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Graham Osborne

Was St. Peter the head of the early Church and the first Pope?

Voices Sept. 11, 2017

St. Peter (Wikimedia Commons)

Was St. Peter the head of the early Church and the first Pope? This is an important question for every Christian to answer. Since the Reformation, the spontaneous reaction of Protestants to this question has been a resounding no.

But more recently, Protestant biblical scholarship has gradually come around to the consensus that, yes, Peter was the man Jesus first appointed to lead his Church, acknowledging that the biblical evidence is virtually insurmountable.

Some quickly point out that the word Pope is nowhere in Scripture. But neither are the words Trinity or Bible, and yet no Christian would have issue with either. If we loosely define “Pope” as the leader of the whole Christian Church, Scripture demonstrates that Peter was clearly placed in this very role by Jesus himself.

We turn first to Matthew 16 where Jesus makes things crystal clear: “You are Peter (petros in Greek, meaning rock) and upon this rock I will build my church and the powers of death will not prevail against it.”

It really doesn't get much plainer than this. Jesus then goes on to give Peter incredible authority – authority given to no one else: “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven ... Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” There is not a single person in all biblical history who received such unimaginable authority.

As we turn to other areas in the New Testament, it is still clearly Peter who Jesus has chosen to lead his Church. In his days on earth, the Good Shepherd appoints Peter as his successor to watch over his sheep, commissioning him to “Feed my lambs ... Tend my sheep … Feed my sheep.” No one else is given this role – a role that, until now, Jesus had reserved solely for himself.

It is also Peter who admits the first gentiles into the Church in Acts 10, an earth-rocking change to a covenant that had been reserved virtually exclusively for the Jews. This would be one of the great defining changes of the New Covenant, and it is initiated on Peter's authority: “from early days God made his choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the Gospel and believe” (Acts 15:7-12).

In the first doctrinal council of the Christian Church (Acts 15), the key question to be resolved was: do gentile converts need to be circumcised and keep the Mosaic Covenant, or not? After much dispute, Peter definitively resolves the doctrinal issue, declaring: “We believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will. And all the assembly kept silence.”

Some contend that St. James was actually the head of the Church, based on this very council. They claim that he makes four recommendations in fairly authoritative fashion. But recall that he is the Bishop of Jerusalem, so it is fitting that he would contribute in this fashion. And there are virtually no other places in Scripture where St. James takes a primary leadership role, and nothing remotely compared with Peter's.

But the clincher lies in the fact that St. James doesn't answers the council's primary doctrinal question: should gentile converts be obliged to keep the Mosaic covenant. It is Peter who answers the question. After he delivers his decision, the whole council falls silent. St. James deals with matters regarding marriage and less critical issues concerning dietary restrictions.

It doesn't end there. Peter is mentioned 191 times in Scripture, almost five times more than the nearest contender, St. John, at 39. Peter also gives the first public sermon of the Christian Church in Acts 2, and more than 3,000 are immediately converted!

It is also Peter who in Acts 1 directs the Apostles to fill Judas' vacant office.

When Jesus reveals that Satan demanded to “sift all of them like wheat” in Luke 22:31-32, the Lord specifically prays only for Peter – that his faith won't fail. Then he directs Peter to strengthen the other Apostles. 

When St. Paul comes to Jerusalem, he stays 15 days with Peter only (Gal 1:18-19).

In Matthew 10:2, a list of the Apostles is given, starting with the Greek words “protos, Simon,” or “first, Simon.” But Peter was not the first called, Andrew was. The Greek word protos gives a sense of preeminence and could be reworded, “Of first importance, Simon, who is called Peter.” In other places where the Apostles are listed, all but one list Peter first.

Peter heads another series of firsts as well. He performs the first healing in Acts 3:6-9, and the first raising from the dead, of Tabitha in Acts 9:41-42. Even his shadow would drive out demons and heal all it fell on (Acts 5:15-16). He also gives out the first ecclesiastical punishment of Ananias and Saphira in Acts 5.

Finally, Peter also holds the primacy of love. Many consider St. John as holding this position. But in John 21:15, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” is Peter's reply.

Scripture clearly testifies that Peter was the head of the early Church. I think the question that remains in many minds is whether Jesus established this role as a perpetual office ­– the office of Pope. See my next column for the answer!