The Roman Catholic church was formed in 1054 after the bishop of Rome sent a bull of excommunication to the patriarch of Constantinople, effectively splitting what is deemed the “catholic” church. The Roman Catholic church, headed by the pope and other bishops within what is called the Magisterium, is a constantly evolving church, continuously re-evaluating doctrinal positions and philosophies. Our consideration will focus primarily on the current doctrines of the Roman Catholic church, speaking of past doctrines only to demonstrate the inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in the tradition.
Sections on this Page
- General Considerations
- The Papacy
- Apostolic Succession
The Roman Catholic church has two forms of divisions within it, one involving different variants in worship while holding to the Roman Catholic authority, and one group that split off in the nineteenth century. There are differences in the way that certain practices of the church are performed in various areas, specifically concerning the mass and the sacraments. These variants are called “rites,” and they tend to be divided by geographical regions. The current major rites recognized by the Roman Catholic church are as follows: Latin, Byzantine, Alexandrian (or Coptic), Syriac, Armenian, Maronite, and Chaldean1. Former Eastern Orthodox who converted to Roman Catholicism have also been given certain privileges, and they are known as the Eastern Rite Catholic Church. Further, after the Roman Catholic Church’s Vatican Council of 1870, many Roman Catholics disagreed with the doctrine of papal infallibility that was approved in that council, and formed what is known as the “Old Catholic” churches [these churches include the Mariavite Old Catholic Church, North American Old Roman Catholic Church, and Old Roman Catholic Church (English Rite)]. From these groups, the Liberal Catholic church split off around 1916. There is also the Polish National Catholic Church of America, organized mostly to allow immigrant communities full ownership of their cathedrals, et al., and a measure of autonomy.
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The Roman Catholic church has at its head the pope, an individual appointed by a college of bishops, and who rules for life. He sits on what is called the “see of Peter,” the chair whose occupant holds the authority given to Peter. The pope and the bishops around him make up the Magisterium, which determines the faith of the Roman Catholic church through the interpretation of Scripture and the use of tradition2. The statements of doctrine made by the Magisterium are deemed to be infallible3. This authority is believed to have been derived from Peter himself, who is attested as being a pope. Let us examine whether Peter was a pope and then whether the magisterial system of authority is truly valid in the eyes of God.
The main Scripture concerning Peter is his confession in Matthew 16:15-19:
He saith unto them, “But who say ye that I am?”
And Simon Peter answered and said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
And Jesus answered and said unto him, “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jonah: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father who is in heaven. And I also say unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
It is upon this verse that the Roman Catholic church asserts that Christ established His church on Peter4 and that the one who sits on the chair of Peter has authority to determine matters of faith. But is this what Jesus intends for us to understand from this text?
While it is true that Jesus is presenting a play on words, calling Simon “Peter” (Greek petros) and speaking of building His church on “this rock” (Greek petra), there is nothing in the text that requires Jesus to be speaking about the same “rock”. As we see from all the evidence available in the New Testament, the best interpretation of this passage is to recognize that Jesus has two different rocks in mind: Peter (and by extension the other eleven), who will do great things in the church, but it is upon the rock of Peter’s confession that Jesus builds His church.
Let us consider Matthew 18:18 in terms of Peter’s authority:
“Verily I say unto you, what things soever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and what things soever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
This is the same statement made by Jesus in Matthew 16:19, and this time it cannot be denied that Jesus is speaking to the twelve disciples (Matthew 18:1). The Roman Catholic church does not deny this, yet states that the apostles are given all authority for binding and loosing, while only Peter has the keys to the Kingdom5. This statement made by Christ, however, demonstrates that He was speaking to the twelve in Matthew 16:18-19, and that the promise of the foundation of the church was for all of them (cf. Acts 2:1-13, Ephesians 2:20).
It must also be stated that the Roman Catholic church believes that Peter and the other Apostles were given the authority to determine doctrine because of Jesus’ statement that “whatsoever you bind shall be bound in Heaven, and whatsoever you loose shall be loosed in Heaven6“. However, this statement is inaccurate according to the Greek: the text reads correctly, “whatsoever you bind shall have been bound in Heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose shall have been loosed in Heaven.” This proves that the work of the Apostles was not performed on their own initiative but on the initiative of their Father in Heaven.
There is also reason to believe that the name given to Simon by Christ was not necessarily given to him first at his confession, for we read the following in John 1:41-42:
He findeth first his own brother Simon, and saith unto him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is, being interpreted, Christ).
He brought him unto Jesus. Jesus looked upon him, and said, “Thou art Simon the son of John: thou shalt be called Cephas” (which is by interpretation, Peter).
This is at the beginning of Christ’s ministry; the events of the latter part of John chapter one correlate with the time period of Matthew chapters three and four, long before the confession in Matthew 16:16. Thus, the name Peter was given long before the account in Matthew 16:13-20 and is not a special title demonstrating his authority in the Kingdom.
The Scriptures themselves show that the idea that Peter is the singular foundation of the church is incorrect. Paul states the following in 1 Corinthians 3:11 and Ephesians 2:20:
For other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
…being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief corner stone.
We see that Paul states emphatically that the foundation of the church is much more than Peter. Chief of all is Jesus the Christ, the cornerstone, without whom there would be no church. The foundation also includes the apostles and prophets; Peter is therefore a part of the foundation, but yet is not the foundation by himself.
History also speaks against Peter being a pope. There is no text that states that he ever filled that position; his presence in Rome is only based on tradition. The argument that Peter had the authority from Christ and that it then was continued through a succession, based on Matthew 16:18, was not even used until Pope Stephen I in 250, almost two hundred years after the death of Peter.
Furthermore, history as seen through the Scriptures also speaks against the supposed authority of Peter. We read the following in Matthew 20:20-24:
Then came to him the mother of the sons of Zebedee with her sons, worshipping Him, and asking a certain thing of him.
And He said unto her, “What wouldest thou?”
She saith unto Him, “Command that these my two sons may sit, one on Thy right hand, and one on Thy left hand, in Thy kingdom.”
But Jesus answered and said, “Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”
They say unto Him, “We are able.”
He saith unto them, “My cup indeed ye shall drink: but to sit on My right hand, and on My left hand, is not Mine to give; but it is for them whom it hath been prepared of My Father.”
And when the ten heard it, they were moved with indignation concerning the two brethren.
Why would the ten, including Peter, be indignant with the two brothers? The two brothers asked to obtain the authority before they did! Furthermore, had it been made clear by Jesus in Matthew 16 that Peter was to be the foundation of the Kingdom, why would the mother of the sons of Zebedee ever dare ask Christ for her sons to have this authority? Why do they seem to be willing partners in this request? If the authority of Peter were as valid as the Roman Catholic church declares, the other eleven apostles would have recognized it. Matthew 20:20-24 demonstrates, however, that this was not the case.
The Scriptures also speak of the character of Peter, and they show a different kind of character than what we see in the papacy today.
First, Peter was married. This is made clear by Matthew 8:14 and 1 Corinthians 9:5:
And when Jesus was come into Peter’s house, He saw his wife’s mother lying sick of a fever.
Have we no right to lead about a wife that is a believer, even as the rest of the apostles, and the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas?
Here we see that Peter was married not only while a disciple of Christ, but even while being one of His Apostles! This is in complete harmony with his position as an elder in 1 Peter 5:1 and the need for an elder to be married in 1 Timothy 3:2. This marriage is not in harmony with the Roman Catholic teachings concerning the pope and all ecclesiastical authorities, who are to remain celibate7.
We also see a great humility being displayed by Peter, especially in Acts 10:25-26:
And when it came to pass that Peter entered, Cornelius met him, and fell down at his feet, and worshipped him.
But Peter raised him up, saying, “Stand up; I myself also am a man.”
This humility is fitting for a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ (Luke 18:14); however, this humility is not seen in the papacy today, wherein the pope receives much reverence to the point of being worshiped.
We also see that Peter is content with being “one among many,” as seen in 1 Peter 5:1-3:
The elders among you I exhort, who am a fellow-elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, who am also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Tend the flock of God which is among you, exercising the oversight, not of constraint, but willingly, according to the will of God; nor yet for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as lording it over the charge allotted to you, but making yourselves examples to the flock.
Here, Peter declares himself to be a “fellow elder.” If Peter were given some form of higher authority, he would emphasize it here. He does not, however; all he does is say that he is an elder among other elders. This attitude is not seen in the bishop of Rome; he was not content to be an elder among fellow elders, especially in 1054, when the actions of the pope separated the “catholic” church.
Concerning infallibility, it is clear that Peter was far from infallible. We read the following in Galatians 2:11-13:
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I resisted him to the face, because he stood condemned. For before that certain came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came, he drew back and separated himself, fearing them that were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that even Barnabas was carried away with their dissimulation.
These are the same people who Peter declares are now accepted by God in the apostolic council of Acts 15:7-11, and now, he separates himself from them: a clear error in doctrine. Yet the papacy receives their infallibility from him?
It is therefore clear that Peter is not the only part of the foundation of the church: Jesus is the principal part of the foundation, being the chief corner stone, while Peter resides with the other eleven Apostles along with the prophets as the rest of the church’s foundation. It is also clear that Peter was not a pope, but just an elder among elders in a local congregation, either in Antioch or in Jerusalem, in the middle of the first century. Peter’s character also contrasts sharply with the characteristics of the papacy today.
The other fundamental tenet of the authority system in the Roman Catholic church is that the authority given to Peter and the apostles was handed down to the pope and bishops of first the “catholic” church and then the Roman Catholic church, even to this day8. This is justified by appealing to the system of evangelists and elderships instituted in the early church, as seen in Matthew 28:20 and Titus 1:59. Is this truly the practice of the early church?
We can see in Positions of Authority: A Hierarchy of Bishops, that the Apostles and their fellow evangelists did establish an eldership, but the eldership was set up to be a plurality of elders in a single congregation (cf. Philippians 1:1). There is no indication from the Scriptures that any gift of the Holy Spirit concerning knowledge or interpretation was given to them alone. Furthermore, the role of the evangelist was delineated from a position of authority in Romans 12:7. Another blow to the idea that the powers held by the Apostles were able to be handed down can be seen in Acts 8:14-17, where we see that Peter and John had to come to Samaria from Jerusalem to bestow the gift of the Holy Spirit upon the Samarians; Philip clearly could not do so. It is clear that the Apostles could give the gift of the Holy Spirit, but there is no indication that others could do the same.
The argument of apostolic succession developed to justify the truth of what was being presented by later Christians. They would say that since their church had an unbroken succession of leaders back to the Apostles, then their teachings could therefore be certified as true. Yet this is never a guideline in the Scriptures for legitimacy; many churches were founded by Apostles and yet believed falsely (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:1-16:24, 2 Corinthians 1:1-13:14, Galatians 1:1-6:18). Truth was and is based in what God has revealed (2 Timothy 3:16-17, 1 John 4:1).
Thus, we can see that the Scriptures do not teach that there is an “apostolic succession” from Peter and the Apostles through a system of a pope and bishops through the ages. The Scriptures do show us a pattern of shepherds, a plurality of elders for each local congregation, as seen in Positions of Authority. Therefore, the system of authority promulgated by the Roman Catholic church is without Scriptural validity.
The discussion of Roman Catholicism continues in Roman Catholicism, II: Tradition. Thanks again for your interest!
1: Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pt. II, par. 1203 (listed as Roman numeral and paragraph number for the rest of the notes)
2: Ibid., I. 100; I. 877; 880
3: Ibid., III. 2035
4: Ibid., I. 552-553
5: Ibid., I. 553
6: Ibid., I. 881
7: Ibid., II. 1579
8: Ibid., I. 100; II. 1555-1557
9: Ibid., I. 860-861