Summary: Promoting the practise of exchanging church letters as a mark of respect for sister congregations.
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.”
On one occasion during a pastorate in Coquitlam, I was subjected to a furious verbal assault during a Sunday morning service. A man gifted in many ways, was incensed at my cautious nature; I had failed to promote him to a position of oversight as quickly as he thought he deserved. Thus, he arose at the beginning of the message and delivered a tirade against me personally and against the church generally. He concluded his diatribe with the declaration that he and his family were leaving the church. He concluded with the assertion that they would never again darken the door.
This public outburst was the first I had heard of his discontent, so I was taken aback. That same afternoon, as soon as practical, I visited him, seeking to repair the breech in our fellowship. Together with another member of the congregation, I went to the man, only to be met with a series of angry, self-centred demands. I could not accede to his insistence that the congregation capitulate to his infantile stipulations; thus, the rupture in fellowship was final. Within a week, I was informed that he and his family were attending a sister congregation nearby. After several weeks, I was told that he had become a youth sponsor for that congregation; and in time, I lost track of the family.
Almost a year later, I happened to meet the pastor of that congregation to which the family had attached themselves in their fury. The pastor introduced himself, and we exchanged pleasantries. Then, naming the man that had thunderously left our own congregation that Sunday morning in question, he complained, “A family you sent us caused us a lot of grief.” That pastor continued by saying that the man had inflicted great harm on the congregation because of unchristian attitudes and constant anger.
I stopped my fellow elder at that point, explaining that we had not “sent” that family to him. I pointed out the inconvenient truth that he had not demonstrated what should be a common courtesy among the churches of our Lord—the courtesy of contacting us when that man first began attending his services. Had he inquired if there was a problem before the man offered to become a youth sponsor, or had he even phoned to see if we had concerns about the family, I would have cautioned him. I terminated our conversation by stating, “If you fish in my pond, keep what you catch.”
The failure of contemporary churches to exchange letters of dismissal and/or commendation with sister congregations betrays gross ignorance of the practise of New Testament churches. The failure either to communicate concerns about errant members or to solicit information on those seeking to participate in life of an assembly, betrays an appalling arrogance. It is as though the churches that refuse to exchange communications are saying that they do not trust the judgement of fellow Christians and that they are prepared to care for matters without regard to the experience of other believers.
COMMENDING PHOEBE — “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church in Cenchreae.” The churches of the New Testament indeed had membership, and they did commend their members to sister congregations when they moved about the Empire. It is a tragic observation that the practise of church membership must be defended in this day. This sad necessity has come about either through deliberate ignorance on the part of shepherds who are more concerned with pleasing the flock than with pleasing the Master and who are more thoroughly imbued with laissez faire idealism than with knowledge of the Word, or through intentional negligence on the part of those same shepherds because they fear a negative response from those occupying the pews.
Church members appear more eager to assert their “rights” than to accept biblical responsibilities. Perhaps this is inescapable in churches that reflect society instead of being agents of change within society. Exaltation of the “self” dominates the current church scene. Ecclesiastical democracy and the inevitability of congregational politics has supplanted obedience to the Word of God. The unfortunate result is that membership in the local church is equated to membership in a fraternal organisation or membership in a civic club. We attend; we join; we quit—all without accountability.
Undoubtedly, the Bible calls each individual to faith in Christ the Risen Lord. You cannot say you are a Christian if you do not believe that Jesus died because of your sin and that He rose from the dead for your justification. This is the call of God throughout the New Testament. Each week, I quote from Paul’s Letter to the Romans at the conclusion of the message. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” [ROMANS 10:9, 10]. Salvation assumes that the one saved will openly confess the Faith through public confession as opportunity is afforded. New Testament churches provide the opportunity to confess through baptism for those who are believers.