The use of accreditation letters in the first-century
Becoming a 'member' of a congregation, as we know it, is something that appears to be foreign to the assemblies/synagogues of the first-century. While it is possible that scribes kept 'membership lists' in some communities, transferring one's membership and joining another by 'letter' are unfounded concepts. So, what's going on with the letters we see in the New Testament?
The letters we see referenced in the New Testament are "letters of accreditation" which were in common use by the Jewish apostles/emissaries (shlichim1) in the late second temple period (200 BC to 70 AD).2 These credentialing letters served to verify the authority and mission of the apostle/shaliach. The role of apostle was not a 'new thing' peculiar to the first-century church. The job of apostle/shaliach was continued by the Yeshua-movement (Christianity) as well as the common use of accreditation letters.
Jewish 'Law of Agency'
When an accreditation letter was issued, the emissary/apostle/shaliach became the 'agent' and served much like a power-of-attorney does for us today. The emissary had complete authority to carry out the affairs of the principal as if the sender himself were present. The common rabbinic understanding was that "a man's agent is like himself."
“The main point of the Jewish law of agency is expressed in the dictum, ‘a person’s agent is regarded as the person himself’ (Ned. 72B; Kidd, 41b). Therefore any act committed by a duly appointed agent is regarded as having been committed by the principal, who therefore bears full responsibility for it with consequent complete absence of liability.The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion, Agent (Heb. Shaliah)
According to Talmudic law, the agent was equal in all respects to the party he represented; and the Jews even allowed betrothal, itself a contract, to take place by proxy.Jewish Encyclopedia, Talmudic Law (p. 32)
The Sanhedrin regularly sent out apostles with accreditation letters to the Jewish communities of the Diaspora3 to maintain contact with the scattered tribes (James 1:1), declare the new month, set the calendar, appoint teachers, collect money for the temple, settle matters of halakha (application) and other issues deemed necessary. Saul received such letters when rounding up followers of the Way:
Acts 9:1-2, But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Master, having come to the high priest, asked from him letters to the congregations of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, to bring them bound to Jerusalem.
Letters of accreditation in the NT
The Yeshua-movement continued the common use of credentialing letters as is seen throughout the New Testament. None of these letters speak of a 'membership' to a particular local assembly, but served as recommendations to serve.
The assembly in Jerusalem wrote a letter to accompany Paul & Barnabas:
Acts 15:22-29, Then it seemed good to the emissaries and elders, with all the assembly, to send chosen men from among them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas... having written by their hand this: The emissaries and the elders and the brothers, To the brothers who are of the nations in Antioch, and Suria, and Kilikia: Greetings. Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your lives, to whom we gave no command - it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have given up their lives for the Name of our Master Yeshua Messiah. We have therefore sent Yehudah and Silas, who are also confirming this by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Set-apart Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessities: that you abstain from what is offered to idols, and blood, and what is strangled, and whoring. If you keep yourselves from these, you shall do well. Be strong!
The congregation at Ephesus wrote a letter for Apollos when he intended to travel to Achaia:
Acts 18:27, And when he intended to pass through to Achaia, the brothers, having encouraged him, wrote to the disciples to receive him, who, having arrived, greatly helped those who believed through grace,
The Corinthian assembly received and wrote recommendation letters:
1 Corinthians 16:1-3, And concerning the collections for the set-apart ones, you are to do as I gave orders to the assemblies of Galatia: On the first day of the week let each one of you set aside, storing up whatever he is prospered, so that there are no collections when I come. And when I come, whomever you approve by your letters, I shall send to bear your gift to Jerusalem.
2 Corinthians 3:1-2, Are we to begin to recommend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You are our letter, having been written in our hearts, known and read by all men,
Paul wrote letters on behalf of other believers. Here we see Paul recommending Phoebe to the assembly at Rome:
Romans 16:1-2, And I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the assembly in Cenchrea, that you receive her in Yehovah, worthy of the set-apart ones, and assist her in whatever matters she has need of you. For she has been a great help to many, including me.
See also: 1 Thessalonians 3:2-5; 1 Corinthians 4:17; 2 Corinthians 8:18-22; Philippians 2:25; Colossians 4:10; Philemon 12-13
What does this mean to me?
Is it wrong to be a 'member' of an assembly in the modern sense? No. Is it wrong to 'transfer your membership letter' to another assembly? No. Is there a reason to continue this custom? Perhaps more in today's society than just a generation ago. Congregations are often incorporated for legal protection, and as such, need a framework for who can/can not vote. Do you want a visitor, someone with no commitment to the assembly, or someone with ill intent to vote on issues pertinent to the stability and longevity of the congregation? This question, and a host of others, must be asked when determining if some form of membership is needed in your congregation.
The main purpose of this article is to shed light on the idea that the first-century assemblies 'vetted' those who came to contribute to their congregations. It is a custom that we too should make use of. Companies, creditors, etc. vet new employees, and make use of recommendations. Should we limit a visitor from participating in the congregation? Absolutely not! But, before a visitor begins to contribute, a vetting of some capacity should be made. This is especially true when working with children!
In the United States, especially the south, there is no shortage of churches to visit, and with the widespread belief that God is blessing churches that are growing, little is done to ensure the newcomer is a complement to the assembly.
1 Shaliach means 'sent one (שליח)' and corresponds to the Greek word 'apostle.' It is derived from the Hebrew verb 'to send (shalach, שלח).' Shlichim (plural form, 'sent ones,' i.e., 'apostles') do not represent a religious office, but serve as accredited agents of their sender. In religious use, the Jewish shaliach/apostle served as an intermediary/envoy between the authorities in Jerusalem and the Diaspora congregations and communities. They usually traveled in pairs as we also see Yeshua instructing (Matthew 10).
2 The second temple period was from 538 BC to 70 AD. The late second temple period started around 200 BC and was a period of intense social and religious cultivation.
3 The Diaspora is a term that speaks of the scattered 12 tribes of Israel, especially the northern 10 tribes. When the Assyrians conquered the kingdom of Israel (northern 10 tribes) they scattered the house of Ephraim/Israel all over the known world. When the Babylonians conquered the kingdom of Judah (southern 2 tribes) they were scattered mainly to Babylon and were scattered further from there.