Believed from very early on to have been a late first century bishop of the Church in Rome and disciple of the apostles Peter and Paul, Clement is known today mainly for his letter to the Church in Corinth known as the First Letter of Clement to the Corinthians. Written about the year 96, the epistle is an early and significant witness to the function and authority of the ministers of the Christian Church. It also demonstrates for the first time the effective intervention of a bishop of Rome in the affairs of another Church, and it provides evidence for the residence and martyrdom of Saint Peter and Saint Paul at Rome.
The occasion of the letter was the action of a younger faction at Corinth (ever the troubled, divisive church) who had deposed the older presbyters because of dissatisfaction with their ministration. The unity of the Church was being jeopardized by a dispute over its ministry. Clement’s letter sets out a hierarchical and organic view of Church authority, insisting that God requires due order in all things, that the deposed presbyters must be reinstated, and that the legitimate authorities must be obeyed. He writes, “You, therefore, the prime movers of the schism, submit to the presbyters, and, bending the knees of your hearts, accept correction and change your minds. Learn submissiveness, and rid yourselves of your boastful and proud incorrigibility of tongue. Surely, it is better for you to be little and honorable within the flock of Christ than to be esteemed above your deserts and forfeit the hope which he holds out.”
Clement uses the terms “bishop” and “presbyter” interchangeably in the letter, and both internal and external evidence (e.g., the letter of Ignatius of Antioch to the Romans) suggests that the episcopate not only at Corinth at the time but also at Rome, was plural; i.e., that those Churches were ruled and overseen by a council of presbyter-bishops – so that Clement was probably one of the bishops of the Church in Rome at the time. It would not be until the middle of the second century that the single, or monarchical, episcopate of one bishop in a church surrounded by the presbyters and deacons, would arise at Rome. In Clement’s letter, it is the “rulers” of the church (the presbyter-bishops) who lead its worship and “offer the gifts” of the Eucharist, just as the duly appointed priests of the Old Testament cultus performed the various sacrifices and liturgies in their time. In setting out the bare lineaments of apostolic appointment of ministers in the churches, Clement lays the groundwork for Tertullian and Irenaeus of Lyons, who would uphold the apostolic succession of bishops and presbyters against the gnostics in the late second century: “The Apostles preached to us the Gospel received from Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ was God’s Ambassador. Christ, in other words, comes with a message from God, and the Apostles with a message from Christ. Both these orderly arrangements, therefore, originate fromthe will of God. And so, after receiving their instructions and being fully assured through the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, as well as confirmed in faith by the word of God, they went forth, equipped with the fullness of the Holy Spirit, to preach the good news that the Kingdom of God was close at hand. From land to land, accordingly, and from city to city they preached, and from among their earliest converts appointed men whom they had tested by the Spirit to act as bishops and deacons for the future believers.”
In keeping with his organic view of the Church, Clement commends each Christian to his place in the whole Body of Christ, in words that recall the Apostle Paul: “Therefore the whole of our body be maintained in Christ Jesus, and let each submit to his neighbor’s rights in the measure determined by the special gift bestowed on him. Let the strong care for the weak, and the weak respect the strong; let the rich support the poor, and the poor render thanks to God for giving them the means of supplying their needs; let the wise man show his wisdom not in words but in active help; the humble man must not testify for himself, but leave it to another to testify in his behalf. He who is continent must not boast, knowing that it is another who confers on him the ability to remain continent. Let us therefore reflect, brethren, of what clay we were made, what and who we were when we entered the world, out of what grave and darkness our Maker and Creator has brought us into the world, where he had prepared his benefits before our birth. Since, then, we owe all these blessings to him, we are obliged to thank him in every way. To him be the glory forever and evermore. Amen.”
There is evidence that Clement’s epistle was read in the liturgy at Corinth around the year 170, and several ancient manuscripts include it in their canonical books of the New Testament, along with a second letter, erroneously ascribed to Clement (“Second Clement”), which is actually an early homily of unknown authorship on the character of the Christian life and the importance of penance. The text of Clement’s genuine epistle was lost to the Western Church during the Middle Ages (when Clement was thought of primarily as an early martyr) and was not rediscovered until 1628.
Aside from his authorship of this letter, we know little for certain about Clement. In fact, his name is not mentioned in the letter itself, which is addressed by “the Church of God…at Rome” to “the Church of God…at Corinth”. Despite this, Clementine authorship was not doubted in antiquity and has been called into question in modern times on only slender evidence. Eusebius of Caesarea and Jerome state that the letter was written by Clement “as a representative of the Church of Rome”. Clement’s episcopate (presbyterate) probably fell sometime between the years 92 and 101. That he may have been of Jewish origin is inferred from his fondness for drawing heavily on the Old Testament for illustrative material. He has been identified by some with the Apostle Paul’s fellow laborer of the same name, mentioned in Philippians 4. Though the medieval Church remembered him primarily as a martyr, neither the place nor the manner of his death is known.
prepared from Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980)
and The Oxford Dictionary of Saints
Almighty God, you chose your servant Clement of Rome to recall the Church in Corinth to obedience and stability; Grant that your Church may be grounded and settled in your truth by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; reveal to it what is not yet known; fill up what is lacking; confirm what has already been revealed; and keep it blameless in your service; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The quotations from First Clement are taken from Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation (edited by Johannes Quasten and Joseph C. Plumpe).