As popes go, Jorge Bergoglio seems to be a nice enough guy. He is from Latin America: a mark in his favor, in my book. He appears to have strong convictions on important moral, ethical, and social issues. He seems to prefer a simple lifestyle, at least in comparison to a lot of the pomp and circumstance that normally goes along with the office of priest/bishop. He even, from what I gather, appears to be on comparatively friendly terms with Evangelicals. All fine and well. Only time will tell what his legacy in the role of supreme leader of the Roman Catholic Church will be.
Seemingly lost in the shuffle and the hoopla, even among many Evangelical commentators, though, is any serious analysis of the legitimacy of the office of the papacy itself. By definition, as Protestants, we do not accept the role of the pope as our spiritual father or the vicar of Christ. In the midst of the media lovefest, though, it appears as if many are willing to turn a blind eye to this, or to sweep it under the carpet, as it were.
I hope to not come across as mean-spirited in what I write here. Far too much Evangelical commentary on the issue of the papacy tends to fall either on the one extreme of broadminded muddleheadedness or on the other of caustic Catholic bashing. I count many Roman Catholics as dear friends, and respect the sincere beliefs of many who are following the truth as they understand it.
When broaching the subject of the legitimacy of the papacy, most Evangelicals have traditionally focused on the correct interpretation of Matthew 16:18, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” And, indeed, as Bible-centered Christians I believe we are right to focus our attention on what the Word of God itself says. But I do not want to focus here on that. There are already many fine commentaries that are readily available that speak convincingly to this (see here for a good sample).
Another aspect of the discussion on the legitimacy of the papacy, however, that is not quite so widely known by Evangelicals is that of early post-apostolic church history. There is not space here to give an exhaustive treatment of this question, and, even if there were, it would no doubt be better to leave such an endeavor in the hands of someone who is more of an expert on church history than I. There are a few points, though, of which many are not aware, on which I would like to present a brief overview.
The pope, in addition to being regarded as the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic (or worldwide) Church, is the Bishop of Rome. In early church history, before the role of pope as leader of the worldwide Church evolved into what it eventually became, the first popes on the list of the 266 supposed successors of Peter were simply the metropolitan bishops (or citywide supervisors) of the different meetings of believers in the city of Rome. It is only after the emergence and evolution of the state-church on the heels of the legalization of Christianity by Constantine, and the proclamation of Christianity as the official state religion by Theodosius, that the role and influence of the Bishop of Rome as titular head of the Catholic Church began to be consolidated. Once set in motion, however, the process was relatively rapid. Catholic historians generally recognize this, explaining that God’s plan for the full development of the Church was implemented incrementally down through history in response to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
What is often left out of the explanation, however, is the fact that, until the second half of the second century A.D., there was no Bishop of Rome, per se. What did exist was a series of house church meetings scattered throughout the city of Rome, each with its own elder(s) or presbyter(s).* Archaelogical and historical evidence points to at least seven of these different house fellowships, located in different neighborhoods. The same evidence points to the likelihood that at least some of the believers in these fellowships knew each other, and, in some ways, considered themselves to jointly comprise the Church (or the conglomerate Body of Christ) in the city of Rome. But, up until the second half of the second century, there was no one individual they recognized as supervisor of the collective congregations.
As German historian and theologian Peter Lampe writes in his landmark study Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries: From Paul to Valentinus:
The fractionation in Rome favored a collegial presbyterian system of governance and prevented for a long time, until the second half of the second century, the development of a monarchical episcopacy in the city. Victor (c. 189–99) was the first who, after faint-hearted attempts by Eleutherus (c. 175–89), Soter (c. 166–75), and Anicetus (c. 155–66), energetically stepped forward as monarchical bishop and (at times, only because he was incited from the outside) attempted to place the different groups in the city under his supervision or, where that was not possible, to draw a line by means of excommunication. Before the second half of the second century there was in Rome no monarchical episcopacy for the circles mutually bound in fellowship (p. 397).
One of the main objections to this thesis proposed by Catholic apologists is the existence in church history of lists of supposed bishops of Rome that go all the way back to Peter. The source of these lists can be traced to two men, Hegesippus and Irenaeus, and they are recorded in the Church History of Eusebius, who, as a close confidant and spiritual mentor of the Emperor Constantine, had plenty of motive for supporting Constantine’s vision of a united worldwide Church centered in Rome.
There is good reason to believe, however, that the lists of Roman bishops composed by Hegesippus and Irenaeus are projections into the past, reading contemporary circumstances back into former times. They are, according to Lampe,
…a fictive construction. The names that were woven into the construction were certainly not freely invented but were borrowed from the tradition of the city of Rome (for example, ‘Clement’ or the brother of Hermas, ‘Pius’). They had belonged to presbyters of Roman church history. These persons, however, would never have understood themselves as monarchical leaders—especially Pius at the time of Hermas (p. 406)
There is also discrepancy among early Christian sources accepted as authoritative by the Catholic Church with regard to Clement’s place in the list of Roman bishops, with Tertullian identifying him as the second, immediately following Peter (The Prescription Against Heretics 32), and Irenaeus placing him third, after Linus and Anacletus (Against Heresies 3.3.3).
Why is this such a big deal? For the Roman Catholic Church, the significance and authority of the papacy hinges on the pope’s place as occupant of the so-called Chair of Peter (not a physical chair, but the position).
The earliest allusions to the significance of the Bishop of Rome as a referent for the worldwide Church come from Irenaeus, who, in the late second century, seeking a systematic way to divide between orthodox believers and heretics, pointed to the church of Rome as one example (in addition to others) of a local church which could trace its existence to a line of faithful followers of the apostles, and its bishop (who, by this time, was firmly entrenched in the position) as its official representative. Ironically, however, this did not prevent Irenaeus from openly voicing his discrepancies on various matters (such as the proper date to celebrate Easter) with Victor, the Bishop of Rome.
It is Eusebius himself who informs us of this:
Thereupon Victor, who presided over the church at Rome, immediately attempted to cut off from the common unity the parishes of all Asia, with the churches that agreed with them, as heterodox; and he wrote letters and declared all the brethren there wholly excommunicate. But this did not please all the bishops. And they besought him to consider the things of peace, and of neighborly unity and love. Words of theirs are extant, sharply rebuking Victor. Among them was Irenaeus, who, sending letters in the name of the brethren in Gaul over whom he presided, maintained that the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord should be observed only on the Lord’s day. He fittingly admonishes Victor that he should not cut off whole churches of God which observed the tradition of an ancient custom. . . (Church History 5.24.9–11).
In the late third century, in the context of the Novatianist controversy, Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, picked up on Ireneaus’ reference to Rome as an arbiter with relation to doctrinal discrepancies among different churches and church leaders, and pointed to “the chair of Peter” (an allusion to the office of the Bishop of Rome as the supposed successor of Peter) as the rallying point of mutual agreement among bishops of different churches. According to Catholic historian Julio Campos, Cyprian regarded consultation with the Bishop of Rome on doctrinal controversies not as “a jurisdictional recognition, but rather a matter of conventional courtesy, which notifies other bishops, but above all the first bishop of Christendom, showing him preferential treatment with respect to others” (Obras de San Cipriano, 53–54, translation mine).
Even Cyprian, however, who found in Cornelius, the Bishop of Rome, an ally in his quarrel against Novatian, had his public points of disagreement with a subsequent Bishop of Rome, Stephen. This disagreement is astoundingly evident in Epistle 74 (written by Firmilian, Bishop of Caesarea Mazaca, to Cyprian) of the collection of documents known to us today as the Epistles of Cyprian:
But that they who are at Rome do not observe those things in all cases which are handed down from the beginning, and vainly pretend the authority of the apostles; any one may know also from the fact, that concerning the celebration of Easter, and concerning many other sacraments of divine matters, he may see that there are some diversities among them, and that all things are not observed among them alike, which are observed at Jerusalem, just as in very many other provinces also many things are varied because of the difference of the places and names. And yet on this account there is no departure at all from the peace and unity of the Catholic Church, such as Stephen has now dared to make; breaking the peace against you, which his predecessors have always kept with you in mutual love and honour, even herein defaming Peter and Paul the blessed apostles, as if the very men delivered this who in their epistles execrated heretics, and warned us to avoid them. Whence it appears that this tradition is of men which maintains heretics, and asserts that they have baptism, which belongs to the Church alone (6).
And in this respect I am justly indignant at this so open and manifest folly of Stephen, that he who so boasts of the place of his episcopate, and contends that he holds the succession from Peter, on whom the foundations of the Church were laid, should introduce many other rocks and establish new buildings of many churches; maintaining that there is baptism in them by his authority. . . . Stephen, who announces that he holds by succession the throne of Peter, is stirred with no zeal against heretics, when he concedes to them, not a moderate, but the very greatest power of grace . . . And now he hesitates in vain to consent to them, and to be a partaker with them in other matters also, to meet together with them, and equally with them to mingle their prayers, and appoint a common altar and sacrifice (17).
And yet Stephen is not ashamed to afford patronage to such in opposition to the Church, and for the sake of maintaining heretics to divide the brotherhood and in addition, to call Cyprian a false Christ and a false apostle, and a deceitful worker (26).
From Constantine on, though, with the increasing importance conceded to the Church of Rome and its Bishop under the new arrangement with the Roman government, the supposed “Chair of Peter” came to be regarded more and more as the basis of the authority of the Bishop of Rome not only in spiritual matters but also in secular ones. Today, it is precisely this connection that the Vatican puts forth as its defense for the office of the pope.
The Catholic Church has traditionally accused Protestants of the sin of schism. From another perspective, however—a more specifically biblical one—might it be Rome itself that is guilty of schism? The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. . . . What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ’” (1 Cor 1:10–12). Does not setting up the supposed Chair of Peter as the focal point for unity among a certain group of Christians and for the exclusion of others amount to the same thing as saying, “I follow Cephas”? And yet this is precisely what the Roman Catholic Church has done. Even the supposedly ecumenically friendly documents of Vatican II make this abundantly clear: “The Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful” (Lumen gentium, 23).
Pope Francis may well be, in many respects, a good man. Hopefully he can have a positive influence regarding issues of justice and morality in the world. Hopefully he can do something to put a stop to the corruption and the insidious plague of sexual abuse that has infiltrated the structures of the Church at every level. In all of that I wish him well. But inasmuch as he proposes to bring Christians together under the aegis of the so-called Chair of Peter as embodied in the office of the papacy, you can count me out. True Christian unity is based, not in submission to a fellow human being or to hierarchical structures, but in the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And this gospel, correctly understood, is the gospel of grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
*Evidence is uncertain as to whether each individual house church had a plurality of elders, or if the plural eldership functioned on more of a city-wide inter-congregational basis.