Was the Apostle Peter the First Pope?
According to Vatican figures, there are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world. Every one of these individuals is bound under the Pope, who lives in Rome. He is known to them as the “Vicar of Christ,” “Holy Father,” “God on earth,” “Prince of the Apostles,” and “Supreme Head” of the Church. According to their history, “one of the foundational dogmas of the Catholic church is that the current Pope, in an unbroken chain, has received their authority to rule the church directly from the apostle Peter” (1). The Catholics lay their foundation of the concept of the papacy on two passages: Matthew 16:13-19 and John 21:15-19. It is important to note every foundation that proves faulty causes all the bricks built on top to tumble down. This article will not look at papal doctrines brick by brick, it will look at the foundation. If their foundation does not align with God’s word and is found faulty, then their doctrines will come tumbling down.
(Very) Brief History on the Origins of the Catholic Church and the Papacy
Ignatius of Antioch is known to be the first person to use the term “catholic church” in 107 AD and established the seed of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy by placing one bishop above all else in his letters (2).
The development of the papacy was slow, forming over the course of centuries. “Pope” wasn’t used until 304 AD (3). However, the idea of a head bishop and someone as Peter’s successor and Christ’s representative leader birthed at the end of the 2nd century—over 150 years after the church of Christ was established in Jerusalem. This is known as the Petrine theory (or doctrine).
312 AD onward the Catholic Church and the papacy was gaining momentum and a new status as “Christianity.” Many events pushed for the preeminence of the Catholic Church in Rome: the city being the capital of the Empire, martyrs, heresies, worshipping publicly at cathedrals in Rome instead of privately from house to house (Christian persecution drastically ceased), and the Catholic Church becoming involved in political affairs that advanced their doctrines and the Petrine theory. It made its solidification in 325 AD at the council of Nicea.
Politics, councils, and opposition to Catholicism shaped the papacy, adding new doctrines to strengthen its authority in response to heresies and to advance in both religious and political affairs. Between the years 492-496, the Roman Synod added a new title for Pope Gelasius I (and all the subsequent Popes to come): Vicar of Christ. Or, simply put, “in the person” of Christ. The papacy would continue to shape itself to what it is today throughout the centuries.
“Upon this rock, I will build My church”
The Catholic encyclopedia stresses that the Greek word for Peter and “rock” are one and the same in Matthew 16:18. They believe that Jesus built His church on Peter, thus making him Supreme Head over the church.
However, here are three things to keep in mind when reading Matthew 16:13-19:
Jesus took His disciples to Caesarea Philippi—a district filled with gods and a temple dedicated to Augustus. He then asked them, in the midst of these gods, “who do men say that I am?” This was the moment where He reveals who He is. It’s not about Peter, John the Baptist, Elijah, the Greek gods, and the temple of Augustus. Jesus stood before fallible humanity and false gods declaring Himself to be the Son of the living God, the Messiah. Therefore, this had everything to do with Peter’s confession of who Jesus is. His divine response to the Lord’s question is the rock of the church.
Jesus said “My” church—not Peter’s; therefore, He is the Head over His own body (Ephesians 1:22; 5:23).
“Peter” in the Greek is “petros: a small rock or stone.” “Rock” in this passage is “petra: a large cliff, a bedrock.”
“I give you the keys to the kingdom”
Catholics believe that Jesus telling Peter “I give you the keys to the kingdom” is proof of the Pope's supreme authority in all areas of the church (4), but just as Peter’s confession served as the rock, it also served as the keys to open the gates to Christ’s kingdom. In Acts 2, Peter preached the very first gospel sermon, ending it with “God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.” (v. 36, NASB). Here again is the confession, and it caused 3,000 souls to be added to the church (v. 41). The kingdom had opened, the keys given were used.
“Shepherd, tend to, and feed My sheep”
The final passage used to promote the Pope’s sovereignty over Christ’s flock is John 21:15-19 when Jesus told Peter, “tend to My sheep.” They hold to the position that this charge was given to Peter alone. However, the word “tend to” in the Greek is used only three times in the New Testament, and it’s all been commanded as a duty for the elders in the Lord’s church, not the Pope (John 21:16; Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2). Peter knew this, too, and reminded all the elders of Christ’s charge in his letter (1 Peter 5:1-4). Notice he called himself “a fellow elder” in 1 Peter 5:1. Any faithful, older male in the church of Christ desiring to become an elder has to meet the qualifications found in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. This is not about the papacy, it’s about voluntary servanthood. Peter was not the first Pope. He served as a humble elder and an apostle who advanced the gospel.
After carefully looking at Scripture and considering history, it is concluded that the papacy (and therefore the Catholic Church) was politically established and misappropriately used Scripture to solidify it. It is thus unbiblical.