In today’s post we consider some New Testament texts that refer to a particular practice in the early church known as “letters of commendation”. Much like a resume or reference in today’s world, so-called “letters of commendation” served to validate the character of a person arriving at a location in the ancient world. As we will see in a short-while, such “letters of commendation” provide a strong precedent for the current day practice of church membership “by letter” – but more on that later.
The above image is taken from the classic work by George Milligan entitled: “Selections From The Greek Papyri”. Greek papyri were documents written on the medium of papyrus scrolls that were composed of crisscrossing reeds of papyrus. For centuries this particular method of transmitting writing was used from Egypt through Greece through Rome and in the regions of ancient Israel. Milligan’s book was published in 1912 and made available to scholars and students a glimpse into what was then the recent discoveries of a large cache of papyrus rolls in Oxyrynchus Egypt. What caught New Testament scholarship’s attention was how the words and phrases in these non-biblical, secular Greco-Roman papyri shed light on the background of the New Testament.
The above image is that of a particular papyus “P Oxyrynchus 42”, which is an example of a “letter of commendation”. What makes this letter illuminating is that its style and wording demonstrate that the phraseology of our New Testaments were firmly situated in the 1st century context of ancient Israel and the wider Mediterranean world. Dated by those who specialize in this literature (i.e. papyrologists) to the year A.D. 25, P Oxyrynchus 42 contains a particular man “Theon” recommending his brother “Heralcides” to a particular gentleman “Tyrannus”. The above example in the image contains eight lines of text. In the fifth and sixth lines we find Theon writing the following:
“I urge you with all my might for you to give him a heart commendation.”
The word in red is the Greek present passive participle of the verb “συνίστημι” (sun-his-tay-mee). Interestingly we find this same verb used by Paul in Romans 16:1 to commend a certain “Phoebe”, which I’ll reproduce in the NASB and SBL Greek text:
Romans 16:1 (NASB) “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea.
Romans 16:1 (SBL Greek Text) Συνίστημι δὲ ὑμῖν Φοίβην τὴν ἀδελφὴν ἡμῶν, οὖσαν καὶ διάκονον τῆς ἐκκλησίας τῆς ἐν Κεγχρεαῖς,
This letter of commendation for Phoebe by Paul is his way of providing credentials to the church at Rome for this woman Phoebe. As one reads the remainder of Romans 16, we find similar commendations for a number of individuals. Such commendations act as ancient church letters vouching for that person’s character and commitment in their prior locale. Some other examples from the New Testament should suffice to drive home this particular point about letters of commendation.
1 Corinthians 16:3-4 “When I arrive, whomever you may approve, I will send them with letters to carry your gift to Jerusalem; 4 and if it is fitting for me to go also, they will go with me.”
2 Corinthians 3:1-3 “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? 2 You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; 3 being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”
Philemon 1:10-16 “I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, 11 who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me. 12 I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, 13 whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; 14 but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will. 15 For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”
There are several more examples in the New Testament of similar-styled remarks by Paul and others about certain persons. Whenever we read these “letters of commendation”, we are experiencing a style of character reference common in the ancient world. Milligan’s book contains not only examples of secular “letters of commendation”, but other literary pieces such as marriage contracts, bills of sale and even letters from debt collectors! As we mentioned earlier in this post, the letters of commendation we find in the cited New Testament examples have an important link to our modern day practice of church membership.
How Early Greek Papyri Can Shed Light On Church Membership In The New Testament
Whenever we turn to Romans 16 in particular, we find Paul commending individuals in and to the church at Rome. As we’ve already observed, such commendations vouched for that person’s character and commitment. Some churches today see no point in church membership. The objections to this practice range from it’s un-biblical sanction to it unnecessarily precluding otherwise healthy Christians from readily involving themselves in the life of the church. Such objections are without foundation.
With regard to the objection that church membership is unbiblical, one only need to consider a few examples in the New Testament that overturn this notion. Acts 2:41 records:
“So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls.”
Someone was keeping count of those persons that believed on the Gospel and were subsequently baptized. The local church at Jerusalem recognized that those Christians entering into their fold needed counted. This pattern of receiving baptized believers into a church began with the birth of the church. Or again, consider the term used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:12 –
“For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ.”
One must not think of the term “members” as, say, having a “membership at a gym” or some other local organization. This term “membership” evokes a biological connotation, such as the different “parts” or “members” of the human body. Moreover, since Paul is writing to a particular congregation (in this instance, that church at Corinth), then the general truth of Christ’s living body “The Church” is manifested in each local body of believers that meet together, celebrate the ordinances (or sacraments, if you like), give heed to the exposition of the scriptures and perform the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20.
Whenever we consider such New Testament texts as these, as well as the “letters of commendation” we’ve already explored, the case for church membership is substantiated.
But now what of the second objection that church membership discourages active participation in the life of the local church. Again, one only need to look at the lives of those who involved themselves in the early church of the New Testament. A teacher by the name of Apollos had a letter of commendation written for him in Acts 18:27 to serve in a place called “Achaia”. Apollos was an itinerant preacher. To lay his roots down in Achaia gave more focus to his ministry and life.
When one turns to Romans 16, we are introduced to nearly 25 people by name at the church of Rome. There is no evidence that church membership (Romans 16 is but one example of an ancient equivalent of a membership roll) hampered the spiritual lives of these people. If for anything, church membership gave more focus. Whenever we consider several of these names in the scripture already referenced, we can find them in other New Testament books. By having such “letters of commendation”, people could check the spiritual lineage of those persons coming into the fold. For the Christian, having one’s membership in one church transferred to their current church “by way of letter” gives a snapshot of one’s spiritual pilgrimage. Far from some sort of legalism, church membership provides needed accountability, structure and a visible snapshot of one aspect of a believer’s walk with Christ in relationship to a given local church.
My wife and I were one time part of a rather large church that did not have church membership. Issues of accountability and the inability of people to stay long-term over the long haul led to a limitation on how far one could grow spiritually in that body. Certainly any church that has church membership is not immune from its own set of problems. But to not have church membership is not only harmful in the long-run, but, as seen in the scriptural and historical case above – unbiblical.
To illustrate once more the importance of church membership over that of being an “attender”, consider what happens when one moves from one state to another. When my wife and I moved to New York, we for a period of time were visiting the state. However, when the time came for us to move, we had to change over all sorts of legal documents and our place of residence. Why? Could we had evoked the fact we were citizens of the United States? Surely. However, U.S. Citizenship, though necessary to function in, say, New York, is not sufficient to partake of the privileges that come with permanent residency (not to mention ultimately illegal). These two illustrations hopefully drive home how important the principle of church membership is for the Christian. Not only is this a matter of exegesis of the New Testament testimony about the doctrine of the church, but also vital to understanding Christian activity in the local church.
Today’s post sought to introduce readers to the world of ancient papyri and the light they can shed on the New Testament text. We also considered how the term “letters of commendation” functioned as a piece of the overall evidence for the ancient precedent of the Biblical practice of church membership.