The "primacy of Peter" doctrine asserts that Jesus gave Peter, and Peter's successors, authority to function as the sole custodians of true Christian teaching—and as Pope Benedict asserted, "This primacy is for all time" (ibid.). Supporters of this doctrine point to one key passage of scripture, in which Jesus said, "you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church… I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven" (Matthew 16:18–19). A careful study of this passage and other scriptures, however, reveals something very different from what Benedict has in mind.
Last June, Pope Benedict XVI reminded a crowd of 50,000 people in St. Peter's Square that the foundation of his authority is the rock on which Jesus founded the Catholic Church—that rock being the Apostle Peter. In his remarks, he urged, "Let us pray, so that the primacy of Peter… will be increasingly recognized in its true meaning by brothers not yet in communion with us" (Zenit News Agency, June 7, 2006). Benedict was proclaiming that all who call themselves Christians should acknowledge the Roman pontiff as the unique and singular head of the Christian world.
His claim—the so-called "Petrine theory"—has been standard Roman Catholic teaching for centuries. Many, however, do not realize that neither the Bible nor history support such an assertion of papal authority. In fact, Benedict's notion of papal primacy is one of religion's longest-running deceptions!
The "primacy of Peter" doctrine asserts that Jesus gave Peter, and Peter's successors, authority to function as the sole custodians of true Christian teaching—and as Pope Benedict asserted, "This primacy is for all time" (ibid.). Supporters of this doctrine point to one key passage of scripture, in which Jesus said, "you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church… I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven" (Matthew 16:18–19).
A careful study of this passage and other scriptures, however, reveals something very different from what Benedict has in mind. In the original Greek text, Jesus' statement is actually a play on words. The Greek word for "Peter" is petros (meaning a small stone), and the Greek word for "rock" is petra (a huge rock or mountain). The Bible clearly shows that Jesus Christ is the Rock (see 1 Corinthians 10:4; 1 Peter 2:4; see also Psalm 118:22; Isaiah 28:16). He was referring to Himself as the petra, and to His disciple Peter as the petros.
Scripture also shows that the Church was not founded on Peter alone, but was "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone" (Ephesians 2:20). Jesus described His petros—Peter—as a foundation stone of the Church, along with the other apostles and prophets. However, Jesus Christ and His teachings would remain the true foundation of the Church. This is the true meaning of Matthew 16:18–19. Attempts to twist this verse into a statement of Peter's exclusive authority are simply not biblical. This is why the Roman claim for power based on Peter's supposed primacy has never been accepted by the Eastern Orthodox churches, and why it was rejected by the Protestant reformers (see Civilization Past & Present, Wallbank, p. 133).
What does the Bible reveal about Peter's role in the early Church? Peter is placed first in lists of the twelve apostles (Matthew 10:1–4; Luke 6:13–16). He was often the spokesman for the group (Matthew 16:13–16), and he gave the first sermon on Pentecost (Acts 2). Peter, along with James and John, was one of three pillars in the Jerusalem Church (Galatians 2:9). Peter, Paul and Barnabas made observations about doctrine at a conference in Jerusalem, but James—not Peter—chaired the conference and rendered the final decision (Acts 15). Peter was the apostle to the Jews, and Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles—but neither one is listed as above the other (Galatians 2:7). Paul even corrected Peter (Galatians 2:11–14). Peter refused homage when it was offered (Acts 10:25–26); no one kissed his ring. The Bible reveals that Peter was a leader among the apostles, but he neither had nor claimed primacy over the others.
But was Peter the first pope to preside in Rome? Even Catholic sources acknowledge that the term "pope" was not used in the West "until the first half of the 5th century" (Short Biographies of All the Popes, Lozzi Roma, p. 2). As scholar Hans Küng states: "Catholic theologians concede that there is no reliable evidence that Peter was ever in charge of the church in Rome as supreme head or bishop" (The Catholic Church, Küng, p. 20). Professor Küng also mentions that "there could be no question of a legal primacy—or even of a pre-eminence based on the Bible—of the Roman community or even of the Bishop of Rome in the first centuries" (ibid., p. 49). The New Testament does not link Peter with Rome, and it mentions no successor to Peter. The apostles urged Christians to look to Jerusalem and the churches in Judea—not to Rome—as their models (Galatians 1:18; 1 Thessalonians 2:14).
Historians know that the bishop of Rome was "at first only one of several patriarchs" (Civilization Past & Present, Wallbank, 6th ed., p. 133). There were also patriarchs in Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria who were regarded as equals—but history records that they were also competitive and grasping for power. Around 160ad, Bishop Anacetus of Rome tried to pressure Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, to keep the Roman Easter instead of the biblical Passover held on Nisan 14. Anacetus was unsuccessful, because Polycarp said he was following a tradition learned from the Apostle John. Fifty years later, another Roman bishop, Victor, threatened to excommunicate the eastern churches for not adopting the Roman date of Easter. Again they refused, and they continued to follow true apostolic teaching.
The Petrine theory holds that Peter's successors are to decide doctrinal matters for the Church. Yet, at the Council of Nicaea in 325ad, records show that the Roman bishop, Sylvester I, did not attend and exercised no primacy when the date of Easter was set as a replacement for the biblical Passover, and when Sunday worship officially replaced the seventh-day Sabbath. The Council of Nicaea was called and presided over not by a Roman bishop, but by the Emperor Constantine. As emperor, Constantine held the title of Pontifex Maximus in the pagan Roman religion—a title that Roman bishop Leo I would adopt a century later when arguing for the Petrine primacy over all other bishops. In 451ad, however, the Council of Chalcedon rebuffed Leo, and decreed that the bishops of Rome and Constantinople had equal authority. By 1200ad, Pope Innocent III was claiming to be the "Vicar of Christ," and the Supreme Sovereign of the Church and the world (Halley's Bible Handbook, p. 776). For about 600 years during the Middle Ages, Roman bishops pointed to the "Donation of Constantine" as evidence of their right to preside over all the other bishops, but the document was later proven to be a fraud (Kung, p. 50).
Scripture and history both show that the early Church did not recognize the Roman theory of Petrine primacy. Rather, it was ambitious Roman bishops who developed the doctrine to gain power over other bishops and their churches. Jesus Christ warned that at the end of the age, many would be deceived by false teachers claiming to represent Him (Matthew 24:3–5). Paul warned that in the latter times hypocritical teachers would spread lies (1 Timothy 4:1–3) and would delude people into believing ancient heresies and unbiblical traditions (2 Thessalonians 2:1–15). These long-standing warnings are coming alive today!