The Epistle Of 1 Clement And The Prelude To Papal Claims Of Authority

It is perhaps little surprise that the first time that a congregation seeks to interfere in the leadership of another congregation, that the interfering congregation happens to be Rome and that the move to bolster friendly authorities in another congregation (in this case Corinth) carries with it ominous importance for the future of Christendom with the threat of Roman interference.  In later decades, this interference would become increasingly problematic, with quarrels between bishops over the right time to keep the Passover [1] to contemporary times where the Roman Catholic Church and its apologists feel free to comment as if they are authorities on all kinds of subjects [2].  During the time of the Apostolic Fathers we do not see this problem in full bloom, but we see the first tender shoots that would grow into the overweening authority of the presbyter of Rome in the book of 1 Clement, a fundamentally appealing work that has equally fundamentally unappealing implications and consequences.

Let us set the stage for 1 Clement’s decisive role in establishing the precedent for Roman interference in other congregations.  A popular (?) vote in Corinth removed people who had been in positions of church authority and replaced them with others, and an appeal was made to the church of Rome, which gave a strongly worded and somewhat lengthy letter in response telling the Corinthians to stop rebelling against authority and accept the return of their previous leadership.  To be sure, this response is not tersely worded, but rather comes after a lengthy preparatory section where Clement urges moral reformation and points to some positive feelings he had for the congregation, showing the velvet glove to be sure, but clearly expanding the authority of the Bishop of Rome over other congregations in the West that would be particularly more serious in future generations.  While 1 Clement is without a doubt a work of considerable politeness, its importance is in setting the stage for what would be later and far less polite demonstrations of Roman authority.

Let us look at how this precedent is established a bit.  First, let us look at what Clement says about the establishment of authority in congregations:  “Now, the Gospel was first given to the Apostles for us by the Lord Jesus Christ; and Jesus the Christ was sent from God.  That is to say, Christ received His commission from God, and the Apostles theirs from Christ.  The order of these two events was in accordance with the will of God.  So thereafter, when the Apostles had been given their instructions, and all their doubts had been set at rest by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, they set out in the full assurance of the Holy Spirit to proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom.  And as they went through the territories and townships preaching, they appointed their first converts — after testing them by the Spirit — to be bishops and deacons for the believers of the future (This was in no way an innovation, for bishops and deacons had already been spoken of in Scripture long before that; there is a text that says, “I will confirm their bishops in righteousness, and their deacons in faith (40).”)”

Likewise, Clement continues with a discussion about the succession of people in offices:  “Similarly, 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 persons 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 a long period of time.  It will undoubtedly be no light offence on our part, if we take their bishopric away from men who have been performing its duties with this impeccable devotion.  How happy those presbyters must be who have already passed away, with a lifetime of fruitfulness behind them; they at least need fear no eviction from the security they are now enjoying!  You, however, as we notice in more than one instance have turned men out of an office in which they were serving honorably and without the least reproach (41).”

As if this were not enough, Clement ups the ante and both accuses the Corinthians of impiety in so doing and demands that they seek pardon for their presumption in opposing their clergy:  “Read your letter from the blessed Apostle Paul again.  What did he write to you in those early Gospel days?  How truly the things he said about himself and Cephas and Apollos were inspired by the Spirit! – for even at that time you had been setting up favorites of your own.  Such partiality was perhaps less culpable in those days, for two of the men you favored were Apostles of the highest repute, and the third was one to whom they had themselves given their approval.  But think of the persons who have seduced you now!  They have lessened all respect for that much-vaunted fraternal affection of yours.  It is shameful, my dear friends, shameful in the extreme, and quite unworthy of the Christian training you have had, that the loyal and ancient church or Corinth, because of one or two individuals, should not be reputed to be at odds with its clergy.  Even those who do not share our faith have heard this report, as well as ourselves; so that your thoughtlessness has brought the name of the Lord into disrespect, to say nothing of imperiling your own souls.  There must be no time lost in putting an end to this state of affairs.  We must fall on our knees before the Master and implore Him with tears graciously to pardon us, and bring us back again into the honorable and virtuous way of brothers who love one another (42-43).”

In some ways, this view of affairs is entirely to be expected.  Those who serve in offices within the Church who do so in a blameless and faithful manner, behaving peaceably and in a disinterested fashion, building up a good reputation and having earned the honors that they generally receive automatically by their titles through their good works ought to sleep in peace knowing that their authority will be respected and that they will continue in their offices.  Indeed, I have personally known more than few ministers who despite not being peaceable or honorable in their behavior as ministers over congregations still expected their titles and positions to be confirmed despite this lack of performance.  If it was possible that disloyal and dishonorable ministers should expect that their offices would be sacrosanct, then it is without question that this expectation should also be present among those leaders who had behaved in a blameless and upright fashion and were victims of factionalism and local church politics.  The Bible speaks highly of the demand to respect authorities, and even to have a high regard for offices when the people who hold those offices are unworthy, and Clement, as one might expect, gives all kinds of bias to this natural pro-authority perspective that we find in scripture.

And yet it remains that this appeal in favor of authority was ominous on several levels.  For one, while Clement himself appears to be a leader with high moral probity and a considerable command of the Bible, it is unfortunately clear that 1 Clement was an ominous first move in what would be an increasingly problematic relationship between Rome and other congregations concerning the question of authority.  For while it is just and proper that godly authorities should be defend by other godly authorities just as the leadership of Corinth was defended by Clement, the precedent that Clement set would be used when neither the authorities being defended nor those doing the defending were godly ones.  Did the Roman Catholic hierarchy refrain from seeking authority over the practices of the church when they were no longer in accordance with the ancient practices of the Apostles.  No.  Did they accept the rebuke of others when their own Papacy was notoriously corrupt and when their licensed sellers of indulgences made all kinds of blasphemous promises of the efficacy of buying divine favor in the absence of heartfelt repentance and contrition?  No.  Has the Roman Catholic church to this day supported corrupt and ungodly authorities of church and state, and hidden their own abuses of power against the most vulnerable among them?  Yes, all too often.  The book of 1 Clement is an eloquent defense of the legitimacy of godly authority and a simultaneous claim by a godly leader of the church of Rome over the wayward church of Corinth.  In later generations this authority would not be so benign and the leaders claiming it would not be so godly, and the consequences would be immense and negative for the reputation of Christianity in history and in the unity of those who professed Christianity in the face of future schisms and divides where legitimacy and authority was at stake.


[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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7 Responses to The Epistle Of 1 Clement And The Prelude To Papal Claims Of Authority

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