the weblog of Alan Knox

Clement on the appointment of elders

Posted by on Jul 21, 2009 in church history, elders | 9 comments

For my dissertation, I’m studying many of the writings of the early church fathers. One of the earliest Christians writings (apart from the New Testament) is 1 Clement, which was probably written just before 100 A.D.

In this letter, Clement writes to the church in Corinth because he has heard that the church has decided to “de-appoint” (?) all of their elders. Interestingly, Clement appears to use the words for “elders” (presbuteroi) and “bishops/overseers” (episkopoi) interchangeably, unlike Ignatius who favored a three-tiered hierarchy (one bishop, many presbyters, many deacons) and who wrote his letters about 10-20 years after Clement. (See my post “The bishop, the presbyters, and the deacons, oh my!” for more information about the different views of leadership in the early church.)

But, there is an interesting passage in 1 Clement 42:1-4 related to the “appointment” of overseers (or elders, since Clement uses both words). This is my translation (here is another translation):

The apostles proclaimed good news to us from the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was sent by God. Christ [was sent] from God, and the apostles [were sent] from Christ. Therefore, both came about in an orderly way according to the will of God. Therefore, after receiving instructions and after being convinced by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and after being confident in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Spirit, they went out proclaiming the good news that the kingdom of God was about to come. Therefore, while proclaiming from area to area and from city to city, they were appointing the first-fruits after testing (approving) them by the Spirit, to be overseers and deacons (servants) of those who were about to believe. (1 Clement 42:1-4)

There is some similarity between this passage and Acts 14:21-23 –

When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:21-23 ESV)

However, there are some differences also. In the 1 Clement passage, Clement seems to write about apostles in general, while Luke writes specifically about Paul and Barnabas in the Acts passage. Clement uses different terms (i.e., the terms for “overseers” and “appointed”) than Luke (i.e., the terms for “elders” and “appointing”). (Note, although both terms are transalted “appoint”, they are different Greek terms.)

So, Clement is probably not quoting from the Acts passage, although he may be commenting on a common recollection or story handed down from others. If this is the case, then perhaps the two passages together (Acts and 1 Clement) demonstrate that the practice of appointing elders/overseers fairly soon after new churches were formed was common during the early period of the church.

In the Acts passage, Paul and Barnabas are appointing elders on the return trip to Antioch at the end of their first missionary journey. Thus, only a few months (or perhaps weeks) had passed since they first proclaimed the good news in some of these cities.

Similarly, in the Clement passage, the apostles (customarily) appointed overseers from the among their “first fruits”, that is, from among the first people to hear and recieve the good news. However, in this passage, sufficient time has passed that the apostles and/or church could recognized that they had been “tested” or “approved” by the Spirit.

Also, in both passages, it seems that elders/overseers were appointed from among the church in a particular city. There is no indication in these passages that elders/overseers were brought in from other cities or regions.

Finally, in both passages, we see that the apostles were cognizant of the fact that it was truly God who “appointed” elders/overseers. In the Clement passage, it was the Spirit who “tested” or “approved” those appointed. While in the Acts passage, Paul and Barnabas “committed them to the Lord” with prayer and fasting.

Thus, while Clement is probably not quoting from Acts, his understanding of how elders/overseers were appointed (or recognized, depending on your perspective) aligns very well with Luke’s account in Acts 14.


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 7-21-2009

    This line of posts is vital. We don’t see local congregations hiring professionals from outside of the area, we see them appointing men from within their own local congregations. If it was the right method back then without access to the vast training resources we have today, why is that same method not even better in the contemporary church?

  2. 7-21-2009


    I hope someone answers that question.

  3. 7-21-2009

    Thank you for the post. I agree with the above comments. It is obvious that Paul has simpler requirements (primarily moral, but also in the way of ability to handle God’s Word) than we usually have for eldership. This gave him the ability to pull from those who were among the local church, rather than pulling from outside as we feel a necessity to do.

    Thanks again for the informative post.

  4. 7-21-2009


    I think it has something to do with a different understanding of elders/pastors. Today, many see elders/pastors as professional vocations, much like that see lawyers or doctors.


    I tried to answer. I don’t agree with that answer, though.

    Debtor Paul,

    Yes, much simpler and also much more important, I think. The church doesn’t need educated professionals. The church needs mature examples.


  5. 8-2-2009

    If I may share,

    By all means I support what you’ve stated in the thread, Brother Allan. But on the issue, I was curious as to what your thoughts would be on this… I thought your article was excellent/posted it toward some of my brothers/sisters in the Christian camp known as “Eastern Orthodox”—and as one man said:

    The first church met at Peter’s Mother in Law’s house. Jesus was the Pastor. After Jesus was crucified, they met in an upper room in Jerusalem. Then on the feast of Pentecost they took it to the streets. There was a hierarchy where Peter was the leader of the choir of the apostles, Peter, James and John, had a unique proximity to Jesus, the twelve, minus Judas were next in honor, then Matthias got voted in, (but this seems to have been in disobedience to the command of Jesus, which was to do nothing until after the Holy Spirit descended, and the election of Matthias took place before Pentecost).

    Even prior to this there were the witnesses to the resurrection – as many as 500 at one, and also those who were baptised on the feast of Pentecost – 3000 souls. The Gospel then spread to Antioch and the need for a common message was apparent. What to do?

    Well, you’d better have elders who know the whole story looking after those in the faith. Fortunately, that was easy, because there was an established hierarchy nobody questioned, as per above. What you wanted to call any of these people doesn’t really matter. There was a need that needed to be filled, that the Truth be proclaimed without change – what those had seen with their eyes, heard with their ears, touched with their hands, and knew.

    We see then that Timothy and Titus were appointed by Paul to appoint elders in every city who would oversee them, but we don’t see a special distinction for a class of people known as “bishops.” This is because the process of oversight and shepherding belongs to all of the elders of the church, beginning with the already understood hierarchy – as per the above. And while this is taking place, there is still an expectation that the Lord will return very soon. Jerusalem hasn’t even been destroyed by the time that Paul’s letters have all been written. James seems to have manned the fort there – the original patriarchate, while Peter, Paul and Barnabas and others starting using Antioch as their missionary launching (and probably training) center. All of his journeys started and ended in Antioch except his last.

    It may be inferred from this that there was always an established leadership in Antioch. Such would have been necessary for the responsible shepherding of the church. Then in 70 AD when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans there was a mass exodus of Christians. Paul and Peter were already dead. Many of the other apostles had also already been killed. Rome was not as developed a center of the Christian faith as Antioch at that time. And despite Paul’s work there, neither was Corinth.

    Corinth had been visited by a number of great missionaries. Unfortunately, we do not have a third epistle to the Corinthians so we could see who Paul would have been greeting. Instead, we see that Paul was planning a third trip there at the time that he wrote 2 Corinthians. This means that Paul did not believe the community was sufficiently developed to have an overseer of its own. There were elders there. But he felt the community needed more growth and maturity. The fact that this was so, is evidenced from Clement’s epistle, where there continued to be seditions and divisions.

    This is why there is a difference between the epistles of Ignatius and Clement. Clement writes to the presbyters because all bishops were presbyters. It is not known whether there was a bishop in Corinth that was deposed at the time Clement wrote or whether the common term used for overseers that was given in the not yet matured Church referred both to the elders (who were the Christian priests) and to the bishops, or just to the elders alone, who were still in formation.

    Jerome says that the first bishop of Corinth was Apollos. It seems, however, that neither Paul nor Apollos were able to properly convey the unity of the Spirit. When they received the Spirit they acted immaturely and selfishly. If Apollos came back after Paul left, Jerome’s theory could be correct. He would no doubt have been instructed in the baptism into Christ by then. But to rely on Jerome, who wrote in the fourth century for that information leaves the tradition about Apollos being bishop dubious.

    Who would have had this information, however, is Hegesippus, who visited Dionysius of Corinth around 160 AD, who was clearly the bishop there at that time. Hegesippus was from Palestine and chronicled who the bishops were in every city from Jerusalem to Rome, tracing the missionary history of each to the apostles, speaking personally with all their bishops. I call him a chronicler rather than a historian. But to give Jerome credit, I should mention that he did have access to the work of Hegesippus, as did Eusebius, who was a genuine historian, and Rufinus, but more importantly Ephiphanus, who predated Jerome and was contemporary with Eusebius – see

    All of this is to say that Jerome may have had more to go by than just a hunch taken from the Bible. Oh, how I wish that we all had access to Hegesippus’ original work and not just the fragments we get through these later writers. But at least we do have some parts in more than one language and enough to piece together some amount of reliable info.

    Apollos was a Jew from Alexandria, a disciple of John the Baptist, and probably one of the seventy. To call him a “bishop” is maybe less accurate, since that makes him an apostle, though many see these terms interchangeably too in determining apostolic succession. So anyway, we look next to see who was bishop between Apollos and Dionysius because that is where the point in question is. And what the historical record provides is …

    The Apostolic Constitutions identify Aquila, along with Nicetas, as the first bishops of Asia (7.46). This is a general area that goes well beyond Corinth itself. Eusebius says that Dionysius of Athens (the Areopagite – see Acts 17:34) was the first bishop there (4.7) but doesn’t mention any other early bishops in Corinth in a lineage, but does quote Hegesippus, saying

    “The Corinthian church continued in the true doctrine until Primus became bishop. I mixed with them on my voyage to Rome and spent several days with the Corinthians, during which we were refereshed with the true doctrine. On arrival at Rome I pieced together the sucession down to Anicetus, whose deacon was Eleutherus, Anicetus being succeeded by Soter and he by Eleutherus. In every line of bishops and in every city things accord with the preaching of the Law, the Prophets and the Lord.”
    (Hegesippus: Eusebius – Ecc. Hist. 22.4)

    We can see here that Primus was bishop prior to Dionysius so we have something before 165, when Dionysius became bishop of Corinth. We just don’t have the list itself. We do know that Dionysius had the Epistle of Clement and both Primus and Dionysius were elderly. So that if Clement wrote around 95 A.D. and Primus was bishop for any more than ten years and you’ve got to be fifty to qualify, he was living at the time the epistle was written. So to suppose he would have no knowledge of who the bishops were to tell Hegesippus about it requires some anti-episcopal prejudice.

    From here I could take you to the other side of prejudice, which accepts as faith the lineage of the Orthodox dypthics, if I had access to them. It is not impossible that these do carry the authentic lineage passed on by Hegesippus. If you are interested you can contact the current diocese of Corinth.

    None of this means there either was or was not a bishop in Corinth when Clement wrote. Lots of cities were without bishops at various times. Rome was without a bishop for a period in which Cyprian wrote them after Fabian died and before Cornelius was selected. The election of Cornelius at that time is described by Cyprian in detail. Cyprian, a bishop in Africa (Carthage) gives no indication that the selection of a Roman bishop was different than anywhere else. The bishops were normally selected from the local elders (Christian priests) in agreement with the entire community. There reason there is much discussion of it is that it was contrasted with the way that a certain Novatian had attempted to take the episcopacy of Rome by force.

    All of that is a hundred and fifty years after Clement’s epistle, but says, Cyprian, these were the same ways of doing things they had always been from apostolic times – in other words, the bishops were selected by the existing overseers in agreement with those in the wider cities.

    That there was agreement in wider cities is an important concept. The Church saw itself as united in all places as the body of Christ. Other cities didn’t rule, but we can see letters sent by Cyprian to Supremus, bishop of Salamis, as an example. The church sent out letters through acolytes and communicated as best it could.

    Anyway, let me cut this post short and say with respect to house churches that every family has a head. That is the husband. And clans and colonies also had organization and leadership. But the real proof of leadership was inherent in the ongoing and consistent testimony of faith, and the ability to lead was recognized by the sheep, who knew the voice of the Good shepherd, and probably could discern the good voice of the local pastor, so would not be in want of discerning the good voice of the pastor of pastors, the overseers which we later, if not earlier, distinguished with the term bishop, as it came to be understood, or was always understood in the Orthodox Church.

    That means that house ministires are possible, but they should never take place outside of any bishopric. In other words, the church needs to be in unity, and it should not be without accountability through its overseers, which are connected to the whole church, not just some fragment of a branch that is only loosely connected to the whole history of the united body of Jesus Christ.

    Yes, he also describes Jesus as the “overseer of our souls” (1 Pet. 2:25). These are the verses that I show back to the anti-traditionalists who point out that one of the responsiblilies of presbyters was to oversee – hence in their minds all elders were bishops, and the old traditional pastors of local churches but no one overseeing them but Christ alone.

    The new (Protestant) tradition (now a few centuries old) is the idea that pastors serve local churches in buildings where there are somewhat large congregations. Now let’s face it – most count their “success” in terms of numbers of souls they oversee. And they measure that by attendance and giving, which equates to “size matters”.

    So going back through Christian history, which initially took place under intense persecution, house churches were the norm. So if there was a “pastor” for these, the pastor did not actually oversee every house. There must have been some delegation of that authority to a wider group of elders over a general area. And if a city was large, having suburbs and outskirts, it would require many overseers to manage the house churches, and other secret catacomb/grave site meeting spots, as well as relations with the non-Christian communities and with each other so that the Gospel could be shared from city to city.

    Practically speaking this type of communication required an association among the believers. But any good association requires spokespeople and concensus communication so that the truth is shared from community to community, that all of the communities may be of one mind – as was the tradition of the Holy Spirit in the church. And all of this is to say that it is inevitable that an overseership of the innercommunities communicating with the broader communities both from suburb to suburb and city to city required agreement and oversite – in short, the role of a city or regional bishop or archbishop, not excluding the roles also of metropolitans. We thus have a situation that demands what actually happened in Christian history. And in those times when the persecutions were diminished or let up, and where even church building were able to be built, this basis for communication both within and abroad, would have remained.

    But you want to go back to a house church concept, and I think that is a good idea because, for one thing, large churches rob us of those interpersonal relationships that characterized the early church, with a heart-felt love and understanding of one another – where they would more personally share one anothers burdens and joys. I enjoy a good liturgy, but as it pans out and to get real the social hall is the only place left where we actually fellowship and share after church. Families who have children that don’t want to spend any more time in church than is necessary don’t engage even in that (usually surfacy) fellowship. The concept of love of neighbor and brotherly love is lost as the performance of the liturgy dominates the religious experience and the quiet reverence in the sanctuary limits the experience of God to the vertical and to the windows (icons) of the saints – diminishing relationships among that part of the church that currently has a body.

    In my opinion, the house church concept is not incompatible with the episcopal concept as we see it in the EOC. And I have spoken with priests and bishops who are in agreement with me on this. However, there are also canons in the EOC that forbid meeting in houses. The intent of those canons is to prevent schizms and dissentions.

    In the RC Church across the street from my apartment they were advocating cell groups back when I was attending an RC seminary in the 1980s. And we did start some small fellowship groups in homes that were not opposed in any way to the general intentions of the bishop and the priests in our area, but on the contrary worked to do exactly what these overseers wanted.

    We also engaged frequently in Cursillo. And among the Protestants there was Tres Dias, Walk to Emaus, and we joined the Protestants in Kairos ministry to prisoners. And we also had lay programs not just for CCD but three day retreats for youth. There were clerical overseers of all of these programs, but they were mostly run by the laity. And the congregations increased in quality, as well as quantity because of these “movements.” So none of this is pure theory to me. I have seen lives changed and church pastors (priests) express a lot of tear-filled gratitude.

    I had an interest in early church history and converted to Orthodoxy in 1991, having discovered a broader type of apostolic faith apparent. I have not seen as much of that type of community building I was enjoying as an RC prior to my conversion in the EOC. That is because in America the EOC is ethnic, because it is smaller, less evangelical, more xenophobic and leary of what they view as innovation. They are also more legalistic (at least in my own area – I am only speaking from personal experience here). As such, they would take a canon that prohibits meeting in houses and obey it blindly, failing to recognize, and possibly not care about, its spirit and purpose.

    To be honest, some people are not nice. Even us wonderful Orthodox Christians. Imagine that.

    But in a dialog such as the one we are having here, and ideally, those purposes can be shared among laity, read by clergy, discussed among them, tested by the Holy Spirit, and good things can happen – under their leadership – IF the Holy Spirit is really guiding us towards any such “movement.”

    The word “movement” is looked on with suspicion in the EOC. We are not into trends. We would like it if people could come to us and appreciate our tradition as it is – since it is already the confirmed tradition of the Holy Spirit. Then afterwards we can see where the Holy Spirit moves us. Any operation by individuals, with all of their good ideas, that is not in unity with the overseers and the whole church, really ought to be regarded as suspicious and schizmatic.

    So while not being opposed to the idea for all the reasons I’ve described, I would simply ask for sobriety on the issue of house churches, and also any of the other “movement” ideas that may seem exciting.

    Was curious as to what your thoughts would be on the issue….and my apologies if the comments is too long.

  6. 8-2-2009


    Wow… that was quite a comment. My response: I think the author is reading back into Scripture what happened later in history. No one is Scripture is called “bishop” of anything, and yet that’s the basis of the entire argument.


  7. 6-20-2010

    What were the antecedents of the early Christian offices? Were they Judean/Galileean Jewish, Hellenistic Jewish, Greek, or Roman in structure?

  8. 10-24-2011

    I am not convinced that the elders were appointed, as we do today, as much as they were recognized. Appointed to function as compared to being recognized for already functioning.

  9. 10-25-2011


    We also recognize those who are already teaching, serving, caring, and demonstrating a godly life as elders. We do not appoint either.