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Building on the Rock: Scriptural Foundations of the Papacy

Have you ever wondered how a fisherman from Galilee became the leader of a global church? The story of Peter's transformation is a key part of the foundation for the office of the pope. If you're Catholic, maybe Protestant friends have asked about this, or maybe you're simply curious about the biblical roots of this institution.

We welcome our Protestant friends, many of whom support our monastery, to learn more about the reasoning behind the office of the pope. Our hope is to create a space for dialogue and understanding among Christians of different traditions.

Today, the feast day of the Chair of St. Peter, is a fitting time to explore this topic. The Chair symbolizes the pope's authority as the successor of St. Peter. But where in the Bible do we see the foundations for the papacy?  Let's look at some key passages that illuminate Peter's special role and how it relates to the office of the pope.

The Confession of Peter (Matthew 16:13-20)

The most compelling scriptural argument concerning the Pope's role within the Christian church lies in  Matthew 16:13-20. In this passage, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter boldly answers,  “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Let's break down what Jesus says in response, and why it's so significant.

A New Name, A New Role

Jesus responds: "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church..." (Matthew 16:18)

First, Jesus changes Simon's name to Peter, meaning "rock" in Greek. In the Bible, a name change is important – it usually means the person is getting a new role or mission. Think how God changed Abram's name to Abraham, meaning “father of many nations”.

The Foundation of the Church

Jesus continues: "...and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18)

Next, Jesus declares he will build his church upon Peter, the rock. This places Peter as the very foundation of the Church, the community of Christ's followers. Jesus emphasizes that nothing, not even the forces of evil, can destroy this Church – it is here to stay.

The Keys to the Kingdom

Jesus adds: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven..." (Matthew 16:19)

Jesus then grants Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. This image carries immense symbolism. Keys were not just about opening doors; they represented authority and stewardship. In ancient times, the keys to a city or a palace were given to the chief steward or prime minister, the one entrusted with power to open and close the gates, and to manage the kingdom's affairs.

The prophet Isaiah offers a powerful example of this symbolism. In Isaiah 22:22, God says to Eliakim, the steward of King Hezekiah, “I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.”  Just as Eliakim was given the responsibility for the earthly kingdom, Jesus is bestowing upon Peter the responsibility for His heavenly kingdom, the Church. Peter is entrusted with the authority to govern, guide, and protect it in Jesus' name

Binding and Loosing

Jesus concludes: "...and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)

Finally, Jesus says whatever Peter binds or looses on earth will be ratified in heaven. This gives Peter incredible authority to make decisions, settle disputes, and even forgive sins on God's behalf. We see this authority used in Acts 15, when Peter leads the very first council of the Church, and the Holy Spirit confirms his decisions.

Beyond Peter the Rock: More Biblical Support for the Papacy

While Jesus' declaration that He will build His Church upon Peter (Matthew 16) is a cornerstone of the papacy, it's not the only scriptural evidence. Here are several other key examples:

  • Peter at the Top: Whenever the Gospels list the apostles, Peter's name comes first (Matthew 10, Mark 3, Luke 6). This consistent placement implies special rank and importance among the twelve.

  • Jesus' Special Prayer:  Shortly before Jesus’s arrest, Jesus prays specifically for Peter that his faith won't fail, asking him to strengthen his brothers (Luke 22). This demonstrates unique trust in Peter and hints at the pope's future role as a faith-leader for the Church.

  • Shepherd of Christ's Flock: After the resurrection, Jesus questions Peter three times about his love, then commands him to "Feed my lambs" and "Tend my sheep" (John 21). This is a clear commissioning of Peter as leader of Christ's followers, just as the Pope shepherds the Church.

  • Leading the Early Church: In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter is consistently the apostles' leader and spokesperson. He delivers the first Pentecost sermon, performs miracles, defends the faith before authorities, and is even divinely instructed to welcome Gentiles into the Church. These actions illustrate the kind of decisive leadership we see embodied in the papacy.

A More Subtle Connection: The Coin-in-the-Fish

The story in Matthew 17, where Peter finds a coin in a fish's mouth, provides a more subtle nod towards the papacy. Fishing imagery is associated with the Church's mission, and Peter's role in obtaining the coin mirrors his foundation role in the Church. Interestingly, the coin provides specifically for Jesus and Peter-- and none of the other apostles! This reinforces Peter's special connection with Christ and suggests a basis for his future leadership. While less direct than other examples, it still aligns with Peter's special status.

The Succession of Peter

The biblical foundation for the papacy doesn't stop with Peter. The papacy is a permanent institution, with each pope acting as Christ's representative, continuing His ministry on Earth. 

While the Bible doesn't explicitly outline a succession plan, it supports the principle of apostolic succession. This is the concept that apostles passed their authority to bishops, who passed it on in turn, ensuring continuity and faithfulness within the Church. We see this in:

  • Acts 1: The apostles replace Judas, demonstrating concern for maintaining their leadership structure.

  • Paul's Letters: He appoints Timothy and Titus as delegates with authority to ordain others, showing a pattern of transferring leadership.

  • Peter's Letters: He communicates as a peer with other elders yet also warns of false teachers, highlighting the importance of an authoritative apostolic line.

The Bishop of Rome (the Pope) is Peter's successor, and the unbroken line of popes that followed represent this ongoing apostolic succession.

Understanding the Pope's Role: What He Can and Cannot Do

There are often misconceptions about what the pope can and cannot do within the Catholic Church. Let's clarify a few important points, remembering that even Peter, as the first pope, made mistakes yet also showcased his divinely granted authority:

  • The Pope is Not a Dictator:  While the pope has significant authority, he cannot simply issue commands that all Catholics must unquestioningly obey.  Church leadership relies on collaboration with bishops and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Just as Peter consulted the other apostles at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), so too do popes seek counsel.

  • Doctrine and Tradition: The pope's primary role is to preserve and pass on the teachings of Christ and the traditions developed by the Church over centuries. He cannot change core doctrines at will.

  • Infallibility is Limited: Papal infallibility, the belief that the pope is protected from error on matters of faith and morals when speaking in his official capacity, has specific conditions. It's not a blanket protection for everything he says or does. For example, even Peter, the first pope, was wrong about requiring Gentile Christians to observe Jewish law, and Paul had to correct him (Galatians 2:11-14). This reinforces that popes are human and fallible outside of specific, carefully defined pronouncements.

  • A Servant Leader:  The pope views himself as a servant to the Church, not as its master. His focus is on leading with humility, fostering unity, and guiding the faithful on their spiritual journey.  We see this echoed in  Jesus' charge to Peter to "feed my sheep" (John 21:15-17), emphasizing pastoral care, not power.


The story of Peter's transformation, from simple fisherman to leader of the Church, is a testament to the power of faith and the unique plan God has for each of us.  Through Scripture, we've explored the foundation Jesus laid for the papacy,  Peter's special role, and its continuation today.  Whether you're Catholic and seeking a deeper understanding of your faith, or a Protestant friend curious about our beliefs, we hope this article has fostered knowledge and respect.

We're so grateful for our Protestant friends, many of whom support St. Bernard Monastery.  Your willingness to learn about us helps bridge communities and promotes the unity Christ desires for His Church. Let's continue this spirit of dialogue and understanding, remembering that we are all brothers and sisters on the same journey of faith!

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