ABOUT CHURCH LETTERS
It is obvious that many people have misconceptions about church letters when we consider the requests that are made with reference to them. For instance, the person that writes asking for a church letter from a church that he has not attended nor even corresponded with for thirty or forty years. Or the flighty church member that, in a huff over some insignificant thing, wants to drop by the pastor’s office and "pick up my church letter." Or again, the person who, upon leaving the community, asks for a letter of recommendation from the church, only to take it home and file it away in his unused Bible, his trunk, or elsewhere, and then not present it to another church for many months or even for years.
Church letters certainly have their place, and are very necessary, but they are also sometimes abused, and even more commonly misunderstood. Therefore it shall be our endeavor to examine this subject in this chapter, and to set forth in a clear way exactly what church letters are, the limitations on them, the abuses made of them, and responsibilities connected with them. In dealing with this subject there are four things that we wish to notice. The first of these is—
I. WHAT ARE CHURCH LETTERS?
Perhaps a better designation for these would be "letters of recommendation," for this is exactly what these are. A church letter is simply a letter from one church to another recommending a member to the fellowship of the second church, and stating that the person recommended is in regular standing in the church, not accused of anything worthy of disciplinary action by the church.
A church letter being a recommendation of an individual by one church to another, in the very nature of the case it can have no relevance to anyone but the two churches involved. It is a recommendation of the individual’s Christian character and walk, and hence, it implies nothing of the character of the church to which he is recommended beyond the fact that it is recognized
as a sister church, and therefore, a true New Testament church. This is why Baptist churches exchange letters of recommendation with one another even when they do not agree upon all points, but why, at the same time, they do not exchange letters of recommendation with Protestant or Catholic churches. They recognize that many Protestant churches may contain many saved people, but having a defective origin and baptism (and it takes more than just immersion to constitute a scriptural baptism) they cannot be recognized as New Testament churches. Sainthood and churchhood are not co-extensive. Of course, it would not affect the church status of a Baptist church to recommend a man to the fellowship of an alien church, but such an action would call forth the expectation of a reciprocal acceptance of one by letter from the alien church. And this would certainly have a deleterious effect upon any Baptist church doing so. Therefore consistency demands refusal to grant, as well as to receive, letters of recommendation to and from alien churches.
One of the purposes of church letters is to guard the disciplinary action of the churches. If members were accepted into churches simply on the statement of the applying member, there would be much potential for evil. For then every carnal Christian who had been excluded from a church for wickedness or heresy, could simply go to another church, proclaim himself a good, spiritual Christian, and he would have to be received as a member. Then he would, in all likelihood, work his evil all over again in another church. But where a letter of recommendation is required of a person before he is received into a church, the danger of such things will be greatly curtailed.
It is sadly true that many churches, in their zeal for numbers, in effect, set aside the discipline of sister churches by knowingly receiving excluded members from other churches without requiring the excluded member to make things right with the first church. But such is neither right nor biblical, and the church that does so must answer to the Lord for it. But if every church would require letters of recommendation from sister churches before accepting new members, and only make exception to this rule after a thorough examination of the circumstances that made it impossible for the person to obtain a letter of recommendation, then it would stop much of the church wrecking by unspiritual persons who often move about as church tramps doing their nefarious work in one church after another.
The recommendation must be between sister churches, and hence the name "church letters," which brings up another point: these are church letters, and so, no individual has the right to write them, except by the authority of the church. Neither the pastor, nor the church clerk, nor deacons nor anyone else has the right to write such a letter of recommendation for an individual to join another church. Such persons are all but servants of the church, and have no authority to act unless authorized to do so by the church. The possible exception to this would be if such was recognized and acknowledged to be nothing more than an individual recommendation. Yet it is hard to conceive of an instance justifying this, unless the church of which the applicant had been a member had passed out of existence so that a letter could no longer be obtained from that church. Perhaps then an individual Christian, known and respected by the church where membership was desired, might write such a letter. But even this situation could only come about by sinful negligence on the part of the applicant. For his duty was to transfer his membership to another church at the time the first church contemplated passing out of existence, and when a letter of recommendation could still be obtained from it. But in any case, such a letter, written by an individual, would not be a "church letter," which is what we are now contemplating.
Baptists have sometimes been criticized for their use of letters of recommendation, as though they were nothing more than mere human inventions. These criticisms have not only come from outsiders, but even from uninformed Baptists. Some years ago this writer exchanged correspondence with a Baptist in a foreign country that was very sparsely populated with Baptist churches. Having read the writer’s notes on church letters in his booklets on Church Truth, he could see no point in letters of recommendation between Baptist churches, and was resistant to the whole idea that Scripture justified the use of these. He was judging on the basis of his own local situation. And there was a certain validity to his view only because of the fewness of Baptist churches in his country, and the fact that they were more well known to one another than here in the United States. But here, there has been such a proliferation of so called "Baptist" churches, of every shade of wholesomeness and heresy, that care must be exercised in the exchange of church members. Sadly, not every congregation that calls itself a Baptist church is one. Some are veritable "synagogues of Satan," even as were some of the assemblies in Asia, (Rev. 2:9; 3:9).
But however well intentioned we may be, nothing justifies human inventiveness in spiritual matters. We must have a "thus saith the Lord" for all of our religious practices else they become nothing more than man’s foolish foibles. In the light of the criticism of Baptist churches for their use of church letters it behooves us to consider—
II. ARE CHURCH LETTERS SCRIPTURAL?
First of all, we may observe that in order to honor the disciplinary actions of our sister churches, there is the necessity of some sort of communication between churches relative to the interchange of members. Therefore, church letters are the necessary result of the biblical principles upon which Baptist churches are founded. We have already alluded to this under our first division. However, it is not always safe to found a practice upon principle alone, for erroneous elements can enter into the foundational principles of a church and can, under certain circumstances, result in error. We must ask, therefore, if there are Scriptures in which the interchange of letters of recommendation is to be found. The answer to this is a very emphatic Yes!
In writing to the church at Rome, Paul gives a very high recommendation to Phebe, a deaconess (so the Greek) of the church at Cenchrea. "I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant (Greek diakonon, diakonon a feminine form of the noun used three times in Acts 6:1-6, and once in Phil. 1:1) 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 had need of you: for she hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also," (Rom. 16:1-2). Here are all the necessary ingredients of a church letter. (1) It is a recommendation to the church at Rome. (2) It is the recommendation of one that was a member of the Cenchrean church, but who was moving to Rome. (3) It testified of her character. (4) It also testified of her official standing in the Cenchrean church. (5) The one difference between this letter of recommendation and those of today is that this one was sent by an apostle, not by the Cenchrean church. However, the one who sent this, had "the care of all the [Gentile] churches" committed unto him, (2 Cor. 11:28), and consequently had the authority to do such things. The apostles had certain authority given unto them as Paul himself testifies, (2 Cor. 10:8), but they seldom exercised this, and chose rather to admonish the churches, and to encourage them to exercise the authority that was committed to them. But with the death of the last apostle, the churches became the sole religious tribunals on earth so that no more could there be apostolic recommendations of faithful brethren.
Another passage that bears a similar testimony relative to church letters is to be found in the book of Philemon. Onesimus had been a slave belonging to Philemon. He had evidently stolen some of his master’s money and had run away, but in his travels he came to Rome, heard Paul preach and was converted and baptized. When Paul learned the details of Onesimus’ former life, though he had become a beloved brother and helper in the truth, he sent him back to his master. But in a new relationship, "not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, especially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord? If thou count me a partner, receive him as myself," (vv. 16-17). If someone objects that this was simply a letter from one individual to another we reply as we have already done, that Paul wrote with apostolic authority, and the book of Philemon is not inserted in the Canon of Scripture without good cause. But the address of the book is to be noted. It was written "Unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlaborer, and to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house, (vv. 1-2). It is believed that Apphia was Philemon’s wife (both the name and "beloved" are feminine in form), and that Archippus was their son, and the pastor of the church addressed. Be that as it may, this epistle had equal weight with the church there, for it was addressed to it as well as to some of the individual members of it. Churches today often get letters which are addressed to the treasurer, the church clerk, the pastor, etc., but which are obviously meant for the church itself because they relate to mission offerings, church letters, and other church related matters. This was the case with the letter under discussion. In it Paul recommended a converted slave: (1) To his master. (2) To the fellowship of the church that met in Philemon’s house. (3) As a born again believer. (4) As a man who was now "profitable to thee and to me" in the ministry, (v. 11).
But if there be those that reject this as bearing upon the question of letters of recommendation for churches, we pass on to stronger evidence. Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, "Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of recommendation from you?" (2 Cor. 3:1).
Paul had labored among the Corinthians for a considerable period of time (Acts 18:11, 18), and was well known by them. He therefore needed no letter of recommendation to them. Letters of recommendation are primarily for those that are unknown to the church to which they wish to join themselves. In the case of a man that has once been a member and has been away, and wished to reunite with the church upon his return, a letter of recommendation would probably not be necessary. However, in such a case, when he reunites with the former church, it would be needful from the point of courtesy to notify the church where he had been a member so that they could adjust their church membership roll accordingly.
Though Paul denied the need of a letter of recommendation for himself, he manifestly declared that letters of recommendation were necessary in the case of some, for he says "need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you. . ." Obviously he felt that there were some believers who, being unknown to the church at Corinth, would need letters of recommendation before they could unite with the church.
But the evidence is stronger yet. "And when he was disposed to pass into Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him: who, when he was come, helped them much which had believed through grace," (Acts 18:27). Here, as before, we have all the constituent elements of a church letter, and one that is the perfect example for churches today. (1) Apollos was about to move from Ephesus to Achaia (probably to Corinth, 19:1). (2) The Ephesian church gave him a letter of recommendation. (3) The recommendation was that they "receive him." (4) This was sent to the "disciples" or church in Corinth.
Here is not one, but several Scriptural examples of the use of letters of recommendation by the churches of the New Testament. Apostolic examples are as binding as precepts where there are no precepts to the contrary, which is the case here. Was there but one such example of letters of recommendation, it would be binding upon us today if it violated no Scripture precept. But there is not just one. There are several. However, there are often abuses connected with this matter, and therefore, it behooves us to get to the central thought of this article, which is—
III. MISCONCEPTONS ABOUT AND ABUSES OF CHURCH LETTERS.
Some people have mistaken ideas about the duties involved in church membership, and therefore draw erroneous conclusions about church letters. A person that has not attended nor financially supported the church of which he is a member for years, thinks that the church should give him a letter of recommendation without a moment’s thought. But how can any church recommend a person as in regular or good standing in that church when it has not laid eyes upon him for all that time?
Therefore, the idea that some people have that a church is obligated to give them a letter of recommendation any time they wish is based upon a misconception of what a church letter really is. It has been the practice of some, when they were cited to appear before the church for disciplinary action, to quickly race to another church and join upon promise of a letter, thinking thereby to escape the consequences of their wickedness. But under such circumstances no letter of recommendation could possibly be forthcoming until the original evil is worked out. Some churches, however, foolishly accept such persons on statement, being willing to risk that person stirring up trouble in their church in order to gain numbers. At the same time, other churches that have such trouble-making members that go join another church when cited for their evil, will then grant them a letter in order to get rid of them rather than taking the needed disciplinary action. This is not right either, for it condones the sinful member’s sin, and makes it possible for him to repeat his evil in the next church. No one that has violated the church covenant ought to be allowed to escape the just censure for his evil.
Another misconception about church letters is that when a person unites with a church, that immediately there is written up a church letter concerning that person, which is filed away somewhere, and is accessible upon request. This writer has had more than one church member drive up to the parsonage or church office, wanting "to pick up my church letter." In each case it was explained that the pastor neither had, nor was authorized to write, such a letter of recommendation for the individual to join another church. In most instances the person that had made such a request went away disillusioned about their church letter, and perhaps convinced that the pastor just didn’t want to let them have their letters out of spite.
In the New Testament, as we have already seen, only two examples are given of authority for granting church letters—an apostle, and a New Testament church—and only one of these exists today. Only a church in a regular meeting can authorize a letter of recommendation for a member to join another church. Church members need to get the idea out of their heads that every time they get miffed about something, or want to spite the pastor, they can "pick up their church letter" and take it home and put it in their Bible or trunk.
This brings up another common misconception. Because of careless practices of churches of the past, many people think they can get their church letters and file them away somewhere at home and use them whenever the notion may strike them, which may not be for years. The examples in the New Testament do not condone this. In every instance of a church letter in the New Testament it is addressed to some specific church, and was sent by the most direct way to that church. Often they were given into the hand of the person recommended, who carried them to the church he wished to join. But they were always addressed specifically, and sent directly to that church. In more recent times, such church letters have been sent by mail as a general rule. And with our modern technology, with more and more pastors and churches having E-mail, this can be done even more quickly and efficiently. In the last century or more it was not so common to give "letters in hand" to the members themselves as to mail them. However, there is nothing wrong in giving letters in hand provided they are properly written. More about this below. In this writer’s most recent changes of pastorate, the churches that he was leaving granted letters for him and his family to be carried in hand to the next church so that he could function most efficiently by his membership being instantly transferred.
It is an abuse of church letters for a church to grant letters to no church in particular—sort of a "To whom it may concern"—and give them into the hands of the member recommended. This abuse is what has led to many Baptists taking their letter home and putting it in an unused Bible, or in a trunk, or elsewhere, and not using it for years and sometimes never.
No church can rationally recommend a man to his trunk or Bible or other such place of safekeeping. A church can only recommend a member to another church. Nor can a church give a letter of recommendation for the character or conduct or doctrinal soundness of a church member months or years in the future. Thus, if church letters are not sent directly to a specific church, they should be dated, and should be good for only a specified length of time. Many years ago, in frontier days, when the means of communication were much slower, and people were moving from settled areas to the frontier, letters were often given in hand to those that were moving to another part of the country. And even today it may be necessary to give church letters into the hands of the departing members, as, for example, when a church is disbanding, and the members do not know where they will move their membership. But all such letters should be, as they were in earlier times, dated, and specified as only good for a limited time, such as for three to six months. Failure to become active in another church within this period of time generally betokens sinful neglect.
Before the days of modern printed forms for church letters and other church documents, most of the Baptist Church Manuals and Directories had standard forms that could be copied by a church clerk and used either to request a letter of recommendation or to grant one. And these forms generally stressed the dating and the limiting of the time that such letters were good. See J. M. Pendleton’s Church Manual, E. T. Hiscox’s Near Directory For Baptist Churches, and others. Some less formal churches still use these forms.
Another misconception which leads to abuse, which borders on what has just been said, is that a church letter, no matter how long it has lain in the Bible or trunk, is thought to still be as good as gold when presented for membership in a church. The fallacy of this will be easily seen when we consider that a person who may have been irreproachable in conduct and belief at the time the letter was issued, may have become guilty of all sorts of misconduct and heresy during the months and years of non-membership. Any church letter that is more than six months old is basically worthless, for during any period longer than that the recommended member may have become backslidden, immoral, imbibed heresy and who knows what else. It is sadly true that often the failure to transfer one’s membership to the place where one resides and become active in a church there goes hand in hand with backsliding.
From what we have noted it is clear that misconceptions often result in abuses of church letters, and they are often abuses and not just unimportant negligence. Such abuse must necessarily result from one of two things—either ignorance or a total disregard of church duty. Most Baptist churches subscribe to the Baptist Church Covenant. The last paragraph of this reads: "We moreover engage that when we remove from this place, we will as soon as possible unite with some other church, where we can carry out the spirit of this covenant and the principles of God’s Word." So far as we know, no other denomination has such a church covenant as this. Therefore, this is nothing less than a promise to continue to be faithful in some Baptist Church upon one’s removal to another location. When a Baptist moves to a new location and does not endeavor to find a church home and to unite with it, or if he asks for his church letter but tucks it away at home and never uses it, he has violated the Church covenant that he subscribed to when he first became a Baptist.
It is also a serious misconception of what a church letter is to think that one can join a church of a different faith and still receive a letter of recommendation from a Baptist church. Protestantism appears to be more "broadminded" in being willing to receive people into their membership by letter from any and all denominations, and they often charge Baptists with bigotry because of their strict stand. But the truth is the man who has nothing to lose and all to gain from those that he receives into his fellowship will not look very closely at the character of his companions. On the other hand, the man with money in his pocket and jewels on his hands will be most scrupulous about the kind of people with whom he associates, lest by receiving thieves into his company, he be robbed of all his wealth. The same is true in the spiritual realm. The very fact that Protestantism originated out of Rome invalidates her claim to Scriptural church status. Rome is identified doctrinally, practically and geographically in Scripture in Revelation 17 as "Mystery, Babylon the Great, The Mother of Harlots and Abominations Of The Earth," and Protestant churches are her daughters. Neither Catholicism nor Protestantism can corrupt what they do not have. Therefore, it is no loss to them to be "broadminded" and accept by letter all that come to them from Baptists. But upon Baptist principles, we cannot receive them by letter without corrupting our church status, and compromising the principles for which our spiritual ancestors died—were actually persecuted unto death by Romanism and Protestantism—to perpetuate.
To even ask for a church letter to join a church of another faith is to manifest a woeful ignorance of Baptist polity and history. Baptists need to be taught their glorious heritage, and their consequent great responsibility, for they and they alone maintained the truth through the many centuries when there was no other professed Christian denominations except Catholicism, and this was fearfully corrupt. Baptists antedated Catholicism by at least three hundred years or more, and it antedated Protestantism by fifteen hundred years. And in all these years they faithfully stood for the truth. What need is there for Baptists to now compromise at this late date?
Another abuse of church letters is when a dictatorial pastor or selfish church is unwilling to let a faithful and generous member depart the membership when the Lord is leading him elsewhere. No church or pastor likes to lose a good member, but sometimes this is the Lord’s will. It is wrong to try to retain such a member when there are no legitimate charges against him. Yet we have known of such cases, but almost always this was due to a spirit of domination such as not even the apostles exercised over the Lord’s people, (2 Cor. 1:24).
Misconceptions result from ignorance, but abuse from carelessness and unconcern, neither of which has any place in the life of the spiritual church member. Both these should be cultivated out by a diligent study of Scripture and dedication to the will of God. One other thing remains to be considered which is—
IV. RIGHT USES OF CHURCH LETTERS.
No one would want to re-baptized each time he moved his membership. Neither would any person want to be received on probation in each church that he joined, and only be granted privileges after he had been in the membership for a long period of time. Church letters remove the necessity of such things by stating that one has been Scripturally baptized, and that he is a member in good standing in the church that recommends him.
A church letter is nothing more than an affidavit of what a person is known to be by his home church, and a recommendation that he be received as a member in another church to which he wishes to join himself. Therefore, church letters should be honest in their recommendation to a sister church. Sadly, some churches are so glad to get rid of deadbeat members that they give a lying recommendation concerning them, when the receiving church ought rather to be warned of the worthless nature of the member, if they even grant a letter at all. Some such members ought rather to be excluded for their negligence. If a man is in good standing, it should be so stated. If he is in regular standing, this should also be stated. And if he has not been in attendance except sporadically—if he has not supported the church with his presence, finances and talents—if he is all but "unknown by face unto the church," then he is certainly not entitled to a letter stating that he is in regular standing. The most that can be honestly said about such a member is that he is still on the membership roll, but that he is in irregular standing, for according to the Baptist Church Covenant, he is in standing violation of what the church stands for. The writer believes that these three designations—good, regular or irregular—ought to be used in all church letters.
Church letters are for the protection of the churches, and therefore diligence should be exercised in the issue and reception of them. They are not mere formalities, but safeguard the peace and polity of the church by preventing known troublemakers and unspiritual persons from coming into the membership of a church. The church that is careless about the reception of members from other churches will reap of its own sowing, for sooner or later it will have its peace disrupted by those who have crept in unawares. Certainly there will be times when false brethren will creep in unawares in spite of all that is done, for Paul spoke of such in Galatians 2:4-5, but church letters will do much toward preventing this.
May God impress upon every Baptist church member the importance of regularity in attending and supporting the church to which he belongs, and of transferring his membership when he moves to another locality. Only thereby can he bring glory to God in the church, as is his duty, (Eph. 3:21).