Bible on Deference to Popes & Leaders, & Disobedience

Bible on Deference to Popes & Leaders, & Disobedience December 26, 2023

St. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s approach to this topic was vastly different from many (and the most fashionable, chic opinions) today:

I have said that, like St. Peter, he is the Vicar of his Lord. He can judge, and he can acquit; he can pardon, and he can condemn; he can command and he can permit; he can forbid, and he can punish. He has a Supreme jurisdiction over the people of God. He can stop the ordinary course of sacramental mercies; he can excommunicate from the ordinary grace of redemption; and he can remove again the ban which he has inflicted. It is the rule of Christ’s providence, that what His Vicar does in severity or in mercy upon earth, He Himself confirms in heaven. And in saying all this I have said enough for my purpose, because that purpose is to define our obligations to him. That is the point on which our Bishop has fixed our attention; “our obligations to the Holy See;” and what need I say more to measure our own duty to it and to him who sits in it, than to say that in his administration of Christ’s kingdom, in his religious acts, we must never oppose his will, or dispute his word, or criticise his policy, or shrink from his side? There are kings of the earth who have despotic authority, which their subjects obey indeed but disown in their hearts; but we must never murmur at that absolute rule which the Sovereign Pontiff has over us, because it is given to him by Christ, and, in obeying him, we are obeying his Lord. We must never suffer ourselves to doubt, that, in his government of the Church, he is guided by an intelligence more than human. His yoke is the yoke of Christ, he has the responsibility of his own acts, not we; and to his Lord must he render account, not to us. Even in secular matters it is ever safe to be on his side, dangerous to be on the side of his enemies.

Our duty is — not indeed to mix up Christ’s Vicar with this or that party of men, because he in his high station is above all parties — but to look at his formal deeds, and to follow him whither he goeth, and never to desert him, however we may be tried, but to defend him at all hazards, and against all comers, as a son would a father, and as a wife a husband, knowing that his cause is the cause of God. And so, as regards his successors, if we live to see them; it is our duty to give them in like manner our dutiful allegiance and our unfeigned service, and to follow them also whithersoever they go, having that same confidence that each in his turn and in his own day will do God’s work and will, which we have felt in their predecessors, now taken away to their eternal reward. (Sermon 15: “The Pope and the Revolution,” preached in 1866 at the Birmingham Oratory. From: Sermons Preached on Various Occasions)

What are we to make of this? Is Cardinal Newman an “ultramontanist, naive, overly idealistic, head-in-the-sand simpleton”? I can “hear” many grumbling already: “you don’t seriously believe that you can never criticize a pope, including Pope Francis, do you?!” My position, which has been utterly consistent throughout my 27 years as a Catholic, is not exactly like Newman’s (though I accept his general thrust and tenor). I do acknowledge that there are legitimate times to criticize popes, but under very specific and rare circumstances. My view was perhaps best summarized in this statement of mine from a paper on the topic in 2000:

My point is not that a pope can never be rebuked, nor that they could never be “bad” (a ludicrous opinion), but that an instance of rebuking them ought to be quite rare, exercised with the greatest prudence, and preferably by one who has some significant credentials, which is why I mentioned saints. Many make their excoriating judgments of popes as if they had no more importance or gravity than reeling off a laundry or grocery list.

I reiterated on 1-29-15:

My position is that popes should be accorded the proper respect of their office and criticized rarely, by the right people, in the right spirit, preferably in private Catholic venues, and for the right (and super-important) reasons. Virtually none of those characteristics hold for most of the people moaning about the pope day and night these days.

I’ve lived to see an age where an orthodox Catholic apologist defending the pope (for the right reasons) is regarded as some sort of novelty or alien from another galaxy. Truth is stranger than fiction!

Venerable Pope Pius XII wrote in his encyclical Humani Generis (1950):

20. Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: “He who heareth you, heareth me”; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the same Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.

Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), from Vatican II (1964) also reiterates the same notion:

25. . . . This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.

For much more along these lines, see my papers: On Rebuking Popes & Catholic Obedience to Popes (+ Part 2) [12-28-17].

Now onto God’s inspired revelation:

Bible on Profound Reverence for and Obedience to Popes

Matthew 16:15-19 (RSV, as throughout) He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” [16] Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” [17] And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. [18] And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. [19] I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Luke 22:31-32 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, [32] but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.”

John 21:15-17 [Jesus to Peter] . . . “Feed my lambs.” [16] . . .  “Tend my sheep.” [17] . . . “Feed my sheep.”

Acts 15:1-2, 6-15 But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” [2] And when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. . . . [6] The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. [7] And after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. [8] And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; [9] and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith. [10] Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? [11] But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” [12] And all the assembly kept silence; and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. [13] After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brethren, listen to me. [14] Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. [15] And with this the words of the prophets agree, . . . 

Acts 16:4 As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem. 

The council at Jerusalem was dominated by and influenced the most by the leader of the early Church, St. Peter, who put an end to “much debate”(15:7), by authoritatively rebuking the Judaizers (“God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe . . . why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples . . .?”: 15:7, 10). This produced the dramatic effect of “silence” in the assembly after he spoke (15:7-12). Peter (having been informed already of the issue by God in a vision: Acts ch. 10-11) provided the principles by which the council made its decision. If Peter dominated the council and influenced it the most, in effect this was the developmental kernel of papal supremacy.
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The local bishop, St. James, also played a prominent but secondary role. When he spoke, he deferentially referred back to Peter’s key and decisive address (“Simeon has related . . .”: 15:14), which is how one defers to superiors and authority figures; then he noted that the “prophets” agree with what Peter said (15:15) and cited them (15:16-18). When he proclaimed, “Therefore my judgment . . .” (15:19), he was simply agreeing with what Peter had already made clear, which he noted was in harmony with the prophets (i.e., the Bible).
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Hence, the great Protestant Bible scholar F. F. Bruce described James’ address at the Jerusalem council as “expressing approval of Peter’s exhortation . . . James went on to say that the language of prophecy spoke to the same effect” (Peter, Stephen, James & John, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Pub. co., 1979, p. 93). Peter spoke with authority and singlehandedly resolved the issue. James was in the final analysis merely like a commentator: repeating Peter’s authoritative and definitive advice and agreeing with it.

Pope-Bashers

Exodus 16:2 And the whole congregation of the people of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, (cf. Num 14:2)

Exodus 17:2-3 Therefore the people found fault with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you find fault with me? Why do you put the LORD to the proof?” [3] But the people thirsted there for water, and the people murmured against Moses, and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?”

Numbers 12:1-10 Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman; [2] and they said, “Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” And the LORD heard it. [3] Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all men that were on the face of the earth. [4] And suddenly the LORD said to Moses and to Aaron and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.” And the three of them came out. [5] And the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the door of the tent, and called Aaron and Miriam; and they both came forward. [6] And he said, “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. [7] Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. [8] With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in dark speech; and he beholds the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” [9] And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them, and he departed; [10] and when the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, as white as snow. And Aaron turned towards Miriam, and behold, she was leprous.

Number 16:1-3, 11, 31-33  Now Korah the son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi, and Dathan and Abi’ram the sons of Eli’ab, and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, [2] took men; and they rose up before Moses, with a number of the people of Israel, two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men; [3] and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them; why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” . . . [11] . . . [Moses] it is against the LORD that you and all your company have gathered together . . . [31] . . .  the ground under them split asunder; [32] and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the men that belonged to Korah and all their goods. [33] So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol; and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly.

Matthew 15:19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.

Mark 7:22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.

Acts 23:2-5 And the high priest Anani’as commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. [3] Then Paul said to him, “God shall strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” [4] Those who stood by said, “Would you revile God’s high priest?” [5] And Paul said, “I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, `You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’”

Romans 1:29-31 They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, [30] slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, [31] foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

1 Corinthians 5:11 But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who . . . is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber — not even to eat with such a one.

1 Corinthians 6:10 . . .  revilers. . . will [not] inherit the kingdom of God.

2 Corinthians 12:20 For I fear that perhaps I may come and find you not what I wish, and that you may find me not what you wish; that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder.

Ephesians 4:31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice,

Colossians 3:8 But now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth.

1 Timothy 5:13 Besides that, they learn to be idlers, gadding about from house to house, and not only idlers but gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not.

1 Timothy 6:4-5 . . . he has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, [5] and wrangling among men who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth (cf. 2 Tim 3:3)

Titus 3:2 to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all men.

James 1:26 If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain.

James 3:1 Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.

James 3:4-12 Look at the ships also; though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. [5] So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! [6] And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. [7] For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, [8] but no human being can tame the tongue — a restless evil, full of deadly poison. [9] With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. [10] From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so. [11] Does a spring pour forth from the same opening fresh water and brackish? [12] Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

Submission to and Obedience to Ecclesiastical Authority 

Matthew 18:17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 

Matthew 23:1-3 Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, [2] “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; [3] so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.

Romans 6:17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed,

1 Corinthians 11:2 I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.

2 Corinthians 2:9 For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. (cf. Phil 2:12)

1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 But we beseech you, brethren, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, [13] and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. . . .

2 Thessalonians 2:15 So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.

1 Timothy 5:17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching;

Hebrews 13:7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith

Hebrews 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account. . . . 

1 Peter 5:5 Likewise you that are younger be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

Submission and Obedience to Secular Authority (as an Analogy to Church Authority)

Exodus 22:28 You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people. [cited by St. Paul in Acts 23:5 above]

Ecclesiastes 10:20 Even in your thought, do not curse the king, . . .

Romans 13:1-7 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. [2] Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. [3] For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, [4] for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. [5] Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. [6] For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. [7] Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

Titus 3:1-2 Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for any honest work,

1 Peter 2:17 Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the [pagan, anti-Christian, persecuting] emperor.

King David respected Saul when the latter was king, even though he was persecuting him.  This is how even political leaders are accorded respect in the Bible. King Saul never repented and was running around trying to kill David, when David was honoring him as king, and refusing to kill him when he had the chance. David refused to attack or kill Saul, even though he was trying to kill him, because he was “the LORD’s anointed” (1 Sam 24:1-10; esp. 24:6, 10; cf. 26:9, 11, 16, 23; 2 Sam 1:14, 16). All of this for a king who had fallen into apostasy and who rejected God.

Popes and kings of Judah are similar insofar as they share a trait of being a leader (of a Church or a nation of God’s chosen people: the “ancient Church” so to speak), which the Bible talks about and provides models for. King Solomon also fell into serious sin, and seems to have died that way, unrepentant: (1 Ki 11:1-14). Despite this, we don’t see anywhere (as far as I know) that he should not have been honored as king by the people. 

Now, to be clear: I’m not saying that no one can ever say or do anything about a wicked ruler. The Bible also contains Revelation 13 as well as Romans 13. I have taken the same view of popes: one can criticize under rare circumstances, with the right attitude and spirit (and the right people doing it). What one cannot do, and pretend to be honoring the pope is lambast, bash, condemn, slander, speak evil against, gossip about, spread mere rumors about a pope day in and day out. That is not “honoring” a pope or ruler, as we are commanded to do, in any way, shape, form, or matter.

The Church as the Indefectible Foundation of Theological Truth

1 Timothy 3:15 . . . the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.

2 Timothy 1:13-14 Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; [14] guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.

2 Timothy 3:7-8 who will listen to anybody and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth. [8] As Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith;

2 Timothy 4:3-4 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, [4] and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. 

1 Peter 1:22 Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere love of the brethren, love one another earnestly from the heart. (cf. 2 Pet 1:12)

1 John 3:19 By this we shall know that we are of the truth, and reassure our hearts before him (cf. 1:6; 2:21; 4:6) 

2 John 1:4 I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children following the truth, just as we have been commanded by the Father. (cf. 3 John 1:1-4, 8, 12)

Rebellion Against and Disobeying Proper Spiritual Authority

Matthew 12:25 . . . Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand

John 10:16 . . . So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.

John 17:20-23 I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.

Acts 4:32 Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, . . . (cf. Eph 4:1-5; Phil 1:27; 2:2)

Romans 2:8 but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.

Romans 8:7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot;

Romans 13:2 Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment

Romans 16:17 I appeal to you, brethren, to take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid them. (cf. 13:13)

1 Corinthians 1:10-13 I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chlo’e’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apol’los,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

1 Corinthians 11:16-19 If any one is disposed to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God. But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you assemble as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and I partly believe it, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.

Galatians 5:19-20 Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit,

2 Thessalonians 3:14 If any one refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. (cf. 1:8)

1 Timothy 6:3-5 If any one teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching which accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit, he knows nothing; he has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among men who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. (cf. 2 Tim 2:23)

Titus 3:9-11 But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile. As for a man who is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is perverted and sinful; he is self-condemned. (cf. Jas 3:16)

1 Peter 4:17 For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?

2 Peter 2:1-2 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their licentiousness, and because of them the way of truth will be reviled.

Revelation 21:27 But nothing unclean shall enter it [heaven], nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood,  . . . 

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Summary: I compile many passages from the Bible about deference to and reverence of popes, submission, pope-bashing, civic leaders as analogies to spiritual ones, etc.

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