The Early Papacy – 3

As we have seen, the idea of a monarchical papacy was there from the beginning in Jesus’ identity as the Great scion of David the King with Peter as his steward. The steward, like the king he served, was to be the servant and shepherd of all, but he was also meant to rule as through the charism of individual leadership. This form of governance was hierarchical from the beginning for it is grounded in Jesus’ own concept of the Kingdom of God. A kingdom is hierarchical through and through, and the church, as Christ’s kingdom is hierarchical from its foundations. Furthermore, the leadership of the Jewish church (on which the Christian church was modeled) was hierarchical with it’s orders of rabbis, priests and elders.

Obedience to the bishop as the head of the church was crucial. So Ignatius of Antioch writes to the Christians at Smyrna and condemns individualistic congregationalism in terms that are clearly hierarchical: “All of you follow the bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and the presbytery as the Apostles; respect the deacons as ordained by God. Let no one do anything that pertains to the church apart from the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is under the bishop or one who he has delegated….it is not permitted to baptize or hold a love feast independently of the bishop.”

The hierarchical nature of the church is confirmed and sealed through the apostolic succession. Church leaders are appointed by the successors of the apostles, and there is a clear chain of command which validates a church and it’s ministry. So Ireneaeus writes, “It is our duty to obey those presbyters who are in the Church who have their succession from the Apostles..the others who stand apart from the primitive succession and assemble in any place whatever we ought to regard with suspicion either as heretics and unsound in doctrine or as schismatics…all have fallen away from the truth.”

Throughout the New Testament and the writings of the Apostolic Fathers the church is portrayed as centralized, hierarchical and universal. The need for unity is stressed. Heresy and schism are anathema. Unity is guaranteed by allegiance to the clear hierarchical  chain of command: God sent his Son Jesus. Jesus sent the Apostles. The Apostles appointed their successors. The Bishops are in charge. So Clement of Rome writes, “The Apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ: Jesus the Christ was sent from God. Thus Christ is from God, the Apostles from Christ. in both cases the process was orderly and derived from the will of God.”

Was Leo the Great the First Pope?

The term ‘pope’ is from the Greek word ‘pappas’ which means ‘Father.’ In the first three centuries it was used of any bishop, and eventually the term was used for the Bishop of Alexandria, and finally by the sixth century it was used exclusively for the Bishop of Rome. Therefore it is an open question who was the first ‘pope’ as such.

The critics of the Catholic Church aren’t really worried about when the term ‘pope’ was first used. What they mean when they say that Leo the Great (440-461) was the first pope is that this is when the papacy began to assume worldly power. This is, therefore, simply a problem in definition of terms. By ‘pope’ the Evangelical means what I thought of as ‘pope’ after my Evangelical childhood. By ‘pope’ they mean ‘corrupt earthly ruler’. In that respect Leo the Great might be termed the ‘first pope’ because he was the one, (in the face of the disintegrating Roman Empire) who stepped up and got involved in temporal power without apology.

However, seeing the pope as merely a temporal ruler and disapproving is to be too simplistic. Catholics understand the pope’s power to be spiritual. While certain popes did assume temporal power, they often did so reluctantly, and did not always wield that power in a corrupt way. Whether popes should have assumed worldly wealth and power is arguable, but at the heart of their ministry, like the Lord they served, they should have known that their kingdom was not of this world. Their rule was to be hierarchical and monarchical in the sense that they were serving the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. It was not first and foremost to be hierarchical and monarchical in the worldly sense.

The Protestant idea that the papacy was a fifth century invention relies on a false understanding of the papacy itself. After the establishment of the church at Constantine’s conversion the church hierarchy did indeed become more influential in the kingdoms of this world, but that is not the essence of the papacy. The essence of the papacy lies in Jesus’ ordination of Peter as his royal steward, and his commission to assume the role of Good Shepherd in Christ’s absence. The idea, therefore, that Leo the Great was the first ‘pope’ is a red herring based on a misunderstanding of the pope’s true role.

The Early Church Today

From the Reformation onward, Protestant Christians have fallen into the trap of Restorationism. This is the idea that the existing church has become corrupt and departed from the true gospel and that a new church that is faithful to the New Testament can be created. These sincere Christians then attempt to ‘restore’ the church by creating a new church. The problem is, each new group of restorationists invariably create a church of their own liking determined by their contemporary cultural assumptions. They then imagine that the early church was like the one they have invented.

All of the historical documents show that, in essence, the closest thing we have today to the early church is actually the Catholic Church. In these main points the Catholic Church is today what she has always been. Her leadership is unapologetically monarchical and hierarchical. Her teaching authority is centralized and universal, and the pope is what he has always been, the universal pastor of Christ’s Church, the steward of Christ’s kingdom and the Rock on which Christ builds his Church.


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