Tough Love for a Stubborn Church
"What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?" wrote Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth. With their internal squabbles, disorderly worship, false apostles,and sexual immorality, the Corinthian Christians earned the dubious honor of having their shortcomings immortalized in two New Testament letters.
Evidently, the problems in Corinth did not entirely go away. One of the earliest Christian writings we have outside the New Testament is another letter written to the divisive Corinthians, this time from a leader of the church in Rome in the generation after Paul.
The letter is anonymous and claims to be from the entire Christian community in Rome, but later Christians attributed it to Clement, a respected church leader who had apparently known Peter and Paul. For this reason it is called 1 Clement. It was probably written around A.D. 96, soon after a period of persecution during the reign of the emperor Domitian.
The Roman Christians knew what it was like to deal with problems in their own community and to suffer from the hostility of others. And they knew that, since the apostles were now gone, it was extremely important to hold on tightly to the apostles' legacy if Christians were to remain unified and strong in their faith. The church in Corinth needed to be reminded once again.
1 Clement shows us that the early Christians struggled with the same temptations we do—envy, selfishness, pride—and were sometimes in need of the same tough love from fellow believers.
The evil of envy
The discord in Corinth in the 90s apparently flared up when a group of young "impetuous and headstrong" would-be leaders ousted the older, respected leaders (according to Clement, who is our only source for knowing what was going on). Factions developed around the two groups, and angry outbursts and conflicts were tearing the church apart. Clement, writing on behalf of the Romans, responded with a plea for peace—not because he had authority over the other church, but out of the deep concern that one Christian community felt for its brothers and sisters in another city.
Quoting extensively from the Old Testament and from a few writings that eventually became part of the New Testament (such as 1 Corinthians), he encouraged the Corinthians to return to their holy calling and to "attend to what is good, pleasing, and acceptable in the sight of Him who formed us." Clement warned that division within the church is caused by envy, and Scripture shows what envy produces: Envy caused Cain to slay Abel, Joseph's brothers to sell him into slavery, Saul to pursue David. "Envy has alienated wives from their husbands … Rivalry and contention have overthrown great cities and rooted up mighty nations."
Clement's words were not those of a superior Christian to weaker ones: "We are writing in this vein, dear friends, not only to admonish you but also to remind ourselves. For we are in the same arena and involved in the same struggles."
In spite of the evils that envy causes, Clement reminded the Corinthians that the Lord always gives the opportunity for repentance to those who turn to him. Clement urged them to "be of humble mind, laying aside all haughtiness, and pride, and foolishness, and angry feelings … being especially mindful of the words of the Lord Jesus which He spoke, teaching us meekness and long-suffering."
At the time Clement penned his letter, the writings that eventually formed the New Testament were circulating among various churches, but they had not yet been collected into one book that Christians everywhere could read. Therefore the early church gave an important role to leaders who had known the apostles and been appointed by them (such as Clement himself, according to tradition) and who carried on the apostles' teaching. This was their link to what they knew was true.
In the Corinthian church, some of the leaders appointed by the apostles—or at least, appointed by other leaders who had been appointed by the apostles—were among those who had been kicked out of their ministry. This should not be, said Clement. Jesus and the apostles gave the church a certain structure of leadership for a reason. Just as God has created order and harmony in the universe, so he wants there to be order and harmony among his people. If a leader has been chosen by the community, has taught what is true, promoted peace in the church, acted with integrity, and earned the good opinion of others, how could it be right to remove him from his ministry? The godly leader is the one who is humble and Christlike, not the one who excaptions himself over others.
A plea for peace
For Clement this was not just a matter of church politics. These were issues that went to the heart of the church's message of salvation. Clement emphasized that we are not justified by our own understanding or religious devotion or good deeds but "by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men." But does this mean we no longer need to act in love? Not at all!
Because of all God has done for us and the future resurrection he has promised us, "let us hurry with all that energy and readiness of mind to perform every good work." There is no place in the church for selfishness or self-promotion. Christians should work together in harmony and peace as one body of Christ, serving each other humbly, knowing that all talents and blessings come from God.
Clement encouraged the young leaders in Corinth to repent of their rivalry and disruption that had discouraged so many within the church. And he urged the Corinthians to "pray for those who fallen into sin, that meekness and humility may be given to them, so that they may submit, not to us, but to the will of God. We must accept correction, dear friends. No one should resent it. Warnings we give each other are good and thoroughly beneficial, for they bind us to God's will."
The Corinthian church continued to read Clement's letter aloud during worship for many years. The letter was enormously popular throughout the ancient Roman world, even as far as Egypt and Syria, and was a great source of strength and guidance for early churches.
Jennifer Trafton is managing editor of Christian History & Biography. Diana Severance is an adviser for Christian History.
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