Why don’t all Christians accept the authority of the pope?

Why don’t all Christians accept the authority of the pope?


Pentecost Sunday (June 8 this year) is widely observed as the birthday of the Christian Church. The second chapter of Acts records how the Holy Spirit descended upon early followers of Jesus in Jerusalem fifty days after his resurrection, and 3000 people were baptized.

Today, Christianity is divided into countless groups. The largest, Roman Catholicism, has over a billion adherents. Roughly another billion are not Roman Catholics About 300 million are Eastern Orthodox, and most of the rest are ‘Protestants’ if we include in that number everyone from Anglicans to Quakers and numerous pentecostal sects that have thrived since World War II.

While these non-Catholics vary widely in doctrine and liturgy, a common thread is that they do not pay homage to papal authority. The Coptic Church of Egypt, much in the news during the Arab Spring, even selects its own pope. Many non-Catholics individually view John XXIII and John Paul II, both recently canonized, with deep respect. Certainly Pope Francis is widely admired, and his recent trip to the Holy Land has made him the world’s leading spokesman for justice, understanding, and peace.

So, why don’t these other Christians accept the Pope as the rightful head of universal Christianity, the one person who can speak ‘ex cathedra’ on matters of faith and morals and his words are infallible?

This difference arises in part out of scripture, starting with Matthew 16:18-19 where Peter confesses that he believes Jesus is the Christ, the son of the Living God. Jesus replies: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” He adds: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatsoever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Later Jesus tells him to “feed my sheep.” Add to this that when the disciples are listed Peter’s name comes first.

It’s easy to see how Catholicism interprets this to mean that Jesus identified Peter as the head of the church, and hence the first Pope. One of the most confusing parts of the debate focuses on the word ‘rock’. Was Jesus speaking of Peter himself, whose name in Greek means rock? Or, did Jesus mean that Peter’s confession of faith is that rock? Much has been written in support of both interpretations..

Some scholars have found it significant that just a few verses later Jesus sharply denounces Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling block to me, for you savor not things of God but those that are of men.” They also point out that Christ (in Matt. 18:18) gave similar powers to the other disciples. And what about the controversy at the Last Supper? We read in Luke 22 that a dispute arose among the disciples as to who among them was the greatest. Why was this an issue if Christ already had chosen Peter? And why didn’t Jesus immediately make that clear?

Then, in Paul’s letter to the Romans he extends greetings to a long list of Christians in that city with no mention of Peter. In Acts 15 we find that the first council was held in Jerusalem, not Rome, and that while Peter played a major role in it James seems to have served as chairman. Paul writes in Galatians 2:11 that “when Peter came to Antioch I opposed him to his face because he was clearly in the wrong.” Would Paul have confronted the Pope in this way? Among Orthodox and Anglicans there are those who regard the pontiff as the legitimate Bishop of Rome, perhaps even first among equals, with emphasis on equals. While all Christians honor Peter as a key leader among the original disciples, some believe that the Papacy grew out of tradition without support in scripture.

There are historians who view the history of the Papacy differently. Of the ancient cities in which Christianity first flourished, Jerusalem, Constantinople and all but Rome came under Muslim control, diminishing their influence. With the collapse of the Roman Empire, various scholars see the Pope as filling a vacuum in much of Europe They find imperial traditions still alive today through the Papacy, including public adulation. Harsher skeptics ask: would God have permitted certain popes to be guilty of gross corruption, nepotism, simony, anti-Semitism, the Inquisition and other serious transgressions if they were actually Vicars of Christ?

This obviously is not an adequate discussion of the issue, as that would require a lengthy book or two. What it shows is how verses in the Bible and other factors can be cited by devout believers to support conflicting opinions. One result is so many denominations. A strong, centralized Papacy has helped protect Catholicism from continual splintering. My suggestion is that we practice our particular faith, respect the faith of others, and work in unison toward a better world. Pope Francis appears to be doing that.

Ralph Lord Roy of Southington is a retired United Methodist minister. Email: Ralphlroy@aol.


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