We know very little about Clement of Rome whose feast day in the western and eastern church calendar falls variously between November 23 and 25. He was not a Corinthian saint, but Christians of the 2nd-4th centuries remembered him as a companion of the apostles (Philippians 4:3) and bishop of Rome who wrote an important letter to the Corinthian community at the close of the first century AD. In the late 4th century AD, for example, Jerome could write about him (The Lives of Illustrious Men):
“Clement of whom the apostle Paul writing to the Philippians says “With Clement and others of my fellow-workers whose names are written in the book of life,” the fourth bishop of Rome after Peter, if indeed the second was Linus and the third Anacletus, although most of the Latins think that Clement was second after the apostle. He wrote, on the part of the church of Rome, an especially valuable Letter to the church of the Corinthians, which in some places is publicly read, and which seems to me to agree in style with the epistle to the Hebrews which passes under the name of Paul but it differs from this same epistle, not only in many of its ideas, but also in respect of the order of words, and its likeness in either respect is not very great. There is also a second Epistle under his name which is rejected by earlier writers, and a Disputation between Peter and Appion written out at length, which Eusebius in the third book of his Church history rejects. He died in the third year of Trajan and a church built at Rome preserves the memory of his name unto this day.”
The letter of 1 Clement is an interesting read for anyone interested in the earliest Christian communities and anyone wondering what became of St. Paul’s rebellious Christian community at Corinth. While 1 Clement did not become part of the canonical New Testament, it was evidently held in high esteem by some communities, including the church of Corinth herself. If we find in the letter a unique window into the Corinthian community a half century after Paul’s correspondence, it is a distorted image reflecting the perspective of a letter writer removed from the conflict.
As in Paul’s time, the letter deals again (still?) with division in the church. This time one group of Corinthian Christians has booted their leaders, the presbyters. These elders go to the church at Rome which sends a letter to encourage the opposing faction to come to terms with the ousted and rightful leaders of the flock. While the text of the letter contains no references to the name of the author (only: ‘The Church of God at Rome to the Church of God at Corinth’), the letter was by the mid-2nd century associated with a ‘Clement’ who was linked by later tradition to the early bishop of Rome.
The letter is interesting for the light it sheds on early views of the nature of the church. Clement uses many metaphors—the elect, the brotherhood, the flock, the city-state, fellow athletes / soldiers, and household—to prompt the factional members (the part) to consider and honor the rest of the church (the whole). The letter comes to a solution that could only have been unsatisfying to these members: the guilty should return leadership to the ousted leaders and leave Corinth. As Kirsopp Lake translates Chs. 54 and 57:
“Who then among you is noble, who is compassionate, who is filled with love? Let him cry:–“If sedition and strife and divisions have arisen on my account, I will depart, I will go away whithersoever you will, and I will obey the commands of the people; only let the flock of Christ have peace with the presbyters set over it.” He who does this will win for himself great glory in Christ, and every place will receive him, for “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness of it.”….
“You therefore, who laid the foundation of the sedition, submit to the presbyters, and receive the correction of repentance, bending the knees of your hearts. Learn to be submissive, putting aside the boastful and the haughty self-confidence of your tongue, for it is better for you to be found small but honourable in the flock of Christ, than to be preeminent in repute but to be cast out from his hope.”
With all its explicit discussion of conflict and submission, 1 Clement has unsurpisingly been important for what it says about authority. The letter has been central to discussions between Catholics and Orthodox about the nature of the “primacy” or “priority” of the bishop of Rome in the late first century, and, has more generally fit into modern debates about the means of authority in early Christianity. 1 Clement provides an early example for a model of authority based on connection to the apostles.
But there is much more to the letter than that. With its emphasis on love, humility, and mutual submission, the letter offers another vision of essential values of the early Christian faith. In light of American Thanksgiving, it seems fitting to end with an appropriate quotation about gratitude (Ch. 38):
“Let our whole body, then, be preserved in, Christ Jesus; and let every one be subject to his neighbour, according to the special gift bestowed upon him. Let the strong not despise the weak, and let the weak show respect unto the strong. Let the rich man provide for the wants of the poor; and let the poor man bless God, because He hath given him one by whom his need may be supplied. Let the wise man display his wisdom, not by [mere] words, but through good deeds. Let the humble not bear testimony to himself, but leave witness to be borne to him by another. Let him that is pure in the flesh not grow proud of it, and boast, knowing that it was another who bestowed on him the gift of continence. Let us consider, then, brethren, of what matter we were made,–who and what manner of beings we came into the world, as it were out of a sepulchre, and from utter darkness. He who made us and fashioned us, having prepared His bountiful gifts for us before we were born, introduced us into His world. Since, therefore, we receive all these things from Him, we ought for everything to give Him thanks; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
- Catholic News Agency: “Church remembers its fourth Pope, St. Clement I, on Nov. 23”
- Episcopal Café: “Accountability and Authority”