Authority in the Church


Here are some of the texts from the writings of early Christians who substantiate what we Catholics believe is the divinely instituted authority of the Bishop of Rome.

Biblical Texts

It would be right to begin by citing some of the Scriptural evidence for the divine origin of the authority of the Papacy.

Matthew 16.13-20: "When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" They replied, "Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter said in reply, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." Jesus said to him in reply, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so 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 will 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." Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah."

Luke 22.31-34: "Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers." He said to him, "Lord, I am prepared to go to prison and to die with you." But he replied, "I tell you, Peter, before the cock crows this day, you will deny three times that you know me."

John 21.15-19: "When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." He said to him, "Feed my lambs." He then said to him a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." [Jesus] said to him, "Feed my sheep." Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, "Follow me." "

The point of the text from St. Matthew is amply clear: St. Peter was being invested with an authority unique only to him. The texts from Luke and John mean that despite St. Peter's denial, his repentance would gain not only pardon from Christ but a reaffirmation of his unique authority as the first of the Popes.

And we Catholics hold that the three fold hierarchy of bishop, priest/presbyter, and deacon is of divine institution. And, this hierarchy is used by God to govern, teach, and defend the Church.

1 Timothy 3.1-10: "This saying is trustworthy: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task. Therefore a bishop must be irreproachable, married only once, temperate, self-controlled, decent, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not aggressive, but gentle, not contentious, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children under control with perfect dignity; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of the church of God? He should not be a recent convert, so that he may not become conceited and thus incur the devil's punishment. He must also have a good reputation among outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, the devil's trap. Similarly, deacons must be dignified, not deceitful, not addicted to drink, not greedy for sordid gain, holding fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. Moreover, they should be tested first; then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons."

St. Clement of Rome

The first of the Patristic writings I'll quote is from St. Clement I's "Letter to the Corinthians" (dated to either AD 82 or 92-101). The portions I copied below are from pages 10-11 of Vol. 1 of Fr. William Jurgens' THE FAITH OF THE EARLY FATHERS (The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville: 1970):

[44, 1] Our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned, and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry. As for these, then, who were appointed by them, or who were afterwards appointed by other illustrious men with the consent of the whole Church, and who have ministered to the flock of Christ without blame, humbly, peaceably and with dignity, and who have for many years received the commendations of all, we consider it unjust that they be removed from the ministry. Our sin will not be small if we eject from the episcopate those who blamelessly and holily have offered its Sacrifices. Blessed are those presbyters who have already finished their course, and who have obtained a fruitful and perfect release; for they have now no fear that any shall transfer them from the place to which they are appointed. For we see that in spite of their good service you have removed some from the ministry in which they served without blame.

[47, 6] Shameful, beloved, extremely shameful, and unworthy of your training in Christ, is the report that on account of one or two persons the well established and ancient Church of the Corinthians is in revolt against the presbyters. And this report has come not only to us, but even to those professing other faiths than ours, so that by your folly you heap blasphemies on the name of the Lord, and create a danger for yourselves.

St. Clement I was writing in response to disputes and quarrels breaking out among the Corinthian Christians. Note how he spoke with authority in his rebuke of the Corinthians. And how he commanded that the legitimate bishops be restored. If you like, I'll concede the command was only implicit, but it was there.

St. Ignatius of Antioch

I'll quote from a Protestant translation of St. Ignatius of Antioch's (c. AD 107) "Letter to the Romans." The following text is from Maxwell Staniforth and Andrew Louth's EARLY CHRISTIAN WRITINGS (Penguin Books: 1968, 1987; page 85):

"From IGNATIUS, whose other name is Theophorus: To her who has found mercy in the greatness of the All Highest Father, and Jesus Christ His only Son, to the church beloved and enlightened in her love to our God Jesus Christ by the will of Him who wills all things; to the church holding chief place in the territories of the district of ROME--worthy of God, worthy of honour, blessing, praise, and success; worthy too in holiness, foremost in love, observing the law of Christ, and bearing the Father's name."

This is from the preface of St. Ignatius' letter to the Romans while on his journey to martyrdom in Rome during the reign of Trajan. Assuming you have read all the letters of the Bishop of Antioch, you will recall how St. Ignatius did not address any of the other churches in terms expressing such high respect, honor, veneration, and deference.

I argue that St. Ignatius would show such reverence to the Church in Rome only because he knew it holds a unique authority only that Church can wield. Another piece of evidence for this is from St. Ignatius' "Letter to the Romans," 3.1:

"It was never your way to grudge anyone his success. You have been a SOURCE OF INSTRUCTION to others; all I want is for the principles which you expound by your teaching to hold good now."

Another telling hint from St. Ignatius' "Letter to the Romans" is 4.3:

"However, I am not issuing orders to you, as though I were a Peter or a Paul. They were Apostles and I am a condemned criminal."

I argue that St. Ignatius was again alluding to the unique authority of Rome.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons

Additional telling pieces of early Christian evidence for the Catholic argument are from the writings of St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (d. c. AD 202). I'll quote from his book AGAINST HERESIES (c. AD 180). The extracts below are from Fr. Jurgens, THE FAITH OF THE EARLY FATHERS, Vol. 1, p. 90.

[AH 3, 3, 2] But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the Churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self satisfaction or vain glory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient Church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul, that Church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the Apostles. For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all Churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world; and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the Apostolic tradition.

It is difficult not to conclude that St. Irenaeus was testifying to belief that the Church in Rome holds a unique authority only she can hold. And, that's not the only passage from St. Irenaeus affirming such a doctrine!

[AH 3, 3, 3] The blessed Apostles [Peter & Paul], having founded and built up the Church [of Rome], they handed over the office of the episcopate to Linus. Paul makes mention of this Linus in the Epistle to Timothy. To him succeeded Anencletus [or Anacletus]; and after him in the third place from the Apostles, Clement was chosen for the episcopate. He had seen the blessed Apostles and was acquainted with them. It might be said that He still heard the echoes of the preaching of the Apostles, and had their traditions before his eyes. And not only he, for there were many still remaining who had been instructed by the Apostles. In the time of Clement, no small dissension having arisen among the brethren in Corinth, the Church in Rome sent a very strong letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace and renewing their faith. ... To this Clement, Evaristus succeeded; and Alexander succeeded Evaristus. Then, sixth after the Apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telesphorus, who also was gloriously martyred. Then Hyginus; after him, Pius; and after him, Anicetus. Soter succeeded Anicetus, and now, in the twelfth place after the Apostles, the lot of the episcopate has fallen to Eleutherus. In this order, and by the teaching of the Apostles handed down in the Church, the preaching of the truth has come down to us.

Summing up, a modern Catholic writer could hardly put it more clearly! I.e., that the popes have a special and unique authority only they can hold.

Some object that the early Papacy did not govern as it later did. I reply that it needed TIME for the authority of the Papacy to develop. All institutions have to start from small beginnings. Think of how a tall oak tree had to grow from a small acorn.

One last point, the early Christians were Catholic, not Protestant. They believed in a hierarchical church, the necessity of tradition, the need for the Church to authoritatively interpret Scripture, the Real Presence of Christ in the Mass, etc. Protestantism only came along with Martin Luther after 1517.

The text quoted here is copied from Jurgens, THE FAITH OF THE EARLY FATHERS, Vol. 1, page 25. This is offered as a very tiny sample of the evidence I could cite to prove the contention I made above. As St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. c. AD 107) wrote in his "Letter to the Smyrnaeans" 8.1:

"You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as you would the Apostles. Reverence the deacons as you would the command of God. Let no one do anything of concern to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. Nor is it permitted without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate the agape; but whatever he approve, this too is pleasing to God, so that whatever is done will be secure and valid."

Pax tecum. Sean

SeanMBrook@aol.com 


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