I am writing a series of posts as devotionals for my college students this summer. Many of these have been inspired by Pascal’s Pensees, but I am also reading portions of the early church fathers. This post is inspired by Clement of Rome.
There is debate in scholarly circles, but in general all the books that ended up in the New Testament were completed by 100 AD. But it is not like Christians stopped writing! Other Christian writings exist, some from right around this time. One of the earliest of these comes from Clement of Rome. If you are Roman Catholic, he is considered to be the fourth pope. The tradition says he was ordained into ministry by Peter himself, the disciple of Jesus (and first pope). He was bishop of Rome from about 92-99 AD. For a point of reference, the traditional dating of Revelation is during this time.
Clement has left us one writing, a Letter to the Church in Corinth. I personally find this fascinating because I always want to know what happens next. When I watch a movie or read a book, I wonder what happened next. We read about Corinth in the Bible, Paul wrote 2 letters to them (1 and 2 Corinthians). From these letters we see a church that is very divided, with everyone having their own favorite teacher. There were divisions between rich and poor, some people seemed to look the other way in the face of blatant sexual sins (a man sleeping with his stepmother). Well, what happened next?
Forty years later, based on Clement’s letter, the church in Corinth still has issues:
Why are there strifes, and tumults, and divisions, and schisms, and wars among you? Have we not [all] one God and one Christ? Is there not one Spirit of grace poured out upon us? And have we not one calling in Christ?19 Why do we divide and tear to pieces the members of Christ, and raise up strife against our own body, and have reached such a height of madness as to forget that “we are members one of another?” Remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, how21 He said, “Woe to that man [by whom offences come]! It were better for him that he had never been born, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my elect. Yea, it were better for him that a millstone should be hung about [his neck], and he should be sunk in the depths of the sea, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my little ones. Your schism has subverted [the faith of] many, has discouraged many, has given rise to doubt in many, and has caused grief to us all. And still your sedition continueth
Clement of Rome. (1885). The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, pp. 17–18). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.
The church is very divided today, we have a myriad of denominations – Presbyterians and Pentecostals, Methodists and Mennonites, Catholics and Calvinists and so on. This is not ideal. Yet if we think there was once a time when the followers of Jesus lived in idyllic unity, we are wrong. There were divisions practically right from the beginning. It took a few years for enough church hierarchy and government to build up enough for them to actually kick each other out (you have to have a formal institution to excommunicate people from). Before this, in the days of more informal groupings, people just didn’t get along and gossiped and caused all sorts of problems.
So why do I share this text with you in the middle of the summer? Well, one reason I have loved working on campus is somehow we manage to overcome these divisions. We get Christians from all sorts of backgrounds here and you manage to worship and serve others together. You have discussions about your beliefs, but we have not had a schism over them. In this I like to think campus ministry is a model for the wider church, showing that we can disagree and still be united.
The second reason is that I think this is one of the bigger questions skeptics have today. How can I know which church to join if you’re all divided? If you have the truth why can’t you get along? Having some sort of answer to those questions is important. More important is being able to model unity on campus is one of the best answers we can give.
Third, we need to realize we are all different and that is okay. Christian faith is all about unity in diversity (you could talk about the Trinity here, three in one, but that might get a little heady). God loves and welcomes all people in Jesus. You do not need to give up your cultural or even your complete personal identity to be a Christian. Lamin Sanneh is a well-known African theologian and he found this to be one of the most unique things of Christianity. Other religions are tied to a culture, so to convert is to learn specific cultural forms. Christianity, on the other hand, affirms all cultural forms. We don’t demand you learn a special language, we translate the Bible into your language.
But this is hard. We want to think we have it all figured out and everyone should be like us – our style of worship, music and so on. The challenge is recognizing our differences while focusing on what unites us – Jesus Christ. We all come to God on the same terms – faith in Jesus:
And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen
Clement of Rome. (1885). The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 13). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.
May we find beauty in our differences and be unified in Jesus.
Let our whole body, then, be preserved in, Christ Jesus; and let every one be subject to his neighbour, according to the special gift bestowed upon him. Let the strong not despise the weak, and let the weak show respect unto the strong. Let the rich man provide for the wants of the poor; and let the poor man bless God, because He hath given him one by whom his need may be supplied. Let the wise man display his wisdom, not by [mere] words, but through good deeds. Let the humble not bear testimony to himself, but leave witness to be borne to him by another.13 Let him that is pure in the flesh not grow proud of it, and boast, knowing that it was another who bestowed on him the gift of continence
Clement of Rome. (1885). The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 15). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.