John H. Armstrong


Serious evangelical dialogue with Roman Catholicism finds it virtually impossible to avoid the issues raised by the institution of the papacy. These issues were central in the sixteenth-century division, and they remain problematic for modern discussion as well. It is hard for many Catholics in the West to understand the serious concerns evangelicals have regarding the papacy, since they often think of John Paul II as a benevolent and kind gentleman who warmly radiates love for Christ and non-Catholics.

In a special commentary on the Feast Day (1971) honoring St. Peter and St. Paul, the Vatican radio declared, “The Church does not exist without the Pope. The Pope does not exist without the Church. He who believes in the Church believes in the Pope. He who believes in the Pope believes in the Church. Pope and Church are inseparable realities.” This understanding, which sounds so completely foreign to the evangelical mind, is perfectly natural to Catholic teaching, with its fully developed doctrine of ecclesiastical authority.


The teaching of papal authority grew out of the church’s early relationship to society around it. Linear historical succession to Peter (believed to be the first pope by Roman Catholics) is a matter that may well be debated till the end of the age. What is beyond serious debate is the clear influence early Roman law and cultural practice had on the church. This background helps us understand something of the development of papal authority over the centuries.

What can be seen, and this considerably prior to the Middle Ages, is an increasingly unified institutional church organized along lines both juridical (that is, pertaining to the law, in this case Roman law) and monarchical (that is, following the pattern of a single head, or monarch). An evolution was going on during these centuries that led, by the ninth century, to a church directed by the human authority of a single leader — a pope. The dogma of the papacy gradually developed until it reached its apex in Vatican Council I (1870). This dogma added to the rupture that took place between the churches of the East (Orthodox Church) and the West (Roman Catholic Church) on July 16, 1054.

This division, described by the Catholic Encyclopedia, happened “when Cardinal Humbert, the head of a papal delegation in Constantinople, placed a document of excommunication on the altar of Hagia Sophia, the cathedral church of Constantinople.” Why was this done? “The official reasons for this were the removal of the filioque [a word meaning “from the Son,” which was used to teach that the Holy Spirit proceeded equally from both the Father and the Son] from the Creed; the practice of married clergy and some liturgical errors (for example, the use of leavened bread instead of unleavened bread for the Eucharist)” (Stravinskas 1991, 707).

This division, existing down to our time, has been addressed by recent ecumenical dialogue, especially since 1966 when anathemas were lifted by Pope Paul VI and Athenagoras I. One of the perennial problems, however, that remains between East and West is the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church.

The same problem existed with regard to the division of the sixteenth century. Luther began his reforming efforts as a loyal subject of the Pope, but in time he concluded that the whole papal system was unsound. His language, often harsh and offensive to modern readers, must be understood against the backdrop of his times and the way the papacy responded to him. Neither Catholic nor Protestant should be proud of some of the language hurled about in the sixteenth century, and hopefully these vital doctrinal differences can be considered by us without the invectives of the past.

What exactly is the Roman Catholic doctrine of the pope? The Catholic Encyclopedia once again helps us:

The Bishop of Rome . . . exercises universal jurisdiction over the whole Church as the Vicar of Christ and the Successor of St. Peter. The term “pope” derives from the Latin for “father.” . . . In Western Christianity this term refers to the Roman Pontiff, called His Holiness the Pope, who governs the universal Church as the successor to St. Peter. . . who possesses, “by virtue of his office, . . . supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary jurisdiction power in the Church (Canon 331). (Stravinskas 1991, 761)

This supreme head of the Christian church is said to carry out his pontificate through the office of bishops, cardinals, and various other offices of the Roman Curia (a body of official agencies that assists the pope).


Roman Catholic apologists never tire of quoting Matthew 16:18-19 when asked to defend the papacy. In this passage, Jesus asked Simon Peter who people said He was. Peter answered that “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets” (v. 14). Then our Lord asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” After Peter answered, seemingly for the whole group, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16), Jesus told Peter that the Father had revealed this truth to him. Then Jesus added the oft-quoted words: “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (vv. 18-19).

The Catholic argument goes essentially like this: Peter is the rock in this passage. Christ promises to build His church on the rock. Thus, Peter is the first head, or rock, of the church, and the popes (more than 260 historically) who have followed him (supposedly in unbroken succession) are the heirs of this promise to Peter.

Protestants often try to interpret the reference to the rock in a way that shows why Peter could not be the rock in this passage. Personally, I am in agreement with evangelical scholar D. A. Carson when he writes, “If it were not for Protestant reactions against extremes of Roman Catholic interpretation, it is doubtful whether many would have taken ‘rock’ to be anything or anyone other than Peter” (Carson 1986, 368). What, then, can we say about Roman Catholic reference to this text in establishing the doctrine of the papacy through Peter as the first pope?

Catholic conclusions from this text suffer from what Carson refers to “as insuperable exegetical and historical problems” (Carson 1986, 368). For example, after Peter’s death his so-called successor would have had authority over a living apostle, John, a prospect that simply cannot be demonstrated. What is actually said in Scripture is that Peter was the first disciple to confess Jesus in this manner, and by this confession his prominence continued into the early years of the church (Acts 1-12). He, along with John, is sent by the other apostles to Samaria (8:14), he is held accountable for his actions by the church in Jerusalem (11:1-18), and he is rebuked by Paul face-to-face (Galatians 2:11-14). Peter is, concludes Carson, first among equals; “and on the foundation of such men (Eph. 2:20), Jesus built his church. This is precisely why Jesus, toward the close of his earthly ministry, spent so much time with them. The honor was not earned but stemmed from divine revelation (v. 17) and Jesus’ building work (v. 18)” (Carson 1986, 368-69).

Though modern Catholics will point out that the pope does not speak infallibly on all occasions, and the pope must himself confess sin and be redeemed as a sinner, the truth is that the doctrine of papal authority succession, and infallibility is still a major roadblock to meaningful agreement regarding the teaching of the New Testament.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in speaking of the episcopal college of bishops and the pope, says,

When Christ instituted the Twelve, “he constituted [them] in the form of a college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter, chosen from among them.” Just as “by the Lord’s institution, St. Peter and the rest of the apostles constitute a single apostolic college, so in like fashion the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are related with and united to one another”

The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, “is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.” “For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.” (Ratzinger, 233-34)

Here it is stated plainly: Authority was conferred by Christ upon His apostles, Peter being the prince, or supreme head of them all. From the apostles this same authority is given to the bishops of the church in an unbroken line of succession, with supreme authority vested in the Roman Pontiff chosen as a successor to Peter since the first century. But a number of nagging questions remain:

  1. Was Peter ever in Rome? We don’t know for sure, but even if he was it proves nothing. A problem, however, is this: when Paul wrote his epistle to the Roman church, why does he address personal greetings to twenty-seven different people but never mention Peter? Strange omission, I believe, if he were the supreme head of this flock.
  2. Because Peter’s name was changed is no proof that he was now pope, as has been claimed. Jesus changed the names of other apostles as well (Mark 3:16-17; see John 1:42).
  3. The Catholic Church always lists Peter’s name first when it refers to the Twelve. The New Testament does not do so, listing others before Peter on several occasions (Matthew 4:18; John 1:44; and so on).
  4. Paul spoke of reputed “pillars of the church” in Galatians 2:9 and named, in order, James, Peter, and John. Peter was an important leader for sure, but plainly not the supreme head of them all.
  5. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, worked independently of Peter and never refers to submitting to Peter (in some sense) as head over all. If anyone qualifies as the human leader, it has to be Paul, yet he never claims any such office for himself. Further, Paul actually rebuked Peter to his face because he stood condemned by his own actions and his behavior was hypocritical (Galatians 2:11-14). The unambiguous evidence is this — the headship of the church was not in a human leader on earth but in Christ who reigned above!
  6. Nowhere in any New Testament text is there evidence of the office of Pope, and nowhere do we have the model of a person acting as pope, a very strange omission if we are to understand that the church is not a true church without this office and the bishops.


Most Roman Catholics are not aware of their own history in terms of theological development and doctrinal formulations. It comes as a surprise, therefore, when they discover that the doctrine of “Papal Infallibility” came as late as 1870 at Vatican Council I. Here Pius IX accomplished what he had earlier begun — the strengthening of his leadership over the church. At Vatican Council I it was stated that the Pope’s decisions, when he spoke ex cathedra in matters of faith and morals, were “unchangeable in themselves and not because of the consent of the church” (Session 4.4; Denzinger, 3073-75).

Vatican Council II (1962-1965) sought to modify this doctrine by saying that the college of bishops assists the pope. Whereas the earlier Council had taken a more anti-Protestant stance, Vatican II seems to address dangers within the Catholic Church itself and to seek to reform modern practice. The fact is, collegiality (the idea that bishops collectively share authority) is still to be interpreted in the light of papal supremacy. De Ecclesia, a Vatican II reformist document, states this clearly:

The college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is simultaneously conceived of in terms of its head, the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, and without any lessening of his power of primacy over all, pastors as well as the general faithful. For in virtue of his office, that is, as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme, and universal power over the Church. And he can always exercise this power freely. (p. 22)

This same document on the church, which comes from a section dealing with ecumenism and the church’s relationship to Protestant churches, adds, “Thus religious submission of the will and mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra” (p. 25).


All Catholic teaching regarding authority in the church and in the life of the faithful individual centers in the previously mentioned triad — Bible, tradition, and the magisterium. This is often not understood by evangelicals who speak of “cooperation” with Roman Catholic ministries, priests, or churches.

The Catholic concept of tradition is vital to understanding how the Bible is used and understood. The word tradition (from the Latin word for “handing over”) refers to the teachings and practices handed down, whether in written or oral form, separately but not independently of Scripture.

The Catholic Encyclopedia says, “Tradition is divided into two areas: (1) Scripture, the essential doctrines of the Church, the major writings and teachings of the Fathers, the liturgical life of the Church, and the living and lived faith of the whole Church down through the centuries; (2) customs, institutions, practices which express the Christian Faith” (Stravinskas 1991, 939). It goes on to say that

the Council of Trent (1546), in distinct opposition to evangelical faith and practice, affirmed “both the Bible and Tradition as divine sources of Christian doctrine.” Vatican II states, “It is clear . . . that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand alone without the others. Working together, each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.” (Stravinskas 1991, 939)

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the magisterium is “the teaching office of the church.” It was established, according to Catholic belief, in order “to safeguard the substance of faith in Jesus Christ” and to prevent the individual from “being left entirely on his own” (Stravinskas 1991, 615).

It is believed, very simply, that Christ established an apostolic college in His disciples who, unified with Peter as their head, became the teaching magisterium of the first church. The understanding of this magisterium and its limits, role, and work were ironed out in the centuries that followed, especially at the Council of Trent and Vatican I. The magisterium proclaims the teachings of Christ “infallibly, irreformably and without error” when it follows principles that assure its faithfulness (as defined, of course, by the church).

What this means, practically, is that Rome may alter matters that will change how Catholics perceive and experience the life of their church, but fundamental doctrines (such as those we have considered in this book) do not and cannot change. This is what has been meant by the oft-quoted phrase semper idem (Latin, “always the same”).

In practice the typical Catholic never experiences the magisterium directly. He reads and hears of its deliberations and actions. Where he actually experiences the authority of the church is in the priesthood of his parish. Here the chain of command comes down to the level of how he or she must actually live and act to be a devout Catholic. Here the person receives the sacraments, receives forgiveness for sin, and seeks to know God through his church.

Even at the level of the local parish priest there is powerful connection to the structure of the Roman Catholic Church internationally. That is why we can speak of an American Catholic Church, but ultimately it too is intimately related to the Roman Catholic Church. American Catholics are prone to almost loose sight of this reality.

Further, all that is believed and taught at the local parish level is to be ultimately related to tradition, the magisterium, and the pope. That is precisely why the idea is utterly impossible that one priest, or one parish, can be evangelical and still be properly related to the Roman Catholic Church, as defined in its own creeds and practices!


There is more serious appeal to modern Christian minds in this doctrine than many evangelicals realize. We live in an age of independence and, often, the spirit of anarchy. Ours is the age of “personal rights.” Christians who observe the spirit of our times might well find attractive a church with a supreme pastor who has authority over all matters and to whom we can submit ourselves.

Indeed, in every age the tension has existed between submission to one (or several) who has authority over me and my personal responsibility to exercise discernment and make personal decisions based on an authority that is above all present human and ecclesiastical structure. Many Protestants often have church leaders who have become virtual popes in this sense.

My reason for opposing the Catholic doctrine of authority in the papacy and the magisterium, and the more recently developed doctrine of infallibility is not because I desire to foster rebellion, much less willful independence. It is because this very doctrine, like so many others we have observed, is simply not grounded in the New Testament. In fact, I would suggest that it runs counter to the teaching and spirit of the Scriptures.

Martin Luther opposed “Enthusiasts” (visionaries, prophets, and so on) in the sixteenth century in much the same way that he countered the papacy. Both, Luther maintained, sought to exercise an authority above and beyond the written Scriptures. Their independence from God’s Word was the primary problem. The church does not give us “new birth,” rather it is by the Word of God that we are begotten by the Holy Spirit (see 1 Peter 1:13; James 1:18). Further, we have but one true Supreme Head and Chief Shepherd of our souls — Jesus Christ the Lord! His infallible teaching is not found in the human creeds and decisions of a fallible church but in the Word of the living God. This is precisely why every great recovery and spiritual awakening in the history of the church has broken forth upon rediscovery of the power of God in the written Scriptures, not in ecclesiastical structures and meetings.

We can honestly discuss how we might accept churches with a papacy on equal footing with churches that do not, but ultimately the faithful evangelical must allow Scripture to rule the discussion. Catholicism’s position will not allow for a middle ground either. Perhaps Catholicism will change this doctrine in the future, but there is no evidence at all that she will. For the evangelical who remains faithful to the New Testament there is no middle ground either. Truth and unity are not served by covering over this major difference. Truth is best served by recognizing the supreme headship of Jesus Christ (alone) over the entire universal church.

All human leaders — pastors, deacons, elders, whatever — must govern and lead only in a distinctly subservient role as “fellow priests” (see Revelation 1:6; 5:10; 20:6) with the whole people of God. They are to serve in a spirit of gentleness that honors Christ the true Head of the church. And they must serve with derived authority, living totally under the written Scripture and its final authority.


John H. Armstrong [M.A., Wheaton Graduate School; D.Min., Luther Rice Seminary] was pastor for twenty-one years. He is currently the director of Reformation and Revival Ministries. The author of Can Fallen Pastors Be Restored?, he was also the general editor of Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Divides and Unites Us. He and his wife live in the greater Chicagoland area.

This article is used by permission of the author and is taken from his book, A View of Rome: A Guide to Understanding the Beliefs and Practices of Roman Catholics, [Chicago: Moody Press, pp. 73-82].

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