Is the pope the leader of the Christian world? I regularly interact with young believers who assume that the Roman Catholic Church is just a variation of legitimate Christianity, similar to the difference between Baptists and Presbyterians. However, the differences between Catholics and other Christians are very significant. Indeed, these differences are actually irreconcilable.
That is why Protestants celebrate the Reformation every October 31. On October 31, 1517, a young priest by the name of Martin Luther posted 95 theses on a castle door in Wittenberg, Germany. These 95 theses were revolutionary and ended up being a partial catalyst for launching the Reformation away from the Catholic doctrine and teaching.
Catholicism and a Different Way of Salvation
One of the most significant differences between the Catholic church and those who broke away from Catholicism is the issue of salvation. Catholic theology teaches that man must work in cooperation to help achieve justification. However, as I have explained elsewhere, the Catholic emphasis on works is contrary to what the Bible teaches about salvation being all of grace. So, in a very real sense, Catholics reject the core belief of Christianity. Although Catholics are labeled as “Christian,” the reality is that if they hold to Catholic theology, they are a part of the billions of Christians who are not real Christians.
Catholicism and the Inerrant Pope
In addition to the significant problems of Catholic belief about salvation, Catholics also have errant beliefs about the pope being an inerrant leader of the church. Notice James O’Connor’s words about the Catholic Pope.
We teach and declare that it is a dogma of faith that the Roman Pontiff … is not able to err when, exercising his office as supreme teacher of all Christians, he defines, by his apostolic authority, what must be held as belonging to the faith or must be rejected as contrary to the faith by the universal Church in matters of faith and morals; and his decrees or judgments, irreformable of themselves, must be accepted and held with the full submission of faith as soon as one becomes aware of them.James O’Connor, The Gift of Infallibility, 7.
Now, I just want to clarify that I have good friends who are members of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). I definitely love them and appreciate them. However, at the same time, it saddens me to see them give undue authority and power to someone who claims to be Christ’s “vicar [special representative] on the earth.” Hence, I would like to challenge my friends who believe in the authenticity of the pope to consider the following thoughts.
Does the Bible give reason to believe Peter was the first pope?
RCC theologians champion Matthew 16:18-20 saying it is here that Peter is given his papal commission. However, it is ironic that just a few verses later Peter demonstrates his impetuous and sinful nature by playing the role of Satan, trying to hinder Christ (Matt 16:22-23). There was also a similar occurrence in Matthew 17 at the Mount of Transfiguration. Peter once again impetuously speaks and Luke reminds us that Peter did not know what he was saying (Luke 9:33).
If it is true that Matthew 16 tells us Peter was commissioned in some special way, then it seems odd that later in Luke 22:24-30 the disciples would still be arguing about which of them was the greatest. It seems Peter would have the ultimate trump card to play in that argument.
After Christ’s ascension, one would expect Peter to operate in accord with his position as head of the church. Instead, he is rebuked by Paul for acting in a way that went against Christ’s commands (Gal 2:11). Not exactly something the pope should be guilty of.
Lastly, Peter’s own personal testimony in 1 Peter 5:1 indicates that he identified himself not as some supreme ruler in the church—rather, he identifies himself as a “fellow elder” with those who were ministering in that area.
This small sampling of Scripture seems to indicate that others did not view Peter as pope, nor did he himself! But, for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that the above reasons don’t matter, and we will pretend that Peter was the pope anyway. Because there is an additional and significant problem.
If Peter was the first pope, where is the evidence for an unbroken succession to the current pope?
The RCC teaches papal succession from Peter all the way to the current pope. Why would one expect this special authority to pass down from individual to individual?
The Scriptures are completely silent regarding a papal succession from person to person. The idea of papal succession can’t be supported from Scripture. In addition, while Scripture is silent on the issue, historically proving papal succession also has vast serious problems. I have written elsewhere about the black mark on the Catholic papacy, but let me summarize it this way.
During 1378-1415 AD, the papacy was so corrupted that at one time (in the early 1400s) there were three individuals all claiming to be pope, all pronouncing curses on one another. This is aptly named the “Great Papal Schism,” and was one of the underlying causes of undermining the Catholic church’s authority, which eventually led to the Protestant Reformation. It did not take much for some people to see that the RCC was corrupt and no longer following Scripture. Needless to say, when you believe in papal succession, but there are three popes to choose from, it becomes a little more difficult to keep your followers.
In order to keep this brief I will end with a question. We are given true and reliable divine revelation from God in the Scriptures. If you read through your Bible plainly and naturally, are you given the picture of an individual who has special power over the church? Well, let me tell you that you are! But, this individual is Jesus Christ! He alone is the head of the church, and His authority is never passed on by succession.