The Papacy


Three viewpoints on the papacy:

    Protestantism: we don't need a Pope. Each person is totally responsible for his/her relationship with Jesus Christ. Each person is responsible for the way they interpret the Bible. All the Christian needs to interpret the Bible are the Bible and the Holy Spirit living within him/her.

    Eastern Orthodoxy: the Pope is the bishop of Rome. He along with the other bishops, e.g. in the Eastern Orthodox Church, form a type of college of bishops who exercise authority over the church. The pope may be the first among the bishops, the bishops are still nevertheless equal. The ecumenical councils involving the bishops of Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism are authoritative.

    Roman Catholicism: the Pope is the bishop of Rome and as such is the successor of St. Peter, the Rock upon which Jesus built His church. He is not the first among equals; as the successor of St. Peter, he is the human head of the church. He along with his bishops form the magisterium which is the teaching arm of the church. The magisterium speaks infallibly, particularly whenever the Pope speaks ex cathdra, that is from the throne/chair/seat of St. Peter. Although the Roman Catholic Church grants wide latitude in the interpretation of much of Scripture, there are some points of doctrine the magisterium has spoken authoritatively. Catholics in good faith are to submit to those interpretations.

So which of the three claims has authority?


Before looking at the specific claim about the papacy, we first need to establish the significance of the bishops for the church according to Christianity. Their significance is huge. One may object though that they can't find the word "bishop" in their Bibles (especially if they are reading modern English translations). Well, the word "bishop" comes from the Greek word "episkopos" which is in the Greek NT upon which our modern English translations are based. "Bishop" is just a different translation from the word used by modern English translations, "overseer." Something that IS interesting though is that when the KJV translated "episkopos," they translated it as "bishop" (see 1 Tim. 3:1 in the KJV). It was only later that translators (who weren't Catholic or Episcopalian) decided to change the word from "bishop" to "overseer." Theological interests determined the switch.

What is the significance of the bishop/episkopos in the early church? These were the men the apostles placed in charge of the churches they established. The apostles didn't establish every parish church which existed in Christendom. Rather, they would go to a major city and establish a church there. From there the bishops/episkopoi would establish outlying parish churches, very similar to the set up of our diocese with the bishop's seat/cathedral as the center of the diocese and parish churches led by the bishop. Some of these bishop seats in the early church were located at Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, and Rome. Later, Constantinople would emerge as a major bishop's seat even though it had not been founded by the apostles (the bishop of Constantinople became important later only because the Roman emperor Constantine moved his capital to Constantinople).

This view of church organization is all backed up by the churches the apostles actually left behind: major dioceses overseen by a bishop. You have the bishop of Rome (Clement), the bishop of Antioch (Ignatius), etc. Later we see a bishopric in modern-day Lyons, France (Irenaeus) and in Hippo, North Africa (Augustine)—both though were accountable to the bishop of Rome, the pope.

What kind of authority did these bishops have over their areas? According to Scripture, they had great authority: "Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief for this would be unprofitable for you" (Heb. 13:17). They had authority. Later when we get to the study on Confession, we will see that in addition to having teaching authority they also had the authority to dispense forgiveness for sins.


Peter is significant for the Roman Catholic Church. History and scripture itself inform us that Peter in the latter part of his life went to Rome where he was ultimately martyred. Because of his status, he naturally was the leader of the Roman church. Fortunately, even Protestants today are beginning to admit the significance of St. Peter for Christianity. The respect for St. Peter is based to a large extent upon Matt. 16:13-19:

    "13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" 14 And they said, "Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets." 15 He said to them, "But who do you say that I am ?" 16 Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." 17 And Jesus said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 "I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. 19 "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven."
The main statement in this discussion is Jesus renaming Simon: "I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church. According to Catholic interpretation, Peter is the rock upon whom Christ built His church.

The identification of Peter as the Rock upon whom Jesus builds the church may not be that evident in our English translations; however, it is definitely noticeable in the original Greek: "su ei petros (Peter) kai epi tautei tei petrai (Rock) oikodomswo mou ten ekklesian." Some Protestants used to object that the word petros (Peter) is not the same as petrai (Rock). That just showed how little they understood about languages other than the English language. When Jesus calls Simon "Rock", He uses the masculine form the word for Rock because Simon is a man. To call him Petra (the feminine form of the word) would have been so insulting to him. Also, another reason one word has "os" as an ending and "ai" as an ending is that the first is in the nominative case and the latter in the locative case. Same word, different cases. Anyone who disagrees with this is just simply showing their ignorance of the languages which stress inflection at the end of their words.

What is even more telling is that when Jesus named Simon "Peter," He wasn't actually speaking in Greek (or English!) but in Aramaic. The name He originally gave Simon which was translated into Greek as Peter was the Aramaic word "Cephas." We see this original form in 3 places in the NT: John 1:42 ["Jesus looked at him and said, 'You are Simon the son of John; you shall be called Cephas' (which is translated Peter)"]; Gal. 2:9, 11, 14; and 1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:22; 9:5. There is no gender or cases in nouns in Aramaic. Jesus literally said this: “I call you Kepha and upon this Kepha I build My church.”

Second, look at Peter's role among the disciples BEFORE and AFTER Jesus designates him the Rock. Before Matt. 16, Peter is just one of the disciples. Afterwards he takes the lead role among the apostles, mentioned only a few times before Matt. 16 and numerous times after Matt. 16.

Finally, look at the 2 major events involving Peter surrounding the crucifixion. Although all the disciples except John deserted Jesus, Peter is the only one singled out. True, he denied Jesus 3x--which shocked the early church because it was none other than the Rock who was denying Jesus, but he alone is singled out among all 4 gospels. This makes sense if he was truly the Rock Jesus declared him to be.

Second, John spends a full half chapter on Jesus restoring Peter after His ascension. In fact, Jesus gives Peter some specific instructions which point to his supremacy among the apostles: tend, feed, shepherd, tend (John 21). According to Raymond E. Brown these clauses all point to Peter's role as leader of the early church.

Now look at St. Peter's role in the Church after Jesus' ascension:

  1. Acts 1:12-26: leads out in replacing Judas Iscariot with another disciple.
  2. Acts 2:14-40: St. Peter is the lead preacher on the day of Pentecost
  3. Acts 5:4: Ananias and Sapphira die when they lie to Peter--same as lying to God.
  4. Acts 10: the first to bring in the Gentiles, not Paul the great apostles to the Gentiles
  5. Acts 15:7-11 and 14: it is HIS statement which wins the day at the Great Church Council, not Paul.


Many Protestants now admit that Christ gave this authority to Peter. But they then go on to exclaim. "It is one thing to give this authority to Peter but to the bishops of Rome? No way!"

Go back to the original commissioning of Peter:

    "Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 "I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. 19 "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven."
The keys are the significant part here. According to William F. Albright, the great Protestant interpreter of Matthew, the keys are those of the household given to the chief steward of the house. He controls everything in the house except for the owner of the house. In this case, the owner is God. The rest of the authority has been given to Peter. This authority in the keys is handed down (Isaiah 22); once a steward dies, another takes his place. That is what is happening in the Isaiah 22 passage Jesus is referring to here: the keys are being handed down from one steward to another.

Peter was not eternal. As a result, he naturally handed down his keys/authority to the one who succeeded him. Although we don't read about the successor to Peter in the Bible, we nevertheless see the apostles doing this very thing. Right after Judas Iscariot, one of the original 12 apostles dies, the first thing the apostles do is to replace him with Matthias (Acts 1). The apostles are led by none other than Peter in replacing Judas.

Now we go back to the Church Fathers, the leaders of the Church who were trained by the apostles. They claim that not only was the bishop important before many claimed and most acted like the bishop of Rome was the leader of the Church:

  1. Clement of Rome: it was Rome where both St. Paul and St. Peter finished their days.
  2. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons. Supremacy of the Roman Church. This is very important because Irenaeus originally came from Ephesus, the church of John the Beloved Disciple. Not only does Irenaeus claim Rome's supremacy, but the books written by John, another apostle, point to Peter's supremacy: John 1:42; 6:68-69; 18:16-18 and 25-27; and 21:15-17. That may be the reason Irenaeus pointed to Rome's supremacy because he came from the church of the Apostle John who promoted Peter's leadership role.
  3. St. Augustine, the great Catholic thinker: supremacy of the Roman bishop.
  4. Whenever the churches in the East had a dispute, to whom did they turn to resolve their dispute? Rome.
Roman supremacy has created unity. Today there are over 30,000 Protestant denominations for 800 Protestants. There is only one Roman Catholic Church for 1.2 billion Catholics. That is unity. How important is unity? On the night right before Jesus died, He prayed one thing for His disciples--unity (John 17). That is how important it is.