Monday, September 12, 2011

Reading 1st Clement: The Ideal and the Problem (1 Clement 1-4)

    Last week, we started to discuss the 1st Letter of Clement to the Corinthians, its context and my aims in this series. This week, I want to get into the letter itself and see what it has to say about what the problem was in the church at Corinth at the time of Clement.
    In some ways, Clement's opening is unusual. After the customary greeting and a cursory apology for not writing earlier, Clement begins his discussion with a picture of the Corinthian church's past which looks, I must confess, pretty idyllic. Here, Clement suggests, is a church in which justice, peace and good order reigned. Here, the Christian virtues of mutual submission and brotherhood controlled how church members interacted. Here we have, if we follow Clement's imagery, the return of the post-Pentecost church, transposed to a Gentile setting- at least, until the troubles began.

    This is a little odd, of course, because we do know something of the history of the Corinthian church. We know that Paul had enough problems with the Corinthian church that he felt he had to send two letters to them to get them back onto the right track. We know that the Corinthian church at the time of Paul was also torn by the same kind of division which Clement identifies in his own time. If that is so, just when was this idyllic past of the Corinthian church? What is Clement trying to accomplish here?

    Perhaps we can explain this discrepancy by suggesting that Paul's letters and visits eventually did do some good in Corinth and that a period of peace followed Paul's correspondence which lasted right up to Clement's time. At this time, the Corinthian church was at its most fruitful and zealous, but, eventually, as the new generation began to chafe under the oversight of the older one, the younger Corinthian Christians began to try to remake the church in their own image; thus, falling into conflict with their elders.

    Perhaps Clement is indulging in a kind of 'prince's mirror' in which he is trying to induce the very virtues which he assigns to the Corinthian church at a time when it distinctly did not have them. By setting out these ecclesial virtues, Clement may have hoped to provide the Corinthians with the vision of peace, justice and order which he wanted them to enjoy.

    Regardless of which theory to explain Clement's image of the Corinthian church before this crisis, he is clear about what the problem- church division. For whatever reason (Clement doesn't really say), the Corinthian church broke into factions, quarrelling and strife which caused all the marks of the ideal church which the Corinthian church to rapidly unravel. With the collapse of justice and peace, faith weakens, doing one's Christian duty falls by the wayside and individual Christians begin to go their own sinful way. The Corinthian church was rapidly de-constructing itself, to the horror of Clement and, one presumes, the rest of the Christian world.

    I'm not sure that we understand how visceral this Corinthian scandal must have been in Clement's day. In many ways, this kind of church division, while regrettable, is a rather common occurrence today. We have normalized church division to the extent that there are, literally, hundreds of thousands of Christian denominations, with more arising each year. One of the most common reactions to disagreement and conflict in many churches today is to split off form the 'unholy' segment of one's community. It is true that this is a peculiarly Protestant disease, but, really, if we look at it, even those churches which claim an adherence to a catholic ecclesiology have experienced church division as Orthodox and Anglicans split from the Roman Catholics and splinter groups which result perpetuate the division or divide anew.

    Furthermore, I don't think that church division ends only here with the division of a community or a communion. Can we see it in our modern propensity to church shop for a community which satisfies our theological, aesthetic or political tastes? Can we see it in our willingness to dismiss a Christian brother and sister as too 'liberal, or too 'conservative' or too 'moderate'? Can we see it in our assurance in our own sense of spiritual self-sufficiency which causes us not to share our real selves with the world? This is to say nothing about muttering about the diocese or the bishop or the denomination's paper. Whatever divides us or causes us to pull back from our fellow Christian, is that not an injury to the community? And am I not as great a sinner in this area as anyone else? Of course.

    Yet, we also aren't called to the opposite extreme of placing community ties so high on our priorities that we stamp out our individual conscience and discernment. There are times when the Spirit calls us to confront sin in our church and, at those times, we need the virtues of truthfulness and humility to lead us through the conflict which will result. But does conflict necessarily entail division? Does this conflict come from a moving of the Spirit or from our own sinful desire to dominate the opposition or even to set ourselves up as the authority in the church? I'm not sure it is very easy to know and that should call us to humility and patience as we discern the way forward. Unfortunately, neither humility nor patience are the strong suits of the modern church, even if they remain indispensable for a faithful church.

    But how did the Corinthian church break apart? What caused it to turn its back on its own ideals and to descend to chaos? That is the topic for the next post.


Anonymous said...

Nice discussion to start off your examination of the text. As to why Clement praises the Corinthians, I see the most likely explanation as what you called the "prince's mirror." He identifies the virtues they need the most and indirectly shames them with the fact that they are not even close to that ideal. It also prepares the read for what the letters going to be about. Paul does the same thing in 1 Corinthians 1:1-9. If all we had was that fragment, the Corinthian church would look pretty good.

Phil Snider said...

Thanks rmclevenger, for your comments. I'm still not sure. You could well be right.