Series Intro: Jesus said that He will build His church, but does anyone care as to “how” He has done so? In an effort to help myself and online readers better understand the “Early Church,” I will be sharing brief research done in coordination with my graduate school work (as well as personal enrichment) on 10 important men and women in Christian history: Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Perpetua, Felicity, Tertullian, Irenaeus, Origen, and Athanasius. Join me in traveling back in time almost two millennia to encounter some of the most intriguing people you will ever meet, Christians who have left an indelible mark on church history.
— Clement of Rome —
The first of eight “mini-bios” will be focused on a letter, rather than biographical material, since most of what we know of this man comes from his epistle, First Clement, and later church tradition. An important notification to make at the beginning is that when you hear the name “Clement,” there might be some confusion. In fact, even the early church had some trouble. The most famous “Clements” are Clement of Rome and Clement of Alexandria. However, Paul wrote to the Philippian church, noting a fellow-laborer who possessed the name Clement as well (Philippians 4:3). One of the earlier writers in Christian history, Origen, linked the man in Philippians to actually being Clement of Rome. But that was almost definitely an historical blunder (see The Catholic Encyclopedia, paragraph: “Identity”). So there is Clement from Philippi, Clement of Rome, and Clement of Alexandria; confusing the Clements is easy to do. But let’s settle down for this post and just focus in on Clement of Rome.
The Roman church was definitely important in the early church, though the same could be said of other cities: Alexandria and Antioch, to name a couple. We do know that Clement was an ecclesiastical leader in Rome. At this time, however, there is not enough evidence to prove that Clement operated as the “sole” bishop of Rome, a monoepiscopate (one bishop). Tertullian (a church leader in the late 2nd century) records that the Apostle Peter ordained Clement of Rome. But being ordained as a bishop/pastor is wholly different from operating as pope, or even as having bishopric authority over other local churches besides his own (though he certainly did have the authority to speak to them as a fellow Christian). What we do know is that Clement provides some of the earliest insights into the early church thanks to his letter to Corinth, the lone extant document written by Clement of Rome, also called “1 Clement” (a writing called “2 Clement” was most likely written by a different individual). Let’s consider, then, the document of 1 Clement.
Clement actually does not mention his own name in the letter, but early Christian evidence leads us to believe that this letter was written by the hand of Clement (on behalf of the Roman church) to Corinth. Why did Clement decide to write this letter? The recurring theme of the letter is that there is “jealousy” within the church, particularly that there have been severe problems in the removal of pastors when there were no justifications for doing so. Clement writes in paragraph 45, “For we see that ye have displaced certain persons, though they were living honourably, from the ministration which had been respected by them blamelessly” (translation by Lightfoot and Harmer, 1891). Speaking more harshly in just a couple of paragraphs later, Clement states, “It is shameful, dearly beloved, yes, utterly shameful and unworthy of your conduct in Christ, that it should be reported that the very steadfast and ancient Church of the Corinthians, for the sake of one or two persons, maketh sedition against its presbyters.” These are strong words, suitable though for the corruptions that have persisted.
The letter as a whole goes as follows: Introduction — reminder of their past characteristics — examples of Old Testament, jealous instigators of trouble [such as Cain vs. Abel] and New Testament victims of jealousy — the availability of repentance through Christ — the examples of those who have found salvation in Christ — extra-biblical illustrations of how God desires peace, not conflict — the plea to live righteously — the present problem in Corinth — closing prayer for Corinth — hopeful outcome.
One can easily notice when reading 1 Clement how drenched this letter is with the Scriptures. Often not just a phrase or verse is quoted, but large sections. Clement was clearly well-versed in the Bible, but Clement knew that Corinth was familiar with God’s Word as well; they just didn’t want to obey it. Clement of Rome was obviously a very compassionate man, his words tell the story of a Christian leader who desires this church to be restored to proper fellowship. As Galatians 6:1 speaks of the necessary humility for one administering church discipline, Clement’s words echo a similar attitude: “These things, dearly beloved, we write, not only as admonishing [from the Greek word “noutheteo”] you, but also as putting ourselves in remembrance.” Indeed the people of Rome have the same hope as those in Corinth: forgiveness through Jesus Christ. In conclusion, the following words from Clement ring ever so true to us as they did in the first century A.D., and may they be believed in churches who have gone through, or are going through, similar struggles: “Let us fix our eyes on the blood of Christ and understand how precious it is unto His Father, because being shed for our salvation it won for the whole world the grace of repentance. Let us review all the generations in turn, and learn how from generation to generation the Master hath given a place for repentance unto them that desire to turn to Him.”
Church History Tip: Clement of Rome vs. Clement of Alexandria, how to tell between the two? — though I don’t hold to the Roman Catholic view of apostolic succession, just try to remember that Rome was a big deal early on in church history. Clement “of Rome” lived before Clement “of Alexandria.” So if you’re a chronological thinker, try to equate “earliness” with Rome. But if you’re not a chronological thinker, but are geographical or ideological, consider how Alexandria was known for being very academic (Philo lived there, the famous “Library of Alexandria” was housed there, etc.). Clement “of Alexandria” was very philosophical in his approach to Christianity, as I will venture into when discussing Origen, but Clement “of Rome” was very Scripture and history focused.