Where is the church that Jesus built today? Is it something defined by sometimes brutal human political structures or is it some kind of exclusive franchise or does anyone with faith in Jesus have access to him?
To show that we do not establish doctrine on unclear passages and that faith defines the church not human politics or exclusive franchises.
We will examine Matthew 16:13-20 and various claims about it.
Who is the Rock
Matthew 16:13-20 is controversial. Was Peter called the rock on which the Church was built? It is unclear. Jesus most likely spoke in Aramaic and used the word Kepha for rock. The choice of two Greek words Petra and Petros were grammatical and do not necessarily make it clearer. In the Old Testament God is called the Rock of Israel. The rock of Daniel’s prophecy which conquered Rome was Christ. We don’t establish doctrine on unclear passages. What did Peter say? He said that another rock, Christ was the cornerstone (1 Peter 2:7-8), a rock (Petra) that makes men stumble. Peter was the first to proclaim this faith, but in his letters Peter merely introduced himself as an Apostle, not chief Apostle. To claim that Peter was the first Pope reads more into the passage than it actually says. Let’s look at a few comments from early church fathers.
reference: The Matthew 16 Controversy
Origen's View of Peter
Origen was head of the catechism school of Alexandria and the greatest scholar of Christian antiquity. His commentary on Matthew 16:13-20 is eye-opening, ‘if we too have said like Peter, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God," not as if flesh and blood had revealed it unto us, but by light from the Father in heaven having shone in our heart, we become a Peter, and to us there might be said by the Word, "Thou art Peter," etc. For a rock is every disciple of Christ of whom those drank who drank of the spiritual rock which followed them, and upon every such rock is built every word of the church...’ Origen repudiated an exclusive church franchise mentality with words like, ‘all bear the surname of "rock" who are the imitators of Christ...’
reference: ANTE-NICENE FATHERS, VOLUME 9, BOOK XII, 10
Augustine’s View of Peter
Augustine was bishop of Hippo (in Roman Africa) and his writings have great influence throughout the entire Christian Church. Regarding Matthew 16:13-20 he wrote, ‘Christ is the rock (Petra), Peter is the Christian people. For the rock (Petra) is the original name. Therefore Peter is so called from the rock; not the rock from Peter; as Christ is not called Christ from the Christian, but the Christian from Christ. "Therefore," he saith, "[You are] Peter; and upon this Rock" which [you have] confessed, upon this Rock which [you have] acknowledged, saying, "[You are] the Christ, the Son of the living God, will I build My Church;" that is upon Myself, the Son of the living God, "will I build My Church." I will build [you] upon Myself, not Myself upon [you].’ The Church is built upon the Rock Christ not Peter.
Chrysostom’s View of Peter
John Chrysostom was a leading bishop of Constantinople famous in history for his eloquent preaching. His commentary on Matthew 16:13-20 does not support Papal primacy. Rather he commented on Jesus’ words, ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church;" that is, on the faith of his confession....He that has built His church upon Peter's confession...’ (1) There is no mention that Peter’s authority over all the world was to continue beyond his grave other than through those who confessed the same faith. "For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ....I have preached Christ, I have delivered unto you the foundation. Take heed how you build thereon, lest haply it be in vainglory, lest haply so as to draw away the disciples unto men." (2) Peter’s answer invites us to also answer, who do we say he is?
references: (1) St. Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew (2) Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians
Tertullian’s View of Peter
Tertullian was a North African Christian writer known as the father of Latin Christianity. He taught that Peter was the rock about whom Jesus spoke in Matthew 16:13-20, but it was Peter alone and not any exclusive successors. In other words, the whole of Christian faith is built upon Peter being the first to confess Christ. What about the keys? Tertullian believed that, ‘(Peter) himself, therefore, was the first to unbar, in Christ's baptism, the entrance to the heavenly kingdom...’ He reasoned that it was Peter’s confession which gave him and any others who showed this faith the key to the kingdom, not human politics and a succession of popes in an exclusive church. Indeed, ‘from that time forward, every number (of persons) who may have combined together into this faith is accounted "a Church,"’
reference: ANTE-NICENE FATHERS, VOLUME 4, Chapter XXI
Peter was Rocky not Pope
Christ is the Rock of our Salvation. We are called Christians because we believe in Christ. We could also be called Rocks because we believe in the Rock. That is how early Church fathers saw Peter’s faith in the One who is the foundation of the Church. The Church would be built on Jesus Christ, but also constitute those who had this faith. (Matthew 16:13-20). So, Jesus nicknamed Cephas Rock (Peter) just as some of us are named Christian. There is absolutely nothing in the passage which says anything like Peter being the first of a long line of single men who would carry sole authority over the entirety of the Church. Nothing in the Bible or in early church writings support the idea of a Roman papacy as the sole Christian authority throughout the rest of Church history.
The Early Church had no Pope
When the Church began, the Apostles of Jesus Christ scattered far and wide. There was little possibility of communication between the Christians of India, Ethiopia, Turkey and Spain. It is unrealistic to claim that Peter could have had authority over all these lands in a time when such authority would have simply been a matter of practical impossibility. Yet, Matthew 16:13-20 has been used to support the papacy above all other Christian authorities. How did the early church view this passage? The early church fathers did not interpret this passage as Rome later came to. Indeed wherever the right faith is to be found, there are the keys to the kingdom. No one person has a monopoly on that faith. That is why Paul wrote that no other foundation than Jesus Christ can be laid (1 Corinthians 3:11).
Who do We say He is
Jesus asked his disciples, Who do you say that I am? (Matthew 16:13-20) The answer to that question would go a long way to defining who they were. It defines us too. Peter answered it and he was named after the Rock of our Salvation. Are we like Peter, rock of the Rock? We sometimes forget that not everything about God is revealed to us by flesh and blood Church leaders, the Bible and tradition, but by God the Father to us personally. What a shame that this passage is overshadowed by those who wish to promote their own flesh and blood leadership. Yet, when we understand who Jesus is, when that is revealed to us from our Father in heaven, then we too are Rock of the Rock and we receive the keys to the kingdom of heaven. We need no one between us and heaven.
Sacerdotalism — the Man in the Middle
Sacerdotalism originated in the Old Testament sacrificial system where a human makes sacrifice on our behalf to God. The theory postulates that only those given the authority may consecrate the bread and wine or baptize. One place that is used to support this idea is Matthew 16:13-20. Here Peter was given authority on earth to decide heavenly matters. A strength of sacerdotalism is that the potential for heresy is lessened because trained people administer the sacraments. A weakness is that people begin to look to human leaders instead of God. Peter was told that God revealed this faith to him and no man. So we mistakenly look to a man to confess Christ on our behalf and don’t join him in confessing Christ. We allow a Pastor or Magisterium to inform us about God, but never experience him ourselves. This kind of human politics creates exclusive churches.
Exclusive Church Franchise
The controversy over Matthew 16:13-20 is largely political, a controversy over franchise. Church is God’s business, but who on earth has the franchise? Is it Rome? Is it Constantinople? Is it Madras? Is it Alexandria? Is it Jerusalem? Such questions rely on interpreting the passage in ways that perpetuate human power structures even though no such promise was made to Peter. The problem is that people are pointed to the power of men, the exact opposite of Peter’s experience. There was no promise of territorial franchises as in national churches or exclusive franchises as in only Peter’s ordained successors being allowed to have the keys. Faith and salvation are not exclusive. There is one thing in this that is exclusive. Who is Jesus is not revealed by flesh and blood human politics but exclusively by our Father in heaven. Are we of Christ or men?
Of Which Man are We
Why do we look to men? Matthew 16:13-20 tells us that Peter’s confession was revealed to him by God. Yet, some use this passage to point us to a man, a successor to Peter. This is called the Petrine doctrine. Others use the passage to point us to all bishops as having the keys of heaven. Still others point to Peter's faith not Peter or his successors and so point people to Christ. We ought to become suspicious when Jesus is interpreted not in his own right but through the lens of our traditions. If a church claims that it is of Peter, Luther, Calvin or Wesley is it not just like in 1 Corinthians 1:11-13 where Paul condemned such foolishness? Such division does not exist when Christ is revealed to us by our Father in heaven. Caesarea Philippi teaches a similar lesson.
Why Caesarea Philippi
Caesarea Philippi was a city built on a rock to honor Caesar Augustus who called himself divi filius, the son of a god. Jesus took his disciples near this sin city where they could see its structure. It was an appropriate place for Jesus to be able to say to Peter, upon this rock I will build my Church (Matthew 16:13-20) because the imagery and the contrast with brutal Roman leadership were evident. Yet in contrast to Caesar, the leaders of the church of God were not to elevate themselves above their fellows, but become servants of all. The authority of deciding church matters was given to Peter but not to him alone. Jesus later explained that the other Apostles also carried decision-making authority (Matthew 18:18). The rock we build Christian ministry on is Jesus Christ not ourselves. We look to the cross of Christ.
Binding & Loosing
What did Jesus mean when he gave Peter (Matthew 16:13-20) and the other disciples authority to bind and loose (Matthew 18:18)? The historical phrase binding and loosing referred to interpreting the Scriptures, not binding demons or changing the teachings of Jesus. It did not mean to add a Christian Talmud of do’s and don’ts to Jesus’ teachings or create spiritual dynasties that shut out others from the kingdom of heaven. Let’s look at Jesus’ own final instructions to those same disciples. In Matthew 28:20 he specifically told them to teach what he taught. So their authority to bind and loose did not exceed that. There was no authority to bind heavy and grievous burdens on the Church (Matthew 23:3-5). They could however, educate others how Jesus teachings applied in different cultural contexts and at different times. Let’s now take a closer look at the main controversy.
In Depth — Matthew 16:18 Where the Evidence Leads
Let's study Matthew 16:18 and surrounding verses with a desire to allow the evidence to lead us rather than any preconceived bias. We may be surprised to reach a different conclusion than three of the four main theories surrounding this passage.
We may conclude that the Catholic theory that this proves Peter was the first pope is wrong. We may also find that so are two of the three main Protestant theories. Let’s examine each theory and why perhaps a fourth conclusion held by some mainstream Protestant churches has merit. It tells an unexpected story.
1. The Rock-was-Christ Theory
This theory states that Jesus said to Peter that he was a small stone, but on this large rock, meaning Jesus himself, he will build his church. However, the evidence does not support this theory at all for a number of reasons.
a. Petros and Petra
The words for Peter and rock are certainly two different words in Greek. A beginning Greek student may therefore conclude that they mean two different things. Sadly, that is precisely the conclusion to be found in some popular commentaries. For instance Matthew Henry boldly claims that “Nothing can be more wrong than to suppose that Christ meant the person of Peter was the rock. Without doubt Christ himself is the Rock, the tried foundation of the church; and woe to him that attempts to lay any other! Peter's confession is this rock as to doctrine. If Jesus be not the Christ, those that own him are not of the church, but deceivers and deceived.” (Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary on the Bible is available in the Public Domain)
If you don’t have good evidence to support your theory, resort to threats and intimidation. Label those who disagree, “deceivers and deceived” so as to scare your audience into agreeing with your less than scholarly deduction. This a similar conclusion to that made by others whose understanding of biblical Greek is more clumsy. The word for Peter (petros) is masculine and the word for rock (petra) is feminine and some have erroneously concluded that petros only ever means a small stone and petra only ever means a huge crag, but that is wrong.
As Greek poetry from the time proves, the language is flexible enough to allow both petra and petros to mean the same thing, depending on the context, and “word play does not demand the usual meaning of words, especially in metaphorical applications such as the present one. The Aramaic wordplay on the same word remains the most convincing explanation.” (Hagner, D. A. (2002). Vol. 33B: Word Biblical Commentary : Matthew 14-28. Word Biblical Commentary (470). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.)
We don’t need to invent a hasty conclusion, perhaps based upon a fear that if we follow the evidence we may be forced to agree with the Catholic Church. Following the evidence, has led me to disagree with both Matthew Henry and the Catholic Church. This does not make them bad. Nobody gets it all right.
So, what then is the truth about the two Greek words? I do agree with my Catholic brothers on one point. Jesus spoke in Aramaic, not Greek, and there the same word (kephas) would have been used for rock as Peter. That is why we see in some Bibles that Peter is also called Cephas. The fact is that in the original Greek, the two words petros (Πέτρος, Peter) and petra (πέτρα, rock) were interchangeable (Matthew, Volume 1, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, By Craig S. Keener).
Why then are there two different words? Some languages have feminine and masculine words. It’s just grammar. Jesus applied the feminine Greek word for rock (petra) to a man by using the masculine form of that word (petros). Up until that time, Peter was not a common man’s name, but Jesus used this masculine form of the word as Simon’s nickname. In the thorough and well researched New International Commentary we read, “The Greek reader would therefore see here a difference in form but not in meaning...” (The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament, by R. T. France)
b. Other Contexts
In 1 Corinthians 3:11 we are told that no other foundation exists except Jesus Christ. Yet, in Ephesians 2:20 Jesus clearly identifies all the apostles and prophets as the foundation of the Church, including himself as the cornerstone. Is this a contradiction, on the one hand to say that only Jesus is the foundation, yet on the other hand, to say that the apostles and prophets are also that foundation? No, it is a matter of understanding that these are two different contexts, with two different emphases.
The same is true of Isaiah 51:1-2, where Abraham is described as the rock from which ancient Israel was cut. That does not ignore the obvious, that God was their founder, but includes Abraham’s contribution.
2. The Rock-was-Peter’s-Faith Theory
This theory states that Jesus neither pointed to Peter, nor to himself as the rock, but to Peter’s faith, evidenced by Peter’s acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. This theory further goes on to state that all who likewise believe are the true church and likewise have this authority spoken of in the rest of the context.
And not But
Another piece of evidence that Peter was the rock that Jesus intended, is the use of the word “and” rather than “but.” Jesus certainly did point to himself as the rock in other contexts, but that does not mean that he meant the same thing in this context. Some people conclude that Jesus either pointed to himself as the rock, or to Peter’s faith, but the evidence disagrees with that conclusion. We were not there to see Jesus’ gestures, so we must rely upon the language to help us out and the language is very clear.
If Jesus had indeed pointed to himself as the rock in this context, or even to Peter’s faith, it would have been written as, “but on this rock I will build my church.” However, it was not. The wording is, “and on this rock I will build my church.” This evidence clearly indicates that the theories of Jesus’ pointing to himself or to Peter’s faith are false. Peter was the one to make the confession that Jesus was the Christ, and it is natural to see the confessing Peter as the rock, not his faith divorced from him as a person.
Some people worry that this would eliminate Jesus as head of the church and place a man in charge, but that ought not to be a concern. Notice that Jesus said I will build my church. It will still be Jesus who does the building, and it will still be his church.
3. The Rock was Peter-as-Pope Theory
This is actually the easiest theory to eliminate from this passage, as there is absolutely nothing at all about any successors to Peter. In fact, there is no statement in the Bible at all regarding Peter and a subsequent papacy. That entire theory rests upon discussions of later church history. In fact the very formal and authority-conscious structure of the Catholic and some Protestant churches is a later historic development and not the kind of structure lived out by the early Apostles.
The biblical evidence certainly points away from Peter being a pope. In Galatians 2:11 we find Paul strongly correcting Peter, without any indication of deference to him being higher in rank than Paul. There is no New Testament record of Peter having passed on any pope-like authority to anyone, nor any evidence that Christ commanded Peter to do so. Paul wrote to the churches of Rome with authority; Peter did not. Nowhere in the entire New Testament did Peter ever refer to himself having any higher authority than the other apostles.
4. The Rock was Peter as Forerunner Theory
Peter was the first of the apostles to clearly confess that Jesus was the Christ, and as such was the pace-setter. He was given teaching authority, to declare what is permissible and what is not, not authority to change things as many subsequent Christian leaders have presumptuously done. The tense in Greek does not imply that Peter would make decisions and heaven would follow, but that decisions will have already been made in heaven, and Peter would follow.
The New International Commentary states that Peter was the steward or chief administrative officer of the kingdom of heaven, not the owner. The keys that he was given were like those to a storehouse, to provide spiritual nourishment to the household of God. Peter’s leadership in the very earliest phases of the church is quite clear, as he declared the way of the gospel being open to the gentiles and so on. However, Peter is nowhere endorsed in the Bible as one of the popes at Rome.
We do not have to run away from allowing the Bible to have its natural meaning and potentially use dishonest research because of prejudice either for or against the idea of a papacy. Matthew 16:18 neither supports the idea of Peter being the first pope, nor some of the theories invented to run away from it. As so often is the case, the truth is really somewhere in the middle. Peter had the faith to declare that Jesus is the Christ. As such, we can clearly see how he was used early on in the book of Acts at the very first stages of the building of the Church. A forerunner is a far cry from being a pope.
No other foundation of the church of God exists but Jesus Christ. The church is built upon the prophets and apostles with Jesus Christ being the cornerstone. Peter was a forerunner of faith not leader of an exclusive lineage that shuts others out of heaven. Faith is not exclusive to any one denomination of Christians. It is Jesus who will build his church, and that church consists of those who have faith in him.