Peter was not the first “pope.” He didn’t have any special primacy or jurisdiction over the other apostles or other early Christians. In fact, he denies this by referring to himself as merely a “fellow presbyter” )1 Peter 5:1) – an office lower than an overseer (bishop). If anything, Paul had a greater authority than Peter.
Although St. Peter never called himself “pope” in Scripture, he did indeed have a special apostolic primacy and jurisdiction. The Scriptural evidence for this is substantial and explicit.
Of the Twelve Apostles, St. Peter is by far the one mentioned most often in Scripture. He appears 195 times. The next most often mentioned Apostle was St. John, who comes in at a whopping 29 times. St. James the Greater is mentioned 19 times, St. Philip 15, and the numbers dwindle rapidly for the others. Does this in itself prove St. Peter’s primacy? No, but it does shed considerable light on his importance. What does that light reveal?
Among other things, we see that when the Twelve Apostles are listed by name (Matt. 10:2-5; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:14-17, and Acts 1:13), St. Peter’s name is always first – and Judas Iscariot is always listed dead last. Far more commonly, though, the New Testament refers to simply “Peter and the Twelve,” as if to say that the tempestuous fisherman signified in himself the unity of the whole apostolic college.
There are many other biblical signs of St. Peter’s preeminence among the Apostles. He is the only one who receives a name change from Christ. He was Simon, but Christ calls him “Rock” (Matt. 16:18). Name changes given by God that we read about in Scripture have huge significance and imply an elevation in importance and a special mission given to that person by God (e.g. Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel). He is also singled out by Christ to receive the keys of the kingdom of heaven and is promised, “Whatever you (singular) bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you (singular) bind on earth will be bound in heaven” (Matt. 16:19).
St. Peter is the lone Apostle Christ calls out of the boat to walk on water (Matt, 1:28-29). At the tomb of Christ, St, John waits to allow St. Peter to enter ahead of him (John 20:6). It is to him among the Apostles that God first reveals the Resurrection (Mark 16:7). The risen Christ appears to him first, before the other Apostles (Luke 24:34). Christ preaches the gospel to the crowds from St, Peter’s fishing boat (Luke 5:3). St. Peter is told by Christ, “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your (singular) faith may not fail. And once you (singular) have turned back, you (singular) must strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:31-32).
Christ makes St. Peter the shepherd of His Church (John 21:15-17). In Acts 1:13-26, St. Peter leads the other Apostles in choosing Matthias as successor to Judas, and he leads the Apostles in preaching on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14). He performs the first Pentecost miracle (Acts 3). He speaks in the name of all the Apostles and for the whole Church when the Twelve are brought before the Sanhedrin for a trial (Acts 4). It is to St, Peter alone that God sends the revelation that gentiles are to be allowed into the Church (Acts 10), and he is the Apostle who first welcomes them into the Church (Acts 11). St. Peter’s dogmatic pronouncement is accepted, and causes all disputes to cease at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). After his conversion and healing from blindness, St. Paul visits St, Peter to have his teachings confirmed by him (Gal. 1:18).
Having said that, what should we make of St, Peter’s reference to himself in 1 Peter 5:1 as a “fellow presbyter”? Does this signal that he was unaware of his special role as chief of the Apostles? The answer is found in the same passage, “Clothe yourselves in humility in your dealings with one another,” he says, “for God opposes the proud but bestows favor on the humble. So humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter 5:5). Since he was cautioning his Christian audience to be humble, it makes perfect sense that he would take his own advice and, setting an example for them, speak of himself in humble terms. And in doing so, he was following Christ’s command, “Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant, whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (Matt, 20:26-27). But this humility shouldn’t blind us to the substantial body of biblical evidence showing that he did receive a special apostolic preeminence and authority from Christ – evidence that critics of the papacy often ignore or strain to explain away.
St. Paul, like St. Peter was also humble when referring to himself. He was by far the most prominent and prolific New Testament writer, responsible for about half of the New Testament, but he said, “I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God” (1 Cor. 15:10), and, “To me the very least of all the holy ones, this grace was given” (Eph, 3:8). On numerous occasions he called himself a mere deacon, the very lowest level of ordained ministry in the Church (cf. 1 Cor. 3:5, 4:1; 2 Cor. 3:6, 6:4, 11:23; Eph. 3:7; Col. 1:23, 25). But clearly, St. Paul had an authority far greater than that of a deacon.
As with St. Peter, these examples of St. Paul’s humility are balanced St. Paul had an authority far greater than that of a right to order you to do what is proper, I rather urge you out of love” (Phil, 8-9), and, “Although we were able to impose our weight as apostles of Christ. Rather, we were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children” (1 Thess. 2:7).
St. Peter’s calling himself a “fellow presbyter” doesn’t disprove his primacy any more than St. Paul’s habit of calling himself a “deacon” proves he had no authority greater than a deacon’s.
By Patrick Madrid (Envoy Magazine, March/April 1998, p.27)