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Controversy over the role of Peter and the resulting implications for the church is centuries old, reaching as far back as the third century. But it was in 1870, at Vatican I, that the Roman Catholic Church drew an ecclesiological line in the sand, dogmatizing the teachings of papal rule and infallibility, and declaring these doctrines necessary for salvation.

According to Vatican I, these teachings are based on Scripture, as well as the universal belief and practice of the church historically. The Scriptural foundation is derived from what Rome believes to be the overall role of Peter and, in particular, Christ’s words to him in Matthew 16:18–19, Luke 22:32, and John 21:15–17. Rome claims these passages teach that Christ established a papal office in Peter by declaring him to be the exclusive rock-foundation of the church and entrusting him with the keys of the kingdom of heaven, commissioning him as chief shepherd of the universal church, and granting him the gift of infallibility. Rome adds that these prerogatives were passed on to Peter’s successors in Rome.

These claims have profound implications for the ecclesiology of the church. But can they really be supported Biblically?

Peter’s Role Before the Death of Christ

There is no doubt that Peter played a dominant role in the New Testament history prior to the death of Jesus. He is the most fully drawn figure of all the apostles in the gospel accounts. Along with Andrew, he was the first called by Christ and was part of the inner circle. The Synoptic Gospels clearly portray Peter as the leader among the disciples, and often their spokesman and representative (Matt. 18:21; 19:27; Mark 8:29; 9:5; 10:28). In the lists of disciples he is named first (Matt. 10:2; Mark 3:16; Luke 6:14). But Peter was also the only disciple to be severely rebuked by Jesus and addressed as “Satan” (Mark 8:33). Whether negatively or positively, then, the synoptics spotlight the person of Peter.

On the other hand, the gospel of John downplays Peter in favor of the beloved disciple. John does not mention Peter’s confession, and he highlights the fact that it was Andrew and Nathanael who first confessed Jesus as the Son of God and Messiah (John 1:41, 49). ft was John, not Peter, who was present at Jesus’ trial (John 18:15), who stood at the foot of the cross (John 19:26–27), and who was given the responsibility for caring for Mary, Jesus’ mother (John 19:27).

Though he is a leader and spokesman, Peter is not presented in the New Testament as having a superior position over the other disciples prior to the death of Jesus.

Peter’s Role After the Death of Christ

If the Roman Catholic interpretation of the Biblical texts is correct, we would expect to see Peter established as the undisputed ruler and infallible head of the church following the ascension of Jesus. What does the Biblical account reveal?

In the early history of the church, Peter was clearly the leading figure. He took the lead role in choosing the twelfth apostle to replace Judas (Acts 1:15). He was the first to preach the Gospel to the Jews at Pentecost (Acts 2:14–42) and the first to take the Gospel to the Gentiles in preaching to Cornelius (Acts 10:34–48). It was Peter who defended the cause of the Gospel before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:8; 5:29), and who confronted and passed judgment on the sin of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11).

But do these instances suggest that Peter was the supreme, infallible ruler of the church? The Biblical evidence does not support such a view. The book of Acts records that James, not Peter, presided over the Jerusalem Council and issued its final judgment (Acts 15:13–21). Paul mentions three pillars of the church, listing James ahead of Peter and John (Gal. 2:9). Furthermore, Peter was sent by the church on a mission to Syria with the apostle John (Acts 8:14–15), an unlikely event if Peter was indeed the supreme ruler.

Peter’s unique position had to do with the initiation of the New Testament church age.

The call and role of Paul confirm that Peter was not superior to the other apostles. Paul publicly rebuked Peter for compromising the Gospel, thereby disproving any claim of infallibility for Peter (Gal. 2:14). After the events of the Jerusalem Council and the martyrdom of James, Peter fades from the Biblical record and Paul takes over the prominent position. All we are told is that Peter “departed and went to another place” (Acts 12:17). Paul and his ministry receive at least twice as many references as Peter in the historical record. Paul wrote 13 epistles (14 if we include Hebrews), Peter two. Paul was responsible for establishing churches and their ruling organizations across Europe and Asia Minor, but he says nothing in any of his epistles about the need for submission to Peter as the supreme head of the church. In fact, Paul did not minister under the authority of Peter. He was the apostle to the Gentiles while Peter was the apostle to the Jews (Gal. 2:7–9). Paul regarded himself, not Peter, as personally responsible for overseeing, guiding, and protecting the churches he founded, and he considered himself equal to all the other apostles (2 Cor. 12:11).

Scripture reveals that Peter’s unique position had to do with the initiation of the New Testament church age, in declaring the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles. In the early days of persecution he was a “rock” of faith. Once the church was established, he traveled extensively (1 Cor. 9:5), ministering to the church at large (1 Peter 1:1–2). He was never the bishop of a single locale and there is no record in the New Testament associating Peter with Rome. Some believe that Peter’s reference to Babylon in 1 Peter 5:13 is a figurative reference to Rome, but this is conjecture.

These facts demonstrate that the Roman Catholic Church’s view of Peter and its interpretation of the Petrine passages (Matt. 16, Luke 22, John 21) are illegitimate. How then are we to understand Jesus’ words to Peter in these passages?

Christ’s Words to Peter

When Matthew 16 is examined in the context of Scripture as a whole, it becomes clear that the rock-foundation upon which the church is built is Peter’s confession of faith, pointing to Christ as the Son of God and the Messiah; that is, to Christ’s person and work. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, God, and in particular Jesus, is presented as the rock and foundation of the church (Pss. 18:1–2; 62:5–6; 89:26; 118:22; Isa. 28:16; Dan. 2:31–44; Acts 4:11–12; 1 Cor. 3:11; 10:4; Eph. 2:20). Furthermore, there is nothing in this passage that speaks of successors to Peter or even implies it.

The keys, with the authority to bind and loose, rather than signifying the establishment of the papacy, represent authority to proclaim the Gospel (Matt. 16:18–19; 28:18–20) and to exercise discipline in the church (Matt. 18:18). The word loose is the Greek luo. It is used in Revelation 1:5, where we are told that Jesus has “loosed” us from our sins by His blood, that is, by His atoning sacrifice. So the authority to bind and loose is directly connected with the Gospel message. The proclamation of the Gospel opens the kingdom of God to men or, if they reject the message, closes it. The keys are not the possession of a single individual, for the same authority Christ promised to Peter He granted directly to the other apostles in Matthew 18:18 and John 20:22–23.

It is also true that Peter is the rock in a secondary sense, but this does not affirm Roman Catholic ecclesiology. Ephesians 2:20, the companion verse to Matthew 16, reveals its proper meaning. Paul teaches that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone.” The Greek word translated “built on” is oikodomeo, the same word used in Matthew 16 in reference to Peter. So the term and concept are not exclusive to Peter. It encompasses all the apostles equally as well as the prophets of the New Testament age (Eph. 3:5; 4:11; Rev. 21:14).

How is the church built upon the apostles and prophets? Through their teaching preserved for us in Scripture and, in particular, the Gospel. When the Gospel is preached and men respond, by God’s grace, in repentant faith, they are spiritually united to Christ and the church is built (Eph. 1:13). This is the fundamental meaning of Jesus’ words to Peter.

In Luke 22, Jesus’ prayer for Peter is a guarantee that his faith will not ultimately fail, not that he will be infallible. And in John, 21 Jesus is recommissioning Peter to the ministry after his denial.

Our ecclesiology must be governed by two fundamental principles: the proclamation of the Gospel (sola gratia, sola fide, and solus Christus) and adherence to the ultimate authority of Scripture (sola Scriptura). The church is built through the proclamation of God’s truth (Eph. 1:13; 4:14–16; John 17:17). As long as she is true to her calling, the gates of hell cannot prevail against her. May our ecclesiology follow the example of Peter in humility (1 Peter 5:1–3) and exalt Christ as the rock and foundation of the church (1 Peter 2:4–8), the only way of salvation (Acts 4:12). That is the true Petrine foundation.

This Man Was Also with Him

Unearthing the Rock

Keep Reading The Many Facets of the Fisherman

From the March 2002 Issue
Mar 2002 Issue