Oh, the pains of rivalry. The early Christians knew all about the destructive nature of church splits and endless schisms. That’s why notable ancients beginning with Paul and continuing with Clement, Cyprian, and Augustine stressed Christian unity in their writings. It’s something that never seems to go away, despite Jesus’ prayer in John 17 “that all of them may be one.”
Today I’d like to tell you about the story of a troubled church in desperate need of Christlike humility. It’s the story of a remarkable writing, known as 1st Clement.
Most dates of early Christian writings are what you call in elementary school an “educated guess.” Many scholars (as well as church tradition) claim that Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, was finished around 90 A.D. The next Christian writing we know about is a letter called 1st Clement, dated around 96 A.D. It’s by a presbyter-secretary known as Clement of Rome. About a hundred years later the bishop of Alexandria, also named Clement, would include this letter in his New Testament canon list. Clement’s letter was mostly forgotten by the Western churches and by the later centuries not even the Eastern churches considered it a serious candidate for the Bible. During the middle ages, people forgot to copy it down anymore. Despite its less-than-scriptural status, Clement’s letter tells us some important things about the early church, especially in Rome. Let’s take a look.
Another Corinthian Crisis
It’s a weighty letter to addressed to a church in crisis. This doesn’t surprise us. It’s just like Paul’s epistles. However, there are some important differences from the New Testament. The official title of his letter is The Letter of the Church of Rome to the Church of Corinth. Unlike Paul, Clement doesn’t even offer us his name. Only from later writers do we find out that Clement, a presbyter in the Roman church, was the real author. The letter does not claim to be written by an apostle or even an individual. This is one good reason to clearly distinguish it from scripture. So, what exactly is this letter about?
Well, it’s forty years after 2nd Corinthians was written, and the same problems still abound in the church at Corinth. This time the issue isn’t sexual immorality or the abuse of spiritual gifts, but a more insidious sickness: divisiveness and rivalry within the church. As it turns out, the new generation of Christians, young fiery members of the church, had turned against its leaders. These rebels had challenged the appointed presbyters, considering themselves wiser and more qualified for leadership. As the word spread of the split in Corinth, it reached the ears not only of other Christians but also of pagans and Jews.
This was all bad news. Schism hurt not only the individual community but the reputation of the Christian faith. Although delayed in sending a response by the heavy persecutions of Emperor Domitian in Rome, Clement and the Roman church leaders came up with a lengthy and forceful response. With the weight of the Roman church behind it, Clement’s letter offers a cure for the Corinthians’ disunity.
The Cure for Rivalry
Clement frequently appeals to the Bible in his letter, especially Psalms, Old Testament stories, and Paul’s letters. Although he doesn’t seem to have read the gospels, he vigorously uses the rest of the Bible to show the Corinthians that they are in the wrong, completely out of touch with gospel of Christ. To begin with, Clement points out the bitter fruits of rivalry in the Old Testament. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Moses and his siblings, David and his enemies: they all experienced the agonizing pains of jealous conflict. Then he also points out godly examples like Abraham, Rahab, and most of all Jesus Christ.
The Corinthian church had once been famous for its hospitality, tenderness and propriety, Clement argues, but now had lost sight of their faith. Why? They had forgotten the meanings of scripture, the holy significance of Christ’s humility. Although the apostles had appointed presbyters and leaders in the church, the rebels had rejected proper Christian conduct in a grave error. The only way to return the church to unity was to remember what their faith was about:
This is the way, dear friends, in which we found our salvation, Jesus Christ, the high priest of our offerings, the protector and helper of our weakness. Through him we fix our gaze on the heights of heaven. In him we see mirrored God’s pure and transcendent face. Through him the eyes of our hearts have been opened. (1 Clement 36:1-2)
By focusing their eyes again on Jesus and the magnitude of his humble and gentle spirit, Corinth could be saved from rivalry. Scripture offered an eternal hope that transcended human competition, but for unrepentant renegades there would be only sobering judgment:
Your contention and rivalry, brothers, thus touches matters that bear on our salvation. You have studied Holy Scripture, which contains the truth and is inspired by the Holy Spirit. You realize there is nothing wrong or misleading written in it. You will never find that upright people have even been disowned by holy men. The righteous, to be sure, have been persecuted, but by wicked men. (45:1-3)
We must, then, put a speedy end to this. We must prostrate ourselves before the Master, and beseech him with tears to have mercy on us and be reconciled to us and bring us back to our honorable and holy practice of brotherly love. (48:1-2)
For Clement, modeling the humility of past Godly leaders like Abraham, Moses, Peter, and Paul was the solution to discord. Submitting to the authority of the appointed church leaders honored the apostles’ commands, which carried the authority of Christ himself. Take your gaze off of your own abilities and ambitions, Clements urges, and remember the one who gave everything.
Just as in 96 A.D., the church today is not a place to prove ourselves or excercise our need to feel important. It is the body of Christ, where each member is honored and lifted to a special status. The hungry are fed, the broken are mended, and God is worshiped. As Christians we honor our leaders and pastors, not because they are perfect or great visionaries, but because they are whom God has placed over us as shepherds and counselors. When personality and selfishness threaten unity, we must remind ourselves to focus on Christ. He is the reason we meet together, for his humility bought our ransom. It will never be about me.