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Clement of Rome belongs to a group of early church leaders that have been known since the seventeenth century as the “Apostolic Fathers.” This title signifies the fact that these men, most of who lived in the second half of the first century and the first half of the second century, were the first generation of church leaders after the original apostles. As such, many of these leaders had personal contact of some sort with the original twelve. So, if you have ever wondered what conditions were like in the early church immediately after the apostolic age, these are the men that you want to get to know.
Identified by some as the Clement to which the apostle Paul referred to as his fellow laborer in Phil 4:3, Clement of Rome is an important figure in church history and one of the earliest Apostolic Fathers. Although very little is known about the details of his life, he has been officially declared a “saint” and is celebrated on November 23rd in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran Churches. His letter to the Corinthian Church is one of the earliest surviving Christian documents outside the New Testament, and provides insight into early church practice and teaching.
Early Life and History
We have very little information about the life of Clement, apart from the fact that he served as Overseer of the Church at Rome. Much of what we know about his time as Bishop was recorded by Christian leader Irenaeus almost a full century after Clement’s death. “The blessed Apostles, Peter and Paul, having built up the Church of Rome, entrusted the bishopric to Linus, who was followed by Anacletus, and third in succession to the Apostles Clement obtained the bishopric; who had also himself seen the blessed Apostles, and had conferred with them, and had still their preaching sounding in his ears, and their traditions before his eyes; not alone, for there were still many left of those who had been taught by the Apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension arising among the brethren at Corinth, the Church at Rome sent a very weighty epistle to the Corinthians reconciling them to peace, and restoring their faith, and declaring to them the traditions they had recently received from the Apostles.”
First Epistle of Clement: The Letter of the Romans to the Corinthians
From this statement, we learn that Clement served as the bishop of the church at Rome, during which time he authored a letter to the church at Corinth. Historians have fixed the date of his bishopric at Rome as lasting from roughly 92 to 101 AD. Nothing is known about his later life or death. Some later Christian writers believed he was martyred for the faith, and there is a legend that developed about him being imprisoned under the Roman Emperor Trajan and tied to an anchor and thrown into the Black Sea. There is no reliable evidence to substantiate such a claim, however.
Clement was leader to the church in Rome, the capital of the ancient world. The Roman church is most well-known to Christians today because of the Apostle Paul’s famous letter, which is now contained in the New Testament. Although Irenaeus claimed that the Roman Church was founded by Peter and Paul (See above quote), it is more likely that Christianity spread to Rome by Jews converted on the day of Pentecost. Christians living in Rome often faced difficult circumstances and persecution in the first several centuries. As early as 49 A.D. there is documented evidence that the emperor Claudius “expelled all of the Jews from Rome because they were constantly rioting at the instigation of Chrestus.” Then, under emperor Nero 64 A.D., persecution against Christians broke out again. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, Nero attempted to shift the blame for a devastating fire which destroyed much of the city onto Christians after a rumor began that he had started the fire. It was probably during Nero’s persecutions that the Apostles Peter and Paul were martyred. Persecutions also occurred under the Emperor Domitian at the end of the 1st century. It was during these persecutions that the Apostle John was exiled to the Isle of Patmos, where he wrote the book of Revelation. The reasons for these persecutions varied, but many times involved the Christians refusal to worship the emperor as God, as Domitian and other emperors demanded.
Serving as the Bishop of Rome in the last decade of the 1st century, Clement was leading the church during the Domitian persecutions. His initial statement in his letter to the Corinthian church hints at the difficulties that the church in Rome was facing during his leadership: “Owing to the suddenly bursting and rapidly succeeding calamities and untoward experiences that have befallen us, we have been somewhat tardy, we think, in giving our attention to the subjects of dispute in your community, beloved.”
The only undisputed writing that has come down to us from Clement is his epistle to the Corinthian church. This letter was quite lengthy, about two times the size of the book of Hebrews, and was occasioned by a schism in the church at Corinth. Specifically, it appears that several members of the Corinthian church had undermined and removed several elders from leadership, creating factions and a large controversy in the Church. Clement wrote his letter for the purpose of restoring order.
The letter can be divided into two main parts, the first section providing a more general treatment of how Christians ought to conduct themselves, and the second dealing more specifically with the disruption within the Corinthian church. The first section involves heavy quotation from the Old Testament to demonstrate how conflict and disturbances in the past were ordinarily due to “jealousy and envy” and that God’s blessing come upon those who make peace and submit to proper authority. The second section stresses the need for a submissive attitude and spirit, and calls upon the leaders of the schism to repent. Also, noteworthy about this letter, as it addresses the need for proper submission to church authority, is the lack of reference to a single ruling bishop. As the bishop of Rome, Clement does not assume to himself any special authority over other church leaders, and refers to church leaders as either bishops and deacons or elders. In other words, there is no evidence of the idea of the papacy found in this early writing.
Other writings have been attributed to Clement, most notably a second letter to the Corinthian church. However, the consensus of most scholars today is that Clement did not author any of them. The second letter was an anonymous sermon, but it is now believed to have been written too late to have been by Clement. Other later documents, such as two letters on Virginity, are other works formerly attributed to Clement, which are now regarded as spurious.
The only source that we have by which to ascertain Clement’s teaching and doctrine is his letter to the Corinthian Church. This makes analysis of his theology tricky, as the letter was written as a pastoral admonition and not as a theological treatise. However, we can get a glimpse of his teaching on some of the core doctrines of Christianity.
God. — Clement had a high view of God’s sovereignty and power, which comes out in various ways in his letter. God is called “the great Framer and Lord of all,” “the Almighty,” “the All-seeing,” “He comprehends all things,” He knows all of the thoughts and intentions of men, etc.
Christ. — Clement had high regard for both the person and work of Christ. He called Jesus “Lord” throughout the letter, such as in the salutation: “The Church of god which resides…at Rome to the Church of God which is a stranger at Corinth; to those who are called and sanctified by the will of God through our Lord Jesus Christ. May grace and peace from Almighty God flow to you in rich profusion through Jesus Christ!” Although Clement does not fully expound his understanding of Christ’s work of atonement, he does clearly believe that Christ died for our sins: “Let us reverences the Lord Jesus Christ, whose blood was given for us,” “On account of the love which He had to us, Jesus Christ our Lord gave his blood for us by the will of God, even flesh for our flesh and soul for our souls.”
Trinity. — The doctrine of the Trinity would not come to full fruition for several centuries, but the seeds can already be found in Clements letter. In place of the more Jewish “As the Lord Jehovah liveth,” Clement used “As God liveth and Jesus Christ liveth, and the Holy Spirit, who are the hope and faith of the elect.”
Salvation. — Salvation is tied very closely to good works, much as James does in his epistle. The letter contains very little reference to or discussion of faith in Christ, and much on the need for good works. However, Clement seems to have believed in salvation by faith, writing: “We are declared and made righteous, not by means of ourselves, nor through our own wisdom or understanding or piety or works which we did in holiness of heart, but through faith.”
Future State. — Clement gives much attention to the resurrection of the body, even using some of Paul’s analogy from 1 Cor 15. Those who die in Christ go to “the place of glory that is due.” Christ will come again in the future.
The Scripture. — One of the characteristics of his letter is the frequent quotation of Scripture, especially from the Old Testament. He most heavily mentions and uses Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. He has a high view of the authority of the Scripture, believing that prophets spoke by the Holy Spirit: “Examine carefully the Scriptures, the true (sayings) of the Holy Spirit;” “The servants of the grace of God spoke through the Holy Spirit…” Clement also referenced the New Testament letter of 1 Corinthians, the teaching of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, and echoes many of the themes found in Paul, Peter, James, and the first three Gospels.
Although our knowledge of Clement is limited, he nevertheless has an important place in Church history as one of the earliest leaders of the post-apostolic Church. His letter to the Corinthians was highly valued by the early church, and provides Christians today with a peak into the life and practice of the early church.
By Scott Korljan
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 As quoted in Ernest Leigh-Bennett, Handbook of the Early Christian Fathers, (London: Williams and Norgate, 1920), 1.
 Ibid. These dates are based on the above statement by Irenaeus as well as other references to Clement in ancient writings from historians such as Jerome and Eusebius.
 The oldest and most reliable sources for Clement do not contain any indication that he was martyred.
 For a more in depth discussion of why Peter and Paul were unlikely to have founded the church at Rome, see D.A. Carson, Douglass Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 242.
 Ibid, 243. As Carson and Moo note, the Romans at this early stage would not have distinguished between Jews and Jewish Christians, so the expulsion would have included them both.
 First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, as contained in Johannes Quasten and Joseph Plumpe, editors, Ancient Christians Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation, (New York: Newman Press, 1946), 9.
 Ibid, 5. I am following the division suggested by the editors as a good way to summarize the contents of the letter. For more details, see pages 5-6.
 For further discussion, see James Donaldson, A Critical History of Christian Literature and Doctrine (vol 1), (London: Macmillan and Co, 1864), 119.
 For a more complete list, see Donaldson pages 123ff.
 Ibid. 124-130.
 Leigh-Bennett, Handbook, 6.
 Donaldson, A Critical History, 133.
 Ibid, 144-150.