When we Catholics study the biblical basis for the papacy, we usually focus on texts like Matthew 16:17-19, Luke 22:31-32, and John 21:15-17, and understandably so. Those are some of the key passages that theologians and apologists often point to as evidence for this essential Catholic institution, so of course we want to concentrate on them. But in doing so, we sometimes neglect the other side of this debate.
If we want to be able to effectively defend the papacy, we can’t limit our studies to the evidence for it. We also have to know how to respond to arguments against it, and that is what I want to focus on in this article. In particular, I want to look at one of the ways our Protestant brothers and sisters often try to prove that St. Peter was not the first pope. If they are correct, then the Catholic case for the papacy crumbles, and none of our favorite prooftexts can salvage it. Because of that, it is important that we know how to refute this argument, so let’s dive in and see if it really holds up.
The Protestant Argument
The argument centers around a single verse from one of the lesser-read books of the New Testament:
“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed.” (1 Peter 5:1)
This verse comes from 1 Peter, so it was written by the supposed first pope, but surprisingly, when he refers to himself, he doesn’t say that he is the head of the Church. Instead, he calls himself “a fellow elder,” and since “elder” is one of the New Testament’s words for bishops, this must mean that he was just a bishop, not the head of the entire Church. And if that is the case, then the whole idea of the papacy collapses, proving that Catholicism is a false religion.
The Bishop of Rome
So what should we make of this? Does this one verse really disprove our faith? Of course not! While this argument may sound convincing at first, we only need to take a little peek below the surface to see that it is actually nothing more than intellectual smoke and mirrors.
For starters, there is nothing in this verse that actually contradicts Catholic teaching. We believe that the pope is a bishop (he is the bishop of Rome), so the mere fact that Peter called himself an elder isn’t a problem for us. That alone should be enough to refute this argument, but let’s dig a bit deeper and see what else we can say about it.
“My Fellow Americans”
Next, let’s use an analogy. When American presidents give big, important speeches to the nation, how do they typically begin? They often start with the words “my fellow Americans.” For most of us Americans, that phrase has become so familiar that we don’t think twice about it, but according to the logic of this argument, it means that the president cannot really be the leader of the United States. If Peter cannot be the head of the Church as well as a “fellow elder,” then the president cannot be the head of the country as well as a “fellow American.”
But that is obviously not true. A president doesn’t stop being an American when he takes his oath of office, so even though he is not just “any old American,” he is still a “fellow American.” And if that is the case, then the same can be true of the pope. He doesn’t stop being a bishop when he is installed as the bishop of Rome, so even though he is not just “any old bishop,” he is still a “fellow elder [or bishop].”
Pope St. John Paul II
Finally, let’s look at an even closer analogy: the greatest pope in my lifetime, St. John Paul II. When he wrote letters to the bishops of the world, he often addressed them in words that are very similar to the way St. Peter addressed the bishops he was writing to:
“Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate” (Veritatis Splendor)
“My esteemed Brothers in the Episcopate and the Priesthood” (Dies Domini)
“My Venerable Brother Bishops” (Fides Et Ratio)
Do any of these forms of address imply that John Paul II didn’t really think he was the head of the Catholic Church? Of course not! He knew very well that he was the pope, but he still addressed other bishops as his “Brothers in the Episcopate” and “Brother Bishops.”
And why did he do that? Well, it is the same reason why presidents often address the nation as “my fellow Americans.” Good leaders know that lording it over their subordinates and emphasizing their authority is usually a recipe for disaster. They should only do that when situations get so out of hand that they have to lay down the law, but outside of such dire circumstances, it is always better for leaders to identify with the people under their care and emphasize the things that unite them rather than those that divide them. It makes people much more receptive to what they have to say, and it fosters harmony and peace between them.
And St. Peter knew that as well. In fact, right after the verse where he calls himself “a fellow elder,” he goes on to say this:
“Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:2-3)
Peter knew that bishops shouldn’t lord it over their congregations, so it should be clear why he called himself “a fellow elder.” He was simply following his own advice. He knew that he shouldn’t lord it over the other bishops, so instead of putting his foot down and exercising the full extent of his authority, he put himself on their level. He did what many presidents and popes throughout history have done, so the fact that he called himself “a fellow elder” does not provide a lick of evidence against the Catholic understanding of the papacy.