Among the Fathers of the Church, Clement is the first of the “Apostolic Fathers” – he was in direct contact with the Apostles themselves. As a First Century leader in the Christian Church in Rome, it is believed that he knew personally at least two of the Apostles (Peter and Paul), and bore witness to their teaching. Irenaeus, who wrote in the Second Century, tells us that Clement “saw the blessed Apostles and conversed with them, and had yet ringing in his ears the preaching of the Apostles and had their tradition before his eyes, and not he only for many were then surviving who had been taught by the Apostles.” Tertullian, at the end of the Second Century, recounts that it was Peter himself who ordained Clement into the ministry. Some ancient sources (including Jerome, the highly regarded Fourth Century scholar who first translated the Bible into Latin) attest that Clement is the same Clement mentioned by Paul in Philippians 4:3 as his fellow laborer, although this is doubtful. Very little is known for certain about Clement’s life. It is at least clear that Clement led the Roman Church as Bishop some time in the later half of the First Century, and he was third in succession after Peter, following Linus and Cletus.
Various accounts would have it that Clement was martyred under the emperor Trajan by being tied to an anchor and cast into the sea. In the Ninth Century an iron anchor and some scattered bones were unearthed under a mound that was believed to be the tomb of Clement. But because of the late date of this find, scholars are now uncertain as to the authenticity of these relics. It is also possible that Clement died of natural causes while in exile from Rome, although he is often referred to as a “martyr.”
Two letters have been historically attributed to Clement. The first, a letter to the Corinthian Church, is most certainly his, and is widely accepted by today’s scholars as authentic. The second letter is most likely of later origin and is probably a copy of a sermon by an unknown author some time in the Second Century.
It is the first of these letters (the only writing that is certainly Clement’s own work) which we will examine. Below are a few quotes from Clement’s “Letter to the Corinthians” along with a few explanatory notes for greater historical and scriptural context.
“The Church of God which sojourns in Rome to the Church of God which sojourns in Corinth…Grace and peace from almighty God be multiplied unto you through Jesus Christ. Owing to the sudden and repeated calamities and misfortunes which have befallen us, we must acknowledge that we have been somewhat tardy in turning our attention to the matters in dispute among you, beloved…"
Two points stand out in this brief excerpt from the introduction. First, Clement writes from Rome to the far away city of Corinth to assist in a dispute among the Christians there. Why would Rome intervene in a Corinthian matter? If the Corinthians needed outside assistance, why not call on Ephesus across the Aegean Sea? Ephesus was much closer, and in those days of treacherous travel it would have been much quicker to appeal to the Ephesians. Or why not Antioch or Jerusalem - both revered churches in those days? Why Rome?
Second, it appears from Clement’s own words that it was not convenience at all which prompted him to write, but that perhaps Rome was expected to intervene. “[W]e have been somewhat tardy in turning our attention to the matters in dispute among you” Clement says, as if apologizing for not answering sooner to their urgent plea. Perhaps it was not a matter of who was closer to Corinth, but who had the authority to assist them in their troubles. Either way, it is obvious that as early as the First Century far-away Rome played an important role in settling church disputes.
“The Apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; and Jesus Christ was sent from God. …being full of confidence on account of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and confirmed in faith by the word of God, they went forth in the complete assurance of the Holy Spirit, preaching the good news that the Kingdom of God is coming. Through countryside and city they preached; and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the spirit, to be bishops and deacons of future believers.”
Clement is here recounting how the Apostles tested those who would be entrusted with leadership in the Church to ensure that the faith would be handed on intact. The dispute among the Corinthians involved a matter of leadership. There were some who questioned the authority of the elders and teachers in Corinth. Clement is reminding the Corinthians that their leaders have received authority through their link to the Apostles. Their leaders had been tested and ordained in line with the Apostles. On the importance of this matter Paul had warned Timothy, “Do not ordain anyone hastily…” (1Tim 5:22), and again “…guard what has been entrusted to you.” (1Tim 6:20) For Timothy was called to be of that first generation of Christian teachers after the Apostles. Timothy would one day need to hand on his authority to the next Christian generation.
And so Clement continues…
“Our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned, and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry.”
Therefore Paul also writes to Timothy: “You then, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus; and what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others as well.” (2Tim 2:1-2)
And to Titus: “I left you behind in Crete for this reason, so that you should put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town as I directed you…” (Titus 1:5)
And so the Apostles deliberately established a hierarchy within the local churches. And they passed on the authority to teach and to govern the flock, and expected those leaders to pass on their authority to the next generation. This is what the Church terms “Apostolic Succession.” The Apostles were appointed by Jesus Himself to be leaders in the Church. The Apostles appointed the next generation, and these then passed on the task to still others. With that in mind, Clement scolds those in the Corinthian church sowing discord …
“You, therefore, who laid the foundation of the rebellion, submit to the presbyters and be chastened to repentance, bending your knees in a spirit of humility…Accept our counsel and you will have nothing to regret…If anyone disobey the things which have been said by Him through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and in no small danger…You will afford us joy and gladness if, being obedient to the things which we have written through the Holy Spirit, you will root out the wicked passion of jealousy, in accord with the plea for peace and concord which we have made in this letter.”
Clement’s goal is unity, “peace and concord” within the whole Church. He expects the Corinthians to obey what he has written “through the Holy Spirit” and if they “disobey the things which have been said by Him through us” they will be “in no small danger.”
Clement’s letter is not merely a friendly greeting from one far-away church to another it is a pastoral letter urging obedience. It is the first example of the Church of Rome settling a dispute in the larger Church.
To put this in perspective we must realize that this Letter to the Corinthians was written around the same time as the Book of Revelation. So the Bible itself had not yet been completed. John the Apostle was yet living. It had been little more than fifty years since the death and resurrection of Jesus. This was the close of the First Century, and the Spirit was alive and active in the infant Christian community. It was then that Rome began to emerge as the center of Christianity.