Is the pope the head of Christ's church on earth?

According to Catholic doctrine, Peter was the first head of the church of Christ. The primary scriptural references for this claim are Matthew 10:1-2 (Jesus names the apostles, beginning with Peter), Matthew 16:17-19 ("on this rock I will build my church"), and John 21:15-17 (Jesus tells Peter to feed his sheep). Matthew 16:18-19 records Jesus as telling Peter that "upon this rock I will build my church" and "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven." This has been a central point of dispute between Catholics and Protestants. Catholics argue that it was specifically Peter whom Jesus was referring to as this foundational rock for the Church, whose name was changed from Simon to Peter (Aramaic Cephas), which literally means "rock." Protestants argue that it was not Peter whom Jesus was referring to as the rock upon which his church would be built, but upon the truth proclaimed by Simon Peter in the previous verse: "But what about you," he asked. Who do you say I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it." (Matthew 16:15-18) The rock (Greek petra, a large stone or bedrock), as a foundation for the Church, was the confession of Jesus as the Son of God, as insinuated by Simon's name change to Peter (Greek Petros, a small rock or stone). The keys of the kingdom of heaven and the authority to bind and loose were given to all of Christ's disciples.

In the Old Testament, the use of the term "rock" was only used in reference to God or the coming Messiah (Genesis 49:24, Deuteronomy 32, 1 Samuel 2:2, 2 Samuel 22, Psalm 18, 62, Isaiah 26:4, 44:8). Nowhere else in the New Testament is authority attributed to Peter as the head of the Christian church. If Christ's disciples had inferred this from Matthew 16, then they would have freely accepted Peter as the greatest, since they themselves were in contention for this title (Matthew 18:1-6, 20:20-21, Mark 9:33-37, 10:35-45, Luke 9:46-48, 22:24-30). Christ promised twelve thrones for the apostles, not one (Matthew 19:28). Peter considered himself nothing more than a fellow elder and admonished others not to lord it over those entrusted to their care (1 Peter 5:1-4). Paul considered all the apostles and prophets as the foundation, with Christ as the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:19-22). The early churches were independent, overseen by local deacons, with many of the elders and apostles located in Jerusalem, not Rome. In A.D 343, the Council of Sardicia granted full authority over all churches to the bishop of Rome. The first bishop of Rome to be officially named pope (Greek papas, "father") was Siricius towards the end of the fourth century (now considered #38 in the procession of popes preceding him). Just prior to this, Damasus I (bishop of Rome between 366-384) declared that the pope's authority ultimately came from God and not any council or emperor. Pope Leo I (bishop of Rome between 440-461) claimed that the bishop of Rome was the highest ranking of all bishops. In 1075, Pope Gregory VII declared that the pope had been given supreme authority (both spiritual and secular) by Christ through Peter. As such, the historical bishops of Rome, following Peter as the first pope (supposedly buried at the foot of the Vatican Hill), were identified around the fourth century going back to the first successor (most agree it was Linus, although Tertullian holds it was Clement). Regardless, the notion of Peter as head of the Church was being taught by such Church fathers as Clement, Tertullian, and Origen early in the third century.

        "To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ's sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers -- not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away." (1 Peter 5:1-4)

[ Catholicism | Index | Search | Links | Glossary | Copyright | E-mail | About ]

Reference sources: Catholic Answers (; - Early Christian History as Viewed by Roman Catholics (; Fast Facts on False Teachings - Roman Catholicism (chapter 14, pp 211-232), by Ron Carlson and Ed Decker, ©1994 by Harvest House Publishers; The List of Popes, New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia (