The Pope as Peter

This week marks Pope Francis’ fifth anniversary since his election as bishop of Rome! So I thought I’d shoot out a few papal posts.

As a matter of history, the Pope, as bishop of Rome, is the successor of the Apostle Peter. According to Catholicism, this means the Pope holds the same office that Peter held. The New Testament is quite clear that Peter was chief among the Apostles.1 For many Christians who do not share the Catholic understanding of the Church, the Pope’s role is often foreign (at best). Eastern Orthodox generally accept Peter’s primacy but do not share the Catholic understanding of the Pope. While some Protestants may personally respect the Pope, the entire assumption of Protestantism from the get-go is that the papal office is a corruption of Christ’s will for His Church.

To better facilitate dialogue between Catholics and other Christians with regards to the role of the Pope, I think it’s a good start to offer examples of the Pope’s function from Peter’s role in the Bible.

I think this can be done extremely well by pointing out four models of Peter’s office uncovered in the New Testament: Peter as (1) rock, as (2) steward, as (3) shepherd, and as (4) spokesman.

Peter as Rock

Peter means “rock.” Jesus gave this name to the Apostle. Throughout the Bible, changes of names are telling of God’s call for that person in salvation history. For example, Abram was changed to Abraham, meaning “father of the multitudes.” By naming Simon “Rock,” Christ is indicating something about Peter’s role in the church.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ reveals what it means for Peter to be “Rock”:

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” –Matthew 16:16-18

So Christ’s church is built on Peter.

That the rock in this passage chiefly refers to Peter is the most obvious interpretation, since (1) Peter not only means rock but was given the name by Christ himself; (2) it parallels the rest of the promises, focused on Peter, in the passage (Peter receives the “keys of the kingdom,” Peter receives authority to bind and loose); (3) it follows the logic of the greater context: Peter calls Jesus the Messiah, Jesus in turn calls Peter the rock.2

Cyprian of Carthage, who was bishop in northern Africa in the 3rd century, enlightens us on what it means for Peter to be Rock: Peter is the foundation and source of the church’s visible unity. Communion with Peter means communion with the Church, for he is the foundation, the rock, the chair of the church:

On him [Peter] he builds the Church, and to him he gives the command to feed the sheep, and although he assigns a like power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single chair, and he established by his own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity.The Unity of the Catholic Church 4

Being in touch with Peter implies proximity to Christ’s church. To continue on the building metaphor, the rest of the church’s stones build on the rock-solid foundation of Peter. Peter gives the church its visible unity, holding the structure together, as it were. And this is how the Pope is Peter today: He continues to be the visible source and symbol of Christian unity. To be in communion with the bishop of Rome implies visible communion with the Church founded on Peter.

After many of the disciples left Jesus over his teaching on the Eucharist in John 6, Peter leads the Apostles by directing them to Christ, who “has the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Peter as Rock means anchoring the other Apostles, the other pastors, and the entire church in the solid foundation of Christ and his teachings. Peter is told to “strengthen [his] brothers” (Luke 22). The Pope’s office, above all else, directs the Christian faithful to the rock of Christ’s teachings, for whoever listens to Christ is like a “wise man who built his house on rock”:

The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. –Matthew 7:24-25

The Pope is there to safeguard Christ’s own teachings, the true rock of our faith, so that the church doesn’t fall over from the various storms that the world tosses at it.

Peter as Steward

Peter serves as chief steward or prime minister under the king, Jesus Christ. If this sounds like political language, then good, it should:

To understand Peter as steward, we have to look back at the Old Testament, particularly the Kingdom of David. In salvation history, God gradually prepares his people for the fullness of his covenant, the Kingdom of God meant for all peoples. We should expect the Old Testament to have key paradigms that prefigure God’s ultimate plan. The New Testament often points these out explicitly. For example, Christ is the New Adam, the New Moses, and the New David. In Matthew 16:19, Jesus echos Isaiah 22, when he gives Peter the “the keys of the kingdom” and the authority to “bind and loose.” Look at the parallel:

“The key of the house of David I will lay on his shoulder; So he shall open, and no one shall shut; And he shall shut, and no one shall open.” –Isaiah 22:22

This passage from Isaiah refers to the “prime minister” of sorts who served under and represented the King in the Davidic household. The keys represent the authority of the king. Jesus, the New King, has a new chief steward who represents and serves under him: Peter, the key-holder.

As steward, Peter is Christ’s vicar or representative. The title “Vicar of Christ,” offensive to many non-Catholics, actually goes back directly to Christ’s own words. For as chief minister, holding the keys, Peter manifests Christ’s own spiritual authority. After Christ’s ascension into Heaven, Peter became new Christian movement’s headman. The bishop of Rome as Vicar of Christ simply means this: That in Christ’s absence, the Pope is the chief human representative of Christ’s own authority.

Peter as Shepherd

Some say that the Catholic view of the Pope takes away from Jesus. If Jesus is the Rock of the faith in one sense, then Peter can’t be the Rock of the church in any other sense. And if Christ is the head of the Body of Christ, then the Pope can’t be head in any other sense. This kind of understanding gets the Christian faith very wrong: Christianity is all about participation in Christ. There is no competition. Christ lives and acts through us, the Body of Christ.

Peter as shepherd is a very good example of this principle of participation in the Body of Christ. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. But Christ makes other men pastors and overseers of his disciples. Any pastor of a congregation, of whatever denomination, is exactly that: a shepherd of his fold. And yet Jesus explicitly makes Peter shepherd of the church in the Gospel of John. In a Resurrection appearance to Peter among other disciples, Jesus calls out Peter, telling him to “feed” and “tend” his sheep (John 21:17, etc.)

In Ephesians, Paul describes how there are many roles in the Body of Christ. We need each other. These roles, from apostles to pastors and teachers, are for the sake of the “unity of the faith” (Eph 4:13). The Petrine role of chief pastor is no different: There is one Body of Christ, one Church with one faith, and Peter as shepherd ensures the unity of the faith, bringing the one fold of Christ together. Peter was the first to receive the revelation of Gentile inclusion into the fold of Christ, thereby implying that Peter is also shepherd of these people, too.

The logic of having a pastor is simple enough: He’s there to guide and lead his group of fellow Christians. If individual churches need such leadership, how much more so does the universal church! If Christ founded only one church and desires it to be united, surely he’d provide a means for such unity! Catholics say he did, and Peter is part of the answer.

To quote from Cyprian again:

If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he should desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church? The Unity of the Catholic Church 4

Peter as Spokesman

Throughout the New Testament, Peter stands out as spokesman of the Apostles—as in the above-mentioned passage of John 6, where Peter assures that the Apostles look to Jesus for salvation, or in Matthew 16, when he declares Jesus to be the Messiah. Peter preached and announced the gospel at Pentecost, the “birthday of the church.”

In one of the first major decisions of the church, Peter acted as the key spokesman. At Jerusalem, the Apostles and elders gathered together to decide whether or not Gentiles could be included in the faith without first observing Jewish laws. After much discussion and debate, Peter arose, told the truth of the matter, and all “fell silent.” Peter settles the matter.

Some non-Catholics are suspicious of the notion of papal infallibility, taking it to mean that the Pope acts alone and negates the authority of the rest of the church’s bishops and pastors. But this is false, and Acts 15 expresses the Catholic position: Peter is there to speak for the church. Peter listens, Peter discusses, and yet Peter resolves. The bishop of Rome does not act alone. He acts with his brother bishops, and yet he speaks for them, offering one voice for the church’s faith. In fact, the council of Jerusalem in Acts models how the Catholic Church would go on to decide important matters throughout its history. Bishops meet in council with the Pope at its head. After discussion and debate, the Pope confirms and legitimizes the authority of the meeting.3

The role of the Pope as spokesman is expressed well by 2nd-century bishop Ireneaus of Lyons, who says that Rome is the chief example of Apostolic Succession. Ireneaus was concerned with showing why Gnostic groups could not represent authentic Christianity. True teaching comes from the churches founded by the Apostles and led by their successors, which the Gnostics didn’t have. He gives the lists of bishops from the time of Peter on to his own day (around AD 180). About the Church of Rome, he says:

“With that church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition.” –Against Heresies 3:3:2

So for this second-century bishop in modern day France, The Roman church and its bishop is not only the chief example of the Christian faith, but the guarantor of authentic Christian teaching. “All churches must agree with it,” since it was “founded and organized by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul” (ibid.).

Christian Unity and the Pope

If Christians of all stripes desire unity in the Body of Christ, we must rediscover the role of the Pope. Whether or not one accepts the Catholic understanding, the Pope as public Christian leader is not going away anytime soon. Even on a purely practical level, with no acknowledgment of divine institution, one should expect the Pope to have an integral role in the Christian faith until, well, the time comes when Christianity no longer exists on Earth.  Two facts should have us think this: (1) Catholicism is by far the largest expression of Christianity and (2) The papal office is ancient and just as prominent as ever.

All Christians need to strive for unity. But in order to realistically do so, we cannot forget the role of the Pope. He speaks for the largest Christian church, and he is arguably the most identifiable Christian figure in the world. How does this happen for people who aren’t Catholic? It can start with a basic appreciation for the Pope. Many individual non-Catholics have warm feelings for Pope Francis and appreciate his pastoral approach.

But we also need to work to get rid of prejudices and misunderstandings. Some Christian groups were founded with the notion that the Pope is the AntiChrist, including some Lutherans.4



1 Peter is always listed first in the lists of the Apostles—sometimes just “Peter and his companions.” Peter’s name alone occurs more than the names of all other Apostles combined. Peter plays a prominent role at pivotal scenes in the life of Christ and the development of the Church: He’s present at Christ’s transfiguration, he personally receives a Resurrection appearance, Paul meets with him for 15 days to learn, Peter leads in selecting Judas’ replacement, Peter preaches the first sermon on Pentecost, Peter presides at the Council of Jerusalem, Peter receives the revelation of Gentile inclusion in the church. And of course, as described in this post, Peter is named the “rock,” steward, shepherd, and spokesman of the church.

2 Some non-Catholic Christians try to argue that the “rock” means something else, like Jesus himself, or Peter’s faith. Usually, they do so to avoid implications of Peter’s (and papal) primacy. Truly, all of these are “rocks” in different senses, but Christian history testifies to Peter as the rock in Matthew 16. For example, Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Ephraim, Ambrose, and Augustine all identify Peter as the rock and foundation of the church (Demurrer Against the Heretics 22, Homilies on Exodus 5:4; The Unity of the Catholic Church; Homilies 4:1; The Faith 4:5; Letters 53:1:2).

3 Consider an event at the Council of Chalcedon, the fourth major ecumenical council of the church (held in AD 451). When the gathered bishops received a letter from Pope Leo describing Christological doctrine, the bishops affirmed the Pope’s authority in connection with Peter: “After the reading of the foregoing epistle [The Tome of Leo], the most reverend bishops cried out: ‘This is the faith of the fathers! This is the faith of the apostles! So we all believe! Thus the orthodox believe! Anathema to him who does not thus believe! Peter has spoken thus through Leo!’” (Acts of the Council of Chalcedon, session 2). 

4 “As to the Antichrist we teach that the prophecies of the Holy Scriptures concerning the Antichrist…have been fulfilled in the Pope of Rome and his dominion.” The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s