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Article 0123 - Was Peter a Pope?
Was the Apostle Peter the First Catholic Pope?
Jon Gary Williams
It's a statement often heard: "Peter was the first Pope..." -- and it's a statement accepted as factual by a great many people. Was the apostle Peter actually the first Pope of the Catholic church?
First, let's examine the meaning of the word "Pope." This word comes from the Latin term "Papa," simply meaning father. Catholics call the pope "Holy Father," or one who holds absolute "papal power." He is considered the "Vicar of Christ" being the personal embodiment of Christ on earth.
It is claimed there is a list of popes reaching back to the first century and the entire system of Roman Catholicism rests on this assertion. By removing this premise the entire structure of the Catholic church falls. This is why belief in the papal office is so immensely important to the Catholic faith.
It is further claimed that the apostle Peter was the first to hold the office of a pope. However, such a doctrine is contrary to the inspired scriptures and is based on three false assumptions. For this teaching to be defended the following assumptions must be faced:
1. That there was such an office in the early church. This assumption alone exposes the claim. Search as they may, there is no historical record to support this claim. The early church knew nothing of such an elevated position. Evidence of this simply does not exist.
2. That Peter held such an office. In addition to proving that such an office existed in the first century, it must be shown that the apostle Peter held it. However, there is no evidence that places Peter in that position. To the contrary, there is abundant proof that Peter could not and would not have held such an exalted status.
3. That there is an extended succession of such an office. Any claim to such a papal succession for the first 600 years is futile. It was not until the 7th century that any such claim was made.
Facts exposing the claim that Peter was the first Pope over the church
1. The writings of the New Testament are silent about such an office. Nowhere in its 27 books can anything be found even remotely related to Peter being a pope.
2. The writings of the early church fathers do not mention such an office. For hundreds of years the writings of those men are void of anything about the apostle Peter being a "pope." Surely, if Peter held such an office, they would have made mention of this.
3. The records of the early church councils make no reference to such an office. These councils (the first in 325 A.D.) were designed to establish church belief and policy. If Peter had been a pope, mention of this would be found in the records of those councils.
4. The writings of early church historians say nothing about such an office. Although some later Catholic writers refer to Peter as a pope, this is only a fabrication.
What does the Bible reveal?
Are there sufficient biblical reasons for rejecting this doctrine? Not only is the New Testament silent about Peter being a "pope," it reveals specific facts exposing this teaching. What are they?
1. No one is to be exalted above another. This was one of Jesus' clear teachings (Lk. 22:24-26). In contrast to this, the Catholic church attributes to their popes such exalted titles as, "Most Holy Lord," "Holy Father" and "Sovereign Pontiff." To spiritually elevate one person above all other people flies in face of what Jesus taught.
2. There is only one head of the church, who is Christ (Col. 1:18; Eph. 1:22,23). However, in defiance of this the Catholic church regards the pope as the supreme, "Sovereign" head over the church.
When did the office of a pope, as the sole head of the church, originate? In 588 A.D. John the Faster, patriarch of Constantinople (eastern division of the church) took to himself the title "Universal Bishop." At this, Gregory the Great, patriarch of Rome (western division of the church), said: "Whoever adopts, or affects the title 'Universal Bishop' has the pride and character of the anti-Christ, and is in some manner forerunner in this haughty quality of elevating himself above the rest of his order."
In response to this, just two years later, Gregory's successor in Rome, Boniface III, also sought the title "Universal Bishop." Then, in 606 A.D., Phocas, emperor of the weakened Roman empire, conferred this title on Boniface III. This is how the "Papal" office in Catholicism originated.
3. On one occasion Peter, along with John, was dispatched by the other apostles to go and preach in Samaria (Acts 8:14). This shows that the apostles were an equal unit, with no one of them above the others. This confirms that Peter was simply another apostle, in no way superior to the others - unlike the practice seen in modern-day Catholicism.
4. At the meeting in Jerusalem, Peter is shown to be just another apostle (Acts 15:1-29). Since Peter spoke at the meeting, the Catholic church has used this as attempted proof that Peter was "pope." However, the text itself says otherwise.
First, notice the circumstances. False brethren from Jerusalem had gone to Antioch telling the Christians that to be saved they must be circumcised. This resulted in a meeting being held at Jerusalem to discuss how to deal with this teaching. Since Peter spoke at this gathering it is falsely concluded that he was in charge. Yes, Peter did briefly speak at this meeting, but so did Paul and Barnabas. However, it was the apostle James who gave the important discourse. Speaking on behalf of the other apostles and the Jerusalem elders he concluded with the words, "Therefore, my sentence (judgment) is..." It is clear that Peter did not lead the discussion. Rather, it was James who finally took the lead and whose recommendation we adopted by all present.
5. In the Lord's church there was no position above that of the apostles. This drives a stake through the heart of this false teaching. For positions within the structure of the church, read Eph. 4:11 and I Cor. 12:28. No position above an apostle can be found. The Catholic "pyramid" form of government, with a pope at top, is nowhere found in the New Testament.
6. While the Catholic church gives Peter an elevated degree of preeminence, the scriptures show he had no authority that was not also attributed to the other apostles. All the apostles shared the same commission (Matt. 28:19). All the apostles received the same "power" (Acts 1:8). It is claimed that Peter was given the power of "binding" and "loosing" (Matt. 16:10). However, this same power was attributed to all the apostles (Matt. 18:18).
7. Peter did not exemplify the popes of modern times who are known for accepting from people obeisance or allegiance. When Cornelius bowed at his feet in praise and respect, Peter told him to stand up and not do this, reminding Cornelius that he was just a man also (Acts 10:24-26). Notice that in Gal. 2:11-14 the apostle Paul severely rebuked Peter for being a hypocrite. This shows that Peter did not hold a special preeminent role.
8. According to the Catholic belief, those of the "clergy" (including the pope) cannot be married. In opposition to this, the scriptures teach that Peter had a mother-in-law and was obviously married (Matt. 8:14). It is argued that before becoming "pope," Peter gave up his marriage. Yet, long after the church had been established, the apostle Paul spoke of Peter having a wife (I Cor. 9:5).
9. Popes have long been referred to as "Holy Father." However, Jesus clearly said that no man is to wear the name "Father" as a religious title (Matt. 23:9). This scripture is especially devastating to the Catholic doctrine of a "Papal" office.
10. Peter never claimed the position of "Pope." No doubt, he would reject this doctrine which has been built around him; he would condemn it as false and corrupt. Note Peter's own words: "Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God that he may exalt you in due time" (I Pet. 5:6). The fact is, Peter only referred to himself as "apostle" (I Pet. 1:1) or "servant" (II Pet. 1:1).
Note: The Catholic church tries to leave the impression there is a continual line of popes -- from the first century to the present. However, the fact is there is no such unbroken "chain." Throughout the history of the Catholic church there has never been a consistent list of "popes." This continues to be evident, as the following examples show.
In 1938 a popular Catholic book listed 261 popes. (The Faith of Millions, Nihil Obstat - Msgr. T. E. Dillon; Imprimatur - Bishop John Frances Noll)
In 1957 yet another popular Catholic book listed 258 popes. (The Story Of The Pope, Dell Publication, Nihil Obstat - JCD Joh A. Goddwine; Imprimatur - Archbishop Frances Cardinal Spellman)