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Clement of Rome was an elder/bishop in Rome during the last half of the first century. We do not know a lot about him except that he wrote a letter on behalf of the church of Rome to the church of Corinth, probably very close to A.D. 95. It is called First Clement because tradition holds that he wrote it, but his name is not mentioned in the letter. Scholars still generally agree he wrote it.
Note that Clement is referred to as "of Rome" to distinguish him from Clement of Alexandria, a leader of the catechetical school in the church at Alexandria, who lived a century later.
There is also a Second Clement. It was named 2 Clement because it was found attached to First Clement in the Codex Alexandricus. It is now generally referred to as "An Early Christian Homily (or Sermon)." It is an important sermon because it is the earliest one still extant, but no one believes Clement wrote it.
Many early Christians thought he was the Clement that Paul calls a "fellow worker" in Philippians 4:3, but there is no way to know if that is true or not.
The Roman Catholics consider him the fourth pope, which would include Peter as the first pope. They refer to him as Pope Clement I. There have been several other popes who took the name Clement over the last two millennium. His letter is one of the best evidences against the existence of a pope in the early 2nd century, however. In the letter, he uses bishop and elder interchangeably, just as Peter and Paul do in the NT. First Clement establishes that Rome was ruled by a college of elders who were all also bishops (lit. overseers) at least through the end of the first century.
Some Roman Catholic Scholars believe that Rome was still using the college of elders form of leadership throughout the first half of the second century as well. This would be based on Rome's letter to Corinth (First Clement), but I have not been able to determine why they extend it to the mid-second century. Father Richard McBrien (d. 2015) is one example of those scholars. He was president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and a professor at Notre Dame. In his 2008 book, The Church, he wrote:
Indeed, it was not until the middle of the second century that Rome changed from a collegial form of leadership to a monoepiscopal [one bishop] form. (p. 44)
Clement of Rome's letter to the Corinthians is a beautiful letter, and will allow you to breathe in the Spirit of early Christianity. It is one of the most pleasant and easy to read of the early Christian writings. It is also the only one outside of the New Testament writings that can be confidently dated in the first century.
It is full of great information and exhortation. For example, First Clement lets us know the Corinthians repented of the divisiveness for which they had been rebuked by Paul in his first letter to Corinth (chs. 1-2).
A generation later, however, division and pride had returned to the Corinthian church (chs. 1,3). They had even defrocked at least two elders (ch. 44).
The letter begins by giving examples from the Old Testament to show that envy has always been destructive. It also sets forth examples of humility. Through all of this, they call the ones troubling the Corinthian church to repentance. Clearly, the Roman church regarded envy as the cause of the expulsion of the elders and humility as the cure (chs. 6-23).
Clement also talks about Peter and Paul, the founders of the church in Rome, and other martyrs who are presented as enduring against the envy of those who put them to death (chs. 5-6).
There is a long section on the resurrection beginning in chapter 23. In that section, Clement of Rome uses the mythical Phoenix as an example of the resurrection. The Phoenix bird was understood to live for 500 years, then to return to Egypt for its death. There it would burn itself into ashes. From the ashes a worm would arise, and it would grow into the next Phoenix.
The letter is often slighted for this example, but in Clement's day, the Phoenix was a believable story. Personally, I cannot blame him for accepting the "science" of his day.
Clement of Rome moves on to an exhortation to good works and the promise of reward for those good works, beginning in chapter 28. He is careful to point out that we are saved initially by faith apart from works (ch. 32, see also Sola Fide). He follows by telling them we must "work the work of righteousness with our whole strength" (ch. 33). He then goes on to the great rewards of good works (ch. 34-35).
Chapter 36 exalts Christ and is a reminder to the Corinthians that our life is all about him, not ourselves. Chapter 37 call the Corinthians to take up their role as soldiers in the army of the Lord.
Chapter 38 reminds them that we are all brothers in Christ, each submitting to the other according to one another's gifts. Chapters 39-42 then talk about the order of service (ministry) in the church. Leaders are appointed by God.
Significantly, chapter 42 talks about the two appointed offices that existed in Rome and Corinth at that time. God appointed Christ, Jesus appointed the apostles, and the apostles "appointed the firstfruits, having first proved [i.e. tested] them by the Spirit, to be bishops [lit. overseers or supervisors] and deacons [lit. servants] of those who would afterwards believe." Again, Peter and Paul's churches, except those that were overseen by the apostle John after Paul's death (e.g., the seven churches of Revelation 2-3), were led by a college of elders (all having the role of overseer/bishop) with aid of appointed servants (deacons).
Chapter 43 talks about Moses quelling division over leadership, then chapter 44 gets right to the point and charges the Corinthians with removing "some men of excellent behavior" from leadership. Clement of Rome tells them that this sin "is not small."
Chapters 45 and 46 tell the Corinthians (and us) that it is the wicked who cause problems for the righteous. The members of the Corinthian church should stick fast to the righteous ones and be made righteous themselves.
It is interesting that in chapter 46 he writes, "It is written, 'Cleave to the holy, for those that cleave to them shall be holy.'" No one knows where that quote comes from, however.
Chapter 47 has a rebuke worth remembering. Clement of Rome tells them that their current sin is worse that when they were rebuked by Paul. At least when 1 Corinthians was written, the people they were following were apostles or approved by apostles (Apollos). Now, though, he says, it is one or two scoundrels that they are following. He calls this "highly disgraceful."
Chapters 48-50 discuss love, which is of course the primary need in any situation of division and "sedition," as Clement calls their problem. In the next two chapters (51-52), the church in Rome calls for repentance from those who participated in the sedition.
Chapter 53 goes back to Moses and discusses his love. Chapter 54 is an amazing and powerful exhortation. Perhaps all of us in the twenty-first century need to consider this astounding call to unity:
Who then among you is noble-minded? Who compassionate? Who full of love? Let him declare, "If on my account sedition and disagreement and schisms have arisen, I will depart, I will go away wherever you desire, and I will do whatever the multitude commands; only let the flock of Christ live on terms of peace with the presbyters set over it." He that acts thus shall procure to himself great glory in Christ; and every place will receive him. For "the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof" [Ps. 24:1]. These things they who live a godly life, which is never to be repented of, both have done and always will do.
Chapter 55 then gives examples of this kind of love, which he pulls from both secular sources and the Scriptures. Esther is one of the scriptural sources, but so is Judith. The book of Judith is one of the deuterocanonicals, which are the extra books that are in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles. The stories in this chapter are about people who loved their countries more than themselves and were willing to risk their lives for it.
In chapters 56-57, Clement of Rome calls for repentance, exhortation of one another, and submission.
In chapters 58-59, Rome exhorts the Corinthians to heed the words of the letter. Sections of this are worth quoting here:
Let us, therefore, flee from the warning threats pronounced by Wisdom [pre-incarnate Jesus] on the disobedient, and yield submission to his all-holy and glorious name, that we may stay our trust upon the most hallowed name of his majesty. Receive our counsel, and you shall be without repentance. ... he who in lowliness of mind, with instant gentleness, and without repentance has observed the ordinances and appointments given by God, the same shall obtain a place and name in the number of those who are being saved through Jesus Christ ... 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; further, instant in prayer and supplication, [we] 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.
This quote moves smoothly into a prayer that continues through chapter 61. It is very interesting to me that chapter 61 is a prayer for "our rulers and governors on earth." The rest of the prayer is pertinent to the letter, but Clement of Rome includes a prayer for the governments of the earth at the end. Apparently, the church in Rome took Paul admonition in 1 Timothy 2:1-2 very seriously!
Chapter 62 is a short exhortation to "faith, repentance, true love, continence, soberness, and patience," which Clement says are the topics covered in the letter. He ends the chapter by saying:
And of these things we put you in mind with the greater pleasure, since we were well assured that we were writing to men who were faithful and of highest repute and had peered into the oracles of the instruction of God.
This quote is one more indication that Rome was writing on behalf of the majority of the Corinthian church (see quote above from ch. 53). There was a problem from "one or two" (ch. 47), and the Corinthians needed help dealing with them. Remember, that in the first century, one could not drop an email in a Post Office box. The letter was carried to Corinth by a delegation. Perhaps some intimidation from Rome was called for in subduing the rebellion of a few.
Chapter 63 is the last chapter I will cover because chapters 64 and 65 simply close the letter. Chapter 63 is important, though, because of modern Rome's claims to authority over all other churches. They write:
Right is it, therefore, to approach examples so good and so many, and submit the neck and fulfill the part of obedience, in order that, undisturbed by vain sedition, we may attain to the goal set before us in truth wholly free from blame. Joy and gladness will you afford us, if you become obedient to the words written by us and through the Holy Spirit root out the lawless wrath of your jealousy according to the intercession which we have made for peace and unity in this letter. We have sent men faithful and discreet, whose conversation from youth to old age has been blameless amongst us. They shall be witnesses between you and us. This we have done, that you may know that our whole concern has been and is that you may be speedily at peace.
Note that just as the previous chapter ended with assurance that Rome was writing to an overall faithful church, so this exhortation begins by granting that Corinth had "examples so good and so many." The exhortation, however, is strong. They want "obedience to the words written by us." They sent "faithful and discreet" men who "shall be witnesses between you and us."
Did Rome have authority over Corinth? Roman Catholics, of course, say yes, and Protestants, of course, say no. I am almost done with a book on the subject of papal authority, and long study of the subject of "papal primacy" has given me a more precise viewing of the subject.
Rome could not have had an "overseer" sort of authority over other churches so early (prob. AD 95-96). One of their bishops in the year 190 (Victor) and another almost 70 years after that (Stephen) tried to exercise authority over other churches by excommunicating them if they did not comply with the bishop's direction on a controversial subject. In the first case, Eusebius the historian tells us that many bishops wrote "sharply rebuking Victor" [Church History, Bk. V, ch. 24, par. 10]. In the second case, a council of 87 African bishops me to declare that no bishop can exercise authority over another bishop (Council of Carthage, A.D. 256, first paragraph). In addition, the bishop of Alexandria wrote on behalf of many eastern churches explaining to Stephen that he could only cause division by his action, not compliance.
Victor backed down, and Stephen was martyred. His successor, Xystus, rescinded Stephen's attempted excommunications, apparently in response to the reasoning of Dionysius of Alexandria (Church History, Bk. VII, ch. 5).
The modern claim made by Rome is that the bishop of Rome (the pope) has "full, supreme, and universal authority over the whole Church" (Lumen Gentium, sec. 22). Their claim is about an individual, the bishop of Rome. When Clement wrote this epistle on behalf of the church in Rome, he was one of a college of elders who were all called bishops. Chapters 42 and 44 of 1 Clement make this clear:
Clement mentions only two offices in the church: bishop and deacon. In chapter 42 he gives their origin, and in chapter 44, he rebukes the Corinthians for having dismissed presbyters [elders] from the episcopate (office of bishop). This interchangeable use of bishop and elder is typical of Peter and Paul's use in scripture (1 Pet. 5:1-4; Acts 20:17, 28).
There are a lot of objections to saying that First Clement indicates collegiate leadership in Rome and Corinth, especially from Roman Catholics, even though Rome's own letter gives clear indication this was so. I appeal to the former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, who wrote:
Moreover, there is no evidence that there was even a monoepiscopal [single bishop] form of ecclesiastical governance in Rome until the middle of the second century, beginning perhaps with the pontificate of Pius I (ca. 142– ca. 155). Before that time, the Roman community seems to have had a corporate or collegial form of pastoral leadership. Those counted among the earliest popes may very well have been the individuals who presided over the local council of elders or presbyter-bishops, or were simply the most prominent pastoral leaders of that community, or, like Clement (ca. 91– ca. 101), acted as the official representative of the Roman church in its correspondence with other churches throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. (McBrien, Fr. Richard. "The Papacy." in Phan, P.C. 2016.
The Gift of the Church: A Textbook on Ecclesiology. Kindle. Collegeville, MN:Liturgical Press.
Thus, Rome's letter to Corinth in the late first century is not evidence for papal primacy at such an early date. Rome had no specific bishop at that time. A century later, a Roman monarchial [singular] bishop did try to exercise authority over other churches, and it was rejected. According to the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, the argument for a "pope" with authority over other churches, must wait until Pope Leo the Great in the fifth century.
Any biblical and historical scholar today would consider anachronistic the question whether Jesus constituted Peter the first pope, since this question derives from a later model of the papacy which it projects back into the New Testament. ... With Leo I the correlation between the bishop of the Roman church and the image of Peter, which had already been suggested by some of his predecessors, became fully explicit. (An Agreed Statement on Conciliarity and Primacy in the Church, par. 9, 18; retrieved 21 September, 2018)
Though this letter shows that Clement was not a "pope" in the sense we understand it today, it does the show the tremendous respect that Rome had in the early days of the Church.
This letter received the same respect. Let us look at its use in the churches.
First Clement was attached to the Codex Alexandricus, one of two complete Bibles dating from the fourth century. (It's not in perfect condition, being 1700 years old, so there are pages missing.) Eusebius' Church History says, "We know that this epistle ... has been publicly used in a great many churches both in former times and in our own" (Bk. III, ch. 16). Using a book in the meetings of the early churches and reading it publicly was allowed to Scripture and only a few other books. That this was one of them is a tremendous tribute to the importance of the letter among the early churches. It probably gained this importance because it was believed that Clement was the co-worker of Paul mentioned in Philippians 4:3.