I consider myself an evangelical, despite some heavy theological borrowing from the Orthodox tradition--I attended evangelical schools for my undergraduate and graduate work, I pastor an evangelical church, and the Christian practice I teach draws heavily on the evangelical perspective. But it's worth noting that there are some generational differences that have begun emerging between "the younger evangelicals" and those that came before us. One of those differences is that we younger evangelicals tend not to feel quite as strongly about the importance of denominational differentiation. Though I grew up Baptist and pastor a Baptist church, I identify more with the broad "mere Christianity" of evangelicalism than with Baptistic particulars alone--thus I've happily attended churches that are Anglican (during my London semester in college), Wesleyan (through the remainder of college), Brethren in Christ (my wife's home denomination), Assembly of God (the church I partnered with in Angola), Mennonite Brethren (all through seminary), and, on occasion, a jaunt down to a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox service to enjoy a more liturgical form.
Evangelicals of previous generations were, it seems, decidedly more guarded about denominations, especially when it came to Roman Catholics. Growing up in a Baptist church in an area in which Catholics formed the largest denomination, I was given the standard apologetic arsenal against Catholic doctrine, and it mostly had to do with dissenting from transubstantiation and submission to the pope. There was also a general suspicion that Catholics had reverted back to an anti-Pauline theology of "salvation by works," and that most of them thus never developed true, authentic faith.
My position has changed since then, largely from the practice of reading the great Christian classics, and finding that the works of Roman Catholic saints were full of beautiful, vibrant, authentic, life-transforming faith. There are still points of their theology on which I would dissent, but I now have tremendous respect for the great Catholic tradition, and in recent decades they have become the evangelicals' greatest ally when it comes to advocating Christian perspectives on social issues in the public sphere.
So, with Pope Francis doing his rock star tour through our country, how should evangelicals feel about the papacy? I think we can move past the old Protestant resentments, that so often cast the pope as the head of a subversive anti-church, sometimes as the Antichrist or "whore of Babylon" itself. It is clear here that we have a man of genuine faith, of winsome love and deep compassion, a man who, regardless of what we might think about his views on the Lord's Supper and the intercession of the saints, shares with us an all-consuming devotion to the basic core of the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.
But we can't quite leave it there, because Catholic theology has such a firm position on the papacy that it demands a response. Their claim is that Christ founded his church on Peter's authority, the shepherd of the whole flock of the people of God, with authority over doctrine and practice in every place where Christians live; and that, further, this specifically Petrine authority was passed down through the apostolic succession in the line of the bishops of Rome, such that the Pope, even today, acts as the infallible voice of God's teaching for his church when speaking ex cathedra. These are arguments which, if true, demand our loyalty, our conversion, and our repentance for our long legacy of schismatic behavior. But they are also questions which are open to biblical and historical testing (with the exception of the infallibility claim, but, as I've written before, there's no reason that evangelicals should quibble with this part of the claim, since we too believe that God can use humans--specifically, the biblical authors--in an infallible ministry).
The biblical case for or against the papacy is, to my mind, not all that conclusive one way or another. An arguable case can be made for either the Catholic or evangelical positions on the matter. Really, this is what you would expect, since there are lots of Catholic Bible scholars out there, and lots of evangelical Bible scholars, and not a very high percentage of either camp is thoroughly inept at their jobs. If the biblical evidence were compellingly clear, we would expect all Catholic Bible scholars to become evangelicals, or vice versa. But we don't see that happening. The main text for the Roman Catholic case is Matthew 16:18-19: "I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (NIV).
Evangelicals have always tried to worm out of this one by claiming that it was Peter's profession of faith, not Peter himself, who was the "rock" on which Jesus would build his church, but this attempt at inventive semantics never seemed to me to square with the plain force of the text, and the most compelling exegetical studies I've looked at support the RC position that Jesus really is declaring a measure of authority for Peter, but it's not clear whether this is specifically for him alone, or for him as a symbolic representation of all church leadership. On their side, the evangelicals can present the evidence of the book of Acts, which does show Peter as the initial leader of the Jerusalem church (thus fulfilling, at least in part, the words of Matthew 16), but then he cedes the office to James, and in the first recorded "ecumenical church council" in history, in Acts 15, though Peter has a prominent voice, it is James who is given the final word on the matter (in Acts 15:19, James ends the council by stating, "It is my judgment,
therefore..."). If Peter were "the Pope," we would have expected him to
fill this role. There are other passages that can be brought in on one
side or another, but in general, they tend not to bring the case to a
full conclusion one way or the other--some readers will find one
position persuasive, and others will find the opposite position
persuasive, and there seems to be room for either interpretation.
What, then, of history? This, to me, is the more compelling case, though it's not open-and-shut either. We've already noted that the history of the church even within the NT might cast some doubt on the RC doctrine of the pope (and I think Paul's somewhat uneven take of Peter as a Christian leader could plausibly add to that doubt). But the main question we're asking here is, "Did the early church--those closest in culture and language to the proclamation of Matthew 16, and thus probably better able to understand it than us--did they interpret that passage in a Roman Catholic way, or in an evangelical way?" Even here, the evidence is a bit shadowy, partly because our sources are somewhat patchy. But in general, what we can discern is that it's something of an emerging process. Churches seem to develop rapidly toward a hierarchical episcopal structure such as we would find in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches, but it's hard to make a historical case one way or the other as to whether this was done for reasons of Christian doctrine--that is, by the explicit instruction of the apostles as a normative pattern for all Christians everywhere--or simply as a practical step for creating a sensible structure of church leadership and preventing loss to charismatic heretics. (The weight of early church fathers' teaching on the subject leans toward the former explanation, while the earlier biblical evidence might tend toward the latter.)
According to Scripture, Peter was the leader during the founding of the church of Jerusalem at Pentecost (and Jerusalem was clearly regarded as "the mother church" throughout the NT period). Tradition later has Peter going to Antioch and participating in the apostolic foundation of that church (thus the current bishops of Antioch claim an apostolic succession beginning with Peter), and then finally to Rome, where he is given credit for co-founding the church there, together with Paul (though biblical and historical evidence both indicate the presence of a church there before either Peter or Paul arrived on the scene). Two parts of the Roman Catholic story about Peter's authority being transferred to the bishops of Rome can be called into question. First, biblically: Is there any indication in Matthew 16 that Jesus' words to Peter apply also to his successors? There's no biblical reason to read those verses as anything other than an application to Peter himself, relating to his action in guiding the church of Jerusalem; nothing in Scripture warrants their continued application to anyone else unless Jesus was speaking of Peter as a symbol of the church leadership as a whole (and, in that case, it wouldn't be limited to Rome). Second: if Peter was also the apostolic founder of Jerusalem and Antioch, why wouldn't the bishops in those apostolic successions inherit equally the authority of Jesus' words to Peter?
Now, let's ask another historical question: How did early Christians perceive the Pope? There are indications early on that the church of Rome is given special honor among all the churches of the Empire. It develops a theological reputation of being faithful to orthodox Christianity even in the midst of heretical attacks, and of finding a middle road in theological disputes where other influential Christian centers (such as Alexandria and Antioch) took opposite ends of the debates. The earliest mentions of this sort of honored reputation, however, seem to be toward the whole church of Rome, not always focusing on the Pope himself. This seems, then, to be the overall consensus of the early church--the church of Rome was given a preeminence of honor as the first among brothers, but there aren't a lot of early indications that they were treated as a final authority on matters of doctrine and practice for all Christians everywhere (though they may have exercised that kind of authority over their regionally-dependent bishops in the western Mediterranean). Later on, one finds a second pattern emerging--many of the Latin-speaking theologians in the West start to give added emphasis to the position of the Bishop of Rome itself, speaking in terms that would sound familiar to Roman Catholic ears. This was still well within the golden age of patristic theology, when other doctrines that we hold dear, such as the Trinity and the Incarnation, were still being explained into the forms that we now ascribe to. However, the trouble here is that the theologians and churches in the Greek-speaking East do not start mentioning the Bishop of Rome in ways that would now sound familiar to Roman Catholic ears. There, the old conception--that the Bishop of Rome was given merely a preeminence of honor, but not necessarily of magisterial authority--still prevailed (and it should be noted that the East was the more fertile theological field in those days, with about three "gold standard" church fathers for every one that the West produced). When the bishops of Rome in later centuries began to actively and aggressively push their theology of the papacy, it met with surprisingly stiff resistance from the churches of the East.
All in all, then, there is room, both biblically and historically, to make a valid case for our evangelical dissent from submission to the Pope. However, if we take the Bible seriously, and if we are willing to listen to the voice of the church fathers when they talk about the Trinity and the Incarnation, then we ought to be willing to listen to them here as well. The Pope represents one of the most ancient and venerable institutions of our faith, a church that has outlasted the Roman Empire and medieval kingdoms and which will outlast the modern nation-state too. He self-consciously accepts the mantle and legacy of Peter and attempts to model his ministry on the great disciple, to be "the servant of the servants of God," and to answer Christ's call to love Him and feed His sheep. As such, he is worthy of tremendous honor, even from evangelicals. We need to give him our respect, as a fellow brother in Christ and as a great servant of the global church, as well as acknowledging that he seems to be a man of great personal holiness. Let us love and honor our brother, let us strive to learn from his wisdom, let us thank God for his humble ministry, and let us pray for him and for his church.
(Images: Sketch, top: "Old South Church, Boston," from Gleason's Pictorial, 1853, public domain. Colored woodcut, inset left: from Martin Luther's German Bible (1520), Revelation 17, "The Woman on the Beast," in this picture, shown with a three-tiered tiara representing the papacy as "The Whore of Babylon," public domain. Painting, inset right: Detail from "Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter," by Pietro Perugino, 1482, fresco, public domain. Photo, bottom inset left: "Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square," by Alfredo Borba, 6 June 2014, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.)
Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.