Peter, Rome and the Papacy


From John 21: Jesus asks Peter three times (equal to the number of times Peter denied Christ!) if he loves Him and tells him to tend to His sheep.

I just finished an email correspondence with a Roman Catholic brother about whether Peter was the first Bishop of Rome, and whether his universal authority was passed down and resides there in Rome. I was reminded again of the assumptions it takes to argue the authority of the papacy is biblically grounded. I just want to make a few comments on this:

Peter was the preeminent apostle. This is not disputed among theologians. Peter was part of Jesus’ “inner circle” of three, and he was the eldest and the leader of the apostles. He was the first to say of Christ, that he was the “Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). He was the first to receive the charisma of Christ’s authority (the other apostles received the charisma as well, but Peter was the first) which he was later tasked with handing down. He was the rock on whom Christ would build his church (Mt 16:16-18). He was commissioned to feed Christ’s sheep, which implied a leadership position among the apostles (Jn 21:15-19). He was subsequently tasked with evangelizing the Gentiles as Luke tells us in Acts. It’s clear, Peter had a unique place of authority among the apostles. But that’s really all that is clear from the NT evidence. He was a preeminent apostle who subsequently handed down his charismata to other bishops.

Historically, Peter’s life becomes murky after this. It is generally agreed that Peter was the bishop in Antioch for some time. It is argued by many that Peter, later in his life, traveled to Rome and subsequently died there. But did Peter become the first Bishop of Rome after traveling there? Probably not. There is simply not a lot of evidence to verify this. I realize that a few of the patristic fathers argue for this fact, but it’s very hard to see it verified by the facts.

It is true that historically the Roman Bishop played a huge role in the councils, and even later had such large ecclesial authority, that even before the church began to understand the Bishop of Rome as having universal authority, he oversaw and judged ecclesial disputes. Later on, the Roman Bishop came to be known as the Pope (Papa), and as the Vicar (from vice, meaning “instead of” or “in place of” or “representative”) of Christ on this earth. Mind you, there were innocent and unfortunate political and ecclesial reasons for the assumption of authority on the part of the Bishop of Rome. But there wer also power grabs all throughout the centuries, especially during the Middle Ages. That is an undisputed fact, and an unfortunate one.

But this is beside the point. I simply ask: what does the history of the Roman Bishopric have to do with Peter? I ask this because historically, there is little evidence to confirm that Peter was ever bishop there.

But on an even more fundamental level, why do we fixate on Rome? There’s no biblical warrant for it: from a biblical-theological-narratival perspective, Rome was never a locus of authority nor was it ever a place to which God’s people looked to set up a universal ecclesial hub; it was Jerusalem that was always the ecclesial hub. This was of course the case in the OT, but it’s also true in the NT. Jerusalem was the first place to hold an ecumenical council (and it was James who presided over the council, not Peter). Jerusalem was the place Paul went to seek out the ecclesial authorities (Galatians 1-2). The Jerusalem church took up responsibility to assist impoverished Jewish Christians during the diaspora, and requested help from all the surrounding churches (we see this from Paul’s letters, especially Galatians 2, and 2 Corinthians 8-9). Jerusalem was the ecclesial hub of early Christianity. And this of course makes more sense when considering that Jesus came to create a renewed and restored Israel. Jesus appropriately chose 12 disciples to recreate the 12 tribes of Israel. Christ’s mission was properly to restore Israel so that through the renewed Israel, the world could be blessed. It was from Jerusalem that the church, the renewed Israel, went out to the world to bring the blessing of Abraham to the nations. This is the trajectory of the entire scriptures, is it not? Where then did the focus on Rome come from?

When we ask the question: why the fixation on Rome? Where’s the biblical/historical warrant?, the papacy-prooftexts begin to lose their significance. I mentioned Matthew 16 above. This is the quintessential text that supposedly supports the office of the Pope. In Matthew 16, Christ tells Peter, “You are Cepha (rock), and on this cepha I will build my church”. What is implied of course is that Peter has a special role in building the church. Well, fine; but we must ask: where exactly does Rome come in to this equation? I’m fine with recognizing a primacy of Peter over the other apostles. But, where does Christ say: “On this rock I will build my church. By the way, go to Rome to build my church! You will be the universal authority over all the other bishops and churches“. I’ve yet to hear a satisfactory answer to this question. One must assume a lot to argue Matthew 16 supports the papacy. It doesn’t mention Rome, nor does it say anything about Peter’s authority over the other apostles . And, as Calvin rightly points out in his Institutes, the authority that Christ confers on to Peter, he does later for all the apostles. What this means is that the apostolic authority was a collegiate or shared authority. The bishops work in tandem with one another for the building up of the body of Christ. Peter might have been a natural first among equals, but he shared the same authority as the others.

The Eastern Orthodox and Anglican (some Lutheran as well) have operated off of the assumption for some time that the succession or charismata of the apostles is a gift given to all of the bishops of the church by ordination. I believe in apostolic succession, but in a succession that accepts the authority and charismata of all the apostles!

I deeply love my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, and appreciate the theological and ecclesial gifts they contribute, but I remain unconvinced of the doctrine of the papacy.