Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Patristics: Clement of Rome, Part II

Some more details about Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians…

Clement recalls to the Corinthians their tremendous faith and zeal and hospitality in times past, and he points out their place of honor as one of Paul’s great missionary efforts. He reminds them of all this and then says:

“Every kind of honor and happiness was bestowed upon you, and then was fulfilled that which is written, “My beloved did eat and drink, and was enlarged and became fat, and kicked.” (Deut 32:15) Hence flowed emulation and envy, strife and sedition, persecution and disorder, war and captivity. So the worthless rose up against the honored, those of no reputation against such as were renowned, the foolish against the wise, the young against those advanced in years.”

Obviously there is division and jealousy in the Corinthian church. As an example to them, Clement then reminds them of Cain slaying Abel, and the envy of Esau against his brother Jacob. He then points to more recent times…

“…let us come to the most recent spiritual heroes. Let us take the noble examples furnished in our own generation…Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labors; and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned.”

So Clement is insisting that the Corinthians stop their jealousy and strife and division, for such feelings have led to so much death and destruction in the past. He calls to mind people in their “own generation” and interestingly he includes Peter and Paul among these. Possibly there were those yet living among the Corinthians who would remember these illustrious Apostles. Indeed some may have even heard Paul preach with their own ears. These elders in Corinth now led the church there, and it was against these “elders” that the young and self-righteous were rebelling in Corinth. Clement then addresses this problem…

“Foolish and inconsiderate men, who have neither wisdom nor instruction, mock and deride us, being eager to exalt themselves in their own conceits… [However] since we look into the depths of the divine knowledge, it behooves us to do all things in [their proper] order… [T]heir own proper place is prescribed to the priests… The layman is bound by the laws that pertain to laymen…It is right and holy therefore, men and brethren, rather to obey God than to follow those who, through pride and sedition, have become the leaders of a detestable emulation. For we shall incur no slight injury, but rather great danger, if we rashly yield ourselves to the inclinations of men who aim at exciting strife and tumults, so as to draw us away from what is good. Let every one of you, brethren, give thanks to God in his own order, living in all good conscience, with becoming gravity, and not going beyond the rule of the ministry prescribed to him.”

Clement then goes on to tell how the Apostles established order in the Church by appointing leaders, who would then appoint the next generation of leaders, and so on (“Apostolic Succession” - which I already mentioned in the previous post). It is this orderly arrangement which the churches ought to follow in choosing their leaders. By this arrangement men receive their proper ministry. Clement tells the Corinthians that they ought to respect those to whom the ministry has been entrusted.

So Clement is dealing with the question of who is rightly ordained to lead the flock. Without the orderly arrangement established by the Apostles, there is now discord, jealousy and strife. Clement calls on those who have caused such division to return to faithfulness and recognize the true leaders of the community…

“You therefore, who laid the foundation of this sedition, submit yourselves to the presbyters, and receive correction so as to repent, bending the knees of your hearts. Learn to be subject, laying aside the proud and arrogant self-confidence of your tongue. For it is better for you that you should occupy a humble but honorable place in the flock of Christ, than that, being highly exalted, you should be cast out from the hope of His people.”

Clement himself invokes his own authority, insisting that the Corinthians ought to obey his request…

“If, however, any shall disobey the words spoken by Him through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and serious danger; but we shall be innocent of this sin, and, instant in prayer and supplication, shall desire that the Creator of all preserve unbroken the computed number of His elect in the whole world through His beloved Son Jesus Christ…”

To sum up…Clement’s letter deals directly with the proper ordination and succession of leadership within the Church. The Apostles left instructions (and it is clear from Scripture itself) that the leaders who were first appointed by the Apostles were to test the faith of select men and, once properly tested, these men would then become the next generation of leaders, and so on down through the years. The Corinthians were disobeying this Apostolic tradition. Some Corinthians were declaring their own self-appointment rather than submitting to the proper hierarchy of the Church.

This disobedience was in turn causing division. The Corinthians were broken into competing factions. And so Clement’s letter is also about preserving UNITY within the whole Church. The proper ordering of things must be maintained in all the local churches because this order instills unity. Even Clement, in far-away Rome, is concerned with the proper order of things in Corinth. His duty as a successor to Peter, as Bishop of Rome, compels him to intervene so that the he may “preserve unbroken the computed number of His elect in the whole world…”

So Apostolic Succession and the authority granted to bishops is not about “lording it over the people” as many believe about the Catholic Church, rather it is an assurance of unity and continued teaching authority as handed on by the Apostles. The bishops hold their ministry to preserve sound doctrine and maintain a united Church. Clement is an early witness to this role of Bishop and his letter is an early indicator of the specific role Rome will take in preserving unity world-wide. Clement has an eye not only to his own flock in Rome, but to other churches throughout the Christian world.


  1. Good post.

    "the foolish against the wise, the young against those advanced in years."

    I see a lot of this in my the Adventist church. The younger generation (of which I am part) rising up self-righteously against their elders who have wisdom. Espousing new teachings and doctrines that are not compatible with the wise and true teachings of those advanced in years.

    I imagine that's how the Catholic church looks at protestants as a whole, starting with the reformation.

    It seems that, despite Paul's many corrections to the Corinthian church for their many and various wicked ways, they did not receive the rebuke and come back into line with truth.

    Out of all the New Testament churches, I might dare to say that the Corinthians were the most stubborn. I am not familiar enough with all the epistles to say for certain...but it definitely seems likely.

    Looking forward to the next post.

  2. Unfortunately, Catholics do see Protestants in that way to some extent – "the foolish against the wise, the young against those advanced in years." But that seems a little harsh when you put it like that.

    To address that point, I would make the observation that there are many foolish Catholics, as well as many wise Protestants. It is not always as cut-and-dried as some on both sides make it out to be. We can learn from one another.

    The larger point though is that the Apostles installed certain men to be leaders in their stead and instructed them to do likewise down through the generations. There was, since the First Century, an idea of proper order in Church governance, an historical link to the Apostles. If the Apostles made such an arrangement, then shouldn’t that arrangement be maintained down to our present time?

    Any church that has broken with that Apostolic principle, any church that cannot show this chain of leadership that puts them in contact with Apostolic times, would have a hard time claiming to be the same Church that we see in the First Century. Any church that claims to be one and the same Church that Jesus established and that the Apostles led in the First Century, would have to prove that claim by examining the historical record.

  3. Also, I ought to add - Clement does mention in this letter Paul’s scolding of the Corinthians...

    “Take up the epistle of the blessed Apostle Paul. What did he write to you at the time when the gospel first began to be preached? Truly, under the inspiration of the Spirit, he wrote to you concerning himself, and Cephas, and Apollos, because even then parties had been formed among you.”

    But he then tells them that this present crisis is far worse than what Paul encountered, because at least then they were following duly appointed leaders and Apostles...

    “But that inclination for one above another [which Paul addressed in his letter] entailed less guilt upon you, inasmuch as your partialities were then shown towards apostles, already of high reputation, and towards a man whom they had approved. But now reflect who those are that have perverted you, and lessened the renown of your far-famed brotherly love. It is disgraceful, beloved, yea, highly disgraceful, and unworthy of your Christian profession, that such a thing should be heard of as that the most steadfast and ancient church of the Corinthians should, on account of one or two persons, engage in sedition against its presbyters.”

    So Clement points out that now, not only are they trying to raise one leader above another, but they are choosing to follow leaders that are not within Apostolic Succession. And this division brings scandal to the Church...

    “And this rumor has reached not only us, but those also who are unconnected with us; so that, through your infatuation, the name of the Lord is blasphemed, while danger is also brought upon yourselves.”

    So to follow Christian leaders who are not properly ordained within Apostolic Succession is to “blaspheme” the name of the Lord. Pretty strong words. Obviously the early church considered Apostolic Succession a key feature of Christian unity.