Mutual Submission in Clement's First Letter

I read 1 Clement yesterday. This letter is one of the earliest surviving Christian documents that we have, apart from those collated in the New Testament and, possibly, the Didache. 1 Clement is thought to have been written by Clement of Rome who is regarded as the first Apostolic Father.[1] The letter has traditionally been given the date of circa 95-97 which would make it contemporary with John’s Revelation.

The last line of the letter identifies it as “The letter of the Romans to the Corinthians”. Clement’s letter from Rome is an “appeal for peace and concord” in the Corinthian church. As in the New Testament letter to the Corinthians, in Clement’s letter we see that feelings of jealousy in the church at Corinth had resulted in factions (cf. 1 Cor. 1:10ff). It seems that a faction of younger men had deposed some of the church elders. Clement draws heavily on Old Testament scripture, early Christian writings and traditions, and secular sources to make his appeal. One of his sources is Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

In this post I want to highlight just two points from 1 Clement. I want to show how Clement used the word kephalē (head) in his letter—in the context of mutual submission; and I want to show how Clement regarded women. I briefly compare these points with Paul’s use of kephalē and how Paul regarded women.

I read 1 Clement from The Apostolic Fathers, The Greek Texts and English Translations (3rd edition) edited and translated by Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007) 44-131. All quotes are taken from this edition. 1 Clement can be read in English online here.

Kephalē in First Clement

Many English–speaking Christians assume that “head”, apart from its literal meaning, has the metaphorical meaning of “leader” or “authority” in the New Testament. However, in original, untranslated Ancient Greek, including the Greek of the New Testament, kephalē (head) rarely, if ever, has the metaphorical meaning of “leader”.

Kephalē  is used in a number of different contexts in Ancient Greek. For instance, it can be used as part of a head–body metaphor which signifies unity (cf. Eph. 4:15-16; 5:23; Col. 1:18a; Trall. 11:2). In his letter, Clement used the word kephalē (head) in a somewhat similar way (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12ff):

Let us take the body as an example. The head without the feet is nothing, likewise, the feet without the head are nothing. Even the smallest parts of our body are necessary and useful to the whole body, yet all the members coalesce harmoniously and unite in mutual subjection, so that the whole body may be saved. So in our case let the whole body be saved in Christ Jesus, and let each of us be mutually subject to our neighbour, in proportion to each one’s spiritual gift. The strong must not neglect the weak, and the weak must respect the strong. Let the rich support the poor, and let the poor give thanks to God because he has given him someone through whom his needs may be met. . . . 1 Clement 37:5-38:1-2a.

This passage in 1 Clement is not about leadership or authority, even though the word kephalē (head) is used here. In fact, if “head” is inferred as meaning “authority” the meaning of this passage will be lost. Similarly, I believe that the meaning of passages in Paul’s letters are lost when “head” is assumed to mean “authority” (e.g. Eph. 5:23).

Rather than authority, this passage in 1 Clement is about mutual submission, unity and harmony in the Church. It’s also about helping the disadvantaged, the weak and the poor. Clement, however, does not go as far as Paul does in his teaching about body ministry. Clement seems to perpetuate social distinctions whereas Paul aimed to lessen the distinctions between the haves and have nots. Paul’s goal was equality (Gal. 3:26-28; 1 Cor. 12:13; 2 Cor. 8:14 NIV; cf. Acts 4:32ff).

The overriding aim of Clement’s letter was to resolve some issues about leadership in the church at Corinth; yet, nowhere in his letter is the word kephalē (head) used in the context of leadership.[2]

Women in First Clement 

The passage quoted above is addressed to “men brothers” (andres adelphoi) (1 Clem. 37:1). In fact, Clement addresses most of his letter to andres adelphoi rather than using a more gender inclusive phrase.[3] Unlike Jesus and Paul, Clement was not a champion of women; however, he recognized and honoured Bible women such as Rahab. He devotes a chapter to Rahab and concludes with, “You see, dear friends, not only faith but also prophecy is found in this woman” (1 Clem. 12:8). Clement also speaks well of Christian women tortured for their faith, whom he refers to as “Danaïds and Dircae” (1 Clem. 6:2).[4] In 1 Clement 55:3 he writes “Many women, being strengthened by the grace of God, have performed manly deeds [or, courageous deeds – andreia].” He then goes on to mention Judith (1 Clem. 55:4-5) and Esther (1 Clem. 55:6).[5] These women all have one thing in common: they were all heroic in the face of danger and were prepared to risk their lives. (Clement also mentions Lot’s wife and Miriam with less flattering terms.)

On the other hand, Clement’s mundane instructions concerning wives closely match the language of Titus 2:4-5. Clement seems concerned to keep to the social conventions of that time which meant keeping wives confined to domesticity (1 Clem. 1:3b). Likewise, he later tells the men to guide their women toward what is good. These “good” things are purity, gentleness, silence and, perhaps specific to the current situation of jealousy and factionalism, love without favouritism (1 Clem. 21:6b-7). In accord with the customs of the day, but quite unlike Paul, Clement holds husbands responsible for the behaviour of their wives.

The scope of Clement’s letter is limited. His primary concern was for harmony and peace in the Corinthian church and, to that end, he encouraged mutuality and mutual submission among the men. It is apparent, however, that he did not regard women as the equal of men, or as colleagues in Christian ministry. This is in contrast to Paul. The letters that Paul wrote to churches were not addressed to the men only. Women were included in instructions for mutuality and mutual submission (e.g. Eph. 5:21). Moreover, many of Paul’s ministry colleagues were women. Paul mentions many women by name in his letters and he sometimes addresses them personally or sends greetings to them.

1 Clement is an interesting read, albeit long–winded at times, as it gives us a glimpse into church life at the end of the first century, but, because of its male bias, I am glad that it was not included in the New Testament. On the other hand I am very glad that Paul’s letters—with his encouragement of mutual submission among all believers and support of women ministers—were considered inspired and authoritative, and were included, even if a few verses in them are genuinely difficult to exegete.


[1] The letter is anonymous and does not bear Clement’s name. Tradition, however, ascribes it to Clement who was bishop of Rome in 92–99 AD.

[2] Kephalē (head) is used in three verses of 1 Clement: “they shook their heads” 1 Clem. 16:16; “The head without the feet is nothing, likewise, the feet without the head are nothing” 1 Clem. 37:5; “let not the oil of sinners anoint my head” 1 Clem. 56:5. In 16:16 and 56:5 “head” is used literally, in 37:5 it is used metaphorically.

[3] “Andres adelphoi” is a formal way of addressing a crowd and does not necessarily exclude women, but it is an expression that does not intentionally include women. This expression is also used in several public speeches recorded by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles.

[4] Christine Trevett briefly explains Clement’s reference to “Danaïds and Dircae”:

The humiliation of arena victims was the norm and the crowd was entertained by having victims enact, pantomime-like, scenes from mythology. . . . In the case of the Danaïds, then, helpless Christian women may have been pursued by “suitors” or else forced to re-enact the punishment of Tartarus [filling bottomless barrels with water] . . . As for being like a Dirce, in the mythology, Dirce was wife to Lycus, king of Thebes, who had a slave girl called Antiope, a Theban princess.  Dirce treated her cruelly, but Antiope was avenged by the son she had had to abandon.  Dirce’s fate was to be tied to the horns of a bull and dragged to death as punishment for her cruelty. Christian victims did suffer a “dragging” in the arena, and this would be the point of [Clement’s] analogy.
Christine Trevett, Christian Women and the Time of the Apostolic Fathers (AD c.80-160): Corinth, Rome and Asia Minor (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2006) 52-54.

[5] The Greek word andreia is used in Proverbs 12:4 and 31:10 of the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) of both valiant and virtuous women.

Mutual Submission in Clement's First Letter

Image credits:
The Matyrdom of Clement of Rome by Fungai (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
A Christian Dirce, by 19th century Polish painter Henryk Siemiradzki (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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