You are Peter…
Scriptural Support for the Ministry of the Pope
by Dwight Longenecker
In a world where everybody seems to have the questions, but nobody dares to have an answer, Catholics believe they do have a source for some answers. We believe Jesus had authority directly from his Father to teach the truth, and that he gave some of that authority to his apostles. Catholics believe their bishops are the successors to the Apostles and that they speak with apostolic authority.
The leader of the bishops is the Bishop of Rome—the Pope. To understand the role of the Pope we first have to see what the New Testament teaches about the apostles themselves. Once we see what the apostles were called to do, we’ll see what Peter and his successors are meant to be and do.
The whole thing starts with Jesus. All Christians agree that Jesus was God’s Son. He was sent to earth by God to do his will and show us what God is like. Like an ambassador or a crown prince, he came bearing the authority and power of his father, the king. In John’s gospel Jesus says, ‘What I have spoken I have heard from my Father, and he who sent me is always with me and what I do pleases him.’ Jesus was sent by God, and the word ‘apostle’ means ‘sent one’, so Jesus–if you like–was God’s apostle.
So he could fulfil his mission on earth God gave Jesus power and authority. So in Matthew 28.18 Jesus says of himself, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’ and in John chapter eight Jesus says that his authority and teaching are from God. Paul recognises Jesus’ divine authority as well; in Colossians 1.15-19 he says Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God’ and that in him God was pleased for all his fullness and creative power to dwell,’ and in Ephesians 1.22 Paul says God has placed all things under his feet.
So Jesus exercises God’s own authority and power on earth to forgive sins, to overcome evil and to teach the truth. Now here is the amazing thing–Jesus was given this authority by God and in the gospels Jesus goes on to send twelve men in the same way. In Matthew 10.5 and 40 Jesus sends out the twelve saying, ‘He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me.’ After his resurrection in John’s gospel, Jesus tells the apostles –’ Just as God has sent me–even so I am sending you.’ Just as God gave Jesus power and authority to do the job, so Jesus gives these ‘sent ones’ the power and authority to do the very same three things which he himself had authority and power to do.
In John 20.23 Jesus breathes on his apostles and says, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit–if you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven, if you do not forgive them they are not forgiven.’ So Jesus shares with his apostles his own authority to forgive sins. He also gives them his authority over evil. In Matthew 10.1 he calls his twelve apostles and gives them authority to drive out evil spirits and heal every kind of illness. Finally, in Matthew 28.18-20 he gives them the authority to go out into all the world and teach the truth. Then he promises to be with them to the end of the age.
Its important to see in these passages that Jesus did not give this authority and power to all his disciples. He only gave the authority to do these things to his twelve specially chosen apostles. So God’s plan was for Jesus to bear authority on earth– to forgive sins, overcome evil and teach the truth; then just as Jesus was commissioned by God, so he commissions twelve apostles to be his agents in the world, to bear his own divine authority to forgive sins, overcome evil and teach the truth.
The apostles then passed that same authority on to their successors in the faith. They did this through the laying on of hands–or ordination. So Paul says to Timothy–his son in the faith–’do not neglect the gift you were given through the laying on of hands.’ This authority which the twelve apostles passed on was for the same three tasks they had been given by Jesus himself. In the New Testament we can see the successors of the apostles going on to do the same three acts of power which the apostles themselves were empowered to do by Jesus himself. So in I Timothy 4.11 Paul reminds Timothy that he was ordained to teach the truth. James 5.14-16 tells us that the elders of the church were called to exercise healing and the forgiveness of sins, and I Timothy 1.3-4 Paul commanding Timothy to take authority over the evil false teachers.
We have some very ancient non-Biblical writings by the first generation of Christians–men who had been taught by the apostles. The next generation after the apostles universally acknowledged that their church leaders– who the New Testament calls elders or bishops–are in the position of leadership because they received authority from the apostles. Just one quotation from an early church writer will have to do. Ignatius was a church leader in Antioch–the city where the believers were first called Christians. In fact he probably knew John and Peter when they ministered in Antioch. Ignatius travelled to Rome where he was eventually martyred in the year 108–just forty years after Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome. On his way Ignatius wrote seven letters to different churches. In each one he stresses how important it is for the Christians to obey their leaders since they hold the authority of the apostles. So to the church at Magnesia he says, ‘Just as the Lord did nothing without the Father either by himself or by means of his apostles, so you must do nothing without the approval of the bishop and elders.’ For Ignatius as for all the early Christians, the elders–that is the bishops– have the authority to forgive sins, overcome evil and teach the truth because they were given that supernatural authority from the apostles, who in turn had received it from the Lord himself.
Furthermore, just as the bishops received the authority from the apostles, so they continued to hand that authority on to the ones who came after them. Jesus had promised that he would be with his church to the end of time, and this is the way his authority was to be continued. So Catholics believe that this divinely appointed distribution of authority has continued down through the ages to the present day–you can actually trace the link historically. Therefore Catholics believe their bishops–just like the bishops in the New Testament– are a real, dynamic and Spirit-filled link with the apostles–the sent ones of Jesus. People talk about wanting to belong to the New Testament church–if what Catholics believe is true, then the Catholic church is the New Testament Church alive today.
What about Peter? Did he have any special role among these twelve apostles? In the Gospels whenever the twelve are listed Peter comes first–and Judas last. He is the first apostle to whom Jesus appears after the resurrection. He is one of the small group of select apostles Jesus takes in to witness the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the transfiguration. Peter is the one who declares that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and Jesus says it was by special divine revelation that Peter was able to say this. With John, Peter’s the one to set up the Last Supper and at that supper in Luke 22.31-32 Jesus affirms Peter’s importance by telling him to hold the faith and he gives Peter a special job to strengthen his brothers in their belief.
There is more to Peter’s role than simply being the leader of the twelve. When he receives the divine revelation that Jesus is the Son of God–as recorded in Matthew 16.13-20, Jesus says that this truth which Peter confesses, is the rock on which the church will be founded; and then Jesus makes a pun on the name Peter–which means rock. Because he was able to receive this fundamental revelation from God, Peter himself will be the Rock on which the church is founded. That Peter–the leader of the Apostles– is the Rock on which the church is founded matches up with Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 2.20 where he says the church is built on the foundation stone of the prophets and apostles.
This important passage in Matthew is full of fascinating details. For example, we’re told that this conversation took place near Caesarea Phillipi. At that place was a huge natural rock formation on top of which the Romans had built a temple to the pagan shepherd god Pan. So when Jesus said, ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.’ he was looking at this great rocky foundation on which stood a pagan temple to a shepherd god, and Jesus’ meaning was clear–Peter, whose name means ‘rock’ was to be a great foundation for Christ’s church–the Church of the real Good Shepherd.
The passage reveals other truths about Peter’s special relationship with Jesus. It reminds us that it was Jesus who gave Simon the name Peter in the first place, and in the Bible when someone is given a new name by God it means they are given a new calling and a new identity. So when God called Abram to be the father of his people his name was changed from Abram to Abraham. In fact, there is an interesting parallel between Peter and Abraham which Jesus’ hearers would have understood perfectly. In Isaiah 51.1 the prophet says to the Jewish people, ‘Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were digged. Look to Abraham your father…’ The Jewish teachers said about this passage– ‘When God looked upon Abraham …he said, “Behold I have found a rock on which I can build and found the world.”‘ Of course Jesus–as a faithful Rabbi and teacher himself– knew this passage and in calling Peter the ‘Rock’ he is saying Peter–who was also given a name change–is like the new Abraham, the one who will be the foundation stone of the church and the spiritual father of his people.
There is still more detail hidden in this complex and fascinating passage. In verse nineteen Jesus equates the church with the kingdom of heaven. In other words the church is like a kingdom, and Jesus is the king. But a good king has ministers and governors beneath him. Here in England, for example, the Prime Minister is the monarch’s right hand man. In many ways the Prime Minister runs the country on behalf of the monarch. It was the same thing in the Old Testament. The Israelite king had a Prime Minister, and if we look at Isaiah 22.22 we get a fascinating glimpse into the royal court of Israel. In this passage, the prophet Isaiah recognises the Prime Minster of the king and describes his royal appointment to the office. Isaiah addresses the former prime minister and says, ‘In that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah. [that's the Prime Minister] I will clothe him with your robe [that is the king's] and fasten your sash around him and hand your authority over to him…I will place on him the keys to the house of David, what he opens no one can shut and what he shuts no one can open.’
There is one other aspect to the gospels which backs this up and shows Peter’s special relationship with Jesus. We know that Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd from John 10.14. All through the gospels he talks about sheep and goats and shepherds and likens the people of God to the flock of God. This was nothing new. The Old Testament prophets had also seen God as the shepherd and his people as the flock. In this picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd he is fulfilling the prophecy from Ezekiel 34.23 where God himself promises to become the Good Shepherd who will judge his people with justice. Jesus fulfills this prophecy when he declares himself the Good Shepherd. But who would be the shepherd after Jesus returned to heaven? After his resurrection in a moving and tender conversation with Peter, Jesus delegates his job as shepherd of the sheep to Peter himself. In John 21.15-17 Jesus solemnly commands Peter three times to ‘Feed his sheep and take care of his lambs.’ So in three powerful images Jesus hands over his own authority not only to all twelve apostles, but in a special way to Peter. Peter is–like Abraham, the spiritual father and rock of the People of God. He is to be the Prime Minister of the Kingdom in Jesus’ absence, and Peter is to take charge as the chief shepherd of the flock for Jesus. How exciting that Jesus–knowing he would return to his Father in heaven–set up this earthly system to continue his presence and power on earth.
And when we look at Peter’s ministry in the Acts of the Apostles we see him leading the other apostles in their God-given ministry of overcoming evil, forgiving sins and teaching the truth. Peter exercises the authority to forgive sins when he calls people to repentance in Acts 2.38. In Acts chapter five Peter overcomes the evil Ananias and Saphira and we’re told he cast out many demons. Finally, when he stands up to preach at Pentecost Peter exercises the authority to teach the inspired truth of God’s good news. When he leads the church to accept non-Jewish believers he is exercising his authority to teach the truth–even when that truth seems new and controversial.
Peter immediately took up the leadership role in Christ’s church– just as Jesus had predicted and commanded. In the first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles we see this natural leadership of Peter being exercised further. After the ascension Peter takes the leadership role in choosing a successor for Judas. He is the main preacher on the day of Pentecost, he is the first of the apostles to perform a miracle in Jesus name. He is the speaker before the Jewish leaders. Peter takes the bold step of opening the church to non-Jewish people after he is again given direct divine guidance.
So far we’ve seen that Jesus is sent by God and given God’s own power and authority over all things. He shared that authority with his twelve apostles, and they in turn passed the authority to forgive sins, overcome evil, and teach the truth to their successors–the leaders of the early church. We’ve also seen that among the apostles Peter was not only the natural leader, but Jesus chose him specially to be the Rock on which the church would be built. Jesus chose Peter to be spiritual equivalent of Abraham–the founding father of the people of God. He chose him to be the Prime Minister of his Kingdom, and the earthly shepherd of the flock of God. We’ve also seen how Peter began to do this in the Acts of the Apostles. But what happened to Peter afterwards? The New Testament doesn’t tell us much about his missionary journeys and we don’t have much Bible evidence about his leadership role in the city of Rome. Did Peter really end up as the leader of the Roman church? Catholics believe he was not only the leader of the Roman church, but that the leaders who followed him were the successors of his special commission from Jesus to lead the flock of God.
The first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles tell us a lot about Peter’s leadership of the Church. He was obviously in charge when he stood up to preach the first Spirit-filled sermon at Pentecost. He was also the one who led the church to accept non-Jewish believers. We know that he too set out from Jerusalem on missionary journeys. But then the book of Acts shifts its attention from Peter to Paul. This was because Acts was written by Luke, who was a companion of Paul. So where else can we get information about what happened to Peter?
First of all there is the rest of the New Testament itself. Most scholars agree that the first letter of Peter was written by Peter. In I Peter 5.13 we find that Peter is writing from a place he calls ‘Babylon’. From the book of Revelation we know that ‘Babylon’ is an early Christian code word for the city of Rome. The First letter of Peter tells us a good deal about the situation at that time–about thirty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The church was established in Rome and Paul was also ministering there. From Rome Peter writes to churches throughout Asia Minor–what is now Turkey.
The fact that he addresses these churches suggests that that is where Peter went on his missionary journeys. The Scriptural evidence is also backed up by the historians of the early church. Clement of Alexandria lived about one hundred years after Peter’s death and looking back to much older accounts, he records how the Gospel of Mark came to be written down. He says, “After Peter had announced the Word of God in Rome and preached the gospel in the spirit of God, the multitude of hearers requested Mark, who had long accompanied Peter on all his journeys, to write down what the Apostles had preached to them.” Other earlier writers named Papias and Irenaeus also record the fact that Peter and Mark–his ‘son in the faith’–ended up in Rome and that the Gospel of Mark was written there, and was based on Peter’s preaching and eyewitness accounts.
What else can we re-construct to get a picture of the early church in the city of Rome during Peter’s lifetime? The church was an underground movement. We know from 2 Tim. 4.13 that Paul himself was in chains in a damp prison. Peter probably kept on the move, visiting outlying churches, and meeting in the homes of the Christians for secret worship. In fact in 1915 an ancient house in Rome called the House of Hermes was excavated and many inscriptions on the walls indicate that Peter used that very house as a centre of his ministry. While there are scraps of evidence which tell us what the church was like, In fact we have very little written evidence about the church from those early days. The reason so little exists, is that part of the systematic persecution of the church over the next two hundred years was the widespread destruction of all the Christian holy writings. When the Christians weren’t actually being thrown to the wild beasts, their property was confiscated, their books were burnt and their worship disrupted.
Nevertheless, the historians and writers of the church who lived just following the time of the apostles, did record that Peter and Paul lived in Rome. They recorded that both met their death in the terrible persecutions of Nero around 65 AD; that Paul was beheaded and Peter crucified upside down. They also record that both Peter and Paul were buried in Rome. In fact, when Christianity became legal in 315 the Emporer Constantine built the first basilica of Peter on the traditional site of Peter’s tomb. Then in the early part of this century excavations under the great church of St.Peter in Rome uncovered a first century tomb which many believe is the actual tomb of Peter himself.
So Peter ended his earthly life in the city of Rome. As such, along with Paul, he must have been the leader of the infant Roman church. But what happened next? What about those who came after him? We’ve already seen that the apostles passed on their authority to the church leaders they appointed in various places. So in the New Testament Paul appoints Titus as the church leader for Cyprus and tells him to select and appoint other church elders; and in his first epistle Peter addresses the elders in the various churches he founded as ‘his fellow shepherds’–in other words–those with whom he shared his Christ-given role of earthly shepherd of the flock of God.
But what did the Christians in Rome think about their leaders during the years just after the apostles died? We do have one very important document from those early years just after the death of the apostles. The letter is from a church leader in Rome called Clement. A Roman Christian named Clement is actually mentioned in chapter four of Paul’s letter to the Philippians–a letter which was written from Rome. There Paul refers to Clement as a fellow worker. It could be the same Clement who wrote a letter to the Church at Corinth about the year 95–just thirty years after Peter’s death. There Clement tells how the apostles travelled around and appointed new leaders who bore the same authority they had received from the Lord himself. Listen to what this voice says, and remember it was written by someone who may have been taught by the apostles themselves. Clement says, ‘Now the Gospel was given to the Apostles for us by the Lord Jesus Christ; and Jesus Christ was sent from God. That is to say, Christ received his commission from God and the Apostles theirs from Christ…’ later in the letter he claims Peter and Paul as the apostles of the Roman church and goes on to say, ‘Our apostles also knew through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on the question of the bishop’s office. Therefore, for this reason, since they had complete foreknowledge, they appointed the aforesaid persons and later made further provision that if they should fall asleep other tested men should succeed to their ministry.’
Because the question of leadership was important, the Christians in Rome were careful to record who their own leaders were after Peter and Paul were killed. So we have a list of the first leaders of the Roman church after Peter. The list says that a man called Linus was the next leader after Peter, and a person with this name appears in 2 Timothy 4.21. This epistle was written from Paul’s prison in Rome, and Paul says to Timothy that Linus sends greetings. The second leader after Peter was Cletus, about whom we know very little. The third man was Clement–the one who wrote the famous letter to the Church at Corinth, and who may also have been mentioned by Paul.
These documents show us that Peter–the one Jesus appointed as leader of the apostles, did end up in Rome, and that he was the leader of the church there. These early writings also tell us that the apostles appointed successors in the different churches, and that the successors were considered the rightful inheritors of the apostolic authority–an authority given to them directly by Jesus. Peter may have been the leader of the Apostles, and he may have ended up as the leader of the Church of Rome, but does that mean he was considered leader of the whole church? and did his successor as the leader of the Roman Church continue to seen as the leader of the whole church? If so, then we can see how the idea that the Bishop of Rome continues to be the Prime Minister of Christ’s Kingdom on earth might have developed. Jesus commanded Peter to be in charge of his flock as the head pastor in his place, but did that job of overall leadership pass on to those who stepped into Peter’s shoes?
Scripture and the historical record show that Peter ended up as the leader of the Roman church, but did he exercise an authority over the whole church? Certainly in the Acts of the Apostles he emerges as the key spokesman and authoritative teacher. When the whole church met in Jerusalem as recorded in Acts 15, it was Peter–under the guidance of the Holy Spirit– who decided that they should accept non-Jewish Christians. Even Paul tells us in Gal.1.18 and 2.22 that he went to Peter to validate his own teaching and authority. We know that Peter took on missionary travels, and we know from his epistles–written from Rome–that he felt confident to write authoritatively to Christians throughout the known world. In other words, even in his lifetime, Peter–based in Rome was the spokesman and leader of the whole church.
This authority of the Roman Church over other churches continued after Peter’s death. The letter of Clement written from Rome to the church at Corinth. Written just thirty years after Peter’s death, Clement speaks for the elders of the Roman church when he calls the Corinthian church into order and exercises authority over them. Writing just sixty years later Irenaeus–a French bishop who had studied in Rome says, ‘We will point to the tradition of the greatest and oldest church, a church known by all men, which was founded and established at Rome by the most renowned apostles Peter and Paul… For this church has a position of leadership and authority and therefore every church, that is the faithful everywhere, must needs agree with the church at Rome for in her the apostolic tradition has ever been preserved by the faithful.’
Irenaeus, and the rest of the Christians in those first hundred years after the death of Peter and Paul, all agreed that the Church of Rome had a special teaching ministry, a special leadership role in the whole church. Most Christians don’t object to the idea that the church leaders should exercise a teaching ministry, a ministry that overcomes evil and a ministry that forgives sins in Jesus’ name. Many Christians wouldn’t even mind that one church –a church which is most ancient and wise–ought to exercise some sort of leadership. But a problem comes when Catholics claim that the Bishop of Rome exercises a teaching ministry that actually claims to be infallible.
This is a difficulty, and the idea that the Pope is infallible is not only a problem for non-Catholics. Many Catholics have trouble accepting and understanding it. To understand what we mean by the Pope being infallible we should look first of all at what the word infallible means. It does not mean morally perfect. It doesn’t even mean totally and completely right about all things. It simply means faithful, reliable, trustworthy, and therefore without error. Furthermore, infallibility is not first and foremost an attribute of the Pope. I think this problem of infallibility is more easily understood when it is put in its bigger context. We should shift our primary attention away from the Pope and see how infallibility works for all Christians in other ways.
The most important thing to remember is that first and foremost it is Jesus Christ who is infallible. It is Jesus who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and who gives us a way to the Father which is reliable without fail. The infallibility of Jesus is based on the authority which he was given by his father. But where is this infallible Christ alive in the world today? Paul says the body of Christ is the Church. In Ephesians, in the same passage where he expresses Christ’s universal power he says that power finds its fullest expression in the Church. Later, in Ephesians five, Paul says that Christ has washed the church and presented her as a ‘glorious church without spot or wrinkle–blameless in his sight.’ and in I Timothy 3.15 Paul says the church is the ‘pillar and foundation of truth.’ Again in Ephesians 3.10 Paul says it is God’s design that through the church all the wisdom of God should be made known. So first and foremost it is the church–the body of Christ–which holds and teaches the truth infallibly.
Paul also says in Ephesians that the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Christ gave his authority to his apostles in the Gospels specifically to teach the truth. Surely he had to give his apostles the grace to teach the truth without fail–reliably and in a trustworthy manner so we could be assured of the truth–our very salvation depends on it. So what we are saying is that Christ–who is infallible– shares a measure of that trustworthiness–that complete reliability with his body the Church. But that infallible teaching has to be expressed by someone, and so it was. Through the preaching and writings of the apostles we are given the Word of God and all Christians regard the Scripture as the completely reliable teaching– a source without fail which can bring us to the saving knowledge of God’s love. So we believe in the infallible Scriptures–even though they were written by fallible men.
So far all Christians would agree that we have a sure, reliable and therefore infallible source of truth which comes to us from the apostles. However, Catholics believe that the same infallible Spirit of Christ who filled the apostles and fired the Church into birth at Pentecost, and went on to inspire the Scriptures, still dwells in the apostolic church today. Catholics believe the church, led by the successors of the apostles, and the successor of Peter continues to proclaim and teach the gospel without fail.
So ‘infallibility’ means the teaching of the Church–in matters vital for salvation– is without error. This doesn’t mean every detail of Catholic history or church discipline is automatically perfect. It also doesn’t mean that the church is without sin. From the beginning the church is made up of sinful people, and when people bowed down to Peter and Paul in the book of Acts they always said, ‘Get up we are just ordinary sinful men.’ But what this does mean is that the church is preserved without error despite being led by sinful men. This seems like a contradiction, but in fact this is something most Christians take for granted. Christians believe the Bible is reliable in matters of salvation. In other words, it is without error even though it was written by sinful men. When we say the creed we believe it is without error even though it was devised and written by sinful men.
The Pope’s role in all this is simply as the spokesman for this truth. As the leader of the apostles, as the head shepherd of the Church on Earth, he speaks the truth which the whole church affirms. But he only does so when he speaks ex cathedra that is–from the chair of Peter. So when we say the Pope is infallible we don’t mean he never does anything wrong. Like Peter, the Pope is an ordinary sinful man. Also when we say he is infallible we don’t believe that whatever he says is always true. He usually speaks as an ordinary man, or as an ordinary Christian teacher. But on the specially designated times when the Pope states that with the support of all the bishops and the whole church he is making an infallible statement, we accept that, filled with the Holy Spirit, he is simply speaking the truth of the gospel, and that he is doing so reliably and without error.
When Jesus asked his apostles who he was, and Peter spoke up. ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God’? There Peter was the spokesman for all the apostles, and for all of us. Jesus recognised that Peter spoke the truth, not of his own sinful nature, but because he had been specially enlightened by God himself. Peter was a sinful man, but what Peter said was without error. Through God’s inspiration he faithfully spoke the truth for all Christians.
Down through the ages many men have stood in the shoes of Peter as Bishop of Rome. Some have been saints, some have been sinners. The vast majority have been hard-working, prayerful and dedicated leaders of Christ’s church. But one of the amazing things which scholars tell us about the Popes is that not once have the bishops of Rome taught heresy. Other bishops have fallen into error, and the Bishops of Rome have brought them back to the truth. The Popes haven’t all been angels; some have been very wicked indeed. Peter himself denied the Lord three times. But despite their human failings they have led the whole Christian church in proclaiming the unfailing gospel of Jesus Christ. They did so in the footsteps of Peter–that amazing man Jesus called to continue his work on earth. The one whose name means ‘rock’. The one who was called to become the father of the people of God. The one whose life and teaching remains the foundation of Christ’s Church.