Protestants Are Not Little Popes

Protestants Are Not Little Popes October 29, 2022

If you have had lengthy conversations with your Roman Catholic friends, chances are you have run across the claim: “Protestants are little popes”. In my experience, this claim has something to do with Protestants having their own private interpretations. When Protestants interpret the Bible themselves, rather than submitting to the church’s teaching authority, they become their own teaching authority. Thus Protestants illicitly take for themselves the authority that rightly belongs to the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic church. In this way, they become “little popes”.

Not Popes

I contend that the claim that “Protestants are little popes” is unhelpful at best. It’s more likely that this claim is simply false. To be sure, there are things that Protestants and Pope have in common. Both are human beings. Both profess to follow Christ. All parties interpret the Bible. But these similarities are not what Catholics have in mind when they draw the comparison. The comparison is made to illustrate a point about religious authority. Accordingly, the consistent Protestant should see himself as his own religious authority and thus a “little pope”.

Protestants and Pope

But what sort of parallels between Protestants and Pope exist in this context? Some of the relevant categories are:

  • Apostolic Succession
  • Infallibility (under certain conditions)
  • Teaching Authority

Protestants generally do not believe in apostolic succession. Or if they do, it is not the same sort of thing that is found in Roman Catholic / Eastern Orthodox circles. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox generally do not think that Protestants have legitimate apostolic succession. Without apostolic succession, a Protestant cannot be a “pope”.

With a few fringe exceptions, Protestants don’t think their interpretations of Scripture are infallible. There could be an exception if God spoke directly to a Protestant saying “Add this book to the Scriptures”. However, if this happened then Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox should follow the directive from God. Barring this situation, however, Protestants don’t think that their teachings are infallible. If Protestants cannot be infallible based on their ecclesiastical office, then a Protestant cannot be a “pope”.

Protestants do maintain that there are religious authorities. But these teaching authorities are fallible. They are not capable of proclaiming de fide statements that bind the conscience of all faithful Protestants. Even Reformed confessions of faith do not carry the weight of a Papal de fide teaching. If a Protestant cannot have this sort of teaching authority, then he cannot be a “pope”.

No parties involved think that Protestants can actually be the pope. This point seems obvious enough, but I am stating it explicitly to clarify what is and is not being talked about.

What Sort Of Little Pope

If a Protestant cannot actually be the Pope, then in what sense can he be said to be a “little pope”? What I gather from my conversations with Roman Catholics is that Protestants are little popes because they interpret the Scriptures for themselves, and in so doing they become their own teaching authority. They are not claiming that Protestants are actual teaching authorities in any relevant ecclesiastical sense. Rather they think Protestants are making themselves their own de facto teaching authority. Another way to put this is to say that each Protestant acts as if he were a little pope.

This is less an ecclesiastical claim and more a psychological/epistemological claim. Even if the Protestant does not think he has made himself into a teaching authority, he has, as a matter of fact, set up his own interpretations as binding. In fairness, this usually only binds him to his own conclusions. However, in his mind, his doctrine trumps that of the pope himself insofar as the pope contradicts his conclusions. The Catholic asks, what could be more authoritative than your own interpretations if they supersede even the dogmatic proclamations of the Pope? Furthermore, what could possibly involve more hubris than presuming that your own intellect and grasp of Scripture could yield conclusions more sure than those of teaching authority of the Roman Catholic church?

A charitable rendering of the Roman Catholic point of view helps us to see how they might view Protestants as absurd and arrogant.

Are We Little Popes

On the face of it, the issue here seems to be that of putting up one authority vis a vis another and showing the absurdity of the comparison. When construed this way, it looks like a face-off between the Supreme Pontiff and Bob the plumber from Montana whose theological understanding is derived from a steady diet of Joel Osteen and Beth Moore. Pitting the authority of these two individuals, on a purely academic level, is absurd. You don’t have to be Catholic to see that the head of the Catholic church has a depth of understanding well beyond that of Bob the plumber. However, this way of construing the issue is a distraction. It’s not the real issue at hand.

The Roman Catholic claim begins by characterizing individuals’ private interpretations as “authoritative”. However, Protestants and Roman Catholics can agree that private Protestant interpretations of Scripture do not have ecclesiastical de jure authority. The more controversial claim is whether or not private Protestant interpretations have de facto authority. Do these private personal interpretations truly act as an authority? If not, then characterizing the issue as one authority against another is a false characterization.

Private Interpretations

Let’s say that I interpret “eating His flesh” and “drinking His blood” in John 6:53 as a symbolic claim. Does the fact that I came to this conclusion mean that my interpretation is authoritative? If so, who must agree with me to be a faithful Christian (objectively speaking)? Am I able to compel others, by right, to believe me? In what sense is it “authoritative”? The answer is that it is not authoritative in this sense.

Perhaps the claim is that my interpretation of John 6:53 is authoritative “for me”. But in what way would it be authoritative “for me”? Does my interpretation compel me to believe myself? If I later change my interpretive conclusion, am I bound to adhere to my earlier authoritative interpretation? Is my later conclusion more or less authoritative than my previously held conclusion? I think the answer is no. And thus our private interpretations do not act as a teaching authority, even for myself.

My interpretation is a conclusion drawn from Scripture and reason. If Scripture and or reason had brought me to a different conclusion, then I would believe that. I cannot violate either when developing my understanding of the text of Scripture. But I can change my interpretation when I find that it more closely conforms to Scripture and reason. This fact implies that it is not “my interpretation” that has authority to compel belief. It can’t even compel my own beliefs. Rather what compels belief is Scripture, reason, and facts.


I cannot think of a sense in which Protestants can meaningfully be called “little popes”. Our private interpretations do not compel belief for others or for ourselves. Calling Protestants “little popes” appears to be an illicit imposition of Catholic categories onto Protestants. But even if one adopts Catholic categories, it is not clear how Protestants could be construed as “little popes”.

I should note that I have great respect for Roman Catholics. My article is not in any way a diatribe against them. My hope is to aid the conversation by helping people who use these sorts of polemics. It’s a request for Catholics to please stop using the “Protestants are little popes” rhetoric. It’s not true or helpful.












Browse Our Archives