Reading the Earliest Christian Writings: Impressions of the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians

Clement of RomeMany authors have denounced the shallowness of modern Christianity, and Christianity’s ignorance of both its theological and historical roots. This is a worthwhile issue to point out—but of course I must avoid the temptation to point out a speck in my brother’s eye while ignoring the log in mine! I feel like I am often tempted, just because I know some details about Christian history, to assume I am better educated than most Christians on the subject. But can I really say I’m educated on Christian history when there’s swathes of writings I have never touched?

Christians are fascinated by the early church, but often in a sort of mythical sense. We imagine everyone shared everything as in the book of Acts, that everyone was orthodox and in agreement, and that there was a confidence in the truth of their beliefs because they were so close in time to the apostles and Jesus himself. But do we ever read what writings we have left from the early church, to flesh out this picture? Very rarely. So I recently picked up Early Christian Writings in an attempt to remedy my own ignorance of this time period. And I decided to write a few brief notes on each document I read, in the hopes of stimulating discussion on these writings.

What is the First Epistle of Clement?

What’s the earliest Christian writing we have? Well, this obviously depends on what dates scholars estimate the writings were made on, but one of the earliest pieces of Christian writings is First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. It is addressed to the church of Corinth, from the church of Rome. The person who wrote it, assumed to be Clement of Rome though the letter itself does not mention this name, is an Apostolic Father—one of a group of people who knew the apostles or were closely influenced by them. The reason for this letter seems to be that the Corinthians had kicked out some bishops from their position even though these bishops had apparently done nothing wrong.

What’s interesting about this letter is that for several hundred years it was unknown in the church, until being rediscovered in the 1600s. Yet it doesn’t contain any “shocking secrets” about the early church, which may be why it’s not as well-known in our culture as, say, the Gospel of Judas. This post will not cover shocking secrets, but rather the implications of this letter for Christian sermons (and writing), Christian leadership, and the belief in being saved by faith alone.

My First Impressions:

Upon first reading, this letter does appear quite similar to other biblical letters (though it’s quite a bit longer). What I found most striking is the way it takes the story of the Bible as a whole and uses it as an illustration of its message, in a similar way the letter of Hebrews does. In modern sermons and Bibles studies we tend to isolate a Bible chapter or verse and study that piece intently and in-depth, and sometimes we get so focused on the detail that we lose sight of the passage’s place in the overall story. This letter very skillfully weaves retellings of Biblical narratives with quotes and allusions to specific Biblical passages. For example, Abraham, Lot and Rahab are all used as examples of obedience, but their example of obedience is centered very specifically in how they were hospitable—especially Lot to the angels in Sodom, and Rahab to the Israelite spies. It surprised me to consider hospitality as an example of Godly obedience.

In fact, almost every other sentence is an allusion to some Biblical verse, to the point where it’s hard to notice all of them.

I think Christians do need to pull back from examining the detail alone, and look at the whole narrative more often. Of course, the First Epistle of Clement was written before modern methods of hermeneutics and exegesis were developed, and methods of intense study of individual Biblical texts have greatly expanded our understanding of the Bible as time has progressed. I’m not at all suggesting we go backwards. Our step-by-step methods, and rules of accurate quotation, certainly provide safeguards against distortion of the Biblical texts. It especially prevents modern people from distorting Biblical narratives out of ignorance, as writers such as Clement appear to have a deep familiarity with the Bible that not every writer would possess. There’s always the temptation to say if someone in the Bible did something it was approved by God, even if these actions are not specifically described as good or bad but rather just things that happened (for example, giving dowries, and so on).

However, when you look at the Bible itself, few of its ‘sermons’ look anything like a modern sermon. Peter’s sermons in Acts recount Israel’s Old Testament history, and so does Stephen’s speech. The letter of Hebrews also takes the story of the Old Testament as one whole. This was most likely especially important for early believers who wondered how the God of the Jews fit in with the story of Jesus. But I don’t think that modern believers are suddenly very clear on how the Old Testament fits with the New Testament. In fact, many Christians I talk to, and this includes myself, have a really fuzzy understanding of the ‘big picture’ themes. So I’d advocate for scholars with a deep understanding of the Bible as a whole to write a few modern versions of the First Epistle of Clement.

Main Theme: Church Leadership

This letter certainly contradicts a happy and harmonious vision of the early church—but then, the Biblical letters themselves contradict such a mythical picture, as most of them were written to address problems in individual churches. People have always had trouble getting along with each other, and there have always been jealousy, power-thirstiness and other less-than-Christian motives that have driven people in Christian communities. What this letter does demonstrate is that Christians have always had to hold each other to account and continuously point each other to Christ. Here, a bishop named Clement that was based in Rome took it upon himself to hold the Corinthian church to account for its actions (and most scholars seem to agree that Clement of Rome is the best assumption for the author of this letter).

So the question Clement addresses is how to treat church leadership. Leadership position are certainly something humans fight over—just think about Jesus’ own disciples. We often focus on how to remove bad leaders in modern discussions, but this letter focuses on how to treat legitimate leaders. It is heavily implied that the leaders Corinth removed were removed out of jealousy and disobedience.

First of all, how does Clement define a legitimate leader? Basically, leaders in the church receive their appointment through the apostles, and with the consent of the church. To quote Clement,

“Our Apostles knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be dissensions over the title of bishop. In their full foreknowledge of this, therefore, they proceeded to appoint the ministers I spoke of, and they went on to add an instruction that if these should fall asleep, other accredited person should succeed them in their office. In view of this, we cannot think it right for these men now to be ejected from their ministry, when, after being commissioned by the Apostles (or by other reputable persons at a later date) with the full consent of the Church, they have since been serving Christ’s flock in a humble, peaceable and disinterested way, and earning everybody’s approval over so long a period of time.”

This indicates a main principle that the authority of church leadership should flow from someone else who already has legitimate authority—ideally the apostles, but since they are no longer alive, another ‘reputable person.’ Rather than authority stemming from ‘the people’ as in a democracy, authority flows from Christ as head of the church, through the apostles or other ‘reputable’ authorities in the church, to the new leaders. At least, this is Clement’s position on authority in the church, and possibly the general opinion of the Christian churches at the time. I think this all hinges on the leaders living out their Christian beliefs—being humble, peaceable and disinterested, as Clement says. He is against removal of leaders who display these Christian virtues, just on a whim, and this is very reasonable. I think it does imply that leaders who prove themselves to be disreputable are problematic, but this is a situation Clement does not address (nor should we expect him to).

“Bishops” and “presbyters” are used interchangeably in this letter, perhaps indicating a “bishop” is not some higher, hierarchical level of authority in the church, but that’s there’s only one level of authority in each church at this time—the leaders with the authority they received through the apostles. It also appears churches have a right to hold other churches to account, as Rome does to Corinth in this letter. Therefore the picture I would argue arises from this letter is local congregations, led by presbyters/bishops, which interact with other local churches who are also led by a group of presbyters/bishops. Deacons are mentioned as well, so this also seems to be an office present in the church at the time.

“The consent of the church” is an interesting phrase. It implies leaders are not randomly inserted into churches from the outside. In my church, leaders are elected by the congregation, which is our way of putting forward men with the consent of the congregation—but then these men are installed by the other presbyters/bishops (we call them ‘elders’). They are not leaders on the basis of their election by the people, but rather through the authority of the leadership—but at the same time, the congregation has indicated their consent through the election. This is one way of fulfilling this early church model of church government. There are, of course, myriad other models of church government.

Nowadays there are many churches run like democracies, where the congregation has the final say. There are also other churches run like businesses, with elders and pastors functioning as board members and CEOs. I would humbly state both models seem quite disconnected from biblical and historical roots.

Since this is a letter from the church of Rome to the church of Corinth, an obvious implication arises: was the church of Rome an authority over the other churches, as the Roman Catholic church maintains? In the Roman Catholic’s lists of popes, Clement is usually listed as the fourth pope. However, it would be difficult to prove anything definitive from this letter alone. It is from “the church of Rome,” not “the pope,” and while it has an authoritative tone it is not a commanding tone. It is at least an open question. On reading this letter, it is clear why it would be used to support apostolic succession and other aspects of the Roman Catholic Church’s hierarchy—but the same evidence reflects Reformed Christian church government. There is not enough detail given.

It might be impossible for us to know now, but I do wonder what the reaction in Corinth was to this letter. Did they agree with the church of Rome, or were they offended? Did their bishops get reinstated?

A Few More Themes: By Faith Alone, yet Faith Plus Works!

The First Epistle of Clement proclaims that amazing distinctive message of Christianity, that we do not have earn our salvation. We are saved by faith alone—and Clement actually says ‘by faith alone.’ It’s lovely to see this important theme repeated in this early Christian writing:

“[We] are not justified by ourselves or our own wisdom or understanding or godliness, nor by such deeds as we have done in holiness or heart, but by that faith through which alone Almighty God has justified all men since the beginning of time.”

Of course, Clement goes on, very similarly to the way Paul does, to say that being saved by faith alone doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do good. He uses God Himself as an example of delighting in working good without being required to do anything at all. Clement also states, “A good workman can accept the reward of his labour with assurance, but one who is idle and shiftless cannot look his employer in the face.” This is a fascinating defense of why Christians, despite not needing to ‘work’ for their salvation, still do work at good works.

Lastly, this isn’t a major point, but it’s pretty fun that Clement treats the phoenix as a real creature and not a mythical one, and uses it as an illustration of death and resurrection. It’s fascinating to imagine a world where mythical creatures, for all anyone knew, might be as real as the animals one saw every day. I kind of do wish I lived in a world with phoenixes, dragons and griffins.

 

In conclusion, if you’d like to read a short work written in a style very similar to Biblical letters, this work is for you. It will flesh out your understanding of the early Christian church. In fact, I’d highly recommend Christians do read works outside of their own narrow present, so this is one good place to start!

 

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