Peter: The First Pope?

And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:18,19).

On the basis of this text of Scripture, some have claimed that there is a "primacy" among the apostles of Christ, held by the man named in the text. Peter, they assert, was the Christian Church's first pope. Others maintain that Christ spoke to Peter as to a representative of the apostles. They point out other texts such as Ephesians 2:20 and Revelation 21:14, where the Bible clearly teaches that the apostles in their plurality have a foundational role in the New Covenant Church.

Which view is correct? In this as in all matters of faith and doctrine, the Bible interprets itself. As Divinely inspired Solomon closes one of the Bible's wisdom books he writes: "The words of the wise are like goads, and the words of scholars are like well-driven nails, given by one Shepherd" (Ecclesiastes 12:11). The One Shepherd, Christ our wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:30), speaks one coherent message through His Holy Spirit, in and by holy Scripture.

There are several lines of reasoning from the Scriptures that undermine the superficial and weak textual basis of the "primacy of Peter" doctrine. One such line of reasoning is simply to consider Christ's teaching for all disciples, be they apostles or not.

Self-conceited bishops - both Protestant and Roman - wielding their ornate sceptres of primacy and robed in vestments or superstitious aura, imagine they imitate Peter. But even if Peter himself did at times "lord it over" his fellows, was that a righteous thing? Paul was forced to oppose Peter to his face (Galatians 2:11) when Peter erred in his walk. Christ's teaching and example opposes lordliness among His servants in their relationships with one another. Hear the words of the Master as he inveighs against the spirit of the high and mighty "religious leader" -

"But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted".. (Matthew 23:11-12)

Christ speaks in a similar way when the mother of Zebedee's sons acts in Rebekah-like fashion (cf. Genesis 27), asking that her boys James and John - the "sons of thunder", cf. Mark 3:17 - might inherit pre-eminence in the Kingdom. Jesus rebukes this selfish ambition, and points to Himself, the Lord and Master of them all, the Shepherd and Bishop of their souls, as their model -

"But Jesus called them unto him, and said, `Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many'.". (Matthew 20:25-28).

A second line of reasoning against primitive popery is provided by a parallel statement in Matthew 18. It is found in the context of a discourse initiated when the disciples asked Christ "who would be greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" Jesus said the following not too longer after the statement of chapter 16 -

"Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven". (Matgarded as a supreme pontiff!

A fourth consideration militating against Peter's primacy is based on the simple observation that primacy is not identical with "high visibility". This can be shown from Scripture as we read about the Gospel preaching of Paul and Barnabas at Lystra, Acts 14. The pagan idolaters in that place concluded that Barnabas was the lesser god, Mercury, and that Paul was the king of their pantheon, Jupiter, because he was the chief speaker!

Peter often appears as a highly visible spokesman, but he is not the only one put in the spotlight. Deacon Steven's sermon in Acts 7 has been preserved under inspiration by the Holy Spirit, and stands as one of the finest examples of Gospel preaching in the New Testament. The aforementioned Paul and Barnabas, as well as Philip, appear as representative spokesmen. As far as inspired authorship, the corpus of the New Testament canon shows that God used Paul to a far greater extent than Peter. And Peter referred to Paul's writing as Scripture, cf. 2 Peter 3:15,16.

The conclusion that some have reached about Peter's alleged primacy is comparable to an assertion that the White House Press Secretary is greater than all an adminstration's Cabinet members, and can even act as though he were the President, because he provides statements and press releases!

Finally, a consideration from Church history. While there are elders specially devoted to "laboring in the word and doctrine" (cf. Ephesians 4:11, 1 Timothy 5:17), the New Testament knows only two distinct offices in the New Covenant Church. They are 1. elder and 2. deacon. Both are spiritual offices, entrusted to mature, godly males who are called by God and ordained (recognized) by the Church with the laying on of the hands of elders previously so called and so ordained.

Episcopacy (rule by bishops) as a hierarchical pecking order, cannot be shown to have existed in the earliest days. In the New Testament itself, the words in the original language translated bishop, elder, and overseer are essentially synonyms, not terms for different Church offices.

The term bishop changed in meaning over time, with the development of a form of Church government in which some elders came under the sole oversight of one of their number. These elite bishops in turn became subject to an "archbishop", a term completely foreign to the Bible. Finally, the pernicious papacy appeared, in which one man blasphemously is regarded as Christ's peculiar vicar on earth. This alleged heir of Peter, alleged earthly head of the entire Church, and alleged "ex cathedra" spokesman for God thus usurps the ministry of God the Holy Spirit Himself! (cf. John 14:26, 15:26, 16:7; Acts 5:1-4; 1 Corinthians 2:12-16, etc.) Understandably, the Roman pope has been regarded as the very Antichrist by Reformed Christians.

So, far from being taught by the holy Bible, the "primacy of Peter" idea was one contributing factor in the apostasy in the Church that had become so rampant by the time of the Protestant Reformation.

Perhaps this argument is best brought to a close with Peter's own self assessment, in the opening verses of his first epistle, chapter five -

"The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away"..

Pastor Keith Graham, November 1997