Development of the Papacy

The purpose of this work is to show how the Papacy was a gradual development from the New Testament form of church organization. Today, it is commonplace to see the Pontiff traveling throughout the world, and in most countries a Papal visit is a national event. However, the Papacy as we know it today has evolved over centuries and centuries and bears no resemblance to anything we read about in Scripture.

       The Catholic Church maintains that the Papal office can be found in the words of Jesus spoken to the apostle Peter in Matthew 16:18. They view the Pope in Rome, as a successor to Peter and is the supreme head of the church. Moreover, they teach that Keys to the Kingdom were given directly and personally to Peter alone.

Cardinal Gibbons asserts the primacy of Peter and his successors as follows: ‘Our Lord conferred on St. Peter the first place of honor and jurisdiction in government of His Holy Church, and that the same spiritual supremacy has always resided in the Popes, or Bishops of Rome, as being the successors of St. Peter.’ [1]

       Earle Cairns adds this historical insight:

The Petrine theory, based on such scriptures as Matthew 16:16-18; Luke 22:31-32, and John 21:15-17, was generally accepted by 590. According to this theory, Peter had been given “ecclesiastical primogeniture” over his fellow apostles, and his superior position had been passed on from him to his successors, the bishops of Rome, by apostolic succession. As early as about 250, Stephen I had appealed to these Scriptures. [2]

       However, in Scripture Peter does not refer to himself as a Pope but as an elder, in I Peter 5:1-4.


       Joseph Henry Thayer in his Greek-English Lexicon says that the term for elders among Christians referred to:

Those who presided over the assemblies (or churches): Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22; 16:4; 21:18; I Timothy 5:17, 19; Titus 1:5; II John 1; III John 1; I Peter 5:1, 5. That they did not differ at all from the (episkopoi) bishops or overseers (as acknowledged by Jerome on Titus 1:5)…is evident from the fact that the two words are used indiscriminately, Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5, 7. [3]

       Furthermore, the New Testament knows nothing of one human being to rule God’s church here on earth. Jesus chose 12 apostles – not just one. When each congregation was set in order in the New Testament times there were elders (bishops) selected for each congregation. (Acts 14:23) Paul addressed the bishops at Philippi – not just one bishop. (Philippians 1:1)



Elect therefore for yourselves bishops and deacons who are worthy of the Lord, men who are meek, not lovers of money, true and tested. For they minister to you the service of the prophets and teachers. Do not look down on them, for they are your honored men along with the prophets and teachers. [4]

The terms bishop and elder appear to have been used interchangeably in early post-apostolic Christianity, even as they appear in the New Testament.


Likewise the deacons are to be unblameable before his righteousness as servants of God and Christ and not men. They are not slanders, double tongued, not lovers of money, but self controlled in all things…Wherefore it is necessary that… you be subject to the elders and deacons as to God and Christ….And the elders are to be compassionate, showing mercy to all, turning back those who have strayed.[5]

       Elders are plural and Polycarp says nothing about a separate bishop.

The growth of the office of the monarchical bishop did not develop until the end of the second century.

       For example Ignatius said this in his letter to the Symyrneans:

Avoid the divisions, as the beginning of evil. Follow, all of you the bishop, as Jesus Christ followed the Father; and follow the presbytery as the apostles. Moreover, reverence the deacons as the commandment of God. Let no man do aught pertaining to the Church apart from the bishop. Let that Eucharist be considered valid which is under the bishop or him to whom he commits it. Wheresoever the bishop appears, there let the people be, even as wheresoever Christ Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful apart from the bishop either to baptize, or to hold a love feast. But whatsoever he approves, that also is well pleasing to God….[6]

       Ignatius makes a distinction between the bishop and the presbyters. The Ignatian pattern of one bishop and a plurality of elders and deacons spread through out the churches by the end of the second century.


The bishop in the early church was considered one of many bishops who were equal to one another in rank, power, and function. Between 313 and 450 the Roman bishop came to be acknowledged as the first among equals. But, beginning with Leo I’s accession to the Episcopal throne in 440, the Roman bishop began to claim his supremacy over other bishops….The Bishop was also considered the guarantor of orthodox doctrine. [7]

       Later Boniface III was recognized as the first Universal Bishop of Rome in the year A.D. 606.

       The zenith of Papal power was exercised between 1054 and 1305. During this time some of the Popes even had authority over government rulers.  For example, Philip of France married Ingeborg of Denmark. However, when his bride came to France, he claimed she had been bewitched. He forced the French bishops to annul the marriage, and then later took a woman by the name of Agnes home as his wife. Pope Innocent III ordered Philip to put away Agnes and restore Ingeborg to be his lawful wife. When Philip refused to do so Innocent placed France under an interdict in 1200. This decision closed all churches, forbade the celebration of mass, the priests were not allowed to preach except out in open places. The uproar all over France forced Philip to submit to the Pope. 


Psalm 118:22

22 The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone;

Isaiah 8:14

14 and he will be a sanctuary; but for both houses of Israel he will be a stone that causes men to stumble

Isaiah 9:6

6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, [a] Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 22:22

22 I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.

Isaiah 28:16

16 So this is what the Sovereign LORD says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation;  the one who trusts will never be dismayed.

       In Old Testament prophecy, the Stone, the Foundation, the Government, and the Keys refer to Christ and not to Peter. Furthermore, the New Testament “foundational prophecies” apply directly to Christ. (Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11; Ephesians 2:20; I Corinthians 3: 10, 11; I Peter 2:4-10)

Moreover, in Matthew 16 the context is asking about the identity of Jesus and not the identity of Peter. (Matthew 16:13-20). When Jesus spoke of His church being built upon the rock, what was he referring to? If the building is to last it must be built upon something solid. There is only one person who provides such a foundation – Jesus the Christ the Son of the living God.

In fact, the doctrine that Christ had built his church upon Peter was prominently announced for the first time in the council of Chalcedon (451) with the famous words: ‘The twice blessed and all honored Peter who is the rock and basis of the Catholic Church and the foundation of the orthodox faith.’ But even in then these words were not used to urge a claim to any pre-eminence by the bishop of Rome. They were spoken to give force to the condemnation of Dioscoros who was the most unpopular man in the Episcopal assembly at Chalcedon. Before this time, most of the fathers referred the expression ‘upon this rock’ to Peter’s faith and confession: ‘Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God.’ [8]

Finally Augustine, probably the greatest mind of the Catholic Church, writing in the fifth century, did not hold the position of present day Romanists as to Peter’s having primacy over others, and not at all as to transmitting to others any special authority. In fact, in his sermon on Matthew 16:18 he affirms that the church was not built on Peter but on Christ: ‘Simon he was called before: but his name of Peter was given him by the Lord and that in figure to signify the Church. For because Christ is the Rock (Petra), Peter (Petros) is the Christian people. For the Rock (Petra) is the principle word. Therefore Peter (Petros) is from Petra, not Petra from Petros; as Christ is not called from the Christian, but the Christian from Christ. ‘Thou art therefore,’ said he, ‘Peter, and upon this Rock, which thou hast confessed, upon this Rock which thou has recognized, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God, I will build my church. Upon me I will build thee, not me upon thee.’[9] 

       This should help our Catholic friends to see that Matthew 16:18 was not always interpreted as Peter being viewed as the rock foundation of the church, even among their own scholars.

       Furthermore, the qualifications of apostolic succession are clearly set forth in Acts 1:21, 22.

21Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”

       The conditions are:

1)     Witness of Jesus’ baptism.

2)     Witness to all Jesus teachings, miracles and demonstrations of his divinity

3)     Witness of the ascension

4)     Witness of Jesus’ resurrection

       No one could possibly qualify for these terms today. The apostolic ministry was unique in that it formed the foundation for the church not only in the first generation, but for all future generations (Ephesians 2:20). Once that foundation was laid there was no need for that office to continue in succeeding generations. Now local churches are overseen by a plurality of bishops within each local church.

Ephesians 4:11, 12

11It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up

       We have a complete list of ministers and servants as found in the early church; however, there isn’t a cardinal or a pope mentioned in the list.

Colossians 1:15-23

Christ as the head of the Church certainly precludes any other person of a lesser nature to occupy that place.


       The doctrine of the Papacy is a departure from what the scriptures teach. The apostles never believed that the church was built like a pyramid with Peter at the top. Instead they portrayed the church as a flock of sheep overseen by Christ as the Chief Shepherd.

       The leaders of the church are not to be masters or rulers but only stewards of the flock committed under their care. (Matthew 20:26, 27) The truth of the matter is the supremacy of the popes can in no way be derived from the humble apostle like Peter (Acts 10:26) but the result of tradition that had developed over many years. If we will read the Bible without prejudice we will find that Christ and not a Pope in Rome is the Chief Shepherd and Universal Head of the church here on earth.

[1] Aniceto M. Sparagna, Personal Evangelism Among Catholics (Joplin: College Press, 1955) 56.

[2] Earle E. Cairns, Christianity through the Ages (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) 151.

[3] Joseph Henry Thayer, Thayer’s Greek English Lexicon (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976) 536.

[4] Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak (Abilene: Biblical Research Press, 1981) 167.

[5] Ferguson, 168.

[6] J. Stevenson, A New Eusebius (Southhampton: The Camelot Press Ltd., 1957) 48.

[7] Cairns, 150.

[8] Sparagna, 67.

[9] Sparagna, 68.

Posted in Topical Papers.