Listers, the Early Church was the Early Catholic Church. First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians is an orthodox window into the infancy of the Church (AD 97) and particularly into the structure of the Church.1 The Early Church is not an ambiguous or mysterious time. It is a well recorded period with a great number of writings from the Early Church Fathers. Clement lived in Rome only a stone throw away from the Coliseum. He is seen as a successor to St. Peter and is considered the fourth Pope of Rome, following St. Peter, St. Linus and St. Anacletus.2 Pope St. Clement I’s epistle has a well-paced catechetical tone and is quite mild compared to St. Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church. St. Cyprian states, those who start their own “churches” are “deceiving with serpent’s tongue, and artful in corrupting the truth, vomiting forth deadly poisons from pestilential tongues” (AD 250).
Dear Protestants St. Clement’s epistle to the faithful in Corinth is not a Catholic apologetics text or a work from the Counter-Reformation. The words come from a leader within the infancy of the Church of Christ - AD 97. One of the best hermeneutics when reading the Early Church Fathers is not only to pay attention to what they say, but to note well their assumptions about the faith. These assumptions are sometimes greater than their actual words, because the assumptions are the principles that are so ingrained into the Church that they are assumed truths, i.e., unquestioned and widely known. St. Clement’s epistle demonstrates this in a powerful way as he cannot envision “multiple churches” no more than he can imagine a Church outside the direct lineage of the apostles. An undercurrent in St. Clement’s writing and in all the Church Father’s is that perfect charity and perfect faith cannot exist in ecclesial and doctrinal disunity - there is only One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. At the very least, one should read this text and think to themselves: does my “church” sound like the Early Church - and if not, why?
Pope Clement I, Vicar of Christ and martyr, pray for us.
1. Virtue Thwarts Schism
Chapter II continues the epistle’s early theme of lauding the Corinthians in their virtues and prepares the discussion for the topic of schism.
Perfect Charity and Faith Demand Unity “You were sincere and uncorrupted, and forgetful of injuries between one another. Every kind of faction and schism was abominable in your sight. You mourned over the transgressions of your neighbours: their deficiencies you deemed your own.”
2. Sts. Peter and Paul
In Chapter V, His Holiness Pope Clement I displays an important theme in early ecclesial thought: the remembrance of the Apostles. He turns first to his predecessor, St. Peter and his “numerous labours” in the faith until he “departed to the place of glory due to him.” Secondly, he calls to memory St. Paul who was “removed from the world, and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience.” It is not surprising the saint chooses Sts. Peter and Paul. Rome itself was consecrated not only by St. Peter’s office as the Vicar of Christ, but also by St. Paul’s ministry and martyrdom. St. Clement also refers to the “extreme west” and maybe referring to St. Paul actually making it to Spain.
The whole first part of the letter is exhortation to overcome schism, sedition and factions through virtue. The saint exhorts his readers that if they are going to be true believers like Sts. Peter and Paul, then they must endure through envy, anger, pride and all other vices that lead to disunity.
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3. The Old Testament
After calling to memory Sts. Peter and Paul, His Holiness speaks in Chapter VIII about how repentance and penance are ecclesial and inseparable from the People of God. The history of Israel is riddled with times of sedition and schism, but through virtue and obedience the People of God would remain together. It is undeniable that in the Old Testament there could be no distinction between the structural and physical unity of Israel and their spiritual and doctrinal unity. So too did Christ charge his apostles in with the care and guidance of Holy Mother Church, in which true faith and charity cannot exist without true unity.3
The People of God Are Always United
“As I live, says the Lord, I desire not the death of the sinner, but rather his repentance;” adding, moreover, this gracious declaration, “Repent, O house of Israel, of your iniquity.” Say to the children of my people, Though your sins reach from earth to heaven, and though they be redder than scarlet, and blacker than sack-cloth, yet if you turn to me with your whole heart, and say, Father! I will listen to you, as to a holy people. And in another place He speaks thus: “Wash you and become clean; put away the wickedness of your souls from before my eyes; cease from your evil ways, and learn to do well; seek out judgment, deliver the oppressed, judge the fatherless, and see that justice is done to the widow; and come, and let us reason together.”
4. St. Paul’s Corinthians
Skipping forward to Chapter XXXVII, the Bishop of Rome delves into analogies to explain the hierarchy of the Church. Pope Clement is writing to many of the same Corinthians to whom St. Paul wrote. Notice that His Holiness draws upon St. Paul’s own analogy of the Body of Christ and how this fits his constant theme of apostolic authority and exemplars.4
The Church Is Hierarchal
“Let us then, men and brethren, with all energy act the part of soldiers, in accordance with His holy commandments. Let us consider those who serve under our generals, with what order, obedience, and submissiveness they perform the things which are commanded them. All are not prefects, nor commanders of a thousand, nor of a hundred, nor of fifty, nor the like, but each one in his own rank performs the things commanded by the king and the generals. The great cannot subsist without the small, nor the small without the great. There is a kind of mixture in all things, and thence arises mutual advantage. Let us take our body for an example. The head is nothing without the feet, and the feet are nothing without the head; yea, the very smallest members of our body are necessary and useful to the whole body. But all work harmoniously together, and are under one common rule for the preservation of the whole body.”
5. The Divine Order of the Church
Chapter XL begins a turn in the epistle. His Holiness argues that the Lord has given the Church an order and a proper way to do things. Worship of God and the roles therein are not done “thoughtlessly or irregular.” Moreover, the order of the Church is given by God, not man. The Church and the worship of God are not matters of opinion or individuality, but of obedience and uniformity.
No Man Has the Authority to Order the Church
“These things therefore being manifest to us, and since we look into the depths of the divine knowledge, it behooves us to do all things in [their proper] order, which the Lord has commanded us to perform at stated times. He has enjoined offerings [to be presented] and service to be performed [to Him], and that not thoughtlessly or irregularly, but at the appointed times and hours. Where and by whom He desires these things to be done, He Himself has fixed by His own supreme will, in order that all things, being piously done according to His good pleasure, may be acceptable unto Him. Those, therefore, who present their offerings at the appointed times, are accepted and blessed; for inasmuch as they follow the laws of the Lord, they sin not. For his own peculiar services are assigned to the high priest, and their own proper place is prescribed to the priests, and their own special ministrations devolve on the Levites. The layman is bound by the laws that pertain to laymen.”
6. A Ministry Is Given
Chapter XLI continues discussing the preservation of Church Order. Here Pope Clement I turns to the Jewish religion and their rituals and even their punishments if Jews deviated from their proper manner or role. He then pivots in this point and says, “that the greater the knowledge that has been vouchsafed to us, the greater also is the danger to which we are exposed.” Also, notice that a man’s role in the Church - his ministry - is given to him. A strong assumption within Early Church texts is the notion that the order of the Church was given by God to man; thus, no man has the authority or capability to start his own “church.”
Danger Outside God’s Ecclesial Order
“Let every one of you, brethren, give thanks to God in his own order, living in all good conscience, with becoming gravity, and not going beyond the rule of the ministry prescribed to him. Not in every place, brethren, are the daily sacrifices offered, or the peace-offerings, or the sin-offerings and the trespass-offerings, but in Jerusalem only. And even there they are not offered in any place, but only at the altar before the temple, that which is offered being first carefully examined by the high priest and the ministers already mentioned. Those, therefore, who do anything beyond that which is agreeable to His will, are punished with death. You see, brethren, that the greater the knowledge that has been vouchsafed to us, the greater also is the danger to which we are exposed.”
7. The Apostle’s Appointed Bishops
Chapter XLII outlines a clear theology of succession from Christ to the Apostles to the Bishops of the Church. As an early Christian, how do you know if you belonged to the true Church? Well, does your community have a bishop? Did your bishop come from the Apostles who came from Christ our Lord who came from God the Father? It should be stressed this epistle is dated AD 97.
From God to the Apostles to Us
“The apostles have preached the gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons. For thus says the Scripture in a certain place, I will appoint their bishops in righteousness, and their deacons in faith.”
8. Undeniable Apostolic Succession
In Chapter XLIV, St. Clement shuts the book on any doubt that the apostles chose and declared men to lead as bishops after their death. It is apostolic succession in a clear and practical manner articulated in AD 97.
Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore… they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry.
One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church
“Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. We are of opinion, therefore, that those appointed by them, or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ, in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry. For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties. Blessed are those presbyters who, having finished their course before now, have obtained a fruitful and perfect departure [from this world]; for they have no fear lest any one deprive them of the place now appointed them. But we see that you have removed some men of excellent behaviour from the ministry, which they fulfilled blamelessly and with honour.”
9. Rome Has Spoken
Chapter LIX reveals that Pope St. Clement I is not afraid to teach apostolic succession nor to utilize its authority as well. It is reminiscent of how St. Paul scolded the Churches he founded by an authority he traced to Christ and Sts. Peter and James.
“If, however, any shall disobey the words spoken by Him through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and serious danger; but we shall be innocent of this sin, and, instant in prayer and supplication, shall desire that the Creator of all preserve unbroken the computed number of His elect in the whole world through His beloved Son Jesus Christ, through whom He called us from darkness to light.”
Notice His Holiness presupposes that the Corinthians must listen to him and if they do not they risk the penalty of transgression and serious danger. Corinth is a community founded by St. Paul who probably has a bishop in place, but notice that Clement as Bishop of Rome speaks with authority that comes with spiritual ramifications. Why is the Bishop of Rome sending a letter to the Church of Corinth if Rome has no spiritual authority over Corinth?
What books made the Bible? - There is a misconception that the books that were included in the Bible were simply all of the early Christian texts. The actual canon for Holy Scripture was formed by a need for the Church to show what was and what was not actually taught by the apostles; thus, the Church included all the works of the apostles and their closest companions. Many other good Catholic epistles existed, as I Clement, but they were not what was needed to defend the teaching of the apostles against the gnostics. ↩︎
Old Testament Scripture: Ezekiel 33:11, Ezekiel 18:30, Isaiah 1:18 ↩︎
Nature, Grace and Hierarch: Those familiar with Aquinas will know that man is by nature a political and social animal. Men are political animals that are naturally inclined to organize into communities, and as such hierarchy is also natural to man. If hierarchy is natural to man then ever more so would it be in the Church since grace perfects nature. ↩︎