1 Clement of Rome mutual submission Apostolic Fathers

First Clement is one of the earliest surviving Christian documents that we have apart from those in the New Testament and possibly the Didache. The letter has traditionally been given the date of circa 95-97 which would make it contemporary with the Revelation. The last line of the letter identifies it as “The letter of the Romans to the Corinthians,” though some say the letter was written by Clement of Rome who is regarded as the first Apostolic Father.[1]

The letter from Rome is an “appeal for peace and concord” in the Corinthian church. As in the New Testament letters, in 1 Clement we see that jealousies had resulted in factions in the Christian community at Corinth (cf. 1 Cor. 1:10ff). It seems that a faction of younger men had deposed some of the church elders. 1 Clement draws heavily on Old Testament scripture, early Christian writings and traditions, as well as secular sources to make its appeal. One of its 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 that the word kephalē (“head”) is used in the letter in the context of mutual submission, and I want to show how the authors 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. A different translation of 1 Clement can be read 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 “a person in authority” in the New Testament. However, in original ancient Greek texts (that are not a translation from another language), including the New Testament, kephalē (head) rarely, if ever, has the metaphorical meaning of “leader”.

Kephalē is used in a number of different contexts in 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; Ign.Trall. 11:2). In 1 Clement, kephalē (head) is used 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. In fact, if “head” is inferred as meaning “leader” the sense of unity in this passage will be lost. Similarly, I believe that the meaning of some passages in Paul’s letters are lost when “head” is presumed to mean “person in authority” (e.g., Eph. 5:23; 1 Cor. 11:3).

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. The authors, however, do not go as far as Paul does in his teaching about body ministry. They seem to perpetuate social distinctions whereas Paul aimed to lessen the distinctions between the haves and have-nots and he aimed to lessen the potential for abuse that comes with power. 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 1 Clement was to resolve 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, most of the letter is addressed to andres adelphoi rather than using a more gender-inclusive phrase.[3] Unlike Jesus and Paul, the authors of 1 Clement were not champions of women. However, they recognised and honoured Bible women such as Rahab. They devote a chapter to Rahab and conclude with, “You see, dear friends, not only faith but also prophecy is found in this woman” (1 Clem. 12:8).

The authors also speak well of Christian women tortured for their faith, who they refer to as “Danaïds and Dircae” (1 Clem. 6:2).[4] 1 Clement 55:3 states, “Many women, being strengthened by the grace of God, have performed manly deeds [or, courageous deeds – andreia].” They then go 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. (Lot’s wife and Miriam are also mentioned in less flattering terms.)

On the other hand, the mundane instructions in 1 Clement concerning wives closely match the language of Titus 2:4-5. There is a concern about the social conventions of that time which meant keeping wives confined to domesticity (1 Clem. 1:3b). And the men are told to guide their women toward what is good. These “good” things are purity, gentleness, silence and, 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, 1 Clement holds husbands responsible for the behaviour of their wives.

The scope of 1 Clement is limited. The primary concern was for harmony and peace in the Corinthian church and, to that end, it encouraged mutuality and mutual submission among the men. It is apparent, however, that the authors 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 over a dozen 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 some verses in them are genuinely difficult to exegete.

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[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.
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.

First Clement mutual submission women church


The Martyrdom of Clement of Rome by Italian painter Bernadino Fungai (b. 1416) (Wikimedia)
A Christian Dirce by Polish painter Henryk Siemiradzki (b. 1843) (Wikimedia)

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