01.1.3 Clement Used Apostolic Succession as the argument against replacing Presbyters in 1 Clement

The concern of the Epistle of 1 Clement is that some of the Corinthian Church presbyters have been replaced illegally. It speaks to the reality that divisions in the church have been around since the beginning. There are verses in Paul’s epistle that state that there were already divisions then (1Cor 3:3). Clement writes;

It is disgraceful, beloved, yea, highly disgraceful, and unworthy of your Christian profession, that such a thing should be heard of as that the most stedfast and ancient Church of the Corinthians should, on account of one or two persons, engage in sedition against its presbyters. [ I Clement, Chapter XLVII ]

The letter is an appeal to reconsider this removal of some elders from the fellowship. Their removal was not on moral grounds, and Clement argues against removing bishops appointed by the original disciples and their agents. He cites the cause as envy and jealousy. He goes to great lengths to call the believers to walk obediently in humility following the examples of Noah, Abraham, Rahab, David, and especially Jesus who exemplified humility. In his discussion Clement appeals at length, talking about our salvation, the holiness we are called to, Jesus’ return and the resurrection of the dead that we are looking forward to, the peace that is available in Christ, how we are justified by faith but are rewarded for good works, the blessings we have in Christ, and how we should submit to the church.

The crux of Clement’s argument is that once elders have been ordained there is no reason other than some sin to remove them. Clement goes to some length of discuss the difference between laity and presbyters as well as principle of apostolic succession. He calls for the Presbyters who replaced the old Presbyters to confess their sin and restrore the fellowship to its former state.

Chapters 40 and 41 of 1 Clement give instruction that clearly establishes and delineates the difference between what we call Clergy and laity. This is the first time we are given this clear distinction between clergy and laity:

“These things therefore being manifest to us, and since we look into the depths of the divine knowledge, it behoves 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. [ The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, Chapter XL ]

The tone of this paragraph is striking. According to Clement there are offerings and services that are to done at appointed times and hours by priests. This sounds just like Judaism and perhaps Roman Catholicism, and not at all like what we read in New Testament writings and in other Early church writings, for that matter. For more information, let’s look at the next chapter of the epistle:

“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. Ye see, brethren, that the greater the knowledge that has been vouchsafed to us, the greater also is the danger to which we are exposed.” [ The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, Chapter XLI ]

This presents a confusing situation. Is Clement here in Chapter 41 teaching the practices of Judaism? This is not entirely inconsistent with what we see in the book of Acts as there are records which show Christians participating in the temple. But there are substantial verses that say that Christians did not do at least some of the practices of the Law. First let’s look at how involved the first Christians were with temple and Jewish activities:

And day by day, continuing stedfastly with one accord in the temple…[ Acts 2:46 ]

Now Peter and John were going up into the temple at the hour of prayer, being the ninth hour.[ Acts 3:1 ]

And when they heard this, they entered into the temple about daybreak, and taught. [Acts 5:21 ]

Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them went into the temple, declaring the fulfilment of the days of purification, until the offering was offered for every one of them. [ Acts 21:26 ]

So we see that Peter, John, Paul and the original disciples did not stop going to temple. But several points need to be made here:

  1. The gentiles were taught not to do any of the practices of the Law (Acts 21:21,25)
  2. Paul especially taught against the legalism of the Law.
  3. Paul went to the temple in Acts 21 to do the ritual to fulfill a vow. The fact that he was there does not mean that he espoused circumcision or the Law
  4. It is possible that since the apostles and disciples went so often to the temple that they participated in some Jewish feasts and other activities.
  5. Paul writes in Romans 9-11 that the Gentiles are to be part of the promise to Israel. He specifically writes that “a hardening in part hath befallen Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in” (11:25). The significance is that Christians didn’t stop identifying with Israel at Pentecost.

What 1 Clement chapter XLI looks like is an affirmation of Christianity’s identification with Israel. Clement especially is establishing the priestly hierarchy and the corresponding priestly duties of the Jewish religion. Clement then goes on in succeeding chapters to say that under the guidance of the holy spirit the apostles ordained the elders in the cities they visited. Clement is favorably comparing Jewish priests and their duties to Christian presbyters and their duties. In Chapter 44 Clement writes that Jesus gave orders that the ordained elders should ordain their successors, establishing a case for apostolic succession. He presents his reasoning and then charges that the Corinthian church violated this reasoning by removing some duly ordained elders. He compares this to the priestly succession of priests that started with Aaron and his descendents.

Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, and 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.[ The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, Chapter XLIV ]

While succession is hinted at in 2 Tim 2:2 and Titus 1:5 this is the first time it is expressly stated in Christian history in the writings that we have. Amazingly Clement says that the apostles both knew and taught that there would be a problem with bishops being challenged. He further states that it was taught by the apostles that whoever the bishops ordained to replace them were to be the ministers. This is the center of the treatise Clement composed. The buildup to this includes the importance of obedience and humility in the believer’s walk, and after this he calls for the persons taking over the episcopy to confess, repent and be restored to fellowship.

That the apostles taught apostolic succession this way is certainly new information. 2 Timothy 2:2 says to teach faithful men who will teach others also. It doesn’t mention overseeing. It doesn’t say ordain men who will ordain others and whosever they ordain are the only ones who can oversee that congregation. Titus 1:5 is a charge to Titus to ordain elders in the cities Paul had visited. There is no mention of succession.

Again, in contrast, Chapter XLIV above says the apostles taught that ordained men would approve (ordain) their successors. Clement does say that “we are of the opinion” that those so ordained cannot be dismissed. Even though clement cites this as opinion, his stance formed the basis of doctrine that survives in many Christian churches to this day.

This very first example of the early church fathers shows how Christianity was developed with more than just the bible, it was the influence of men like Clement that formed doctrine beyond what is stated in the books in the bible. It also shows why the church said from very early on that “tradition” was as important as scripture in determining church doctrine.

Also introduced by Clement here is the concept of clergy and laymen. Without going into lengthy discussion, suffice it to say that this is new as this distinction is not in what we call the New Testament. It is clear from Clements writing that within decades of the passing of most of the original apostles, and with perhaps John and other apostles still alive, the distinction of ministry and laity was part of the church.

It is a contradiction to say that the bible is complete, yet practices like these (apostolic succession and the distinction between the roles of clergy and laity), based on writings from Clement, and later writers, especially Irenaeus, became Christian doctrine.

While the examples in the bible certainly show that the elders ordained other elders, it stops short of stating what Clement describes. In practice the application of the principle of apostolic succession proved in history to be catastrophic. Apostolic succession was rigidly adhered to by the Catholic Church. But, by the Middle Ages, bishops were ordained, not for the gift that God placed in them, but for the price they could bring to build the coffers of the Vatican. Men needed to rise up to challenge this and other ungodly practices that had permeated the church. Whether or not their ministry was in the line of apostolic succession was not as important as whether they sought to serve the living God and live according to his ways.

© copyright 2009 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved

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  1. Pingback: Clement’s Writing – The Start of Tradition as an Authority in Church Doctrine | OriginalChristianity.Net

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