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.