Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Head of the Church?

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The Ancient and Modern Enigma Concerning Simon Peter

Many within professing Christendom have long assumed, on the basis of Jesus words in Matthew 16:18, that Peter is the head of the church universal. [1]  To be sure, in verse 17, Jesus promised to give him “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” associated with the words which immediately follow: “and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  A footnote in the English Standard Version provides an alternative rendering of the Greek as follows: “shall have been bound . . . shall have been loosed.”  This commission given to Peter has to do with discerning and applying the mind of God, for all practical purposes with respect to the church, e.g., Who belongs in the visible church on earth, or who should be admitted and on what basis?  This issue of “the keys of the kingdom” very much concerned American Puritan leader and pastor, John Cotton, much as it did the English pastor-theologian John Owen. [2] 

It is clear from Holy Scripture that, as an apostle of Jesus Christ, Simon Peter played a unique role in the administration and application of “the keys.” [3]  Further, he was the one to whom the assignment was given to open the new testament door to the Gentiles, as described in Acts chapter ten.  Peter’s testimony in the Jerusalem conference of Acts 15 was a key to the resolution of the conflict as to whether circumcision should be required of Gentile Christians.  On still another occasion, people were healed as Peter’s shadow passed over them! [4]  We must not, therefore, rob Peter to pay Paul, however Peter vacillated on the night of Jesus’ arrest, denying his Lord three times, [5] and later was quite duplicitous at Antioch when Jewish Christians arrived from Jerusalem! [6]

And Peter’s vacillation at Antioch would not be the worst of it, however, for very soon after his affirming Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” and receiving the Lord’s commendation, he adamantly protested when Jesus foretold the sufferings and death He would undergo at the hands of the Jewish leaders.  In response to such a protest, Jesus actually used the name of the arch adversary to address Simon Peter:

Get behind me, Satan!  You are a hindrance to me.  For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man. [7]

If popes are infallible on specified occasions, and, on the Roman premise that Peter was the first pope, this must not have been one of those specified occasions!  His protest, however well-intentioned in one sense, hardly bore the earmarks of infallibility!  Certainly, in the New Testament, no less than the Old Testament, God called and employed sinful men.  And Simon Peter was barely a beginner in the faith when his words met such a strong rebuke from the Lord Jesus.  Neither did Peter’s vacillation at Antioch establish his infallibility–indeed he should have been more stable by that time!  It did, however, attest to the fact that his justification was not based upon his works–though he had by this time done many great works!  That should encourage us all!  Thankfully, we do note that later Peter would pay tribute to Paul. [8]  In the end of their earthly pilgrimage, both of them, according to the historical record, were martyred in Rome–Paul by beheading, Peter by being hung upside down (at his own request) on a cross.

But there remains a major problem concerning Rome’s version of Christianity  projected by the papacy and reinforced by the so-called “College of Cardinals” who introduced their current leader to the American public by the title “the Holy Father.”   Such a title flies blasphemously in the face of the prayer of the Lord Jesus Christ to “the Holy Father” in John 17:11. 

Adding further havoc with Holy Scripture, Rome has introduced man-made religion in its unbiblical doctrine of transubstantiation whereby sinners are regarded as forgiven on the basis of a repetitive offering of Christ Himself through the purported “miracle of the mass” allegedly performed by the Roman priesthood (a priesthood unknown to the New Testament writers) whereby the bread and the fruit of the vine are literally transformed into the body and blood of Christ.  Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:24-25 hardly support such a travesty of interpretation as to nullify, indeed make a mockery of, the “once-for-all” sacrifice of our Lord! [9]  And this is the essence of Rome’s religion! 

In the New Testament the designated names of episcopos (bishop or overseer), presbuteros (elder), and (overseers of the “flock”, i.e., pastor or shepherd) refer to the same office of leadership elected by the people of a local congregation.  For Paul applied all three leadership concepts to the Ephesus church elders in Acts 20:17-35.  As for the appointment of local church elders, Luke employed a Greek word generally rendered “appoint” in the English versions but literally meaning “elect by a show of hands. ” John Calvin notes that this same word was used in the Greek city-states, and was definitely a democratic expression. [10]  Indeed, it was not until 1059 that the Roman pontiff himself was chosen by the college of cardinals.  Prior to that the Pope had been chosen by “the clergy and  people of the city of his see.” [11]  Such election bears an interesting historic testimony to the democratic manner in which local church leadership had originally been established.

The New Testament makes no mention and offers no hint of any ongoing special class of New Testament priesthood.  By New Testament standards, Christ has made a “once for all” sacrifice which alone has the efficacy to take away sin, and it is every believer’s privilege and duty to offer the sacrifice of praise, to do good, and to share what we have with others in need whether spiritual or material. [12] 

Then how do we account for the Roman Church with all of its political power, pageantry, and influence through the centuries?  And how did Rome so quickly work its influence upon the individual churches?  John Owen, a former Presbyterian who became a Congregationalist after reading John Cotton’s Keyes, [13] answered that question by suggesting that the churches soon abandoned the simplicity of apostolic church government by a plurality of elders elected by the people as they became corrupted by the governmental principles common to the empire. [14] 

But how could that happen?  We may as well ask how the major denominations in America during this writer’s lifetime have become so democratized that secular humanism has triumphed within those ecclesiastical structures, and evangelical Christians silenced or overruled in the process.  Changes come very incrementally along with  “government from the top down” by the introduction of presbytery executives and other denominational executives with their liberal social agendas.  Where protest is publicly viewed and even reprimanded as “divisive,” and, on that basis, worthy of denominational rebuke or disciplinary action, few Christian pastors want to take the risk.

“So was the visible professing church moulded and fashioned into an image of the old Roman pagan empire, as it was foretold it should be, Revelation 13:13-15.” [15]

About the Author

David C. Brand, Contributing Editor, is a retired pastor and Christian educator.  He and his wife Marilyn have four grown children and eight grandchildren.  In addition to books Dave has self-published, his Th.M. thesis at Westminster Seminary was published by the American Academy of Religion in 1991 via Scholars Press under the title: Profile of the Last Puritan: Jonathan Edwards, Self-Love, and the Dawn of the Beatific via Scholars Press.  He enjoys ice-skating and canoeing.



Beeke, Joel R. & Mark Jones. 2012.  A Puritan Theology: Doctrines for Life. Reformation Heritage Books: Grand Rapids, Michigan

Calvin, John. 1960. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Library of Christian Classics., vol. XXI. Edited by John T. Mcneill. Translated and Indexed by Ford lewis Battles. The Westminster Press: Philadelphia

Holy Bible, English Standard Version. 2001. [2007] Crossway Bibles: Wheaton, Illinois

Jamieson, Robert, A.R. Fausset, and David Brown. 2008. Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody, Massachusetts

Oliver, Robert W., Ed. 2000. John Owen–The Man and His Theology: Papers read at the Conference of the John Owen Centre for Theological Study, September 2000. Evangelical Press: P & R Publishing, P.O. Box 817, Phillipsburg, New Jersey

Tasker, R. V. G., General Editor. 1961. Reprint. 1963. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. The Tyndale Press: London

Walker, Williston. 1918. [1952] A History of the Church. Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York


[1]. This writer was a bit disappointed at a Ukrainian Catholic festival to learn that neither the Ukrainian “priest” nor an attending Roman “priest” had ever read John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion–the most significant theological work of the Protestant Reformation. John Calvin himself, a former Roman Catholic, was a bit more accommodating in that he quoted the church fathers, particularly the early church fathers on the premise that their testimony, being closer to the days of the apostles, would carry more weight in establishing the validity of the Protestant Reformation, and the necessity for it given the departure from the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). 

[2]. See A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life by Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones for an excellent discussion of this subject.

[3]. Note particularly Acts 2:33-41; 8:14-25; 10; 9:39-43; 10:1-48; 11:1-18; 12:1-17; 15:1-21

[4]. Acts 5:15

[5]. John 18:17, 25-27

[6]. Note Paul’s description of Peter’s compromising behavior at Antioch (where believers were first called Christians) in Galatians 2:11-14.  Acts 11:26                                                            

[7]. Matthew 16:23

[8]. 2 Peter 3:15-16

[9]. Hebrews 9:26; 10:10

[10]. Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. II, pp. 1065-66. See also footnote 14 on page 1066.

[11]. Walker, Williston, A History of the Christian Church, p. 226

[12]. Hebrews 10:8-18; 13:12-16

[13]. Robert W. Oliver, Ed., John Owen: the Man and His Theology, p. 162

[14].  See John Owen’s The True Nature of a Gospel Church in which he states that no “ordinary church-officer” is intended to relate to “more churches. . . or any other church, than a single particular congregation.”  Owen, of course was making a distinction between an “ordinary church-officer” and the extraordinary office of apostles, the latter being foundational and unique to the first century.  The churches of today relate to the foundational office of apostle via the Scriptures of the New Testament.  Joel Beeke notes that “It is not easy to determine Owen’s position on the recipients of the keys.  Simply put, he does not conform to the typical lines of congregationalist interpretation: sometimes he seems to be emphatic that the keys of Matthew 16 have been given to the elders and not to the people, and at other times he seems to insist with equal emphasis that they have been given to the people and not to the elders.  To further complicate matters, in anyone’s reckoning there are multiple uses of the keys, or several areas in which the keys are to be exercised: for example, the appointment of elders, the admittance of new members, the exercise of discipline, the ministry of the word (whether in lay prophesying or in pastoral preaching), the worship of the church, and the overall leadership of ‘rule’ of the church.” 

Joel Beeke’s identification of “multiple uses” of the “keys” may be a sufficient basis to understand any apparent ambiguity as to whether the “keys” apply to the people or to the “elders.”  In a given case, they might apply to the people, e.g., in the election of elders.  In another case, e.g., the discipline of a church member, the keys could apply to both, consistently with Matthew 18:15-20.  The elders could become involved antecedent to the meeting with the entire congregation, or in such a way as to render the congregational meeting unnecessary in a given case.  It should be noted that the Acts 15 conference was a meeting of the Jerusalem church with elder and apostolic representatives from both congregations: Jerusalem and Antioch, though the meeting would have  implications for many other congregations needing perspective on the circumcision issue.  Peter, in addition to being an apostle, was an elder in the Jerusalem congregation (Acts 15:6; 1 Peter 5:1).

[15]. Oliver, p. 187


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