Christians Have Always Recognized the Pope’s Authority — Here’s Proof From the 1st Century

Why would early Christians in Corinth “obey” a bishop from hundreds of miles away in Rome?

11th-century mosaic of St. Clement from St. Sophia of Kyiv
11th-century mosaic of St. Clement from St. Sophia of Kyiv (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

Pope St. Clement of Rome wrote in his Letter to the Corinthians (dated around the year 96):

“You therefore, who laid the foundation of this sedition, submit yourselves to the presbyters, and receive correction so as to repent, bending the knees of your hearts. Learn to be subject, laying aside the proud and arrogant self-confidence of your tongue. For it is better for you that you should occupy a humble but honourable place in the flock of Christ, than that, being highly exalted, you should be cast out from the hope of His people.

“If, however, any shall disobey the words spoken by Him through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and serious danger …

“Joy and gladness will you afford us, if you become obedient to the words written by us and through the Holy Spirit root out the lawless wrath of your jealousy according to the intercession which we have made for peace and unity in this letter.”

Catholics would respectfully ask Protestants or Orthodox: Why is it that Clement is speaking with authority from Rome, settling the disputes of other regions? Why don’t the Corinthians solve it themselves, if they have a proclaimed bishop or even if they didn’t claim one at the time? Why do they appeal to the bishop of Rome? These are questions that I think need to be seriously considered.

Clement definitely asserts his authority over the Corinthian church far away. Again, the question is: Why? What sense does that make in a Protestant-type ecclesiology where every region is autonomous and there is supposedly no hierarchical authority in the Christian Church? Why must they “obey” the bishop from another region? Not only does Clement assert strong authority — he also claims that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are speaking “through” him.

That is extraordinary, and very similar to what we see in the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:28 (“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things”) and in Scripture itself. It’s not strictly inspiration but it is sure something akin to infallibility (divine protection from error and the pope as a unique representative of God).

Moreover, Max Lackmann, a Lutheran, makes the observation in Hans Asmussen’s book, The Unfinished Reformation:

“Clement, as the spokesman of the whole People of God ... admonishes the Church of Corinth in serious, authoritative and brotherly tones to correct the internal abuses of their ecclesiastical community. He censures, exhorts, cautions, entreats ... The use of the expression send back in the statement: Send back speedily unto us our messengers (1 Clement 65,1), is not merely a special kind of biblical phrase but also a form of Roman imperial command. The Roman judge in a province of the empire sent back a messenger or a packet of documents to the imperial capital or to the court of the emperor (Acts 25:21). Clement of Rome doubtless also knew this administrative terminology of the imperial government and used it effectively.”

Catholic apologist Joe Heschmeyer adds:

“It’s also worth noticing that Clement is involved in this situation at all. It’s clear from the outset of the letter, in which he apologies for being “somewhat tardy in turning our attention to the points respecting which you consulted us,” that it was actually the Corinthians who reached out to Clement and the Church at Rome. This isn’t a case of a meddlesome Roman bishop but of a Greek church reaching out to the Roman bishop to settle a strictly internal dispute.

“Consider also the reception of St. Clement’s letter. If the early Church were Protestant, we might expect them to pay little heed to St. Clement, treating him merely as another churchman or as a threat to the apostolic order ... 

“The mere fact that there was a question on this point tells us something about how Church members beyond Rome viewed the bishops of Rome following St. Peter. ... 

“What makes Pope Clement’s involvement in the Corinthian dispute more shocking is that it happened around the year 96, while the apostle John is still alive. In a colorful 1914 anti-Catholic sermon, pastor George Rutledge proclaimed to a crowd of about 1,500 people that the Catholic claims to the papacy couldn’t be true because ‘the apostle John lived a number of years after Peter’s death. Yet Rome declares a fellow by the name of Linus was made pope while an apostle was living!’

“Rutledge argued that since apostles are the highest order within the Church (1 Cor. 12:28), St. John would have ‘had a just grievance and could have bankrupted the whole business.’ Yet St. Clement’s letter is evidence that St. Peter’s successors did play a central role in the governance of the early Church, even during the lifetime of the apostle John — and that John, as far as is recorded, did not object.’”

Why do the Christians at Corinth have to obey Rome in the first place? Who determined that set-up? Why does it even cross their minds to write to a local church far away to settle their problems, and why does Clement assume that they should obey him, and that it would be “transgression and serious danger” if they don’t?