 1995 puts it succinctly,
“The fact that fellowship arises from ecclesial membership allows the ecclesial world to be travelled without difficulty. By presenting himself as a member in good standing of a Christadelphian ecclesia in the central fellowship, a brother will be invited without further question to share in the fellowship of the Lord’s Table with his brethren and sisters. Any other arrangement would be unworkable, of course. It would be impossible to undertake an enquiry into every visitor’s beliefs on the door-step of the ecclesial hall, but this would prove necessary if there were no safeguard such as is provided by a brother or sister’s membership of an ecclesia. Thus it is the ecclesia, and not the individual, who is the arbiter of his or her fellowship standing, and it is their home ecclesia’s assessment which is taken into account when individual brethren and sisters visit ecclesias where they are not personally known.”6
Influenced by the culture of the times, the first century ecclesia adopted letters of commendation in its own unique way for the protection of fellowship among the ecclesias. As we have seen, the practice is woven throughout the fabric of the New Testament. As modern day ecclesias in the Lord, we would like to say that we emulate similar procedures.
This is not an absolute rule, but is a wise practice to follow. We have seen the expectation and usage of commendation among ecclesias is the best method we have a preserving the truth in these last days. True fellowship in the Lord is a serious matter given to the ecclesias to implement.
Furthermore, we must consider ourselves humbly, lest any man should boast of himself. The practice of commendation mitigates self-commendation and establishes Godly humility. It makes one realize that acceptance into fellowship is not a right but a privilege.
If we do these things, Lord willing, before the judgment seat we will be given the greatest commendation of all, even to be presented “faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy” (Jude 1:24).
Tim Young (Cambridge, ON)
1. The word “receive” is used earlier in Rom 14:1 and 15:7 concerning fellowship.
2. And Samuel (1Sam. 2:26)
3. Reproduced in The Christadelphian, 1873, pg. 323
4. The Christadelphian: 1872, pg. 614.
5. The Christadelphian: 1873, pg. 47.
6. The Christadelphian: 1995, pg. 386.