Ad Fontes! #1: The Apostolic Fathers – 1 Clement

When we come to ch.18 of the Acts of the Apostles, we read these words, “After this (that is, after Paul’s brief stint in Athens) Paul left Athens and went to Corinth.” (Acts 18:1). Luke records:

When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus. And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” And he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue. Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them. (Acts 18:5-11).

Paul’s eighteen months in Corinth would end with the Apostle being brought before the proconsul of Achaia, Gallio (the brother of the famed Stoic philosopher, Seneca) who refused to hear the case; a few days later, Paul returned to Antioch.

But this would not be the Apostle’s final dealing with the Corinthian believers. Two of our New Testament epistles are addressed to the saints of God at Corinth. From the first of these epistles we gather that whatever might have been the state of the church when Paul was present, it had certainly devolved; I will not here relate an exhaustive list of their troubles, but instead point you to 1 Corinthians with the exhortation tolle lege! Take up and read for yourself!

One of the issues that plagued the Corinthian church was factionalism. Paul writes, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’” (1 Cor. 1:10-12). Clearly, the Corinthian church didn’t understand that the Apostles and Apollos were not garnering for their loyalty to themselves; rather, they were representatives of Jesus, preaching the same gospel message, and calling on every man and woman to submit to the rule of Christ! Instead, the Corinthians had fallen into a petty tribalism, dividing themselves in the names of the Apostles, though not with the apostolic blessing. Paul upbraids them, saying, “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving in only a human way?” (1 Cor. 3:2-3). There is a division in the work of the pastors who have touched Corinth. Paul planted, Apollos watered, but it is God Who gives the growth. Paul reasons, “He who plants and he who waters are one.” (1 Cor. 3:8). Paul and Apollos are not divided, but are united in the work of Christ. How, then, can the Corinthians justify their factionalism? They must be united by the one Foundation of the church – Christ Jesus our Lord!

By the time Paul writes his second epistle to the Corinthians (at least, the second epistle that has come to us in God’s providence), the division that we see addressed in the first epistle has seemingly subsided, as it doesn’t come up in the same way. But the church of Corinth, with all of its issues, didn’t simply disappear after 1-2 Corinthians.

Enter the writings we refer to as The Apostolic Fathers. Who were the “Apostolic Fathers”? We should be clear what we mean by “Fathers”. When we consider the history of the church, the men who had a formative role at the beginning of the church’s history were the Early Church Fathers. The Patristic age of the church – the time in which the Fathers were writing their theological works and commentaries on Scripture – is measured differently by different theologians and church historians. Though there is not a defined consensus as to when the Patristic period ends, its beginning is clearly delineated. The Patristic period begins with the works of those theologians and bishops who wrote in the generation that followed the passing of the Apostolic age – the time in which the Apostles were alive and ministering, the surviving writings of which make up our New Testament. The “Apostolic Fathers” were those Church Fathers whose works were written in the time immediately after the Apostles (though some writings, like The Didache, might even overlap historically with the writings of the New Testament). Indeed, some even knew the Apostles – for instance, Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, is said to have been a disciple of the Apostle John.[1] To put it another way, The Apostolic Fathers is the collection of writings of the Church Fathers writing from the late first century to the middle of the second. Though their writings are not inspired in the way Holy Scripture is, they are valuable in showing us how the apostolic teachings and practices carried on in the early church immediately after their passing.

Though it is likely not the first chronologically, the first work from The Apostolic Fathers we will examine is 1 Clement. It was written around the end of the first century. A couple of points must be made clear about the work itself. First, nowhere in 1 Clement are we told that Clement wrote the epistle; instead, what is made clear from the outset is that it is a letter from “The church of God that sojourns in Rome”.[2] Clement of Rome, however, is widely attested by early Christian writers to be the author, he being an elder among a group of elders at Rome who put into writing the agreed response to troubling happenings in the addressed church – namely, in “the church of God that sojourns in Corinth.”[3] This brings us to our second point. Though we are perhaps correct in recognizing Clement’s authorship of this epistle, it is not First Clement; that is to say, though we call 2 Clement Second Clement, it was likely not written by Clement of Rome, but merely attributed to him. Thus, First Clement might better be titled The Epistle of the Church at Rome to the Church at Corinth with the understanding that it was Clement who put to paper the overall concerns of the elders in the Roman church. But, for brevity and for history’s sake, I will continue to refer to it as 1 Clement.

One thing to note about this epistle, and something that will be true about a very many writings of the Church Fathers, is that it is an occasional work. What I mean by this is that it was, like the epistles of the New Testament, written to a particular audience for a particular purpose; however, like the writings of the New Testament, its particularity does not prevent a wider application. Hopefully, this will become clear as we progress.

The question then arises: “What was the occasion that necessitated the writing of this epistle?” Perhaps another way of asking this question is: “What happened to the church at Corinth after 2 Corinthians?” It would seem that, at least at first, the church at Corinth had repented of the things concerning which Paul had written them. Clement writes, “For you did everything without partiality, and you lived in accordance with the laws of God, submitting yourselves to your leaders and giving to the elders among you due honor.”[4] This is a far cry from the Corinthian church we read about in 1 Corinthians.

But note that Clement speaks in the past tense. This is because trouble had arisen at Corinth once again. Yet again the church had been broken by division, what Clement calls a “detestable and unholy schism”.[5] Apparently, though we’re not given the precise details as to why it happened, a faction of “reckless and arrogant persons”[6] had arisen and deposed the elders of the church. Jealousy had led to the stirring up of “those without honor against the honored, those of no repute against the highly reputed, the foolish against the wise, the young against the old.”[7] This description is telling. Unlike the earlier schism that we read about in the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians, the present division isn’t a division between followers of different godly teachers; rather, what is present in Corinth at the writing of 1 Clement is a full-scale revolt of the young, foolish, and arrogant against their older, godlier, and wiser leadership. This was such an outrage that news of it had traveled from Corinth to Rome, and Corinth’s sister church felt obliged to write to them, exhorting them to repent.

Clement, in his expertly crafted epistle, relates what amounts to a two ways scenario – the rebels and those who follow them can continue on in arrogant jealousy, or they can submit in love and humility to the authorities that God Himself has placed over them in His providence, particularly to the elders and to the bishop, who at this time would have similar to what today is the pastor of the local congregation, the elder tasked with overseeing and teaching the church. Later on in church history we see the bishop take on a different role than that which he held in the Apostolic period and that of the Apostolic Fathers. Even here, though, Clement points out the wickedness of revolting against God’s ordained church government. He writes, “Our apostles likewise knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife over the bishop’s office. For this reason, therefore, having received complete foreknowledge, they appointed the leaders mentioned earlier and afterwards they gave the offices a permanent character; that is, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry.”[8]

It was the Apostles who had founded the churches who had, in the authority Christ had given them, laid down the method of preserving and passing down the offices of elder and bishop – and that method was not through the revolt of people who thought they could do better than their pastor and elders. Thus, writes Clement, “These, therefore, who were appointed by [the Apostles] or, later on, by other reputable men with the consent of the whole church, and who have ministered to the flock of Christ blamelessly, humbly, peaceably, and unselfishly, and for a long time have been well-spoken of by all – these we consider to be unjustly removed from their ministry. For it will be no small sin for us if we depose from the bishop’s office those who have offered the gifts blamelessly and in holiness.”[9]

Clearly, there are good, biblical reasons to remove a pastor or elder from office – a lifestyle marked by unrepentant sin or a shameless and willful heresy, for example. But the elders who had been deposed by the rebels were deposed to assuage the arrogant jealousy of sinners; in other words, the rebels thought they were more deserving and could do a better job than their elders who had been lawfully placed in office, either by the Apostles themselves, or through the means of ordination passed down from them. The Corinthians, then, stood in defiance not only of the elders and their bishop, not only of the Apostles, but of God Himself, for they were shunning the apostolic order that had been put in place by apostolic authority, the authority of the reigning Christ through His Apostles.

Clement pleads, “Why is there strife and angry outbursts and dissension and schisms and conflict among you? Do we not have one God and one Christ and one Spirit of grace that was poured out upon us? And is there not one calling in Christ? Why do we tear and rip apart the members of Christ, and rebel against our own body, and reach such a level of insanity that we forget that we are members of one another?”[10] Though, as we said before, the division in Corinth during the time of Clement is slightly different than what we read of in 1 Corinthians, the antidote proffered by Clement is the same as that of Paul – namely, it is theological. Our unity as a church is directly related to the unity of Christ. Paul rhetorically asks, “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13). Our unity arises in being united to the undivided Christ; united to Him, we are united to each other – He as our Head, and we as His Body. (1 Cor. 12:12-26). As we are one body in Him, then to tear at each other is to tear apart our own members, as though the arm were to revolt against the leg, hacking it to pieces. No wonder Clement calls it insanity!

Paul, in reminding the Corinthians that they are one body in Christ, also points out that though they are one body, God has appointed different offices variously gifted in the church for the building up of the whole. (1 Cor. 12:27-28). This is precisely what Clement seeks to remind the Corinthians. Everyone is gifted, but not everyone is gifted by God for the work of being an elder, and those who are must be confirmed as such by the church through the process of ordination rather than through arrogant conquest as the rebels had done. An ordered church that honors the God of order is one in which the offices God has placed over the church to serve them for their good are recognized through humble submission to their authority and love for one another. Division in a church is a sin, a shame, and a sorrow to every member of that congregation; but it is also a sorrow to the church as a whole, for we are all one in Christ. This is why Clement’s plea to the Corinthians is so earnest. The church at Rome weeps for the division of the church at Corinth… and the wider world looks on and mocks! Clement writes, “And this report has reached not only us but also those who differ from us, with the result that you heap blasphemies upon the name of the Lord because of your folly, and create danger for yourselves as well.”[11]

Instead of continuing in this mad revolt, the church at Rome calls upon the church at Corinth to repent, and to united in Christian love. Clement, plainly inspired by the writings of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, pens this beautiful call to love one another:

Who can describe the bond of God’s love? Who is able to explain the majesty of its beauty? The height to which love leads is indescribable. Love unites us with God; love covers a multitude of sins; love endures all things, is patient in all things. There is nothing coarse, nothing arrogant in love. Love knows nothing of schisms, love leads no rebellions, love does everything in harmony. In love all the elect of God were made perfect; without love nothing is pleasing to God. In love the Master received us. Because of the love that he had for us, Jesus Christ our Lord, in accordance with God’s will, gave his blood for us, and his flesh for our flesh, and his life for our lives. You see, dear friends, how great and wonderful love is; its perfection is beyond description. Who is worthy to be found in it, except those whom God considers worthy? Let us therefore ask and petition his mercy, so that we may be found blameless in love, standing apart from any human factiousness.[12]

Conclusion

I have not sought to summarize the whole of 1 Clement, but merely to introduce you to the work through a broad meditation; this will be my goal in all of these articles. This relatively brief epistle was written at the turn of the first century, but it speaks volumes to the church today that is so keen to divide at the drop of a hat and whose elders and pastors are often deposed on less than biblical grounds. The rebels at Corinth, rather than submitting in love and humility to God’s ordained authority structure in the church, acted in malice and arrogance in removing the lawfully-ordained elders and unjustly replacing them with leaders who would bow to the will of the revolt. Sadly, this continues to happen in our day as well. I’ve actually been at a service before where the people of the church stood up and unjustly shouted their pastor down, and that while he was beginning to preach God’s Word. The thought that went through my mind during this godless display of chaos was the same that Clement points out, “This isn’t love. This isn’t humility. This is an embarrassment to the church, and the community will blaspheme God because of the actions of these rebels.”

Note that Clement, writing on behalf of the church at Rome, doesn’t shy from telling the truth, and yet throughout his tone is not pompous, but irenic. He truly seeks the repentance of the rebels and the greater glory of God! He calls upon them as a brother to brothers to give up their warring madness, as the hymn-writer says, and return to Christian love and unity in humble submission to those God has placed over them for their good. Clement’s simultaneously gentle but firm plea to the church at Corinth is inspiring; such a Christlike attitude should be emulated by all who truly seek the unity of God’s people, even when they’re interacting with those who are biblically in the wrong.

1 Clement, as well as the rest of The Apostolic Fathers might be read for free online; my recommended edition of the text, however, is the third edition of Michael W. Holmes translation; it can be found here.


[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.3.; Irenaeus’ account of Polycarp, whom he met when but a child, will be quoted by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History, IV.14.

[2] 1 Clement, salutation.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 1.3.

[5] Ibid., 1.1.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 3.3.

[8] Ibid., 44.1-2.

[9] Ibid., 44.3-4.

[10] Ibid., 46.5-7.

[11] Ibid., 47.7.

[12] Ibid., 49.2-50.2.

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