In this short post I am going to look at another early Christian writing- there are a lot of them!
In this case it is a letter sent by St Clement, the bishop of Rome, to the Church in Corinth, which was seeing a renewal of the disruption which St Paul had to address. St Clement was made a bishop in Rome by St Peter himself – will we dare to say that he didn’t understand the Christian Faith, or had corrupted it? He died in about 99 AD, and so he must have been born between 35 and 45 AD, and would certainly have known the Apostles Peter and Paul.
In his letter he writes…
You did all things without respect of persons, and walked in the laws of God, submitting yourselves to them that have the rule over you, and giving the due honour to the presbyters that are among you.
This was how they had been living, submitting to the bishops and respecting the presbyters. But envy and strife had risen up because there were those who thought that they should have such ministries as if it was their right. After many words of advice and encouragement to repent and become humble, St Clement says…
It is therefore meet and right, men and brethren, that we should be obedient unto God rather than follow them that in pride and disorderliness are leaders of detestable sedition.
He instructs them to turn away from those who are promoting themselves, become obedient to those who have properly been given the ministry of bishops and presbyters in the Church. What does this teach us? Surely that the temptation to seek authority for ourselves in the Church is not new. But St Clement is clear that those who should be obeyed are those who have been set up in the Church by the Apostolic authority and not their own.
He warns them…
For we shall incur no slight harm, but rather a great danger, if we rashly give ourselves up to the wills of men who launch out into strife and sedition so as to estrange us from that which is good… For Christ belongs unto them that are humble, not unto them that exalt themselves over his flock.
Rather than following those who exalt themselves, St Clement instructs the Corinthians to do everything in order. And we cannot doubt that one who knew the Apostles, and was consecrated a Bishop by the Apostles, must surely know that order which the Apostles intended. He says…
We ought to do everything in order, whatsoever the Lord hath commanded us to do at the appointed seasons, and to perform the offerings and liturgies. These he hath not commanded to be done at random or in disorder, but at fixed times and seasons. But when and by whom he wishes them to be fulfilled he himself hath decided by his supreme will; that all things, being done piously, according to his good pleasure, might be acceptable to his will. They, therefore, who at the appointed seasons make their offerings are acceptable and blessed; for while following the laws of the Master they do not completely sin. For to the High Priest were assigned special services, and to the priests a special place hath been appointed; and on the Levites special duties are imposed. But he that is a layman is bound by the ordinances of laymen.
If we read this passage carefully we see first of all that the Church and her worship must have a divinely appointed order. Things are not to be done randomly and by all, but the offerings and liturgies of the Church are to be celebrated by those who have been chosen by God and at the appropriate times. Secondly we see that there is in the Church the High-Priest, who is the Bishop; there are the priests, who are the Presbyters; and there are the Levites, who are the Deacons.
More than that, there is also the layman who is also bound by his own proper order. When the Church is established in this divine order, St Clement teaches, then it will prosper.
This is an important letter. It is written in the first century by a man who knew the Apostles for himself, and was appointed a Bishop of Rome by St Peter. It is surely unreasonable in the extreme to ignore his words. Surely he, more than anyone else, would know how the Church was intended to be organised by the Apostles. And that organisation is clear- the Church is structured with Bishops, Priests, Deacons and Laity.
Indeed he adds…
Let each of you, brethren, in his own order, give thanks unto God, continuing in a good conscience, not transgressing the fixed rule of his ministry, with all gravity.
Here is a significant Christian leader from the first century speaking about the ‘fixed rule’ of ministry. This is surely the Apostolic Tradition. A layman should not act as a priest, nor a priest as a bishop. But together these orders of episcopate, priesthood, diaconate and laity form an harmonious whole. The true Church of Christ is surely found where this divinely appointed and Apostolic order has been preserved.