Presently, there are tens of thousands of denominational and non-denominational Christian churches in our world today. Each of whom professes to have the inside track on attaining eternal salvation for their flocks. These churches not only disagree on the number of sacraments that Christ instituted, but also on many important matters of faith and morals.
Because of their divergent views on these matters, the moral voice of Christianity is largely ignored by society as never before. No person, in their right mind, could truly think that Christ desired such a fractured and disjointed church, on the scale that exists today.
Given the broad range of beliefs these churches hold on matters of faith and morals, it’s relatively easy for a person to “shop” for a Christian church that is most suited to that individual’s wants and desires. Not a search for the truth for what we believe God desires of us, but rather what suits the individual’s desires. Sadly, it is from this very mindset that our culture has produced the great multitude of Christian churches and continuously spawns new ones every day!
At this crucial point in time, it is vitally important for our world to hear, with the clarity of truth, the proper teaching such matters warrant. And let’s be clear, there is only one truth, and his name is Jesus Christ. And yet, how can the voice of Christ’s Church be truly heard by a skeptical and apathetic populace so in need of salvation, when the collective voice of Christianity contradicts itself over and over again! Sadly, this is the product of relativism and subjective truth.
It strikes me that, in addition to parsing and articulating the significant differences among the Christian churches on important matters of faith and morals, we should attempt to identify the “one” Church Christ truly instituted. Afterall, it stands to reason, that Christ would surely provide an abundance of grace to that Church beyond all the others. And the beneficiaries of that abundance of grace is its flock!
If Christians could more clearly identify that Church from amongst the myriad of Christian churches, might her numbers and the strength of her voice increase? And that in turn, might reverse the trend of an ever increasing number of Christian churches, which makes a mockery of the oneness of the Church. Recall that on the night he was betrayed, Jesus prayed to his heavenly Father “So that they may be one just as we are one”. This oneness stems from a common belief held by the early Church, namely a belief in one faith, one Church, one Lord!
So if Christ intended to institute just one Church, it is reasonable to ask whether Sacred Scripture reveals her true identity? To that end, is there a distinctive mark of that Church that sets it apart from all the other Christian churches?
So what is the biblical case for the Roman Catholic Church being the “one” Church Christ instituted? Interestingly, Jesus only mentions the church twice in the gospels and both references are contained in Matthew’s Gospel. The first of these references is the more important of the two. And it is in this reference to the Church that we see a key mark of distinction, that only the Roman Catholic Church has among all the Christian churches!
The passage opens with Jesus bringing his disciples to Caesarea Philippi. It is there, that tradition tells us, they climb a large rock formation rising one hundred feet in height and three hundred feet in length. It is one large rock. And it is, in all likelihood, for this reason that Jesus brought his disciples to Caesarea Philippi in the first place. There a discussion among Jesus and his disciples ensues:
Jesus asks his disciples “Who do men say that the Son of Man is?” they respond, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Then Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” It is Simon Peter who answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
What extraordinary power and authority Jesus grants to Simon Peter! Literally, the keys to the kingdom of heaven! The Roman Catholic Church has always held that this authority not only resided with Peter but is also passed onto his successors. Yet, many non-Catholic Christians deny this delegated authority. Specifically, their denial generally falls into one of two alternative interpretations of this passage.
The first of these alternative interpretations is that the extraordinary authority granted by Jesus isn’t granted to Peter but rather to Peter’s profession of faith, and thus more broadly to his church; while the second alternative interpretation concedes that it is, in fact, Peter who is granted this authority but not, by extension, to his successors.
So what are the proofs that Jesus delegated this extraordinary authority to Peter and his successors? Let’s begin by unpacking the first alternative interpretation noted above. The earliest texts of Matthew’s Gospel that are in existence today were written in koine Greek, the language of the Hellenistic period, which coincides with the period of the first century A.D., when Matthew wrote his gospel.
The support for the first alternative interpretation of this passage hinges upon two words within the phrase, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church”. The actual words appearing in the koine Greek texts, for “Peter” and “rock” are “Petrus” and “petra”. In the Greek language, there are often masculine and feminine genders for a given noun. Such is the case here for the word rock. Petrus is the masculine gender for rock, and refers to a small stone, and petra is the feminine gender for rock, and refers to a large rock or stone.
The reformers of the middle ages seized upon this distinction, as to the size of the rock inferred, to support their argument that the Church wasn’t built on Peter but rather on Peter’s profession of faith. Sounds intriguing, but there is one really big problem with this interpretation. Jesus did not speak Greek. He spoke Aramaic! And in the Aramaic language there is only one word for rock and it’s “kepha”.
What Jesus actually said was “You are kepha, and upon this kepha I will build my Church” which translates in English to “You are rock, and upon this rock I will build my Church”! Petrus was used in the Greek text rather than Petra because of its masculine gender reference to the man known as Simon. Nothing more.
Like several important persons of the Old Testament, Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter. Recall that God changed Abram’s name to Abraham and Jacob’s name to Israel. These name changes were meant to convey their important role in salvation history. And so it was with Simon. Who would come to be known as Peter, the rock upon whom Christ’s Church would be built!
It’s noteworthy, that Jesus knew from the very beginning which of his disciples would acknowledge him as the Messiah, the Son of the living God, when he asked the question at Caesarea Philippi. In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus meets Simon for the very first time, when Andrew, the brother of Simon, brings him to Jesus. Jesus addresses Simon saying, “You are Simon the son of Jonah; you will be called Kepha.” Now imagine being called rock without explanation as to its meaning, and this for practically the entire duration of Jesus’ public ministry!
Jesus would withhold that explanation until after Simon Peter made his profession of faith. The imagery of that moment cannot be overstated! Here on the top of this massive rock; Jesus declares that he intends to build his Church on a rock foundation which is Simon Peter! All of the disciples present, including Simon Peter, would have understood its meaning and the corresponding symbolism from whence it took place! They would have also realized that Jesus knew it would be Simon Peter from the very beginning!
An additional point of contention against the first alternative interpretation is the very issue that I began this article with. Namely, if for argument’s sake, Christ truly granted this authority to Peter’s profession of faith and thus more broadly to his church; how can there be such radical differences in teaching on such important issues of faith and morals across the spectrum of Christianity.
Let me use an example to make my point. If one church holds that abortion is morally wrong and can never be condoned; while another church holds that it is wrong, but it is often the lesser of two evils and is therefore condoned; reason tells us that one of the churches must be right in their position and the other wrong. When we examine the broad spectrum of faith and moral issues confronting our world today, and consider the variety of positions held by these churches on those issues, it becomes apparent the bad fruit these Christian churches produce by not speaking with one voice. This cannot be what Christ envisioned when he instituted his Church!
Given that Jesus only refers to his Church twice in the gospels, the link between that Church and Peter becomes more significant! Therefore, from a theological, as well as a practical point of view, the position that the extraordinary authority granted by Jesus isn’t granted to Peter but rather to Peter’s profession of faith doesn’t hold up to closer scrutiny.
Now with the first alternative interpretation effectively refuted, let’s turn our attention to the second one. The one which agrees with the Roman Catholic Church’s position that the person of Simon Peter is, in fact, the rock and the foundation of the Church, but disagrees with the Roman Catholic Church that this extraordinary authority is delegated, by extension, to his successors.
The Roman Catholic Church holds that Jesus has, with these words “You are rock and upon this rock I will build my Church”, established an office with Simon Peter as its first occupant, as opposed to granting this extraordinary authority to just one man for the length of his earthly life. In support of this position, let’s review three pieces of corroborating evidence which serve to support this viewpoint and thus, in turn, refute the second alternative interpretation.
The first piece of evidence is a revealing action taken by the early Church upon the death of Judas Iscariot. This action is recounted in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. There it states that Simon Peter stood up in front of the brothers and, in reference to Judas Iscariot, said among other things, “May another take his office”. Peter and the brothers then proceed to fill the position previously held by Judas.
If Judas held an office, as indeed this scripture passage states, how much more fitting is it to say that Simon Peter held a more important office? And that at his death that office had to likewise be filled by another!
The second piece of corroborating evidence relates to Jesus’ intended mission for his Church. It is revealed in Luke’s Gospel account of the Transfiguration. The gospel passage indicates that this event takes place eight days after Peter’s profession of faith at Caesarea Philippi. Thus, within a nine day period, Jesus institutes his Church, which is to be built upon Peter, and provides insight and meaning to her mission.
Luke’s Gospel account states,
“And behold, two men were conversing with him (Jesus) Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.”
Did you catch that? That word exodus. Now recall where you’ve heard the word exodus referenced before, and what specifically is its meaning in this gospel passage?
The original use of the word refers to the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, where they were held in bondage by the Egyptians. It’s Moses, at God’s instruction, whose mission it was to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land, the land we know today as Israel. The word exodus actually means large departure. When the Israelites departed Egypt they numbered more than two million people.
We can derive this by the census that God requested Moses to undertake of men of military age, shortly after their arrival at Mt Sinai. This census, as referenced in the Book of Numbers, revealed that there were 603,550 Israelite men from all but the Levite tribe, which as the priestly tribe, was excluded by God. This number further excludes women, children and the elderly male population. When these excluded groups of people are estimated and included, one can readily see how there were over two million Israelites that departed Egypt.
Now why do you suppose the word exodus is used by Jesus, Moses, and Elijah on the top of Mt Tabor? What large departure are they referring to? Afterall, it’s Jesus who will be put to death in Jerusalem, and after his resurrection spend forty days with his disciples, before his ascension into heaven. So what are they getting at by referring to it as an exodus?
By his sanctifying death and resurrection, Jesus has conquered sin and death. But he has not eradicated them. Jesus instituted his Church to provide sanctifying grace to his disciples down through the ages. Sanctifying grace is administered through the sacraments of the Church which Jesus himself instituted.
Just as our bodies require medical care throughout our lives to overcome bodily illnesses, so too, do our souls require a corresponding spiritual care to strengthen us and nurse us back to spiritual health from spiritual illnesses we call sin! And it is by administering the sacraments of the Church to his disciples of all time, that this is accomplished. So if Peter were necessary at the outset of this journey it stands to reason that his successors would be required to continue the work of leading Christ’s disciples on this journey, to the new Promised Land we call heaven!
The third and final piece of corroborating evidence looks at the traditions and practices of the early Church to glean whether there is evidence to support the contention that the authority vested in Peter was delegated, in turn, to his successors.
There are, in fact, numerous examples of this in the writings of the early Church period. One such example can be found in the Letter of Pope St. Clement to the Corinthians written in the early 90’s AD. This letter is still in existence today. It’s clear from the tone of the letter that Clement is responding to a request by the elders of the Church at Corinth. A dispute had arisen there, and the elders were seeking Clement to adjudicate the matter. The dispute involved the desire of many of the faithful of the Church of Corinth to remove their local bishop. His letter to that church effectively resolved the dispute. Such was the authority that he wielded.
But what is interesting about this matter is that the elders of the Church at Corinth traveled 700 miles to Rome to request Clement’s intercession in the matter. This, while the Apostle John, who is believed to have still been alive at that time and living on the island of Patmos, was only 100 miles away from Corinth.
Why didn’t the elders take the matter to John as opposed to Clement? Afterall, John was the beloved disciple of Jesus and was only 100 miles away. The answer simply is the successor of Peter at that time was Clement. He, and he alone, had the authority to resolve the dispute which was causing great division within this historic church!
Can there be any doubt as to the true identity of the one Church Christ instituted? We should be unabashedly proclaiming this essential truth to all who will listen.
How vitally important it is for our world today to recognize that “one” Church and to carefully examine her doctrines. For her doctrines are pure and truly holy! Our late great Pope Benedict XVI, who was the 265th occupant of the chair of Peter, said it so succinctly and aptly well. He said, “All the Christian churches have elements of the truth but the fulness of the truth resides in the Roman Catholic Church”!
Why settle for some of the truth when the fulness of the truth is within one’s grasp? The salvation of many may well depend upon it! And in a world so in need of salvation, we must recognize our great responsibility to proclaim that truth as never before!