What does the Bible say about the pope / papacy?
Question: "What does the Bible say about the pope / papacy?"
Answer: The Roman Catholic Church’s teaching about the pope (“pope” means “father”) is built upon and involves the following Roman Catholic teachings:
1) Christ made Peter the leader of the apostles and of the church (Matthew 16:18-19). In giving Peter the “keys of the kingdom,” Christ not only made him leader, but also made him infallible when he acted or spoke as Christ’s representative on earth (speaking from the seat of authority, or “ex cathedra”). This ability to act on behalf of the church in an infallible way when speaking “ex cathedra” was passed on to Peter’s successors, thus giving the church an infallible guide on earth. The purpose of the papacy is to lead the church unerringly.
2) Peter later became the first bishop of Rome. As bishop of Rome, he exercised authority over all other bishops and church leaders. The teaching that the bishop of Rome is above all other bishops in authority is referred to as the “primacy” of the Roman bishop.
3) Peter passed on his apostolic authority to the next bishop of Rome, along with the other apostles who passed on their apostolic authority to the bishops that they ordained. These new bishops, in turn, passed on that apostolic authority to those bishops that they later ordained, and so on. This “passing on of apostolic authority” is referred to as “apostolic succession.”
4) Based upon the claim of an unbroken chain of Roman bishops, Roman Catholics teach that the Roman Catholic Church is the true church, and that all churches that do not accept the primacy of the pope have broken away from them, the original and one true church.
Having briefly reviewed some of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church concerning the papacy, the question is whether those teachings are in agreement with Scripture. The Roman Catholic Church sees the papacy and the infallible teaching authority of “Mother Church” as being necessary to guide the church, and uses that as logical reasoning for God’s provision of it. But in examining Scripture, we find the following:
1) While Peter was central in the early spread of the gospel (part of the meaning behind Matthew 16:18-19), the teaching of Scripture, taken in context, nowhere declares that he was in authority over the other apostles or over the church (see Acts 15:1-23; Galatians 2:1-14; 1 Peter 5:1-5). Nor is it ever taught that the bishop of Rome was to have primacy over the church. Rather, there is only one reference in Scripture of Peter writing from “Babylon,” a name sometimes applied to Rome, found in 1 Peter 5:13. Primarily from this, and the historical rise of the influence of the bishop of Rome (due to the support of Constantine and the Roman emperors who followed him), come the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching of the primacy of the bishop of Rome. However, Scripture shows that Peter’s authority was shared by the other apostles (Ephesians 2:19-20) and that the “loosing and binding” authority attributed to him was likewise shared by the local churches, not just their church leaders (see Matthew 18:15-19; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 2 Corinthians 13:10; Titus 2:15; 3:10-11).
2) Nowhere does Scripture state that in order to keep the church from error, the authority of the apostles was passed on to those they ordained (the idea behind apostolic succession). Apostolic succession is “read into” those verses that the Roman Catholic Church uses to support this doctrine (2 Timothy 2:2; 4:2-5; Titus 1:5; 2:1; 2:15; 1 Timothy 5:19-22). What Scripture DOES teach is that false teachings would arise even from among church leaders and that Christians were to compare the teachings of these later church leaders with Scripture, which alone is cited in the Bible as infallible. The Bible does not teach that the apostles were infallible, apart from what was written by them and incorporated into Scripture. Paul, in talking to the church leaders in the large city of Ephesus, makes note of coming false teachers. Paul does NOT commend them to “the apostles and those who would carry on their authority,” but rather to “God and to the word of His grace” (Acts 20:28-32).
Again, the Bible teaches that it is Scripture that is to be used as measuring stick to determine truth from error. In Galatians 1:8-9, Paul states that it is not WHO teaches but WHAT is being taught that is to be used to determine truth from error. While the Roman Catholic Church continues to pronounce a curse to hell, or “anathema,” upon those who would reject the authority of the pope, Scripture reserves that curse for those who would teach a different gospel (Galatians 1:8-9).
3) While the Roman Catholic Church sees apostolic succession as logically necessary in order for God to unerringly guide the church, Scripture states that God has provided for His church through the following:
(a) Infallible Scripture, (Acts 20:32; 2 Timothy 3:15-17; Matthew 5:18; John 10:35; Acts 17:10-12; Isaiah 8:20; 40:8; etc.) Note: Peter speaks of Paul’s writings in the same category as other Scripture (2 Peter 3:16),
(b) Christ’s unending high-priesthood in heaven (Hebrews 7:22-28),
(c) The provision of the Holy Spirit who guided the apostles into truth after Christ’s death (John 16:12-14), who gifts believers for the work of the ministry, including teaching (Romans 12:3-8; Ephesians 4:11-16), and who uses the written Word as His chief tool (Hebrews 4:12; Ephesians 6:17).
While there have seemingly been good (humanly speaking) and moral men who have served as pope of the Roman Catholic Church—some point to Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis I as examples—the Roman Catholic teaching about the office of the pope should be rejected because it is not “in continuity” with the teachings of the New Testament. This comparison of any church’s teaching is essential, lest we miss the New Testament’s teaching concerning the gospel and not only miss eternal life in heaven ourselves but unwittingly lead others down the wrong path (Galatians 1:8-9).
Recommended Resources: The Gospel According to Rome: Comparing Catholic Tradition and the Word of God by James McCarthy and Logos Bible Software.
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