Is Church Hierarchy Biblical?


 A recent comment by “3circlescommunity” on one of My Story posts, “Who canonized Scripture?” touched on a number of topics and some comments regarding the Catholic faith. I plan to take the time to address some of the issues brought up in this comment. If you would like to read the comment and dialogue thus far then click here. My previous post “The Priesthood of the Faithful”  includes my response to the comment. 


Before I begin let me say that I’m not a Bible scholar nor a trained theologian. I’m simply a Christian sharing my faith in and my love for Jesus as well as what I’ve learned as I’ve studied the Bible and Protestant and Catholic theology. I love the written Word of God and have fallen more and more in love with Jesus and His Church, through the teachings of the Catholic faith. Prayerfully I am being transformed by this growing love and by His love into His image. 

I am more than willing to share my passion for Christ and the Catholic faith when asked or challenged. The Bible tells us to always be ready to give an answer for the hope we have. These are some of my answers for the hope I have in Christ and in His Body, the Church. I pray they are received in a spirit of love regardless of your denomination, non-denomination or faith tradition.            


Topic: Does Peter (or the Bible for that matter) teach that there is no formal church hierarchy such as priests (presbyters), bishops (episcopate or overseers), deacons or even popes?

I don’t see in Scripture where Peter explicitly or implicitly states that he is moving, as you say, “from a strict hierarchical church structure with Pope and Bishops and priests…” Actually, as I read Scripture I see that Peter has no problem with church authority and hierarchy.

At a cursory glance I created a list of verses that either explicitly teach on church leadership/hierarchy or imply some type of hierarchy of leadership and authority  exists in the Church (i.e. bishops, presbyters, elders, overseers, deacons).

I Peter 2:13; 5:1-2
 Galatians 2:3 & 9
I Thes. 3:2
Acts Chapter 15
I Timothy 3:8
Acts 15:24
I Timothy Chapter 3
John 20:21-22
2 Timothy 1:6-8



Of all the passages though in scripture that persuaded me to reconsider my beliefs about church hierarchy, authority and the ministerial priesthood of the Catholic Church, Matthew 16:16-19 and Isaiah 22:20-24, have had the greatest impact. Let’s start with Matthew 16:

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And 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.” (Mathew 16: 16-19)

 It’s hard to dispute that in this passage of Scripture Jesus gives Peter authority over the Church. Here are just a few things this passage tells us:

  • He tells him that God the Father has given him a revelation knowledge—knowledge that it appears was not given to any of the other disciples.
  •  Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter and tells him he will build the Church upon Peter, the rock.
  •  And most importantly Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven and He tells Peter that whatever “you” bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever “you” loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

Interesting points, but what did Jesus mean when He gave the keys of the kingdom to Peter (notice he didn’t give them to anyone else)? What did He mean when told him he had the power to bind and loose?


To better understand this reference to the keys of the kingdom of heaven and binding and loosing we have to think like a Jew (like the disciples) living during that time. Jews who heard this testimony passed down through oral tradition until it was recorded in the book of Matthew and Jews who would later read this testimony once recorded would most likely associate Jesus’ comments to Peter with the following passage in Isaiah 22. Isaiah 22:20-23:

“In that day I will summon my servant, Eliakim son of Hilkiah. I will clothe him with your robe and fasten your sash around him and hand your authority over to him. He will be a father to those who live in Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I will drive him like a peg into a firm place; he will be a seat of honor for the house of his father.

Notice the references to the key to the house of David and to what he opens no one and shut and what he shuts one can open? The similarities to the passage in Matthew 16 are of no coincidence. But what does it mean and what does it have to do with hierarchy and authority in the church?


Like I said, I’m not a Bible scholar but in my studies of the Catholic faith I read what Protestant Bible scholars and Catholic Bible scholars both had to say about this passage in Matthew. Obviously I was convinced by what the Catholic Bible scholars and theologians had to say. I will draw on the Biblical exegesis and expertise of others as I share how one might interpret these Scripture passages. I have paraphrased many points from Stephen K. Ray’s book on Upon This Rock. Ray’s book is heavily footnoted and his examination of these passages includes reviewing the work of Protestant scholars.

  In Isaiah chapter 22, Isaiah the great Prophet of Israel is pronouncing judgment, displacing Shebna, the royal steward of the king and appointing Eliakim to succeed him as the steward. The office of steward was a permanent office within the Eastern kingdoms. The “steward” or the one “over the house” or the “master of the palace” was second to the king. The person who was “over the house” had the whole of the domestic affairs of the sovereign under his superintendence. The steward ruled in the place or in the absence of the king… The king’s steward in Isaiah is clearly the backdrop against which the Lord Jesus proclaims Peter the keeper of the keys in Matthew 16. (Upon This Rock, p. 38-39).

  • The royal steward in Judah is called “father.” Just as the Pope is called Father (Pope means “papa”), so the steward was called father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, which is a prefigure of the Church.
  • The office was dynastic in that it was a continuing position and was filled whenever vacated. In this case (in Isaiah 22), Eliakim replaced Shebna as the royal steward for Hezekiah, king of Judah (2 Kings 18:18). The disciples would have understood that this appointment of Peter was also a “dynastic” role, one that would have successors. (Upon This Rock, p. 38 &39)

Hmmm…an authoritative steward position over the kingdom, who is a father figure and has successors. Sounds a lot like…a pope!

If you’re a non-Catholic and you’re reading this you may strongly disagree with this interpretation . I am well aware that there are other interpretations of Matthew 16. Ones that deny Jesus was establishing Peter as the rock upon which He would build His church. Ones that suggest the rock was really Peter’s profession that Christ was the Son of God. My husband I read and studied these Protestant interpretations as well. 

When I read Isaiah 22 and what Bible scholars had to say about the relationship to Matthew 16 it made sense. However, I didn’t like that it made sense. Why? Because if this interpretation was correct that meant there was the possibility that the Catholic Church (the only Church with the Pope, the successor of Peter) might actually have legitimate authority given to it by Christ. I had so many questions about the Catholic faith and lots of doubts and yet…I couldn’t deny the cohesiveness of the Catholic interpretation of these passages. One of the most persuasive things about the Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16 is the link to the Old Testament and history. When it comes to understanding the New Testament you just can’t beat what you find in the Old Testament and in history.

Jesus knew he was leaving to go be with the Father. He was establishing His Church here on earth and placing His authority in the hand of his chosen steward, Peter. Of course all of this is not the norm for our modern day way of thinking. We don’t think in terms of kingdoms and stewards and keys, authority and binding and loosing. We 21st century Americans and most modern day Christians think in terms of democracy and our rights, our personal authority and freedoms. But Jesus and his disciples were Jews. He and his followers thought in terms of  kingdoms. Jesus came to establish a kingdom. He is the King and He was appointing a steward, one he could entrust with the keys of the kingdom.

The keys are an important part of these two passages. This mention of the key is found three times in Scripture (Isaiah 22:22; Matthew 16:19; Revelation 3:7). In Revelation 3:7 we find: “The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens.” Jesus possesses the keys. In using the terminology of Isaiah, Jesus is telling the Church that Peter has been given his key, his authority. He does this just as one delegates authority to a vicar or deputy. Whereas Christ is the invisible head of the Church, Peter is to be the visible head of the Church (Upon This Rock, p. 40).

Then there is the issue the steward having the authority to “open and shut” in Isaiah and Christ giving Peter the authority to “bind and loose.” Binding and loosing were terms common in Rabbinic canon-law. They referred to the legislative and judicial powers of the Rabbinic office – the power to declare things lawful or unlawful, to permit or to prohibit. (Upon This Rock, p. 38). This is the power that Jesus conferred on Peter. If this isn’t a form of hierarchical authority then I don’t know what is.  

Here some other interesting similarities between the King’s steward over the kingdom and the pope:


In light of this interpretation of Matthew 16 and Isaiah 22 I have to disagree with my brother in Christ, “3circlescommunity” and his suggestion that Peter was moving away from a hierarchical understanding of the Church and its leadership. More important than that, it’s clear that Jesus had a hierarchical Church in mind when He told Peter, “upon this rock I will build my church and I will give you the keys to the kingdom and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

There’s so much more that could be said about the role of the Pope and I haven’t even touched on the ministerial priesthood. But, I think I’ve given sufficient reason for why I believe the Bible teaches Jesus founded a Church with hierarchical and authoritative leadership. You may or may not agree with me. In which case I would say it’s a matter of interpretation and personal conscience. If you think that the Catholic Church and I are wrong, I would ask, by what authority do you declare your interpretation of scripture to be truth and the Catholic interpretation to be false? If you can’t stake claim to some legitimate authority to declare your interpretation as truth then at the very least you must grant that the Catholic interpretation of scripture is as equally valid as your own interpretation.

As a result of studying I slowly became convinced that God did establish a hierarchical and authoritative Church. I’ve come to believe that God meant for it to be a visible Church, not just an invisible, abstract concept of a spiritual family of God. No, the Church is to be a visible sign of unity, protected so that it stands as a light to the world today.


That last point is so important. Jesus promises to protect his Church. He tells us “the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Catholics believe that God has protected the Church. Although the Church is full of both sinners and saints, wheat and tares, the Catholic Church is still standing. But more importantly despite the human sin and scandals of some of our leaders (some of which make your heart sick with grief, including the sexual abuse scandals of this century), the doctrinal teaching of the Church on matters of faith and morals has not wavered.

This leads to another topic I found lurking in the comments made by “3circlescommunity:”

Topic: Do scandals or the personal sins and errors of leaders in the Catholic Church somehow prove its doctrinal teachings on matters of faith and morals are wrong?

I’ll try to address that at another time. In the meantime if you are interested in reading more about what the Catholic Church believes about the papacy and also about the ministerial priesthood here are a few links to some articles on the subject.

Another one of my posts on the subject

Catholic Answers – Did Jesus Give Priests to the Church?

Catholic Answers Network – Peter and the Keys

Catholic Answers – Why We Have a Ministerial Priesthood


7 Responses to Is Church Hierarchy Biblical?

  1. Hi Amy,

    I happened to come upon your post I was wondering if you found whether a blog is a good format for debating theological discussions?

    I have for the past 12 years or so done so on discussion forms, but over the years it gets old taking on the same topics year after year. I wish I had saved a lot of the material I wrote back in the day.

    I don’t support a wooden literalism in reading the Scripture, but Mt 16:18 “on this rock, I will build my church”. St. Peter was martyred and buried right under St. Peter’s, can’t get much more literal then that;>)

    Interesting spiritual journey. It seems like you’ve been able to incorporate your protestant past with your Catholic present and that’s a very good thing. Many make the mistake of feeling they have to reject their roots in order to live as Catholic’s whether it’s because their extended family rejects their decision or because they aren’t secure in their faith to allow contrary thoughts to challenge their assumptions.

    Life is a journey and your Christian walk spent in another communion will serve you well as a Catholic time and time again as I’m sure you’ll recognize if you haven’t already.

  2. timglass says:

    You seem to be a gifted teacher as well!
    What a great post!

  3. Amy says:

    Hi there-
    Actually I haven’t debated much on blogs or in any other online forum. Just never had the time. Have done some reading of those online forums. Always found them interesting but I like you would get bored after a while. I hope not to “debate” too much on this blog but want to respond to comments when they come my way.

    My journey is different than many of my Catholic friends. But I’m so grateful for my Protestant background. Of course I wish I hadn’t missed all those years with the Eucharist but I know that I’ve been given a gift in having experienced the grace of God within other Christian communities and that gift includes my Protestant friends and loved ones who are still a huge part of my faith journey.

    Glad you stopped by. I checked out your blog and will drop by again I’m sure.
    Have a happy new year!

  4. Amy says:

    Thanks Tim. Not so sure that I’m much of a teacher or writer but I like to share what I’ve learned.

    Hope 2008 is a good one and pray God gives you the discernment you are looking for.


  5. lbolm says:

    Amy, in your post you make reference to The Key of David, and then you make similiar reference that the key is given to Peter.

    If you will allow me a second here, look at this passage please.
    Revelation 3
    1And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.

    2Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God.

    3Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.

    4Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy.

    5He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.

    6He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.

    7And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write; These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth;

    8I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name.

    In v1 it says He has the seven Spirits of God. This is clearly talking about Jesus and is even mentioned in Isaiah 8,v8 I believe, and names off what these Spirits are. He is Jesus and none other. BTW, when you read Isaiah 8 and count them you will only count 6, but Jesus Himself makes the seventh. You will have to do a lot of research on that one.
    Then in Rev.3:7 it says He has the Key of David. He is Jesus and none other.

    Please explain then, what keys did Jesus give Peter, if He still has them when Revalation is fullfilled ?
    If Peter was to be the head of the new church, then why was James, the brother of Jesus, recognized as the head of the Christian church.

    I am not trying to start an argument, but trying to get a better understanding of your post,

    Love in Christ Jesus

  6. lbolm says:

    Hi ,
    I woke up this morning and realized that I have you the wrong scripture yesterday from Isaiah. So here it is for you.

    Isaiah 11
    1And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:

    2And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD;

    3And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the LORD: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears:

    4But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth: with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.

    5And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.

    6The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.

    This is in referrence to Rev3 we were talking about

  7. Amy says:

    I don’t have much time to respond (time to get back to life after the holidays and into schooling and other routines with my girls).

    Here’s my short answer. As I said before I am not a Bible scholar and trained theologian. And of course there are numerous ways of interpreting Revelation. But regardless of the way one interprets Revelation I really don’t see a problem with John’s vision of Jesus with the key and Jesus giving the keys to Peter. Jesus is no less our King and has no less authority by giving the keys to Peter. It is through the Holy Spirit that this earthly steward will lead Christ’s church on earth so it is through Christ and his authority and power that Peter and his successor leads. So in my opinion John’s vision of Jesus with the key doesn’t suggest that he didn’t give Peter the keys or any authority. It clearly shows that indeed Christ is the King.

    It’s really quite clear to me that Jesus did indeed give Peter authority over his church on earth. And as I said in my post. Of all the possible interpretations of Matthew 16 I’ve believe the Catholic interpretation of this passage is the most cohesive and makes the most sense. Of course it’s not the most appealing to our flesh because it suggests that Christ has established a Church to which we are called to submit. But it’s still the interpretation that to me is consistent with the Old Testament and the way the disciples would have understood Christ’s appointment of Peter.

    As for James being the head of the Christian Church. As I read the writings of the early church fathers it is clear to me that Peter had primacy among the disciples. I do not have the time to give all those quotes but here is a link to some if you are interested.

    I respect that we have different interpretations of scripture so I do not take your comments as being argumentative. Sorry I don’t have more time to respond.

    Have a great day.

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