The most disputed text on ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) is Matthew 16:13–20. Protestants and Eastern Orthodox alike contest the use of Christ’s affirmation of Peter by Roman Catholics to establish the papacy.
Unfortunately, we can consider the issues raised by today’s passage only in brief. Foremost among these is what Jesus does not say in His commendation of Peter. Though invested with authority in verse 19, Peter is not thereby given supreme authority over the church universal. As a steward over God’s house, Peter’s keys give him (but not only him) authority among God’s people. For example, he can assure repentant sinners of divine pardon, not because he is able to forgive sin, but because he proclaims the free Gospel of forgiveness. Therefore, the keys also enable him to assure the impenitent that they can by no means inherit the kingdom of God. Yet Peter’s keys also belong to every apostle and, in a qualified sense, church leaders today as well (18:15–20; Eph. 2:19–20). Furthermore, Matthew 16:13–20 says nothing about Peter passing on a “unique” office to successive bishops, and it gives no support for papal infallibility.
Historic Protestantism recognizes such truths, and often says that Peter’s confession is the rock to which Jesus refers. This makes good sense, but we err if we say that Peter himself is not in any sense a rock upon which the church is built (Eph. 2:22). There is a play on words in the original Greek text: Peter’s name, Petros, is based on petra, that is, “rock” (v. 18). In other words, Jesus declares, “Simon, you are the rock, and on this rock I will build my church.” Peter has primacy in the church — a historical primacy, not papal primacy. Aside from being the first to confess Christ, Peter is the first apostle to extend the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 10), and his leadership and teaching set the stage for the church’s expansion and maturity (chap. 1–15; 1 and 2 Peter). Thus, we conclude with John Calvin: “It is a foolish inference of the Papists, that he received the primacy, and became the universal head of the whole Church. Rank is a different thing from power, and to be elevated to the highest place of honor among a few persons is a different thing from embracing the whole world under his dominion.”
When we study Scripture, we should be careful not to let the excesses of opposing positions unduly influence our own applications of the text. All the teachings of those with whom we disagree may not necessarily be wrong, and we should strive to be faithful to God’s Word, not driven to make decisions that are contrary to what our opponents do just because we do not want in any way to look like them. Let us be true to Scripture no matter what others do.
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