Clement of Rome and the early claim for the Authority of Rome

The question as to the authority of Rome in the history of Christianity has long been a divisive one. Whilst those in the Catholic tradition will claim an authority stretching back to the Apostle Peter, the reality of the pre-eminence of the Roman Church is to be found in the emergence of Roman authority in the fifth and sixth centuries.

The famous and divisive scholar Walter Bauer theorised that the theological tradition that he believed later became orthodox Christianity could find its roots in Rome itself. Bauer suggests that the writings attributed to Clement of Rome support this idea: that Rome held the authority within the orthodox tradition from the late first century.

Whilst I have mentioned elsewhere that the big picture of Roman authority cannot be traced back beyond the fifth and sixth centuries, here I would like to briefly address the question of using Clement in support of an argument of early Roman primacy. I believe it is a suggestion that falls down quickly in face of the evidence, and indeed, exposes the truth of where Christians can look to authority.

1 Clement: Roman authority over Corinth?

The first extant epistle attributed to Clement of Rome dates from approximately 96 AD. 1 Clement is addressed to the Church in Corinth – and sent, in the hands of the messengers Claudius Ephebus, Valerius Vito and Fortunatus, from the gathered Church in Rome.

Clement has written to the Corinthians because of a dispute that has arisen among them. The church in Corinth had ejected its elders, and installed new leadership, despite the faithful and wise service of their former presbyters. This has led to a bitter division in the church, and 1 Clement is written to encourage a Gospel unity predicated on their shared salvation in Christ.

It is worth noting that the assumption that the leader of the church in Rome commanded authority over the Corinthian church because of this letter is questioned by the first line. The letter is addressed, as mentioned above, not by Clement himself, but from “the [colony] of the church of God at Rome”. It is a letter from one local church, one family of believers, to another.

More so than this: there is a continual and clear tone throughout the letter. There are not stark commands to submission, or indications of pulling rank or setting the standard. Instead there are gentle, and indeed hard, admonitions to love one another in the truth. As I discuss below, this is a letter not grounded in the authority of Rome, but in the authority of Scripture.

Indeed, the letter continues in a shared tone of submission not to one another, but to God Himself. The encouragement is clear (9) – “Let us bow then, to that sovereign and glorious will. Let us entreat His mercy and goodness, casting ourselves upon His compassion.” The letter urges the Corinthian church to join with their Roman brothers and sisters in submitting to their Heavenly Father, and ultimately to throw off the quarrels and rivalry that have arisen. There is a clear humility with which this letter is written, and the idea of exaltation above the flock is clearly refuted (16): “Christ belongs to the lowly of heart, and not to those who would exalt themselves over His flock.”

This letter is written in a gracious style; hard and clear yes, but not overbearing or authoritative in and of itself. It is a collegiate missive, from one church to another. It is a partnership across the Empire – “dear friends” are repeatedly addressed, and the language of “we”/”us” is used as Clement encourages his brothers and sisters to strive as one. This is no vertical papal directive to a wandering church, it is a horizontal, loving correction from one church to another.

A Few Recent Scholarly Comments

In his introduction to his 1987 Penguin translation of 1 Clement, Andrew Louth writes (20) “Although Clement does not write like a Pope exercising his extraordinary jurisdiction, maybe a step had already been taken in that direction.” This seems to me, misguided. To suggest that the evidence points away from a papal authority, then question whether, regardless, such authority exists, seems erroneous. And more recent scholars would agree.

In their excellent rebuttal of the Bauer thesis, The Heresy of Orthodoxy, Michael Kruger and Andreas Köstenberger address the importance of Rome in the early years. “When one compares the tone of 1 Clement to that of other letters from the same time period, it is evident that the letter did not aim to impose a theological position onto the Corinthian church but to persuade the Christians there to accept it.” (43-44). They note that there is no authoritative tone, no imposition of Roman will. Louth, in his 1987 introduction, overlooks this point.

The letter came from Rome, but this does not mean it automatically carries with it a Roman authority. To read fifth/sixth century authority back into the first century is to commit the very crimes Bauer accuses those who argue for a consistent orthodox position throughout the Early Church period of embracing. 1 Clement simply does not add to the argument of an early Roman authority.

Clement’s true source of authority: Scripture

Instead 1 Clement clearly shows the reader, both ancient and modern, where the authority for their letter resides. It is found in Scripture.

Continually, Scripture is used to illustrate the points made. Scripture is used to reveal sin, to call the Corinthian Church to repentance, to offer a reminder of the truth of the resurrection, and much more. The divinely inspired pages of Scripture offer the basis of authority in this letter.

(28) “Since there is nothing He does not see and hear, let us approach Him with awe… so that we may find shelter in His mercy… As it says in the Psalms…” Time and again this letter appeals to God, and His word, not to human authority.

Because this authority is total. The above quote goes on to cite Psalm 139.

“Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”

It is God’s authority that is total and complete, no Bishop or Pope or Church has authority over God’s people, and there was no sense of papal authority in 1 Clement. Instead, this letter appeals to The Authority, to God Himself. To the God that is sovereign over all, sees all, knows and keeps all. A God worth submitting to. A God worth knowing.

‘Systematic exploitation’ and the freedom of Christ.

Image result for unbelievable tom holland tom wright

I recently watched the UnBelievable interview with Tom Holland and Tom Wright.

I enjoyed it immensely, and if you haven’t yet watched it, it’s a few years old but still an interesting conversation to listen in on.

One thing that stood out for me was the use of a particular phrase by the writer and historian Tom Holland. Holland claimed that the ancient world was built and sustained through the concept of what he called “systematic exploitation”.

Holland goes on… “the entire economy is founded on slave labour, the sexual economy is founded on the absolute right of free Roman males to have sex with anyone that they want anyway that they like. And, in almost every way, this is a world that is unspeakably cruel to our way of thinking.”

Holland’s comments reveal a cruel and oppressive nature in the ancient world, that, rightly, clashes with our own ways of looking at the world. This is not a blog post aimed at dissecting why it is we are so uncomfortable with such behaviour, though for a timeless book on such questions, I would recommend C S Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

The Oppression of Rome

Holland is speaking of Ancient Rome with these comments (he reflects them back to Greece as well – but his focus is the later ancient power). And the Rome he describes is the Rome in which Jesus lived and died, Paul wrote and travelled, and the Early Church was founded and grew. In the Italian peninsula alone, some studies suggest the slave population was around 3 million by 100 AD. Another study reckons between 5 and 6 million slaves empire wide by 260 AD. That’s nearly 15% of the entire imperial population, enslaved and oppressed.

Holland mentions the sexual oppression of the ancient world, and there was certainly a culture of manipulation and abuse in this regard. Prostitution, adultery and paedophilia were commonplace in the Roman world, some thought of as respectable, some regarded as crass. Little of it was considered wrong or evil.

The ancient world was built on the systematic oppression of the poor, vulnerable, alien and needy. Much of what went on in Ancient Rome ought to repulse us. But this was the everyday world of the Early Church. Before they became Christians, respectable men and women would have viewed sex completely differently, would have happily owned other people for the simple sake of household chores and business matters, and would have turned a blind eye to the brothels, slave markets and sexually licentious drinking parties that they both walked past and engaged in.

Christianity in Context

Such a context ought to shock us when we read passages like these of Paul…

“The body… is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.”

1 Corinthians 6:13-17 (NIV)

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

Colossians 3:22-24 (NIV)

An open sexuality, prostitution and slavery were so commonplace in the ancient world. Let’s take these two cases in turn, because Paul has something to say about the oppression of Ancient Rome, and the way (and reason) Christians ought to respond to it.

Sexually: Christians must be different. Sex is God’s gift to mankind, to be wonderfully and joyfully embraced in marriage. Prostitution contorts this. It breaks this marriage bond, distorting God’s good gift into a broken thing. More than that, the Christian is now united not only with their spouse, but with Christ! The Christian is one with the Lord in Spirit. How could something so holy, pure and good be united with a prostitute? Paul is radical in this teaching. Prostitution isn’t a perfectly fine everyday occurrence, its a distortion of God’s pattern for relationships and the world, and the believer must flee from it. Paul speaks of the prostitute here too. Her body is united in sexual immorality. This is a concerned message. Prostitution, sexual licentiousness, it doesn’t just turn one person from a right view of and relationship with the Lord, it takes two. Paul is urging Christians to flee from this sexual oppression, for their own sake as well as the sake of those they would be oppressing.

Paul is just as radical with slavery. Elsewhere in Scripture, Paul urges masters to be kind to their slaves, forgiving them their errors and treating them justly. But here, Paul speaks to slaves themselves. Paul commands them to obey their masters, to work hard for them, as for the Lord. A radical teaching! It is not a command to flee their oppression, but rather to respond to it in gracious subservience. There is so much that could be said on these two passages, and both betray huge topics that must rightly be explored. But in Paul’s response, there is one unifying theme that stands starkly against the systematic exploitation of the Roman world in which he writes.

Freedom in Christ.

In the Roman world, freedom was a big deal. Paul repeatedly used his freedom as a Roman citizen as defence in Acts, and citizenship (as discussed in my earlier blog) was a big deal. But even such freedom came with the recognition that you were part of the Roman machine. You were subservient to the Emperor, the elites, the laws and cultural quirks of Rome. True freedom, taught the Early Church, is only found in Christ.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Galatians 5:1 (NIV)

Christ has set the believer free. Free from sin, shame, oppression and evil. Free from serving and doing what is wrong. Free from the final and ultimate punishment that our broken and sinful hearts deserve. Christ has set us free to live for Him.

“You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.”

Galatians 5:13 (NIV)

“Live as free men, but do not use your freedom to cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.”

1 Peter 2:16 (NIV)

The Christian in the Roman world, and the Christian today, is called to a wonderful freedom in Christ. But that freedom is a calling from a life of sinful slavery. So, urges Paul and Peter, don’t use your freedom to carry on as you were. Live different.

Paul urged men and women to live sexually pure lives, they are now free in Christ to pursue sex in its right place, in marriage. They are now free to show love to the oppressed by treating them lovingly, not abusively. And Paul commanded slaves to live humble, hardworking lives. Because they are free to do so. Free to honour their masters, submitting to them as though to the Lord, because they are free to live for Him. Knowing, as every Christian knows, that their freedom is eternal and far outlasts the cares and worries of this earth, no matter how great they may be.

The Roman world was built on a systematic oppression of minorities, the impoverished and the vulnerable. Christ’s Church is built of free men and women, of brothers and sisters born not of the same earthly parent, but won through the wondrous actions of Christ on the cross. The Roman world was never truly free. But in the Early Church, men and women were living truly free lives in the ancient world. Living different, living free.

Ignatius: Focussed on Unity

Ignatius was headed for his death.

And that is one of the first things we know for sure about him.

He’s another one of the Early Church figures about whom it is almost impossible to piece a biography together. Born in the early first century (c.AD 35) Ignatius rose to the position of bishop in Antioch, a church leader in one of the important Early Church centres.

His death came about in AD 107, as he was taken to Rome and executed for the charge of atheism. One of the most common charges levied against early Christians, atheism – denying the Roman gods – could be punishable by death, and for Ignatius, it was.

Traditionally Ignatius is seen as one of the disciples of the Apostle John, whether or not this was the case, it seems that he likely succeeded Evodius as the second or third bishop of Antioch. In this role, he spoke and wrote extensively against heretical divisions, sending letters to churches throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.

Quite why Ignatius was taken to Rome for his execution is unknown, when persecution arose Christians were normally punished locally by the imperial provincial authority. Despite this peculiar circumstance, we know he endured a long journey to Rome, where he then met his death. On his way to the imperial capital he wrote many of his extant letters and it is these that provide most of his legacy. Letters to churches in Ephesus, Magnesia and other cities throughout the empire have survived. His letters often dwell on the themes of unity, submission to church leaders and fellowship through the Lord’s Supper.

Ignatius sought to encourage a unity built around a mutual encouragement and growth in the Gospel. He spoke against those who would seek to divide the church through falsehoods and lies, and encouraged a united submission to the undershepherds Christ had raised up. His letters betray his primary concern as he went to his death in Rome: the faithfulness and unity of the Church. His letters urge his readers to “follow the lead of the bishops” to “take heed to often come together to give thanks to God” and to “revere the deacons” among many other commands. Ignatius has a picture of a global Church gathered in local churches; under the authority of local church leadership, serving and growing in the glorious Gospel of Christ.

Eventually he went to his death, and as with so many of the other Early Church martyrs, his focus in death as in life is a challenge to us all.

Let fire and cross, flocks of beasts, broken bones, dismemberment … come upon me, so long as I attain to Jesus Christ.”

Ignatius of Antioch

In death as in life, Ignatius looked towards and rejoiced in Christ. In his ministry he encouraged his flock to do the same, and in his own life he sought nothing more than to attain to Him.

His life reflects the words of Paul to the Philippians, written during Ignatius’ own lifetime.

“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

Philippians 1:21.

Paul, and a little later Ignatius, saw life as being rightly lived when it was lived for Christ. And death? With death comes the great reward for the Christian is to be united with Christ for all eternity. Ignatius reflected this Pauline ambition, to live in such a way that Christ was glorified, and to die with the wonderful and certain hope that today he would be with Him in paradise.

Was the Early Church Catholic?

One of the biggest confusions surrounding Early Church history is the term ‘catholic.’ Little ‘c’? Big ‘C’?

It was only a few months ago that I realised: I’d never stopped and thought about the point in time when ‘the Church’ became ‘the Catholic Church’.

Of course, the Catholic Church itself claims its ordination of papal authority in Christ’s designation of Peter as “the rock on which I build my church” (Matt 16:18). This blog doesn’t want to engage with the ideas of Catholic theology predicated on this verse – if that’s a question for you may I recommend one of the blogs below:

https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/where-did-the-pope-come-from


https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/why-dont-protestants-have-a-pope/

Rather, this blog is asking: was the Early Church Catholic?

One of the Pope’s titles is the Bishop of Rome. He is seen in Catholic belief as the one man with supreme authority over the Earthly Church. Such authority, however, only arose in the fifth century. Up until then, the Bishop of Rome was merely another high ranking Church official writing and speaking into Church debates of the day. Other notable episcopal sees included Antioch and Alexandria, indeed, the Coptic Church places its papal authority in the Alexandrian see in a manner not dissimilar from those of the Roman Catholic tradition. (See my recent blog on Clement for an example of how Alexandria was a major centre of Christian teaching and learning.)

For the first few centuries of its existence then, the Church was not Catholic. But it was catholic. Or at least, it strove to be. Groups of Christ followers meeting together as small parts of the universal body of Christ here on earth. It’s why we still use ‘catholic’ in our creeds today and why we can partner with Christians all over the world in prayer and mission.

Often we approach the Early Church with the fear that we are really studying the Catholic Church, and the possibility of learning in a conservative evangelical context is simply impossible. We musn’t let the terminology of ‘catholic’ put us off for the wrong reasons. Many of the so-called Church Fathers ( such as Justin or Polycarp), who are claimed as Catholic saints and teachers, were writing simple Gospel truth for their peers.

Whilst many later teachings of the Catholic Church are hinged on an interaction with and interpretation of the writings of these Early Church Fathers, the reality is there was no Catholic Church when they were writing. Rome was not the authoritorial centre of the Christian world. In AD 312 the Emperor Constantine legalised the Christian faith, but even after this it took over a century for Rome to come to the fore. We must not fear these formative years of the Church. Because there is so much we can learn from godly men and women who lived out their faith under the Roman Empire. Nor must we surrender the writers and writings of this period because of the terminology with which we discuss them in the twenty-first century.

The word ‘bishop’ is another that can confuse us. But this again is a simple matter of language and terminology. The word comes from the Greek, ἐπίσκοπος; which literally means overseer or supervisor. We find that Paul uses the word many times, notably in his description of the overseers Timothy ought to select to help lead the church in 1 Timothy 3:2. The bishops we see in this early period of church history are not the lofty ceremonial positions we have today in many denominations. They were pastors, elders and church leaders. Some, such as those of Rome or Alexandria, had significant power or authority, but more often than not they were humble figures leading small Christian communities.

Bishop Ignatius of Antioch wrote a letter to the church at Smyrna in the early second century, in it he wrapped up the ideas of bishops, ‘catholic’-ness and the church in one another.

“Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.”

Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8.

Whilst he uses the language of bishops and catholic churches, he is mirroring the picture of Biblical church order. An overseer (or overseers), leading a body of believers, under the authority of Christ, as a local part of the wider Church of Christ. A beautiful picture of the church as ordained by Scripture.

This is the terminology we use to discuss the Early Church.

So we shouldn’t be scared of the Early Church. We should recognise their sinfulness and their error. But there is also a lot we can learn from reflecting on the Early Church as they sought to live for the Gospel in the Roman world.

Find out more on why we should bother with the Early Church.

Polycarp: Christian Leader and Martyr

The agora of Smyrna, where the charge against Polycarp was read out.

My pastor recently opened his sermon with the story of Polycarp, the second century Bishop of Smyrna. It’s a story I’ve come across many times in my studies, and used in research papers on anything from Early Christian community organisation to evangelism in pagan urban environments. But I’ve never focussed in on the story itself, and it’s a gripping tale of a man standing fast for Christ in the face of persecution. A version of the story is preserved in the eponymous text, the Martyrdom of Polycarp. So this blog is going to be a bit different, focussing in on the story of Polycarp, who he was and what happened to him.

The  Martyrdom of Polycarp was written around 160 AD and provides our earliest account of a Christian martyr outside the New Testament. The text tells the story of Polycarp’s martyrdom: his arrest, trial and death, from the point of view of an eye witness. This witness tells us that he is writing his work so that we might see how Polycarp lived out the Gospel in his death.

So what happened?

Polycarp, an old man well into his 80s, was a key church leader in the Roman city of Smyrna. Though almost none of his teaching survives directly to us, the one letter we have, a missive to the church at Philippi, shows a pastoral man, humble and direct. He was a respected leader, both in his own time, and also in the centuries to come.

Born in AD 69, he was killed in 156.

Polycarp had heard the news that the Roman authorities were coming for him. But he did not run, seeing it better that he submit to the authorities God had placed over him. When friends urged him to flee, he calmly replied “The will of God be done” and waited for the inevitable.

Whilst he was resting in the country house of a good friend a short way out of the city, the soldiers arrived. Having tortured two slave boys for the location of the aged bishop, the soldiers rode out to the house and confronted Polycarp.

His response amazed them. He willingly submitted to them, but in a remarkable show of grace and humility, Polycarp fed and watered his captors, asking that he be given a few hours to pray alone before they took him away. The soldiers relented, giving him his time alone, and we are told that his humble kindness so amazed them that some began “to repent that they had come forth against so godly and venerable an old man.”

Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?

Polycarp.

After he had prayed, the soldiers led him into the city and took him before the Roman proconsul. Here Polycarp was defiant. The proconsul, a senior Roman figure and the imperial authority in the region, demanded that Polycarp recant his faith. He demanded that Polycarp “swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, away with the Atheists.” He pressed him, offering him his freedom and indeed, his life, if only he would recant his faith.

Polycarp could not. He looked at his captors and he declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

In this act of defiant faithfulness, Polycarp signed his own death warrant. The proconsul continued to press him. The Martyrdom of Polycarp records the trial suffered by the old man. After being pressed hard, the old saint would not relent, and eventually, the proconsul sentenced him to death. The charge that was read to the people? “Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian.”

Polycarp was taken to a pyre, put against a stake, and burned to death. The  Martyrdom of Polycarp describes how he prays as the flames surround him, and it says the smell was not like burning flesh but the beautiful aroma of a loaf baking. Polycarp was ready to go to His Lord and be forever with Him.

The death of Polycarp was religious persecution. State persecution. The charge was Christian faith, denial of the Roman gods and the divinity of the emperor. The story of Polycarp is a picture of humility, grace and faithfulness. At the end of it all, Polycarp considered his God worth everything he had. Even his very life.