The First Epistle of Clement is a very important early Christian letter. The letter was probably written in the late first or early second century, which makes it one of the earliest Christian writings outside of the New Testament.
Traditionally, the letter is attributed to Clement of Rome, although his name does not appear in the letter. Instead, the letter itself says that it is from “the church of God living in Rome” (1 Clement 1:1). Similarly, the letter is written to “the church of God living in Corinth” (1 Clement 1:1).
So, why did the believers in Rome write to the believers in Corinth? Apparently, some people in the church in Corinth had decided to longer recognize the elders in the church in Corinth. While there are many interesting questions that we could discuss in this letter, I was intrigued by a certain passage dealing with the elders themselves.
In a description very similar to Luke’s own in Acts 14, the letter describes how the apostles helped the churches appoint or recognize elders after they had been “tested” or “approved”. But, what happened after the apostles left the scene? Was there some kind of succession, where one elder or group of elders would then appoint those who would follow them?
This is what the First Epistle of Clement says:
Therefore, we do not deem it right to throw away from service those appointed by them [that is, the apostles] or later by other accountable men along with the approval of the whole church, that is, those who also blamelessly served the flock of Christ with humility, peace, and a disinterested spirit, that is, those who have been well spoken of by all for a long time. (1 Clement 44:3 – author’s translation)
According to this passage, at the time this letter was written, elders had been appointed (or recognized) by the apostles, and later, after the apostles left the area or after the apostles had died, elders were also chosen by “accountable men”. Interestingly, the phrase “along with the approval of the whole church” goes with both “by them [the apostles]” and “later by other accountable men”. Thus, both the apostles and later accountable men only “appointed” or “recognized” elders with the approval of the whole church.
Also notice what these elders are known for: 1) for serving the flock; 2) humility, peace, and a disinterested spirit (this is a difficult term to translate), and 3) a long, long experience with the church such that all have spoken well of them for a long time.
I wonder how elders and churches today would be different if elders were known for these same qualities.
By the way, according to the reasoning of 1 Clement 44:3 there would be reason to unacknowledging someone as an elder (or whatever you want to call it) if that person was not approved by the whole church, if that person was not humble or peaceable, or if that everyone had not spoken well of them for a long time.