Imagine this: a church is doing well, working hard, and making a difference. They develop a reputation for faithfulness, love, and peace. They are, in many ways, an exemplary church. Then something tragic happens: success and prosperity. Problems begin. A general lack of humility permeates the church. The feeling of “having arrived” quenches the fires that once drove the band of believers to greater and greater acts of love. Then people start whispering against the ministers. Not many people, just one or two. But their poisonous gossip is allowed to spread, unchecked, until finally they drive the ministers from the church.
What I have just described is the almost predictable life-cycle of many Baptist churches today. It is also a summary of “The First Epistle of Clement To The Corinthians.” Written somewhere around the end of the first century, this early patristic letter is as relevant today as it was when Clement originally penned it.
Clement is writing from Rome to the church in Corinth. It is possible that he is the Clement mentioned by Paul in Philippians 4:3. If so, he co-labored with Paul and was known by Paul as a faithful worker.
This letter was highly respected by the early church, though it was never canonized. It’s easy to see why. Clement’s appeal to the mythical Phoenix as a natural example of the principle of resurrection was one of the reasons why it was not accepted as holy writ.
The letter itself is fascinating and moving. It’s fascinating, for instance, to hear Clement’s tantalizing statement that Paul was martyred “after preaching both in the east and west…having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west…” Some see this as an allusion to Paul traveling to Spain, and others think it refers to Paul going to Britain.
The letter contains some beautiful statements on the work of Christ. Clement commends the Corinthians for the fact that, before their fall, “His [Christ’s] sufferings were before your eyes.” Clement believed that the church should be a cross-driven church. “Let us look,” he writes, “steadfastly to the blood of Christ, and see how precious that blood is to God, which, having been shed for our salvation, has set the grace of repentance before the whole world.” Clement speaks of “that redemption” that “flow[s] through the blood of the Lord to all them that believe and hope in God.”
Ecclesiologically, Clement’s work is significant insofar as he was addressing the expulsion of “some men of excellent behavior from the ministry” by some members of the Corinthian church. There is an early and vague appeal to apostolic succession in Clement’s idea that the “apostles…appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry.” Speaker of future generations of ministers, however, Clement says, “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.” [italics added]
There are undeniable traces of congregationalism here, a fact that should temper any concept of succession. It is also interesting that Clement speaks of two offices in the church: bishops and deacons.
This is a letter about church conflict and the damage it causes. “Your schism has subverted [the faith of] many, has discouraged many, has given rise to doubt in many, and has caused grief to us all. And still your sedition continueth.” Clement calls for repentance, love, peace, and a return to a focus on the shed blood of Christ.
Here is a fascinating glimpse into the life of the early post-apostolic church. You will be edified and encouraged by spending some time with Clement. You will also be struck by the truthfulness of the old idea: the more things change, the more they stay the same.