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.