Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

Mutual Submission in Clement’s First Letter

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.


Endnotes

[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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(1) Kephalē and Male Headship in Paul’s Letters
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Posted October 6th, 2013 . Categories/Tags: Church History, Equality and Gender Issues, , , , , , , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

24 comments on “Mutual Submission in Clement’s First Letter

  1. Kristen says:

    This is very enlightening! Thanks for your study and hard work on this. I also noticed that Clement had to use “andres adelphoi” to specifically mean “male brothers” as distinguished from just “adelphoi” which is “[gender inclusive] brothers,” or “brothers and sisters.” It does make me wonder about the people who are so up in arms about that word “adelphoi” in the New Testament needing to keep being translated “brothers” rather than “brothers and sisters.” Obviously if adelphoi meant “male brothers,” Clement wouldn’t have had to use “andres adelphoi.” Interesting that Paul didn’t use “andres adelphoi.” It sure didn’t take the church long to move away from Paul’s inclusive message!

  2. Marg says:

    Kristen: 1 Clement definitely has a male bias, but 2 Clement written a few decades later is much more gender inclusive and simply addresses readers as adelphoi. (The two epistles were not written by the same author.)

    In fact, 2 Clement chapter 12 is startling with its message of gender “equality”; or perhaps “neutrality” would be a better word (cf. Gal 3:28c)? Chapter 14 also has some interesting concepts regarding gender. I may post something about this sometime this week.

    Anne: Thank you; it’s my pleasure.

  3. Anne Vyn says:

    This is an excellent resource for a fuller understanding of “kephale”. Thanks for raising awareness to these writings.

  4. Heather says:

    Do you think that maybe he only addressed the men here because they were the ones causing the problems within the church he was writing to? Just a thought …

  5. Heather says:

    It is nice to see kephale being used in the proper context! More proof that The Lord loves and includes women .

  6. Marg says:

    Heather, even if the problem was only among the men it still doesn’t explain the androcentricity of the letter. However, some believe that women were part of the problem, or compounding the problem, by showing favouritism (1 Clem. 21:7b).

    I don’t think we can draw a strong conclusion about Clement’s use of kephalē but I did want to draw attention to it as I think it weakens the case that it commonly meant “authority”.

  7. Retha Faurie says:

    How sad, that the church moved away from the message of Jesus so quickly…

    Great work, Marg!

    “…let the whole body be saved in Christ Jesus, and let each of us be mutually subject to our neighbour…”

    Does Clement use the word “hupotasso” where the English is “be subject”? That will strengthen the case too…

  8. Marg says:

    Retha, yes, it’s the usual Greek word for submission: the cognate noun of hupotassō is used in 37:5, and the (3rd person singular present middle imperative) verb is used in 38:1.

    Polycarp (69-155), bishop of Smyrna, in his letter to the church at Philippi (10:2), writes similarly: “All of you be subject to one another . . .” This part of Polycarp’s letter only survives in Latin (and not in Greek) however.

  9. […] Clement was a very common Roman name in early church times. The Clement of Philippians 4:4 is almost certainly not Clement of Rome who was the bishop of Rome at the end of the first century. […]

  10. […] A few days ago Marg Mowczko’s Blog New Life had this to say about Clement’s use of the Greek word for “head” […]

  11. Dan says:

    I have read 1 Clement mostly for insight into the ecclesiology of the early church. A term that I sometimes use to describe relationships in the church is, “interdependent.” As Clement says (echoing Paul), the different parts cannot exist without each other. Separated they lack life and lack purpose, brought together they have being and function.

    A bishop, for example, is sometimes thought of as the head of a metropolitan group of churches. One meaning of this role is that he or she is the figurehead or sign of the Church’s unity. A second meaning is that he or she is responsible, on behalf of Christ, for making sure the parts of the body are nourished regularly, usually through the use of assistants or ministers. Here, the function of headship is unity for the sake of life and health. This is how I once heard Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago, describe his “job” to a questioner from the audience on the radio.

    Churches without bishops still need this unity to function. Mutual submission is one way unity is expressed and maintained for the sake of growth in these churches. I’m glad that Clement is so clear on this point, even if it seems that he was unable to accept biblical equality when it comes to women.

  12. Shannon says:

    Marg,

    I started to read this post, but stopped so I could look up 1 Clement in my Bible. I couldn’t find it in my Bible. I have several versions that I read, but this one is NKJV.

    Because I couldn’t find 1 Clement, I looked for it by searching the Internet. Eventually, I found a site that said the book was eliminated from today’s Bible because it is thought to be uninspired. The reason is thought to be uninspired is because Clement wrote of the mythical creature called a phoenix.

    I don’t know the context of this reference to the phoenix in his writing. Who knows Clement could have used the phoenix for some sort of figurative illustration! I know that there were probably a lot of political reasons for eliminating certain books from the current Bible that I not aware of.

    Could you share any background or history that will help me understand why this is a credible source? I love all of what you write and believe that you have high standards for the sources you use. Thus, I want to be clear that I am not making this request out of a lack of confidence in what you have written. I am making this request out of my own ignorance.

    Thanks!

  13. Shannon says:

    I found a great article discussing the meaning of “head” which supports what you are saying in this blog post.

    Here is the link: http://www.redletterchristians.org/really-men-are-the-spiritual-head-of-the-home/

  14. Marg says:

    Hi Shannon, Yes, 1 Clement is not part of the New Testament. (I allude to this in my opening paragraph.)

    There are numerous documents written by Christians that didn’t make it into the New Testament canon for one reason or the other. I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “credible”, but 1 Clement is a real letter sent to the Corinthian church sometime at the end of the 1st century. It is genuinely ancient and was known to the early church. It was probably written by Clement of Rome, but we cannot be 100% sure about this.

    I certainly make a distinction between the works in the Bible and those that didn’t make the canon. While some of the works that didn’t make it into the Bible are weird and heretical, others, such as 1 Clement are still respected as authentic letters sent by a genuine Christian leader in the early days of the church.

    1 Clement, and the other works by “The Apostolic Fathers” give us a glimpses into early church life, some of these glimpses are valuable.

    The main reasons I use 1 Clement in this article is because some Christians who argue that “head” means “leader” do not know how “head” is used in contemporary literature. Because 1 Clement was written only a few decades after Paul wrote his letters it is useful to compare how the writers used the word “head”, and it is useful to compare their views on relationships within the church congregation.

    As I say in the closing paragraph of the article: “. . . I am glad that [1 Clement] 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 . . .”

    This article (using 1 Clement) is just one of several I have on this website which looks at the word “head” and what it meant in New Testament times. Look at the “Related Articles” section above if you’d like to read more about kephalē (head).

    Thanks for the link.

    • Grace says:

      I couldn’t agree with you more, Marg. The contrast is worth pointing out even as you provide another case of kephale being used to mean the physical head, not leader, in the context of a call for harmony.

  15. […] Mutual Submission in First Clement  […]

  16. […] Mutual Submission in Clement’s First Letter […]

  17. […] I am reading through The Apostolic Fathers at the moment, a collection of Christian writings which date roughly from the late 1st century to the middle of the second century. I have previously commented on First Clement; today I’m writing about Second Clement. […]

  18. […] Mutual Submission in First Clement […]

  19. Adrienne Watt says:

    Eusebius states in book 3 of church history that clement of Rome was the fellow laborer of Paul mentioned in phillipians.
    What worries me is clements view of women in corinth… clement knew Paul personally so wouldn’t he show the same heart Paul did towards women?

    • Marg says:

      There have been plenty of Christians who had a low view of women. Thankfully their letters and sermons and essays didn’t make it into Scripture.

  20. Adrienne Watt says:

    The Early church fathers seem to take Paul literally. Is there any evidence that they misunderstood Paul? Like I said Clement worked with Paul and I’m guessing when you work with someone you usually get to know their views. Sure the early church fathers aren’t scripture but they definitely view scripture on women in a literal sense not cultural. Ex. Tertullian said that not only Greece but Africa has women covering their heads.

    • Marg says:

      To say that the early church fathers seem to take Paul literally is a very broad statement, and I’m wondering what you base this on. There is a variety of views expressed by the early church fathers, and a lot of it has nothing to do with Paul one way or the other. I can’t help you with this. Sorry.

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