Is the Pope “Saint Peter’s Successor”?
IN 2002, Pope John Paul II wrote a letter to the bishop of Limburg, Germany, overruling a decision by the bishop in connection with abortion. The pope introduced his directive by stating that he was responsible for “the well-being and unity of all individual churches according to the will of Jesus Christ.” He claimed authority to overrule the bishop’s decision because as pope, he is said to be “Saint Peter’s successor.”
According to a Roman Catholic definition, “Christ constituted St. Peter chief of all the apostles.” The Catholic Church further asserts that “Christ established that Peter should have perpetual successors in this primacy; and that the Roman bishops are these successors.”—New Catholic Encyclopedia (2003), Volume 11, pages 495-496.
Those are important claims. Have you examined their validity for yourself? Consider the answers to three questions: (1) Does the Bible support the claim that Peter was the first pope? (2) What does history teach about the origin of the succession of popes? (3) Do the conduct and teachings of the popes support their claim to be Peter’s successor?
Was Peter the First Pope?
To prove that the church is founded on Peter, Catholics have long pointed to Jesus’ words recorded at Matthew 16:18: “You are Peter, and on this rock-mass I will build my congregation.” In fact, those words are inscribed in Latin under the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Augustine, a revered Church Father, at one time held that the congregation was built on Peter. However, toward the end of his life, he changed his view of what Jesus’ words meant. In a work known as Retractations, Augustine argued that it was Jesus on whom the church, that is the Christian congregation, was built, not Peter.a
True, the apostle Peter features prominently in the Gospels. Jesus singled out three of his apostles—John, James, and Peter—to be present with him on a few special occasions. (Mark 5:37, 38; 9:2; 14:33) Jesus entrusted Peter with “the keys of the kingdom of the heavens,” which Peter used to open up the way to the Kingdom—first to the Jews and proselytes, then to the Samaritans, and finally to the Gentiles. (Matthew 16:19; Acts 2:5, 41; 8:14-17; 10:45) In accord with his outgoing personality, Peter at times served as spokesman for the apostles as a whole. (Acts 1:15; 2:14) But do these facts make Peter head of the early congregation?
The apostle Paul did write that Peter was entrusted with an “apostleship to those who are circumcised.” (Galatians 2:8) However, the context of Paul’s words shows that he was not saying that Peter directed the congregation. Paul’s comments were about Peter’s role in preaching to the Jews.
Although Peter was given great responsibility, nowhere in the Bible do we find him claiming to be the head of the congregation and, as such, making decisions for the disciples as a group. In his letter, he called himself “an apostle” and “an older man”—nothing more.—1 Peter 1:1; 5:1.
What Does History Teach About the Origin of the Papacy?
When and how, then, did the concept of a papacy come about? The idea that it was acceptable for one man to seek prominence over his fellow believers began to take root while the apostles were still alive. How did the apostles view such thinking?
The apostle Peter himself told the men who were taking the lead in the congregation not to be “lording it over those who are God’s inheritance”; they were to gird themselves with lowliness of mind toward one another. (1 Peter 5:1-5) The apostle Paul warned that from within the congregation, men would rise who would “speak twisted things to draw away the disciples after themselves.” (Acts 20:30) Toward the end of the first century C.E., the apostle John wrote a letter in which he strongly denounced a disciple by the name of Diotrephes. Why the reprimand? One reason was that this man ‘liked to have the first place’ in the congregation. (3 John 9) Such counsel from the apostles acted as a restraint, thwarting for a time the ambitions of those who were seeking prominence.—2 Thessalonians 2:3-8.
Shortly after the last of the apostles died, individuals began to gain more prominence. The Cambridge History of Christianity says: “Probably there was no single ‘monarchical’ bishop in Rome before the middle of the second century.” By the third century, the bishop of Rome established himself as the highest authority, at least for parts of the church.b To add weight to the claim that the bishop of Rome has superior authority, some have compiled a list of Peter’s successors.
However, this list provides little support for the claim. Why? First, some names on the list cannot be verified. More important, the foundation of the list is flawed. How so? Even if Peter did preach in Rome, as some secular literature from the first and second centuries implies, there is no proof that he was head of the congregation there.
One evidence that Peter was not head of the congregation in Rome is that when the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, he included an extensive list of Christians there. Yet, he did not mention Peter at all. (Romans 16:1-23) If Peter were head of the congregation, could we imagine that Paul overlooked Peter or snubbed him?
Note, too, that about the time that Peter wrote his first inspired letter, Paul wrote a second letter to Timothy. In that letter, Paul did not hesitate to mention Rome. Actually, Paul wrote six letters from Rome, all without any mention of Peter.
Some 30 years after Paul wrote his letters, the apostle John wrote three letters and the book of Revelation. Nowhere in these writings did John mention that the congregation in Rome was the most prominent one, nor did he refer to a leader of the church who held the supreme office of an alleged successor of Peter. Neither the Bible nor the evidence from history supports the claim that Peter established himself as the first bishop of the congregation in Rome.
Do the Conduct and Teachings of the Popes Support Their Claim?
We would rightly expect someone who claims to be “Saint Peter’s successor” and “the Vicar of Christ” to follow the conduct and teachings of both Peter and Christ. For example, did Peter accept special treatment from his fellow believers? No. He refused to allow any special expressions of reverence to be bestowed on him. (Acts 10:25, 26) What about Jesus? He said that he came to serve others, not to be served. (Matthew 20:28) By contrast, what record do the popes have? Do they shun prominence, refuse grand titles, and avoid ostentatious displays of wealth and power?
Both Peter and Christ were morally upright men who promoted peace. Compare their record with what the Catholic encyclopedia Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche (Lexicon for Theology and Church) says about Pope Leo X: “Involved in political and often nepotistic transactions and devoted to lavish worldly pleasures, Leo X neglected the urgent tasks of a spiritual nature.” Karl Amon, Catholic priest and professor of church history, says that verified reports regarding Pope Alexander VI betray “a terrific amount of unscrupulousness, abuse of authority, simony, and immorality.”
What about the teachings of the popes? How do they compare with the teachings of Peter and Christ? Peter did not believe that all good people go to heaven. With reference to good King David, he plainly said: “David did not ascend to the heavens.” (Acts 2:34) Nor did Peter teach that infants should be baptized. Rather, he taught that baptism is a step that a believer takes conscientiously.—1 Peter 3:21.
Jesus taught that none of his disciples should try to be more prominent than any other. “If anyone wants to be first,” Jesus said, “he must be last of all and minister of all.” (Mark 9:35) Shortly before his death, Jesus gave this clear directive to his followers: “Do not you be called Rabbi, for one is your teacher, whereas all you are brothers. Moreover, do not call anyone your father on earth, for one is your Father, the heavenly One. Neither be called ‘leaders,’ for your Leader is one, the Christ.” (Matthew 23:1, 8-10) Do you feel that the popes have upheld the teachings of Peter and Christ?
Some say that the succession of popes is maintained even if the officeholder does not lead a Christian life. Do you think that argument is reasonable? Jesus said: “Every good tree produces fine fruit, but every rotten tree produces worthless fruit; a good tree cannot bear worthless fruit, neither can a rotten tree produce fine fruit.” Based on the evidence, do you think that Peter or Christ would want to be associated with the fruits that the popes have produced?—Matthew 7:17, 18, 21-23.
a Jesus’ discussion with Peter centered on identifying the Christ and his role, not on the role that Peter would play. (Matthew 16:13-17) Peter himself later stated that Jesus was the rock upon which the congregation was built. (1 Peter 2:4-8) The apostle Paul confirmed that Jesus, not Peter, was “the foundation cornerstone” of the Christian congregation.—Ephesians 2:20.
b Both Jesus and the apostles warned that the Christian congregation would be overrun by men who taught apostate doctrine. (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43; 2 Timothy 4:3; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 2:18) Those statements came true when the church, or congregation, of the second century began adopting pagan customs and blending Biblical doctrine with Greek philosophy.
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Does the evidence indicate that the popes have followed Peter’s example?