Reading Clement’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, one is reminded of the realness of early Christianity—a time period that is so revered, it almost becomes otherworldly. But this letter reminds us that humans are human and that pride and envy and ambition do not easily leave persons.
Clement himself refers to Paul’s letters to the Corinthian Christians, saying, “What did he [Paul] write to you at the time when the Gospel first began to be preached? Truly, under the inspiration of the Spirit, he wrote to you concerning himself, and Cephas, and Apollos, because even then parties had been formed among you.” Parties had also formed in Clement’s day, and he says that these new divisions were worse because they, through “sedition against [their] presbyters,” had diminished their reputation of brotherly love. Clement says, “And this rumour has reached not only us, but those also who are unconnected with us; so that, through your infatuation, the name of the Lord is blasphemed, while danger is also brought upon yourselves” (ch. 47). Clement grieves “that the most stedfast [sic] and ancient Church of the Corinthians” should so fail in its witness; therefore, he writes to call the Corinthians to repentance and to unity and to charity and hospitality.
The main theme of the letter is humility. Clement advises humility in light of their recent problems, saying, for example, “[B]e of humble mind, laying aside all haughtiness, and pride, and foolishness, and angry feelings” (13); “For Christ is of those who are humble-minded, and not of those who exalt themselves over His flock. Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Sceptre [sic] of the majesty of God, did not come in the pomp of pride or arrogance, although He might have done so, but in a lowly condition, as the Holy Spirit had declared regarding Him” (16); and
Seeing, therefore, that we are the portion of the Holy One, let us do all those things which pertain to holiness, avoiding all evil-speaking, all abominable and impure embraces, together with all drunkenness, seeking after change, all abominable lusts, detestable adultery, and execrable pride. “For God,” saith [the Scripture], “resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble.” Let us cleave, then, to those to whom grace has been given by God. Let us clothe ourselves with concord and humility, ever exercising self-control, standing far off from all whispering and evil-speaking, being justified by our works, and not our words (30, brackets inserted by trans./ed.).
Additionally he counsels: “Let a man be faithful: let him be powerful in the utterance of knowledge; let him be wise in judging of words; let him be pure in all his deeds; yet the more he seems to be superior to others [in these respects], the more humble-minded ought he to be, and to seek the common good of all, and not merely his own advantage” (48, brackets inserted by trans./ed.).
Throughout his chapters on humility, he emphasizes the tradition of humility and obedience, identifying the example of Jesus (16), first and foremost, but also of Noah (9), Abraham (10), Lot (11), Rahab (12), “Elijah, Elisha, and Ezekiel among the prophets” (17), and David (18), along with contemporary martyrs (5–6). The martyrs—Peter and Paul, in particular—according to Clement, were put to death because of “envy and jealousy.” It is striking to read the familiarity Clement had with the stories of various martyrdoms, reminding the reader of just how close to the time of Jesus this letter was written.
The latter third of the letter focuses on calls to obedience and unity in Christ as well as brother love. He writes, “Let us therefore, with all haste, put an end to this [state of things]; and let us fall down before the Lord, and beseech Him with tears, that He would mercifully be reconciled to us, and restore us to our former seemly and holy practice of brotherly love” (48). He also points out the love of Moses as an example for the Corinthians, saying that Moses, in Exodus 32, pleads for the people’s lives when God says that he will establish a new people with Moses (53). It is this sort of love that will preserve the unity and peace of the church (54).
He closes with a calls to responsibility between persons (56) and to submission on the part of the seditious ones (57). Clement next offers the following blessing:
May God, who seeth all things, and who is the Ruler of all spirits and the Lord of all flesh—who chose our Lord Jesus Christ and us through Him to be a peculiar people—grant to every soul that calleth upon His glorious and holy Name, faith, fear, peace, patience, long-suffering, self-control, purity, and sobriety, to the well-pleasing of His Name, through our High Priest and Protector, Jesus Christ, by whom be to Him glory, and majesty, and power, and honour, both now and for evermore. Amen (58).