There is much controversy concerning whether Peter was the first pope.

This question highlights how beliefs differ between the Roman Catholic Church and churches of the Reformation. Church bodies that broke away from the Roman Catholic Church during the Reformation, and after, deny the authority of the pope based on Scripture. So the answer based on Scripture would be that Peter is not viewed as a pope nor was he in a position of primacy over the other apostles. 

But in the Roman tradition, Peter is seen as the bishop of Rome and the Apostle to whom authority was specifically given by Jesus. He passed his position of leadership on through Apostolic Succession. Thus he was the first in the continuous line of popes. 

But how can churches come up with such different answers on this?

The heart of the matter: How do churches identify truth?

Generally, churches of the Reformation belief that doctrine, or teaching, must be based in Scripture alone. Scripture is the authority for determining what churches teach as truth. 

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that God speaks to humans both through the Bible and through church tradition. This statement from their catechism affirms their acceptance of Scripture: “Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part 1 Section 1, Chapter 2, Article 2, 81). But the catechism goes on to explain that Sacred Scripture is passed on and interpreted through the church. “Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching” (81). The interpretations and explanations of Scripture by the church fathers and the pope are as authoritative as Scripture itself because they are given the responsibility to interpret Scripture for the people. 

Since the Roman Catholic Church holds both Scripture and Church Tradition as sacred and authoritative in determining the truth and churches of the Reformation hold only Scripture as authoritative, it is not surprising they answer this question differently. 

What does the Bible teach?

Matthew 16 records what is known as Peter’s confession. When asked who specifically Peter thought Jesus was, Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 ESV). The Roman Catholic Church and the churches of the Reformation interpret the response of Jesus differently. Jesus responds by first crediting God the Father with revealing this to Peter. Then He continues:

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”.

Matthew 16:17-19 ESV

In a similar passage, Jesus gives this power to a group. After His resurrection, Jesus appeared and spoke to a gathered group of disciples. 

“He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

John 20:22b-23 (ESV)

Undoubtedly, Jesus gives power to His Church; Jesus builds His Church on Peter as a confessor or on the confession itself. Letting Scripture interpret Scripture, a number of passages point to Christ as the sole foundation. In I Corinthians 3:11, the Bible clearly states His exclusive position, “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” Even Peter’s epistle identifies Jesus as the chief cornerstone, with all believers being built into the structure He supports. 

You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture:

‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,  a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame’

1 Peter 2:5-6 (ESV)

Thus, believers like Peter make up the spiritual house built upon Jesus. 

Jesus is also clearly portrayed as the head of the Church (Colossians 1:18) with believers making up the body (I Corinthians 12:12-31). In the Great Commission, recorded in Matthew 18:18ff, Jesus uses His authority to send out His Apostles: “And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. . .”

According to the Bible, Jesus is the one with all authority. Jesus is the foundation stone of the Church, and Jesus is the head of the Church. Because of Scripture, and Scripture alone, the churches of the Reformation maintain this doctrine, rejecting the papacy. Peter, then, while a prominent and important Apostle, remains a part of Christ’s body, a living stone built into Christ’s spiritual house.

Resources

Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church

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