The economics of Clement of Rome

by redguthrie

Pope Clement I is one of the earliest Christian writers, outside of those included in the New Testament, to have any of his writings survive. He is alternatively listed as the second or fourth bishop of Rome by later Church Fathers and he offers us an important insight into the mind of the Church in the waning years of the first century. Only, one piece of his writing has come down to us today, his Letter to the Corinthians, also called the Epistle of Clement or 1 Clement. In it, among other topics, St. Clement discusses the proper Christian social order.

For St. Clement, the Christian community was one that focused on working together for the good of all. He writes:

37. Let us then, men and brethren, with all energy act the part of soldiers, in accordance with His holy commandments. Let us consider those who serve under our generals, with what order, obedience, and submissiveness they perform the things which are commanded them. All are not prefects, nor commanders of a thousand, nor of a hundred, nor of fifty, nor the like, but each one in his own rank performs the things commanded by the king and the generals. The great cannot subsist without the small, nor the small without the great. There is a kind of mixture in all things, and thence arises mutual advantage. Let us take our body for an example. The head is nothing without the feet, and the feet are nothing without the head; yea, the very smallest members of our body are necessary and useful to the whole body. But all work harmoniously together, and are under one common rule for the preservation of the whole body (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12-27).

38. 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 has given him one by whom his need may be supplied. Let the wise man display his wisdom, not by words, but through good deeds.

St. Clement emphasizes the radical interdependence of Christian society. We are called to be subject to one another for the mutual advantage of all. We are called to share our wealth with the poor, to show our wisdom through good deeds, and to treat the weak and the powerful with the same respect and love. He does not describe Christian life as being driven by competition or the striving for profit, as the modern capitalist society is ordered. For St. Clement, proper Christian life is defined by unity, cooperation, and economic relationships that see to the basic needs of all people. The Christian life was not one of individualism, but one of community.

St. Clement takes special note of the plight of the poor and the weak when he offers up this prayer:

We would have You, Lord, to prove our help and succour. Those of us in affliction save, on the lowly take pity; the fallen raise; upon those in need arise; the sick heal; the wandering ones of Your people turn; fill the hungry; redeem those of us in bonds; raise up those that are weak; comfort the faint-hearted; (59)

Here, St. Clement is calling on God to aid those in affliction, pity those on society’s lowest rungs, to help those in need, to heal the sick, and to feed the hungry. It takes no great stretch of the imagination to infer that these are the very things we as Christians should do.

For Pope Clement, social concerns were not merely an issue of ethics, but were deeply intertwined with Christian spirituality. For St. Clement, such concerns were an outgrowth of Divine Love. St. Clement admonishes the Corinthians “Let him who has love in Christ keep the commandments of Christ” because “Love unites us to God” and “In love has the Lord taken us to Himself. On account of the love He bore us, Jesus Christ our Lord gave His blood for us by the will of God; His flesh for our flesh, and His soul for our souls” (49). Love mystically unites us with Christ our God, who suffered bodily death because of His love for us. He has taken us to Himself. It is right and meet then that we set aside our personal pride and abundant self-esteem to live in community and subject to His will. It is right and meet that we should sacrifice our personal excess to make up for the personal lack of others, for this is a far easier sacrifice than Christ’s crucifixion.