Is the papacy a human invention? Protestants claim it is. 16th century Protestant revolutionaries like Martin Luther chose to not only deny the authority of the pope but to reject the office entirely. However, the Bible tells a different story.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
10 July 2019
It is the teaching of the Church that the office of the papacy is divinely instituted by Christ. That is, Jesus deliberately structured the Church in such a way as to include not only a leadership body (the apostles) but an earthly, supreme leader as head of the apostles and the Church. We refer to this earthly leader as the pope. Further, it is Jesus’ intention that this basic structure would be perpetuated throughout the centuries via a line of successors. As of now, there have been 266 popes in the Church’s history, from Peter to Francis, his most recent successor.
I can think of a few reasons why Jesus would institute the papacy. On a societal level, every nation, institution, and home needs a leader. Without one, things quickly disintegrate and chaos ensues. That much is plainly obvious. Can you imagine a nation without a leader? Well, it certainly couldn’t be called a nation. What about an institution or business without a leader? It wouldn’t be around long. What about a family with an absentee father or one who is present yet lays down his God-given leadership role? That, too, ends in all kinds of destructive problems. It cannot be different with the Church. The splintering division self-evident in Protestantism bears out that fact. No leader, no leadership. No leadership and it’s ultimately every man for himself.
On an ecclesial level, a leader is required to govern authentically, settle disputes, maintain orthodoxy and orthopraxy, guide and edify according to the truth. It doesn’t work out to have thousands of so-called leaders, as we see in Protestantism. With that arrangement, all you end up with is thousands of “mini-popes” who form their own individual and often conflicting communities.
The pope’s main duty is found in guarding the deposit of faith against corruption, false accommodations, inventions, and disruptive novelties—and these are always rearing their ugly heads. His role is to maintain unity in truth. The pope is to act as a representative of Christ on earth, as his Vicar before the people of God and the entire world. Should a pope stray from this position and introduce errors, confusion, and doctrinal disfigurement, he has strayed from the divinely constituted boundaries of his office. Nevertheless, the fact that no pope is impeccable does not negate the fact that his office is necessary. Christ himself made it that way.
I know what you’re thinking. As of late, the office of the papacy has suffered immensely. I’m not going to get into that here, except to say that this day will soon pass into another. Given the present atmosphere, you might wonder why I would want to write in favor of the papacy. The simple answer is because Jesus deliberately chose to bestow the papacy on his Church. And it is his Church.
Protestants, however, deny the office of the papacy entirely. They claim it’s not only unnecessary, it’s an unbiblical aberration of human origin. After 500 years, we’ve seen where that has led. But is there any accuracy to these Protestant claims?
The Bible Has A Very Different Story To Tell
Obviously, there’s way more to be said here than can be said in a blog post. Nevertheless, here are a few sound and clear biblical examples indicating that the papacy is in fact Jesus’ plan for his Church.
In today’s gospel (Mt 10:1-7), the apostle Matthew provides us with a list of the apostles. The first name on the list is “Simon called Peter.” In every case, when the apostles are listed in the NT, Peter appears first as an indication of his role as leader of the apostles (see Mk 3:13-19; Lk 6:12-16; Acts 1:13). One thing anyone quickly learns when studying the Bible is that every word has meaning. That would follow from the fact that the scriptures are divinely inspired and written by human authors for one single purpose: salvation in Christ. When Peter is ALWAYS listed first, it means something. It means Peter is the leader of the apostles.
Further, we find that in Matthew 16 Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter (Again, this has meaning. When God gives someone a new name it signals a new vocation. Think Abram to Abraham, for instance). Jesus tells Peter that he is the rock foundation upon which his Church will be built, gives him the keys to the kingdom, and bestows on him the power of binding and loosing. All these acts on the part of Jesus make it abundantly clear that he is bestowing a leadership role on Peter as head of the apostles and the Church. Any interpretation of this passage which rejects Peter’s leadership role is a corruption of the obvious, literal sense of the text.
There are many other examples in scripture indicating Peter’s leadership role. Christ tells Peter to tend and feed his sheep (Jn 21:15 ff.), who represent the one flock of Christ’s Church. As another example, when Peter and John run to the tomb on the day of the resurrection, although John arrives first, he waits for Peter and allows Peter to enter the tomb first out of respect for his leadership position (Jn 20:1 ff.). And at the first council in Jerusalem (see Acts 15), Peter stands up and makes an authoritative ruling in regard to circumcision as unnecessary.
The Bible provides ample evidence in favor of Jesus Christ installing Peter as the leader of the apostles and the entire Church, which means the papacy is divinely instituted. It’s out-of-sync with the Bible to suggest otherwise. Also, it would make no sense to suggest that this leadership role died out with Peter. If the Church needed an earthly leader in the 1st century, it certainly needs one in all the centuries to follow.
I’m sure someone reading this will object. He will say that the Church is founded on the Bible. Sorry, but no. When Christ founded the Church, the NT did not yet exist. In terms of the OT scriptures, it was the Church who formally decreed them to be divinely inspired by God. That’s how they ended up in modern-day Catholic and Christian Bibles (although Protestants, namely Martin Luther, removed seven OT canons in the 16th century). As Rev. O’Brien wrote, the Church is the mother of the Bible, not its child.
With All the Evidence In Favor of The Papacy, Why Do Protestants Deny It?
The answer is simple: The Protestant revolutionaries in the 16th century had to deny the papacy as a means of justifying their division from the Church. They were determined not to submit to the pope; therefore, according to their “logic of separation,” they jettisoned the papacy and deemed it a “human tradition.” These same errors have been perpetuated throughout our separated Protestant brethren for 500 years. Now, this “logic of separation” has become dogma.
Sadly, it has led to other losses: unity of faith, apostolic succession, the priestly ministry, the Eucharist and other sacraments, the holy sacrifice of the Mass, and important doctrines of faith and morals.
The First Christians on The Pope
It’s my experience that Protestants today who reject the papacy and the Catholic Church, do so because they’ve been told it’s wrong, without actually engaging in a careful investigation of the biblical evidence and the facts of history. For example, they often have little or no historical consciousness in terms of the teaching of the first Christians on the primacy of the pope.
Many of the first Christians (known to Catholics as Church Fathers) gave witness to the office of the papacy, its primacy and its leadership role. Here are a couple of examples. St. Cyprian of Carthage writes in A.D. 251:
The Lord says to Peter: ‘I say to you,” he says, “That you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it. And to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven . . .” [Mt 1:18-19]. On him he builds the Church, and commands him to feed the sheep [Jn 21:17], and although he assigns a like power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single chair [cathedra], and he established by his own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were also what Peter was [apostles], but a primacy is given to Peter, by which it is made clear that there is one Church and one chair. . . . If someone does not old fast to this unity of Peter, can he think that he holds the faith? If he deserts the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he be confident that he is in the Church?qtd. in Akin, The Fathers Know Best, 196. Unity of the Catholic Church 4; first edition (Treatise I:4),
From the Letter of Clement to James written in A.D. 290:
Be it known to you, my lord, that Simon [Peter], who, for the sake of the true faith, and the sure foundation of his doctrine, was set apart to be the foundation of the Church, and for this end was, by Jesus himself, with his truthful mouth, named Peter, the first fruits of our Lord, the first of the apostles; to whom the Father first revealed the Son; whom the Christ blessed with good reason; the called, the elect.qtd. in Akin, The Fathers Know Best, 196-197. Letter of Clement to James 2 (c. A.D. 290)
The Pope’s Not Impeccable
Peter was not perfect. No pope is. However, that fact does not negate the papacy as Christ’s will for his Church. One of the beautiful things about God is that he employs people—freely invites them—to carry out his will, even in the midst of their sinfulness and weaknesses. There have been many cases in history of notoriously bad popes. Nevertheless, the deposit of faith remains intact. The infallible dogmas of the Church and her irreformable teaching remains uncorrupted. All of this speaks to the Spirit-guided nature of the Church.
One mistake people frequently make is found in attributing too much weight, power, and authority to the office of the papacy. They think Catholics think the voice of the pope is the voice of the Holy Spirit (there may be some Catholics somewhere who think that, but they are incorrect). They think the pope can do whatever he wants in terms of leading the Church. They think the pope can conjure up all kinds of new teaching that is binding on the faithful. None of that is true, however. Technically, a pope cannot invent doctrine; he is installed to be its defender. He does not hear a voice from heaven and then pronounce it as dogma. He cannot teach infallibly when he is speaking extemporaneously. And he might well be totally wrong in whatever he might say about issues unrelated to faith and morals.
Is the papacy God’s plan for his Church and therefore for all people? Absolutely. An honest assessment of scripture and Church history bears that out. I prefer to follow Jesus AND the Bible. I’ll stick with the hierarchical structure he set in place, which, of course, includes the pope.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.