Get Ready For Controversy! Peter and the Popes… The Biggest Catholic/Protestant Disagreement in History

Pope Clement I

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Wow, are we ready for some controversy?  Here we go to the central issue that divides Protestants and Catholics- the succession of Peter and all the Popes who have believed to be a part of it.

Catholics would generally believe that Peter- the leader of the apostles- is the rock on which the church is founded, and this matches up with Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 2:20 where he says the church is built on the foundation stone of the prophets and apostles.[1]  And they do believe that every Pope since Peter has been in correct succession and was at the command of Jesus.  This is convincing mostly because they would appeal to the early church fathers that carried the gospel in the first three centuries after the apostles of Christ themselves walked the earth, and these were certainly men who had the true gospel passed on to them.  They use the verbiage that the Catholic Church uses today.

Catholics would appeal to Irenaeus, one who came to relationship with Christ through the teaching of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John.   Iranaeus said (around 180), “We will refute those who hold unauthorized assemblies…by pointing to the tradition of the greatest and oldest church, a church known to all men, which was founded and established at Rome by the most renowned Apostles Peter and Paul. (Adv. Haer 3).[2]  And here we have all the idioms of modern day Catholicism- the original Church having its center in Rome and having been built up by Peter and Paul.  Yet Irenaeus was writing against Gnosticism, which was a prevalent teaching in his day that was springing up amongst a sect of people who said they had received a special oral tradition from Jesus Himself.  Irenaeus was justified in writing against them because they were contradicting the teachings of Christ handed down through John & Polycarp, as well as in the accepted, legitimate gospels and letters that had circulated through the church that had been established and preserved by those who followed the teaching of the apostles.

But Rome was just a city.  It was never meant to become the center of wealth, power, tourism and opulence that exists in Vatican City, an enclosed enclave within Rome.  This is not reflective of the Rome that Peter and Paul encountered either.  Their Rome was one that hated and martyred them.  Was it meant to become a center of religious power many years later because Peter had his ministry there at one time?

Protestants would argue a vehement “no” to that question.  Many would interpret Matthew 16:18 where Jesus says, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” to mean that Jesus was speaking of Himself when He talked about “the rock” that He would build the church on.  Other Protestants would say that Peter is not the rock on which the church is founded, for that rock is God.  He is, rather, the church’s inaugural foundation stone.  He is the first to have understood who Jesus is, to have given expression to it and it’s thus fair to say that the church is built on him.[3]  So this line of thinking would ascertain that Peter is the rock Jesus is talking about, but it was never meant to say that the church completely rested on Peter in any way.  Either way one would come to the conclusion that labeling Peter as the first Pope is faulty.  Besides, while at the Council of Jerusalem, Peter has the final word and sums up, this is no Pope.  The apostles operated as a collective and worked by consensus: ‘it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’.[4]  So was it the right expression of Peter’s role to begin a line of leaders that would have the absolute, final, last say in matters of the church?  Was Peter even viewed in this way in the early days of the church?  Besides, when is the last time we have seen a Pope have someone bow down to him and react like Peter did to Cornelius? “As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.” (Acts 10:25-26)  Wait a minute!  Wasn’t this the most powerful man in the church?  Yet he was humble like Jesus taught in Mark 10:44, “and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”

Where did the leadership in the church begin to get so power hungry?  History shows that with the break-up of the old Roman empire, the papacy became a mighty secular power.  It pursued wars, handed down legal judgments that were sometimes spurious, sentenced people to torture and death, proscribed people on the cutting edge of science and accumulated enormous wealth.  Straying into corridors of temporal power often left it at odds with the Spirit of the One from whom it claimed to derive its power.[5]  Yet Catholics would still insist that every pope is a sinner…when you read back through the history of the papacy you may find scoundrels, but you will not find any pope who has formally taught heresy.[6]  This is again the defense that the Catholic church is still Christ’s only Church, and His authority exists in it despite any abuses that have happened in leadership.

This line of thinking reaches its zenith in the doctrine of papal infallibility. “Papal infallibility” is a belief that in matter pertaining to salvation and morals, and under certain strict conditions, the pope may teach without error…the infallibility rests on the office of the papacy, not on the individual.[7]  But can it be defined what these “strict conditions” are that the pope may teach without error?  What if he does error?  And as much as one could say that the infallibility rests on the office of the papacy and not the individual, nonetheless the individual that held the office of papacy would be prone to taking on an air of infallibility.  There is no human being alive that wouldn’t be tempted by such a position of power.


[1] Ibid., 41

[2] Ibid., 48-49

[3] Ibid., 44

[4] Ibid., 46

[5] Ibid., 51

[6] Ibid., 65

[7] Ibid., 65-66

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2 thoughts on “Get Ready For Controversy! Peter and the Popes… The Biggest Catholic/Protestant Disagreement in History

  1. Dude, are you taking a class or something on Catholicism? I do appreciate all these, are learning from them, and passing them along! Keep it up brother. Have always appreciated your zeal.

    Hope New England is treating you both well.
    Pastor Adam Barton,
    Akron, OH

    • Thanks Adam. I just did the Capstone project through Trinity on this topic of Catholicism & Protestantism/Evangelicalism, and I’m basically just cutting and pasting what I wrote. Thanks for reading and commenting brotha man!

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