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Why reject the primacy of the Pope?

Updated: Feb 28

Question from a hypothetical Roman Catholic:

"Why do you deny the primacy of the Roman bishop, i.e. the Pope, since the doctrine of Roman primacy goes all the way back to the early church. For example, look at Pope Leo's (A.D. 440-461) sermon on Petrine doctrine. Could you propose a better model for church structure?"

Dear friend,

I want to thank you for this question. This is a very important topic to carefully discuss against its historicalbackdrop and along with what scripture itself teaches.

First of all, I want to look carefully at your claim of the “doctrine of Roman primacy going all the way back to the early church.” What do you mean by the early church? Are you talking about coming directly from Peter and on? You mentioned the writings/sermons of pope Leo (391-461 A.D.) as an example. Thanks for sharing that with me. Let's discuss his position.

The reason I ask is that I would like to for both of us to carefully examine what both scripture teaches and what the account of church history truly tells us. However, before we even do that we need to make sure we are on the same page when it comes to the term “papacy” itself and its function.

Tell me if you agree with this working definition from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“The Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.” (1995 Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 4, line 882b)

There is a lot to unpack in the above statement, but again, we first need to examine what both scripture and church history are in agreement that this “universal power” of the pope is indeed the truest form of Christianity.

One example of early church fathers that I have heard many Roman Catholics bring up is Irenaeus' words in Against Heresies. He refers to the church in Rome as a supreme example. However, as he is working to refute the Gnostics claim to “secret oral tradition”(The Church of Rome at the Bar of History, William Webster, pg. 57) he appeals to the example of Rome to “validate them as being truly apostolic.”

Furthermore, it’s begging the question (assuming your conclusion) to say that this demonstrates the primacy of the Roman bishop as, in fact, “all that can be said of Rome can also be said of any of the other churches founded by the apostles” (The Church of Rome at the Bar of History, 57).

What’s more, church history does not show the consistent recognition of the primacy of the Roman Pope from their interaction from other bishops.

If the primacy of the pope was so clearly taught from the beginning of the church shouldn't we expect that understanding to be a part of the “apostolic testimony” and “rule of faith.”

In fact, we see the bishop Cyprian (248-258 A.D.) going against the teaching of the Roman bishop and calling him an anti-Christ for his views.

Dr. Gregg Allison notes about this disagreement that,

"According to Stephen, Jesus conferred on Peter and his successors, the bishops of Rome, the “keys,” or supreme authority in the church. According to Cyprian, Jesus conferred on Peter and all the apostles the “keys,” or equal authority in the church. Eventually, Stephen’s view won the day. The bishop of Rome, as the successor of Peter, became the ultimate authority in the church. By the seventh century, he was called the pope." (40 Questions about Roman Catholicism, Allison, 30)

Additionally, Augustine of Hippo opposed the bishop of Rome for his potential embracing of Pelagius' teaching. History professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Michael Haykin, said in a class lecture:

"Why does Augustine tell the bishop of Rome, who was on the verge of recognizing Pelagius as orthodox, ‘if you recognize that man as orthodox we will denounce you as heretics and the anti-Christ. Who would dare say that to the representative of Christ?"

Dr. Robert Godfrey makes this distinction about Augustine's view of the Pope:

"Let me offer as an illustration two examples from the work of Augustine, often quoted against the Protestant position on the question of the authority of the church. At one point in his debate with the Pelagians, a bishop of Rome sided with Augustine, and Augustine declared, "Rome has spoken, the matter is settled." Later, however, another pope opposed Augustine on this subject, and Augustine responded by saying, "Christ has spoken, the matter is settled. Augustine did not bow to the authority of the bishop of Rome, but turned to the word of Christ to evaluate the teaching of Rome."

In fact, the primacy of the bishop of Rome seems to have more officially developed with pope Leo in the late 5th century (also some with Damasus, 366-384). I say this because my understanding is that the early bishops in Carthage, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Constantinople never accepted the Roman bishop primacy view. All of these churches had very significant church leaders within their city and it seems very unlikely that they wouldn’t have a clear grasp on this doctrine by the arrival of Leo. If Leo was truly in line with the original teaching, then it seems odd that he wasn’t received by the other bishops as the primary Bishop. My study of church history makes clear that up until Leo (with a few exceptions of occasional bold claims from other Roman Bishops like Damasus, 366-384) church leaders considered all the bishops in the church to be on an equal footing. Yet, it does seem that around the 500's nearly all of the bishops accepted Roman Primacy viewpoint.

Are you familiar with the “Roman Legal Theory”?

This is the Roman idea that your ‘legal heir” (Haeres) would receive all of your authority and assets when you pass. Also, the church originally had a two-tier view of authority in the church of an elder/pastor/bishop and deacon. However, it later came into a three tier with the bishop, elder and deacon. A lot of this naturally happened as there needed to be a leading person of the church. However, because this took place, it doesn’t naturally follow that Rome’s bishop was the primary one, but merely that churches functioned in this manner. Thus, “roman legal theory” combined with the hierarchical Roman structure, and the western empires collapse, along with the need to fight heresy, made it easier trump up the position of the Roman Bishop in the eyes of the rest of the church. Also, assuming “roman legal theory” and then reading that into Matthew makes it a lot easier to understand why Leo was interpreting Matthew 16 to say as if that he is the ‘legal heir’ of Peter and the “conduit of grace.”

Leo says below,

"...the blessed Peter persevering in the strength of the Rock, which he has received, has not abandoned the helm of the Church, which he undertook. For he was ordained before the rest in such a way that from his being called the Rock, from his being pronounced the Foundation, from his being constituted the Doorkeeper of the kingdom of heaven, from his being set as the Umpire to bind and to loose, whose judgments shall retain their validity in heaven, from all these mystical titles we might know the nature of his association with Christ." (The Petrine Doctrine, Leo, click here to read the full document)

So, when we look at Leo’s interpretation of Matthew 16 I think we can understand why he is interpreting it the way he is. I disagree with his take for a few reasons listed below.

One, the apostles teaching is the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20), not the continued role of Peter in the church as a bishop. In houses, the foundation is a “once laid” event and likewise the faith was “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and thus why would we need people to continue in that one-time role?

Also, scripture doesn’t say that Peter founded the Church of Rome. Can you show me a scripture where it says this?

From the fuller context, it seems clear that the "rock" is the confession by Peter of who Jesus is and that is what the church is built upon.

Also, as my seminar peer Luke Patterson noted, "I might suggest that "this rock" he is speaking of is Peter's true confession. On this confession, the church will be built, and hell will not prevail over it. I might also suggest that Jesus is speaking to Peter in the presence of all the disciples, and therefore, the church [is represented by] disciples bound together through the keys of the kingdom based on their confession."

Origen also seems to make use of a similar point (see quote below). Furthermore, this point alongside of Matthew 18:15-20 shows how that passage can't only be referring to the keys of the roman bishop, but should also be connected with the church affirming or denying those who are living in line with Biblical behavior, responding to church discipline and in the kingdom.

However, you may say, "well whose interpretation is correct" in regard to Leo's interpretation of Matthew 16- Leo's or the Protestant's?

The historic claim of "well our view, the Roman Catholic authorized interpretation of Matthew 16, is the most historical understanding of the text" seems to be the driving hermeneutic that reads a foreign meaning into the text.

So, I ask you this:

"Do you see a general agreement among the early church fathers on interpretation of Matthew 16? If not, what do you think that could mean in light of pope Leo's interpretation?

Can we also look at some quotes from Church history?

In the book, The Church of Rome at the Bar of History by William Webster (pgs. 52-53, 174-175), I found a few quotes from several other early leading church bishops that may also be helpful:

Hilary of Poitiers (315-367 A.D.)

"A belief that the Son of God is Son in name only, and not in nature, is not the faith of the gospel and of the apostles...whence I ask, was it that the blessed Simon Bar-Jona confessed to Him thou are the Christ, the Son of the living God?...And this is the rock of confession whereon the Church is built...that Christ must not only named, but believed, the Son of God...This faith it is which is the foundation of the church; through this faith it is which is the foundation..." (St. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, Book VI. 36-37)

Cyril of Alexandria (412-444 AD)

"...for when he wisely and blamelessly confessed his faith to Jesus saying, 'You are Christ, Son of the living God,' Jesus said to divine Peter: 'You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church.' Now by the word 'rock', Jesus indicated, I think, the immovable faith of the disciple." (Commentary on Isaiah IV.2, M.P.G., vol. 70, Col. 940)

Origen (c. 185-253/254 AD)

"And if we too have said like Peter, 'Thoug art the Christ, the Son of the living God,' not as if flesh and blood had revealed it unto us, but by light from the Father in heaven having shone in our heart, we become a Peter, and to us there might be said by the Word, 'Though are Peter,' etc. For a rock is every disciple of Christ of whom those drank who drank of the spiritual rock which followed them, and upon every such rock is built every word of the church, and the polity in accordance with it; for in each of the perfect, who have the combination of words and deeds and thoughts which fill up the blessedness, is the church built by God.

But if you supposed that upon the one Peter only the whole church is built by God, what would you say about John the son of Thunder or each one of the apostles? Shall we otherwise dare to say, that against Peter in particular the gates of Hades shall not prevail, but that they shall prevail against the other apostles and the perfect? Does not the saying previously made, 'The gate of Hades shall not prevail against it,' hold in regard to all and in the case of each of them? And also the saying, "Upon this rock I will build my church'? Are the keys of the kingdom of heaven given by the Lord to Peter only, and will no other of the blessed receive them? But if this promise, 'I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven,' be common to others, how shall not all things previously spoken of, and the tings which are subjoined as having been addressed to Peter, be common to them."

(Allan Menzies, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. X, Origen's Commentary on Matthew, chs. 10-11 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), p. 456)

Also, I love the way that the author of the book, The Church at Rome at the Bar of History, points it what history can tell us here:

"Roman apologists often claim that the protestant exegesis of the Matthew 16 passage grew out of the Reformers' need to legitimize their opposition to the papacy and consequently they invented a novel exegesis which contradicted the traditional view of the Church as a whole. But such is not the case. The protestant exegesis is confirmed by the universal testimony of the Church Fathers, as Oscar Cullman observes: 'We thus see that the exegesis that the Reformers gave...was not first invent for their struggle against the papacy; it rests upon an older patristic tradition."

(The Church of Rome at the Bar of History, pg. 53)

Also, can you show me a scripture that the rest of the apostles recognized Peter as having that type of ultimate of authority?

I think that question about the disciples view of Peter is extremely important. Did they see him as a leader? Sure. Did they see him as the leader with the authority that the Roman Catholic church makes him out to possess? I don't think so.

Furthermore, it seems clear from the rest of scripture that we should understand that it is “the church” itself that is the gatekeeper for truth, salvation and keeping out heretics. We see this in 1 Timothy 3:15 where it says that the “household of God” is “the church of living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.” Also, 1 Timothy 2:5 makes clear that we don’t need a vicar on earth to come to God, but we can go directly to God through our mediator and head of the church , Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5; Colossians 1:18).

Also since scripture, not the pope, is our ultimate guide we can organize our churches without the oversight of the bishop of Rome, but select elders that are “faithful men” (2 Tim. 2:2) who can teach others (2 Timothy 2:24) and deacons (1 Tim 1:8; see this for more). Naturally, I think church leaders today will end up having someone function similar to an early church bishop, much like a “senior pastor,” but I don’t see a precedent for the primacy of one bishop. I prefer the term “under-shepherds” that are serving the great Shepherd at their local church (1 Peter 5:1-5).

I believe the most Biblical view is where the elder-pastor is functioning in the "first among equals" concept- where there is a senior pastor or leading-elder (like the early bishops). However, he is recognized as equal with the other elders. So, he is taking the initiative to lead God's people while not being the ultimate authority and is also accountable to the rest of the group.

While I reject Rome's appeal to papal primacy, I see the value and scriptural teaching of there being a leading-elder in the main church, amongst a plurality of elders.

I pray you will consider my points above and see that Christ alone is our only needed mediator and His Word Alone is a sufficient guide for believers in His Church.


Want to read more articles?

  • For more on how the early church recognized the canon and how it was not established by the Roman Catholic church but recognized as authoritative, click here and here.

  • For more about Engage Apologetics resources, click here.

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