When we are seeking to understand the past as a way of justifying how things ought to work, we often find that what we are looking at is far more complex than we may first thought. We have already seen in 1 Clement some of the ominous echoes by which Rome would later try to claim authority over other churches, with disastrous ramifications that are still seen today . Let us now turn our attention to how 1 Clement deals with the question of authority, so that we may see how complicated and how nuanced it is, and how ambivalent the exercise of power has often been. In our own day and age, we know that institutional power is a complex and often unpleasant matter, but how often do we realize that there were no good old days where everything went easily and everyone understood where they belonged and what they were supposed to do? 1 Clement is a reminder of the contentiousness of political power in the Church going all the way back to the first century AD, and its allusions to similar problems within the NT period remind us that the time of the Apostles was not free from such problems either.
The first level of authority in 1 Clement is so subtle that it is easy to miss. The opening salutation of the letter is: “From the colony of the Church of God at Rome to the colony of the Church of God at Corinth, called and sanctified by the will of God through our Lord Jesus Christ. All grace and peace to you from God Almighty, through Jesus Christ (23).” Although Clement of Rome is taken to be the author of this letter, he does not write as a Pope or as a vicar of Christ or even as a bishop, but rather as a representative of the congregation of Rome itself. There is at least some tension between the “I” of the writer that occasionally shows up and the we of the congregation which is the driving factor behind the letter being written. This letter is not the result of the private pique of Clement seeking to burnish his personal authority, but is written at the behest of a congregation whose place at the center of imperial business gave it immense prestige from time immemorial. We may contrast this opening with the opening of a papal bull from Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, which begins: “FRANCIS
BISHOP OF ROME, SERVANT OF THE SERVANTS OF GOD. TO ALL WHO READ THIS LETTER: GRACE, MERCY, AND PEACE.” The irritating all caps and the claim of papal authority at the outset make it clear that this letter was not written at the behest of a congregation at Rome, but rather is an assertion of papal authority. The difference is striking.
We also see that the letter of 1 Clement is quick to point to scriptural authority and not only the author’s personal or institutional authority. Over and over again the author points to the sayings of scripture (24) or what scripture says (24), or what God’s word was to those in times past (27), or what the Holy Spirit says in the Bible (28), or remarks that “it is written” (28) such and such, or what the Holy Ghost declared to Christ (29), or what God says of past believers in the Bible (30), and other related references. Even though the author is telling the Corinthians what they need to do, he does not do so by asserting direct authority over them, but by appealing to the common authority of scripture that are recognized in common. Perhaps most notably, as we have seen, Clement does this in explicitly citing 1 Corinthians as evidence of the past factionalism of the congregation of Corinth that has reared its ugly head again, giving a great deal of respect to both Peter and Paul as apostles (and making no claim of apostolic authority for the author) while pointing to Apollos as being one who had been approved by the apostles.
Even Clement’s defense of the specific elders who had been removed from their authority unjustly as a result of the factionalism in Corinth is very clement. Witness Clement’s mildness: “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 so long a period of time. It will undoubtedly be no light offense on our part, if we take their bishopric away from men who have been performing its duties with 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 observing! 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).”
What makes this appeal so remarkably mild is a combination of qualities. For one, the author of this letter points not to himself as an authority on the level of an apostle, but points out humbly that the Apostles wanted to make sure that order was maintained in the Church, and so whenever leaders died, other leaders would be appointed to take their place. These leaders, moreover, were approved with the full consent of the Church. Leadership was not foisted upon people who did not respect the authorities, but rather leaders were chosen who had the full respect of the congregations that they led. Their authority was not only institutional and political authority, as it so often is in our contemporary congregations, where there is a centralized authority of some kind, but rather that authority was a moral authority gained over years or even decades of faithful service to the brethren. Here we see, at least by implication, that if the leaders of a congregation had reproaches that could be laid against them or if they did not lead in a humble, peaceable, or disinterested manner, there would be just cause for a congregation to remove such leaders. The security of leaders in power in Clement’s view consists in their being chosen justly and with consent and by maintaining their moral authority through demonstrating their continued moral fitness for office.
Indeed, this is the sort of view we see from the pastoral epistles themselves. 1 Timothy 3:1-7 gives as the qualifications of an elder the following: “This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.” And it is these same qualifications that Clement has in mind. The leaders of Corinth deposed by political factions are described as being blameless, not covetous nor quarrelsome, but gentle and of good reputation. Should we not all desire leaders like this?
Since we live in a day and age which celebrates politics, let us reflect on such matters ourselves. Clement’s appeals to authority suggest that while the Roman congregation as a whole had a great deal of prestige that Clement was not himself someone who could simply order the Corinthians to do what he wanted them to do, nor did he claim any sort of apostolic authority for himself. Likewise, although he stressed the right of people to continue in an office that they had been chosen for so long as their conduct remained at the high standard set in the pastoral epistles, the choice of elders in the first place reflects a practice of consensus-based church authority that relies on moral power through positive example at least as much, if not more, as formal institutional power. If Clement is a rebuke to our praise of factionalism in so many aspects of our contemporary world, so too 1 Clement confronts us with the question of whether we seek our own congregations to be judged with the sort of gentle and clement authorities as we see from the pages of scripture as well as from the early post-apostolic period. For such a view of authority is not the way power tends to be wielded today in many churches who claim to follow the example of the early Church of God.
 See, for example: