Thou Art Peter!

It’s impossible to talk about the Catholic Church without considering the role of the pope, and for a Roman Catholic it’s impossible to talk about the pope without talking about Peter.

I’m a big fan of Peter. He was impulsive, often spoke first before he really thought through the question, and made some mistakes. I am a fan because I can relate. Peter was also the obvious leader of the apostles. He was an amazing man and a great leader, and, like most of the apostles, he was martyred because of his belief in Jesus Christ.

The Catholic Church makes some unique claims regarding Peter, and one of their foundational beliefs is that the pope is a direct successor of Peter and, as a result, is the head of the church. Let’s begin this relatively delicate topic by first examining the Roman Catholic teachings regarding the pope. These would include:

• Christ made Peter the leader and the first pope.
• Christ made Peter the ultimate authority and leader of the church.
• Peter became the first bishop of Rome, making Rome and the bishop of Rome the head of the true church.
• This authority, leadership, and infallibility is passed on to Peter’s successors—the popes.

As we begin to discuss this cardinal doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, I want to be upfront that I have no problem with the pope or his role in leading the largest Christian denomination, the Roman Catholic Church. Churches still need someone or some group that is in charge, someone designated as the leader(s). In industry we have had presidents and chairmen in charge for years and started calling the top guy or gal in business the chief executive officer about twenty-five years ago. Almost all organizations have some formalized procedures to provide for succession (e.g., new CEOs), and large organizations typically have some accountability group (e.g., a board of directors, board of elders, or trustees) that provides oversight.

Many Bible scholars will argue that having accountability through a plurality of elders was the way the church was originally organized. However, we know from history that soon after the death of the original apostles, a single elder or bishop who would be the head of a geographical area and a group of churches replaced the plurality of elders in the church. 

Let’s take a look at the unique issues related to the role, the authority, and the position of the pope.

Peter as the Leader and in Rome

Peter was certainly one of the leaders of the apostles. He, James, and John are often the three included in the inner circle with Jesus. In every one of the lists of the apostles in the Gospels, Peter is named first. He was present on the Mount of Transfiguration with James and John. Jesus took him along with James and John into the Garden of Gethsemane.

While Peter denied Christ, as Jesus had predicted, Jesus restored him with the “do you love me…feed my sheep” dialogue recorded in John 21:17. 

The book of Acts identifies Peter as one of the leaders of the early church. As an apostle he had infl uence on and was honored by the early church. In the catacombs of Rome, there are inscriptions honoring both Peter and Paul. 

However, there are no indications in these inscriptions or in any other historical writings from the first century that Peter exercised any authority in the church in general or in Rome in particular.

We do have some clue regarding early church leadership in the scriptures. Luke, Peter, and Paul all discussed early church leadership. Luke is the author of both the Gospel attributed to him as well as the Acts of the Apostles; the apostle Peter wrote both 1 Peter and 2 Peter; and the apostle Paul wrote nearly one third of the New Testament. 

In particular Paul talked about the role of Peter in his letter to the Galatians: 

They recognized that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the Gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised. For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles. (Gal. 2:7–8)

Paul’s journey and arrival in Rome are documented in great detail in the book of Acts, chapter 28. Luke wrote about Paul’s welcome to Rome, his imprisonment, and his teachings. Paul was in Rome for two years, and, according to tradition, he was beheaded, which would have been the appropriate manner of capital punishment for a Roman citizen.

By tradition Peter made it to Rome and was crucified upside down. However, there is neither biblical record nor early church writings attesting to Peter’s arrival, ministry, or death in Rome. 

Peter is not referenced at all in the Acts of the Apostles after the Council of Jerusalem in Acts, chapter 15. In this council Paul and Barnabas traveled to Jerusalem to have the apostles settle the dispute regarding circumcision. After some discussion Peter addressed the issue, and then James, Jesus’s brother, provided the final decision.

It is interesting to note that we have extrabiblical evidence (historical writings regarding this time period) that state it was not Peter who was chosen to lead the early church, but James, the brother of the Lord. 

Eusebius Pamphilus (AD 263–340) was a bishop and a scholar in the early church. He is best known for his ecclesiastical history, including the history of the church to AD 324. His stated intention in writing the history was to connect the church of which he was part to the beginnings of Christianity.

Eusebius wrote: 

Then there was James who was known as the brother of the Lord. For he too was called Joseph’s son, and Joseph, Christ’s father, though in fact the Virgin was his betrothed, and before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit, as the inspired Gospel narrative tells us. This James, whom the early Christians surnamed the Righteous because of his outstanding virtue, was the fi rst (as the recorders tell us) to be elected to the episcopal throne of the Jerusalem church. (19) 

Eusebius’s attribution of James rather than Peter as the first bishop is echoed by another historian of the early church, Clement of Alexandria (AD 150–215), who preceded Eusebius by fifty years. Clement was also a scholar, and both the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church considered him a church father. 

Clement wrote: 

Peter, James and John, after the Ascension of the Savior, did not claim preeminence because the Savior had especially honored them, but chose James the Righteous as Bishop of Jerusalem…James the Righteous, John, and Peter were entrusted by the Lord after his resurrection with the higher knowledge. They imparted it to the other apostles, and the other apostles to the seventy. (20)

In addition, while we don’t typically try to prove something by its omission, despite the fact that Luke recorded that Paul was in Rome for the last years of Paul’s life, Luke did not mention Peter’s being in Rome. During the time Paul was in Rome, the same two years Luke recorded, Paul wrote to Timothy from Rome around AD 65 and talked about a number of Christians who had served with him, including Demas, Crescens, Luke, and Titus. However, Paul related that he had “fought the good fight” and that the “time of his death was near.” In his final words from Rome, he encouraged Timothy to come and visit if possible and that “only Luke is with me” (2 Tim. 4:11).

It’s a stretch to find early support of a claim that Peter founded the church in Rome or exercised any authority while there. However, by the fourth century, the tradition of Peter’s being the first bishop of Rome was well established, and Pope Leo I used it to request primacy among all of the other bishops.

The Pope’s Authority in the Church

For one thousand years, and actually to this day, as evidenced by the Second Vatican Council in 1965, the authority of the church was in the councils. We saw this earlier, when I referenced the Council of Jerusalem in Acts, chapter 15 (it is also recorded in Galatians, chapter 2). According to the account in the Bible, Judas and Silas delivered the apostles’ (plural) determination by letter to the churches—not the ruling of one individual. However, had it been one individual, he would most likely have been James, not Peter. 

Constantine called the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, later called the First Ecumenical Council because it included various known Christian churches and was presided over by Constantine and the Patriarch of Alexandria. The bishop of Rome (a.k.a. the pope) did not attend this council. 

The bishop of Rome attended the Council of Constantinople in AD 381 and the Council of Ephesus in AD 431. The emperors and empresses of Rome called these councils and later councils together, and the decisions were made by majority vote of the bishops in attendance. The bishop of Rome did not have a major role in these councils until the First Lateran Council of 1123, after the Great Schism, when the bishop of Rome excommunicated the bishop of Constantinople, and the other patriarchs of Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch sided with the latter.

Good Popes, Bad Popes

Anyone who has seen the TV series The Borgias has seen some of the horrible accusations that have been leveled against the popes. As with most accusations against world leaders, there are both truth and exaggeration in the charges. History records that there have been some great popes and some really bad popes. We aren’t going to go through an exhaustive list, as it would be contrary to the overall theme of reconciliation and fairness. However, some examples would be helpful. 

Bad popes include Stephen VI (AD 896–897), who had his predecessor exhumed and put on trial. Pope Benedict IX was a highly immoral man who may have been made pontiff when he was in his early teens or possibly as old as twenty. He reportedly sold his papal throne, and later the church excommunicated him. Great popes outnumber these bad popes ten to one, and if I were listing them, there would be many, including the recent John Paul II (now a saint), St. Leo I, and St. Gregory I.

The Honor Versus the Authority of the Pope

As we look back to the early church, and even as late as the medieval Church, the bishop of Rome was definitely in a position of honor. This was recorded specifically in the Edict of Milan in AD 313. There was, however, a clear distinction between honor and authority in many historical documents from the same period. Historically bishops (and patriarchs in particular) had authority over geographical regions. A number of church councils referenced this authority, and clearly it was part of the Roman state governance. Bishops and patriarchs who overstepped their geographic boundaries were often criticized by the others.

Apostolic Succession

The Roman Catholic Church identifies the pope as the successor of St. Peter. Early church writings indicated that all of the bishops were the successors of the apostles, but if particular leadership was truly in the hands of the apostle Peter, there is neither biblical nor historical indication that this leadership was to be passed on to his particular successors. 

The actual record of successors in the Bible is not so honorable. After two hundred years of rule by judges, ancient Israel appealed to the prophet Samuel and demanded a king. The biblical account makes it very clear that both the prophet as well as Jehovah God were displeased with the request and predicted Israel would ultimately suffer by having one leader who had great authority and no accountability. 

Samuel appointed Saul as king and typically disappointed both God and man. Jonathan was his successor and heir, but God had a better plan and put young David on the throne as the king of Judah and later all of Israel. King David had a number of sons, and before wise King Solomon came to the throne, David’s sons Amnon and Daniel were likely successors. Amnon, however, was best known for the rape of his half sister, Tamar, and the Bible doesn’t mention Daniel, also called Chileab, other than telling us that his mother was Abigail. 

Man’s plans to name a successor of a successful or even a great man actually fail much more often than they succeed. I’ve seen this a number of times in business and industry, as I’ve had many good friends who were good business leaders, talented entrepreneurs, wise, and very successful. Their sons and daughters, however, were not as talented. Many businesses don’t survive when the second or third generation is in power. 

Interestingly (at least to me), the only instance of succession in the New Testament is recorded in the book of Acts. After Jesus’s ascension, the apostles traveled back to Jerusalem and returned to the upper room. There they decided to replace the traitor, Judas. Peter stood up and used an obscure scripture in the book of Psalms that stated, “May another take his place of leadership” (Ps.109:8).  

The apostles nominated two men to succeed Judas as one of the twelve apostles. The apostles prayed and decided to cast lots (equivalent to flipping a coin). Eventually they chose Matthias as the successor. 

This is not the place to discuss the role of the Holy Spirit (which had not yet indwelled the apostles), biblical inerrancy, and historical accuracy. However, it is clear that while it was the apostles’ intention to put Matthias in a particular role, the apostle Paul was the one the Lord picked.

In my church history class, I usually ask my students to name the books of the Bible written by the apostle Matthias, to wake them up to the obvious fact that succession, leadership, calling, and even apostleship are of the Lord’s doing and not something either man or process can guarantee.

Text above from pages 58-65 in Thou Art Peter- Chapter 12 of "Roaming Catholics"


Was Peter the first Pope? Should Christians pray the Rosary?  Should priests be married?  These are among the provocative topics addressed in Roaming Catholics: Ending the wandering to embrace the wonder" 

This thoroughly researched book presents the development of the Catholic Church in an engaging way to help Christians understand their common history shared by all.  The apostle Paul referred to the church as the "Body of Christ," not the "Body of Christians."   Rather than Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female he proclaimed we are to be one in Christ. 

Pastor and theologian Kenneth Behr shares his own religious evolution from a Catholic altar boy to an evangelical pastor and engages readers with a parallel story of the evolution of Catholicism. 

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