by David W. T. Brattston
The Church of God which sojourns at Rome, to the Church of God sojourning at Corinth, to them that are called and sanctified by the will of God, through our Lord Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, from Almighty God through Jesus Christ, be multiplied.
So begins the First Epistle of Clement, which is used by Roman Catholics to argue that, even in the first century AD, the pope as embodiment of the church in the City of Rome possessed authority over all Christendom, even more than the Apostle John. Their argument runs that by going to Rome, the church at Corinth recognized Roman jurisdiction to settle its internal disputes, even more authoritatively than an apostle. The papalist theory presumes he was residing at Ephesus, which was geographically closer to it. Thus, the leadership at Rome possessed a wider jurisdiction than an apostle after Simon Peter died, and possesses this paramount authority up to the present day.
The essence of the dispute at Corinth was that some members of the congregation had deposed clergy in a line of ordinations stretching back to ones ordained by the apostles, and installed people more to their liking. The First Epistle of Clement exhorted them to rescind their action and restore the clergy in the apostolic succession.
The letter does not name any particular person as author, only that it was from the church at Rome.
It would appear from the Roberts-Donaldson translation (Ante-Nicene Fathers series) that the church at Corinth had sought Roman intervention about their internal dispute, thus implying that Corinth took the initiative, because Rome was the sole court of appeal, or supreme decision-maker of Christendom, or as a neutral third-party mediator voluntarily chosen by both sides in Corinth:
Owing, dear brethren, to the sudden and successive calamitous events which have happened to ourselves, we feel that we have been somewhat tardy in turning our attention to the points respecting which you consulted us; (ANF 1:5)
However, J. B. Lightfoot’s translation reads:
By reason of the sudden and repeated calamities and reverses which are befalling us, brethren, we consider that we have been somewhat tardy in giving heed to the matters of dispute that have arisen among you,
Lightfoot’s translation is without indication of how Rome became involved in a Corinthian dispute.
The translation in the edition of Kirsopp Lake for the Loeb Classical Library is likewise void of any suggestion that Corinth considered Rome as possessing an appellate or supervisory function.
The Wikisource translation (Charles H. Hoole) likewise does not contain any notion of the Corinthians having referred the dispute to Rome as an appeal court or arbiter:
On account of the sudden and repeated calamities and mischances, brethren, that have come upon us, we suppose that we have the more slowly given heed to the things that are disputed among you,
Indeed, Rome was not alone in hearing about the problem at Corinth:
“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.”
So why did Corinthians consult Rome, or listen to its opinion on the matter, in preference to the Apostle John, whom the papalist argument assumes was geographically closer to them? Actually, 1 Clement may have been written by him. According to the western church father Tertullian, John resided at Rome long enough to be detected as a Christian, escape death during a persecution, and then banished to Patmos. Speaking of City of Rome, Tertullian noted: “where Peter endures a passion like his Lord’s! where Paul wins his crown in a death like John’s where the Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island-exile!” Tertullian wrote this sometime between AD 198 and 207.
Merely sending a letter does not prove authority, let alone churchwide authority. It was not unusual or a sign of superior status that one church or bishop send letters instructing foreign churches in faith, discipline, and morals. Paul’s letter to Rome certainly does not imply that he was sovereign over the church there, to the exclusion of Peter or anyone else. The very existence of the letter of Polycarp and those of Ignatius (including one to Rome) a generation later evidence this as common fraternal procedure. Flourishing around AD 170, Bishop Dionysius of Corinth itself was particularly prolific in sending advice to other congregations on behavior and doctrine; here we have a bishop of Corinth writing a letter to the bishop of Rome. A decade later, Irenaeus in Gaul wrote many letters
“to the neighboring churches for their confirmation, or to some of the brethren, admonishing and exhorting them.”
That from Rome to Corinth thus does not indicate Corinth was subject to Roman supervision according to the constitutional structure of church government.
The letter contains no earthly threat as to what might happen if the Corinthians did not obey. The letter does not threaten to excommunicate for what was essentially ecclesiastical treason. The commissions of the legates in 65.1 did not include power to restore the wronged officeholders on the spot, nor did the originators of the 1 Clement purport to restore them. Given that the letter’s many and long examples as proofs and arguments for the value of order and harmony, it seems Rome was limited to persuading rather than commanding.
If we are to take the papalist arguments at their most reasonable, that Rome possessed jurisdiction to decide the dispute, it may equally have been that Corinthians had sought out Rome as a neutral third-party mediator voluntarily chosen by both sides in Corinth, and is no precedent for Rome as having jurisdiction regardless of the wishes of the local church. Such mediation, by a neutral third party selected by both contestants, was quite common in the first century (1 Corinthians 6:1-10), and is currently under a revival in secular law. Indeed, many commercial contracts today provide that disputes under them be submitted to arbitration, and allow recourse to the official courts only if the mediation fails. Secular laws have long recognized its decisions on credibility and the facts to be as binding as those of the regular courts, unless the arbiter makes an error in law that leads him to exceed his jurisdiction.
Just because they possess jurisdiction to hear appeals does not mean that courts and other tribunals are vested with all the powers of government, with the authority to hire and fire employees or set salaries in the legislative and executive branches. Still less may state courts interfere in politics or the legislative branch, such as firing mayors of cities or officials of the federal government. In the Anglo-American legal system, courts of appeal and lower courts may decide only the specific matters referred to them by the parties, and the parties establish the terms of the dispute; a court cannot act unilaterally in the absence of litigation brought to it from outside. Whatever jurisdiction the authorities at of Rome may have had as arbitrator or judge, it does not follow that they were the absolute and final authority in every office or branch of the universal church in which they unilaterally chose to intervene. Just because a churchman said something nice about the bishop of Rome or sought his advice does not necessarily mean that they considered him autocrat of all aspects of their lives. This is the difference between historic papal primacy in dignity and honor, and the papal purported supremacy over the whole church in all matters relating to judicial, legislative, and executive jurisdiction and control, including appointment of bishops.
If we grant that the procedure was one of voluntary mediation instead of hierarchical authority, and if John were not in Rome, one probable reason the disruption at Corinth would be referred to Rome could be that Aquila and Priscilla often travelled between the two cities (Acts 18:1-2; Romans 16:3; 1 Corinthians 16:19) and knew Christians in both of them, and could personally recommend the people at Rome as fair-minded and competent arbitrators, acceptable to both sides. Having been active in the Ephesus area (Acts 18:1-2; 1 Corinthians 16:19), they might have thought the Apostle John was not the man for the task—if indeed he was living in Ephesus at the time, and was not imprisoned at Patmos. John’s presence in Ephesus is also problematic because 1 Timothy 1:3 has the Apostle Paul put Timothy in charge there. Then again, this assumes that the Apostle John in the City was not the author of the letter, and that in old age he was vigorous enough to enter into the matter.
Known individuals in congregations in the New Testament age provide a simpler answer to the question as to why Rome wrote to Corinth, than in a jurisdiction not attempted to be exercised until the AD 180s, and based on a pedigree of successions not recorded until the same late date. Rome’s claim of authority or universal jurisdiction was not formally verbalized until after the middle of the third century. According to one papalist source, it did not happen until the Roman bishop Stephen (AD 254-257) sought to
“impose Roman doctrine on the whole Church. This first expression of universal authority in matters of sacramental doctrine provoked surprise and opposition,”
“The episcopacy of Stephen thus evidences the first rulings of a primatial jurisdiction.”
There are thus five alternatives to why Rome considered the case:
(1) judicial, resting on its unique status as successor of Peter,
(2) supervisory, on the same ground with a right to intervene in any congregation,
(3) quasi-judicial, as a mediator chosen by both rebels and the overthrown clergy,
(4) fraternal, on its own initiative as a concerned group of fellow Christians, or
(5) it acted not as successor of Peter but on the apostolic authority of John.
The first two rest on a hypothesis that was not evidenced in the post-biblical literature until over a hundred years later, has been disputed by non-Roman denominations for centuries, and involves tremendous consequences for all Christendom in the past and today. The third and fourth rest on the known custom of the early centuries and indications in the New Testament itself.
There is thus far too much doubt about the author, source of authority, and general custom of letter-writing in the ancient church on which to base the worldwide authority of a single bishop over all others to intervene in parishes and dioceses, and exclusive right to appoint and depose clergy everywhere, without being answerable to a human authority.
Published with the permission of the author