Everything You Need to Know About the First Epistle of Clement

The Apostolic Fathers is a term assigned to leaders and writers in the early church era who had been in contact with, or were taught by, one or more of Jesus’ Apostles. The era from the death of John, the last Apostle, to the death of Polycarp, John’s longest living apostle, is also called the Subapostolic Era and lasted from about AD 98 to 155. This first generation of early church fathers is held in high esteem because their writings reflect the teaching of the Apostles before councils, creeds, and extensive hierarchy developed in the church. The two main pastoral concerns reflected in the writing of the Apostolic Fathers were unity among Christians in the churches and establishing a good moral reputation in the world.

Though a formal church hierarchy was something to be developed later, a leader in the Roman church named Clement is credited with writing a letter on behalf of the Roman Church to their fellow Christians in the Corinthian Church.[i] Little is known of Clement of Rome other than what appears in the letter itself. Although the letter does not explicitly bear his own name, he does mention that he was a disciple of Peter and Paul but does not consider himself on the level of the Apostles.[ii] Church historians recognize Clement as the fourth overseer of the Roman Church following the Apostle Peter and two other overseers.[iii] Much later traditions suggest that Clement traveled to Palestine, wrote many books, and became a martyr by drowning while attached to an anchor in the Black Sea. According to this narrative, angels built Clement a tomb underwater, and once a year the people of that area were able to see it by the ebbing of the tide.[iv]

The Letter, or Epistle, to the Corinthians was probably written in about AD 96. According to the first paragraph, it is the Roman Church’s response to the Corinthian Church’s inquiry about what to do following an incident in which some younger people caused an uproar and had some of their church leaders removed from their positions. Now to be clear, there was no single building that housed all the Christian congregations either in Rome or in Corinth. The first dedicated church building was not founded until the middle of the third century.[v] Up until this time, all churches met in houses or other places that had many other uses besides as a religious meeting place for Christians. Therefore, this may have been limited to leaders of certain house churches in Corinth or for any local council the leaders may have held.

At the outset of the letter, Clement assumes the guilt of the “few rash and self-confident persons.”[vi] He identifies the underlying sin as envy and proceeds to give a list of scriptural examples of envy including Cain, Esau, Joseph’s brothers, and several others.[vii] He also blamed envy for the deaths of Christian martyrs including Peter, Paul, and a “great multitude of the elect.”[viii] He urged the rash youth to humble themselves and repent, which would imitate the humility, faithfulness, and hospitality of a host of biblical characters.[ix] His emphasis was on the equality of all members of the Corinthian Church, regardless of age or gender.[x] Added to the reasons for loving one another was the expectation that Jesus would return soon, and those who had died would be resurrected by the Almighty God.[xi] Clement identifies arrogance as a trait of those cursed by God but moderation and humility as being traits of those blessed by God.[xii]

As for leaders in the Corinthian Church, the Roman Church through Clement suggested that everyone in the Corinthian Church should be content with whatever roles they have, since leaders need followers and followers need leaders. He described this as a “mutual advantage” reminiscent of Paul’s teaching on the body of Christ in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.[xiii] Clement further encouraged the Corinthian Christians to do everything in an orderly fashion as God Himself created and regulated the universe and His people to perform tasks at proper times and in proper ways. Clement had in mind the proper replacement of elders in the church, which, as set in motion by the Apostles, included elders serving terms of leadership for life and new leaders being appointed only by the consent of the whole church.[xiv–]Clement reminded the Corinthian Christians that their tendency toward divisiveness was something Paul had already addressed by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in Paul’s First Epistle to them.[xv] In closing, Clement enjoined the Corinthian Christians to prioritize love and to repent as the occasions might warrant, for in the end, “. . . 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.”[xvi] The best transitions of leadership, in the church or elsewhere, are those that happen peaceably with love and humility.

[i] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3:15-16.

[ii] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Volume Two—Ante-Nicene Christianity, A.D. 100-325 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), 637.

[iii] Robert C. Walton, Chronological and Background Charts of Church History, revised and expanded edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 5. 

[iv] The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “St. Clement of Rome,” second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[v] Kenneth Cleaver, “Worship in the Early Church: From Private Homes to Public Halls,” Japan Harvest (Spring 2007): 9. 

[vi] Clement, Epistle to the Corinthians, 1. Note: all quotations and paraphrases of the text of 1 Clement are taken from volume one of The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenæus in Ante-Nicene Fathers, American edition (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995).

[vii] Clement, Epistle to the Corinthians, 4.

[viii] Clement, Epistle to the Corinthians, 6.

[ix] Clement, Epistle to the Corinthians, 7-18.

[x] Clement, Epistle to the Corinthians, 21.

[xi] Clement, Epistle to the Corinthians, 24-26.

[xii] Clement, Epistle to the Corinthians, 30.

[xiii] See 1 Corinthians 12. Clement, Epistle to the Corinthians, 37.

[xiv] Clement, Epistle to the Corinthians, 44.

[xv] Clement, Epistle to the Corinthians, 47.

[xvi] Clement, Epistle to the Corinthians, 57.