For centuries the Pope has been considered the “successor of the apostle Peter.” The Papacy is an ecclesiastic system in which the pope oversees the government of the Catholic Church as its universal “head.” Although people may disagree with the basis for the papacy, the truth is that this ecclesiastical order does exist, and thus its existence needs to be explained. Since Catholicism teaches that the basis for the establishment of the papacy is divine and biblical, we must turn to the Bible to verify or refute this teaching.
The single greatest text that is used to explain God established the Papacy is Matthew 16:18. Jesus said in Matthew 16:18, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” This is the Bible verse to which the Catholic apologist quickly turns in order to defend the establishment of the papacy. Through an arbitrary interpretation of this verse—an interpretation which suggests that Jesus chose Peter, and ultimately his successors, to be the “rock” (foundation) upon which the church would be built—the Catholic Church has built a grand structure with a mere man as its head. But what did Jesus mean in this verse recorded by Matthew? Was He establishing a human hierarchy over the church? Was Jesus declaring that Peter was the “rock” of the church?
[Mat 16:13-20 ESV] 13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 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-Jonah! 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 gates of hell 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.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.
- The Rock
Peter was always the first disciple to speak up and resulted in him sticking his foot in his mouth a lot, but this time he got it right on the money. Because of his realization and boldness in speaking, Jesus responds directly to Peter. Jesus responds to Peter’s confession in saying,
17 …”Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! 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 gates of hell 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.”
We must also examine the difference between two Greek words used in the text: “You are Peter (petros) and upon this rock (petra) I will build My church” (Matthew 16:18). In reference to Peter, the Holy Spirit recorded the Greek word petros—“a detached stone or boulder, or a stone that might be thrown or easily moved” (Vine). In contrast, in reference to the “rock,” the Holy Spirit recorded the Greek word petra, which denotes a solid mass of rock (Vine). Furthermore, these two words are in a different gender; the word petros is masculine, while the word petra is feminine. Thus, many argue that petros refers to the Aramaic name Jesus gave Peter (Cephas) while the word used for “rock” (petra) refers to the very foundation of the church, which is Peter’s confession. So there is an extremely slight difference in the Greek, where Jesus is making a play on words. Jesus is comparing two rocks. Peter is one rock and the other rock is the foundation of the church.
The argument the Catholic church makes is that there is one rock, which is Peter. They say Jesus is saying to Peter, “you are the rock upon which the church will be built.”
I will be honest, I had a preacher who was extremely influenced by Catholicism who mentored me in my high school age. He believed that Peter was the rock Jesus spoke of. Because I was so influenced by him, I came to the point where I believed it was Peter too and it was only in 2015 that I changed my mind. Every time I studied it, I never changed my mind until I was reading the book of Matthew with no agenda and realized I was wrong. But to be honest, I should have just read other scriptures on the topic. Other scriptures make it so obvious that the rock is Christ.
[Eph 2:19-20 ESV] 19 … the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone…
[Act 4:11 ESV] (Peter said,) 11 This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.
[1Pe 2:6-8 ESV] (Peter says of Jesus,) 6 For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” 7 So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” 8 and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.”…
[1Co 10:4 ESV] … For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.
[1Co 3:11 ESV] 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
I look at Matthew 16:18 and the answer is not obvious to me whether Jesus is the rock or Peter in that context. But when I consider all the other scriptures, it is obvious to me that Jesus is the rock.
So, the emphasis in the Matthew 16 passage is the confession of Peter.
[Mat 16:16, 18 ESV] 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” … 18 And I tell you, you are Peter (a rock), and on this rock (his confession) I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Why is this important? A couple reasons: 1) God’s Church is not built upon a fallible human. There is no human, dead or alive, that can tell God’s Church what to do or how to behave, only God. The Church is not built upon a human, who would probably fail and bring the Church to misery. (I do not know how Catholics can criticize their own Pope, as I have heard them do, when they believe that God’s Church is built upon them). When I say God’s Church is not built upon a fallible human, I am saying our salvation does not rest on any fallible human, and I am saying our faith does not rest upon any fallible human.
2) God’s Church is built upon no human other than Jesus Christ. Our faith rests in Christ alone. Our salvation is in his hands alone. We are to listen to him alone. It is Christ who we can stand firmly on and never fall. To put that trust in any other human would be to eventually fail.
It is Peter’s confession that is the key to joining the Lord’s Church. Just as Peter later preached to the Jews that Jesus is Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). Those who received his word were baptized and their souls were added to the Lord’s Church (Acts 2:41). In Acts 2, Peter stood before the crowds not to declare himself as the first “pope” of the church, or as the “father” of all believers. Rather, he stood humbly to give honor and acknowledge the One who made the Church a reality.
- Peter’s Role
When we look at Peter, we see he is a prominent disciple of the Twelve Disciples chosen by Christ. I will not deny that it seems Peter held a larger position in the Twelve Disciples. He seems to be a quasi-leader of the Twelve, not with any additional power, but it seems from scripture that there was a hierarchy in the Twelve Disciples.
When the Twelve Disciples are listed in Matthew’s account (10:1), in Mark’s (3:13), and in Luke’s (6:13), Peter is always named first, then the three Andrew, James, and John. In Jesus’ ministry, he spent extra time with these men and took these four to witness important events (eg. the transfiguration, Luke 9:28). So, it seems that Peter was being groomed by Jesus to be the spokesperson in the Apostles, not with any extra power or responsibility beyond being the spokesperson. Peter fits into that role in Acts, where the Apostles are present, they are all doing the work of God, but Peter takes the initiative to speak for the group. I cannot emphasize this enough, that does not make him the Pope.
At the same time, Peter was a fallible man who made mistakes. Jesus’ ministry is filled with Peter’s mistakes. Immediately after Peter confesses Jesus is Christ in Matthew 16, he then informs the Lord Jesus he will not die, to which Jesus does not respond quietly. Remember Galatians 2, Paul recounts a time when Peter fell back into his old Jewish ways and avoided Gentiles, to which rightly Paul calls him out. (It is a good thing the Kingdom of God is not built upon him.)
Back to Matthew 16, Jesus gives Peter a responsibility. After praising him for his confession, Jesus said to Peter,
[Mat 16:19 ESV] 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.”
Of course, there are not literal keys; they are symbolic of authority.
Once upon a time, being presented with the key to the city served a real function. In ancient times, when it was common for European towns to be ringed by walls, visiting dignitaries were presented with a key to the city gate as a gesture of trust and kindness; these particular visitors could come and go as they pleased with the assumption that they wouldn’t be returning with a militia to lay siege to the city. Today presenting a key to the city is a sentiment of trust or a publicity stunt.
Imagine a jailer who has the keys to the prison cells. Those keys are his authority. He decides if and when a cell door is opened. The keys are a symbol of his authority. Or the keys to your home. You decide who gets to go into your home and who does not, there is authority there. The keys represent authority. Again, the Lord says,
[Mat 16:19 ESV] 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.”
What does it mean to bind something or to loose something? Binding means to forbid something and loosing to permit something. This is to speak with God’s authority, God permits this or God forbids this. So, Peter is given the authority to speak with God’s authority on what is permitted or forbidden.
First question, does Peter alone have this authority? Is Peter the only one who can pronounce bindings and loosings? The answer is no. While here Jesus says this to Peter directly, in another place Jesus says this to the entire Twelve.
[Mat 18:18 ESV] 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
This is not an authority Peter held alone. This is an authority the Twelve held.
Second question, does this authority mean God will establish whatever they declare? There is a lexical ambiguity here, meaning the language can be interpreted two ways.
[Mat 16:19 ESV] .. whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Two ways to look at this in the English, the Twelve declare something on earth and heaven follows: they bind on earth and then it is bound in heaven. OR, the Twelve declare something on earth and heaven has already established that same thing: they bind on earth because it is already bound in heaven.
What comes first, the binding on earth or the binding in heaven? The Greek is clearer: the “shall be bound” and “shall be loosed” is Future Indicative Middle. While the “whatever you bind” and “whatever you loose” is Aorist Subjunctive Active. The NASB translated it in a way that is clear,
“… whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”
Why is that important? Because it teaches us what it means to be inspired by God. The Apostles did not preach whatever they want and God decided to make whatever they said to be God’s Word. That is backwards. The Apostles spoke what God had already decided. God’s Word was decided by God and spoken by men.
This is clear from other passages. Jesus tells the Apostles they will receive the Spirit who will teach them “all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (Jhn14:26). While Peter and the Apostles have authority, Christ has the ultimate authority because he is the Rock upon which the Church is built.
This does not reduce the Apostles’ roles; they spoke God’s Word and continued to build upon the foundation of the Church. Peter fulfilled his role as a spokesman of the Twelve in paving the way for salvation for the Jews in Acts 2 and then for salvation of the Gentiles in Acts 10. God spoke through Peter in binding and loosing; it was primarily through Peter that it was revealed that faith, repentance, and baptism were required (bound) and following the Law of Moses was not (loosed). Any of the other Apostles could have been the one, but God chose Peter.
If the keys to the Kingdom were held only by Peter and none of the other Twelve, meaning Peter had a special authority among the Apostles, then it was performed by him revealing salvation to the Jews then the to the Gentiles. But the other Apostles definitely had the ability reveal what is bound and loosed just as Peter did, shown by Mat. 18:18. I do not want to give Peter more credit than he deserves as the Catholics do. But I also want to give Peter the credit due him revealed by God’s Word.
I cannot emphasize this enough: God’s Word does not make Peter out to be Pope. They declare that Peter was greater because: (1) he always is mentioned first in the lists of the apostles (e.g., Matthew 10:2; Mark 3:16; Luke 6:14-16; Acts 1:13); (2) he was the apostle who recognized Jesus as Lord in Matthew 16:16; and (3) Jesus told him to care for His sheep (John 21:15-19). Are these arguments sufficient for establishing the papacy or supremacy for Peter? No.
Consider the case for any other apostle. For example, it could be said that John was the “greatest” of the apostles because: (1) in the Bible he is referred to as the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23; 21:20,24); (2) he rested on Jesus’ bosom just before His arrest (John 13:25; 21:20) —certainly a posture that suggests a close relationship; and (3) Jesus charged him with the responsibility of caring for His mother (John 19:26-27). Does this mean that we also should consider John as a pope?
Who did Jesus say was the greatest Apostle?
[Luk 22:24 ESV] 24 A dispute also arose among them (the Twelve), as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.
The disciples argued who was the greatest meaning it was not clearly defined who was greatest and Jesus then told them that the greatest one is the one who serves (Luke 22:26-27).
Another instrumental key to the Papacy found today is succession. The Catholic Church claims the Pope is the rightful successor to Peter. However, God’s Word does not give any suggestion of succession to the Apostles. The only one of the Twelve to be replaced was Judas at the very beginning before Pentecost, Acts 1:12-26. This is key to understanding that succession, were more to be replaced as time went on or was the succession a one-time occurence? We know for certain that not all Apostles were to be replaced because they were not replaced. James the Apostle was killed and when the Apostles gathered in Jerusalem (Acts 15:4, 6) they did not install a replacement. The only arguments left are ones without support in Scripture.
But if you are not convinced I encourage you to look into the history of the papacy. Just some highlights here: (this is the supposed Rock of the Church)
Pope Honorius I (A.D. 625-638) was deemed a “heretic” for many years after his death for espousing the doctrine of monotheletism (I thought he was inspired?). Eugenius IV (1431-1447), condemned Joan of Arc, considering her to be a participant of witchcraft, though Benedict XV canonized her as a “saint” in 1920 (Can God contradict Himself?). Other popes, such as Paul III, Paul IV, Sixtus IV, Pius IX, et al., authorized, promoted, incited, and reinforced the “Holy” Inquisition for which the late Pope John Paul II had to apologize worldwide (Fake news, right?)
The same John Paul II (1978-2005) gave a fatal blow to the doctrine of infallibility. In opposition to the declarations of other popes and to Catholic doctrine itself, this pope declared: The Spirit of Christ uses churches and ecclesial communities other than the Catholic Church as means of salvation (1979, 4.32); people outside the Catholic Church and the Gospel can attain salvation by the grace of Christ (1990, 1.10); people can be saved by living a good moral life, without knowing anything about Christ and the Catholic Church (1993, 3); there is sanctification outside the Catholic Church (1995, 1.12); the martyrs of any religious community can find the extraordinary grace of the Holy Spirit (1995, 3.84). (Where to start…)
This has led to Catholics having to adjust and revamp their views to justify their Popes. They say that Popes can be wrong in speaking their own opinions but not in matters of faith. One Catholic apologist said,
“it is true that certain popes have contradicted other popes, in their private opinions or concerning disciplinary dogmas; but there was never a Pope who would officially contradict what a previous Pope officially taught about faith and moral matters. The same could be said about ecumenical councils, which also teach with infallibility. There was not an ecumenical council that would contradict the teaching of a previous ecumenical council concerning faith and morals”
Now Catholicism proposes that, in reality, the Oope can make mistakes in religious matters, but he never will do it officially. (Isn’t that convenient?)
In its Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, Vatican I Council denounced those who deny God and Christ, while Vatican II esteemed Muslims though they do not acknowledge Jesus as Son of God. Pope Sergius III served as pope from A.D. 904 to 911 and one person said, “He was grossly immoral, and lived in licentious relations with Marozia, who bore him several children, among them the future pope John XI.” Pope John XII served as pope from A.D. 955 to 963, when he was 18. He is considered “one of the most scandalous popes of history.” Pope Innocent VIII served as pope from A.D. 1484 to 1492. It is said that his children numbered “16, all of them children by married women.” Pope Stephen VI exhumed the corpse of a predecessor Pope Formosus and put the corpse on trial. Of course, the corpse was found guilty and buried.
Let us not forget that the position of Pope is challenged so often that there is a title for someone who seeks to be Pope instead of the present Pope, they are called antipopes. The Western Schism—which began in 1378, when the French cardinals, claiming that the election of Pope Urban VI was invalid, elected antipope Clement VII as a rival to the Roman Pope—led eventually to two competing lines of antipopes. For seventy years, there were two lines of popes.
Here is the point: these Popes are not worth our faith. Any institution built on these men of sin is not going to lead you to God’s Kingdom. Same with Peter, Peter is a great man of faith who did so much for the Lord, but he is a fallible man with sin and is not worth our faith.
We follow Christ, who knew no sin but became sin so we could become the righteousness of God. He was tempted in all points like we are, but he did not sin. He is the spotless lamb. He is a leader without scandal. He is a man of integrity. He is Lord of all creation who died for our sins.
Upon Christ there stands a Church that will never fall. This is the Church we need to be part of. We must confess that “He is the Christ, the Son of the living God.” When Christ is your rock, you will stand firm.