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The Case Against Baptist Successionism

Some time ago an acquaintance from my days as a Fundamentalist sent me an e-mail. Kevin had become a Baptist pastor and was disappointed that I had been “deceived by the Catholic Church.” He wanted to know my reasons for becoming Catholic.

I get such e-mail from time to time, and rather than get involved in arguments about purgatory or candles or Mary worship or indulgences, I usually cut straight to the point and try to engage my correspondent with the question of authority in the Church.

Kevin told me that to follow the pope was an ancient error, and when I asked where he got his authority, he promised to send me a book called The Trail of Blood. This book, written by Baptist pastor J.M. Carroll, explains that Baptists are not really Protestants because they never broke away from the Catholic Church. Instead they are part of an ancient line of “true and faithful biblical Christians” dating right back through the Waldensians and Henricians to the Cathars, the Novatians, Montanists, and originating with John the Baptist. This view is called Baptist Successionism or Landmarkism, and it is also taught by John T. Christian in his book The History of the Baptists.

Baptist Successionism is a theory more theological than historical. For proponents, the fact that there is no historical proof for their theory simply shows how good the Catholic Church was at persecution and cover-up. Baptist Successionism can never be disproved because all that is required for their succession to be transmitted was a small group of faithful people somewhere at some time who kept the flame of the true faith alive. The authors of this “history” skim happily over the heretical beliefs of their supposed forefathers in the faith. It is sufficient that all these groups were opposed to, and persecuted by, the Catholics.

Most educated Evangelicals would snicker at such bogus scholarship, and many more are totally ignorant of the works of J.M. Carroll and the arcane historical theories of Baptist Successionism. Nevertheless, the basic assumptions of Successionism provide the foundation for most current independent Baptist explanations of early Church history, and these assumptions are the foundation for the typical independent Baptist understanding of the Church. The assumptions about the early Church are these:

  1. Jesus Christ never intended such a thing as a monarchical papacy.
  2. The Church of the New Testament age was decentralized.
  3. The early Church was essentially local and congregational in government.
  4. The Church became hierarchical only after the conversion of Constantine in the fourth century.
  5. The papacy was invented by Pope Leo the Great, who reigned from 440 to 460.

Facts vs. Fancy

The basic assumptions the typical Evangelical has about the papacy are part of the wallpaper in the Evangelical world. Brought up in an independent Bible church, I was taught that our little fellowship of Christians meeting to study the Bible, pray, and sing gospel songs was like the “early Christians” meeting in their house churches. I had a mental picture of the Catholic pope which I had pieced together from a range of biased sources. When I heard pope, I pictured a corpulent Italian with the juicy name of “Borgia” who drank a lot of wine, was supposed to be celibate but kept mistresses, and who had sons he called “nephews.” This pope held big banquets in one of his many palaces, was very rich, rode out to war when he felt like it and liked to tell Michelangelo how to paint. That this pope held an office invented by the corrupt Catholic Church was simply part of the whole colorful story.

But of course, the idea that the florid Renaissance pope is typical of all popes is not a Catholic invention, but a Protestant one. Protestantism has been compelled to rewrite all history according to its own necessities. As French historian Augustin Thierry has written, “To live, Protestantism found itself forced to build up a history of its own.”

We can correct the five basic assumptions of non-Catholic Christians about the papacy by looking at the history of the early Church. To examine the claims put forth by adherents of independent Evangelical churches, we’ll have to put on one side any preconceptions about Borgia popes and get down to facts.

1. Did Jesus plan a monarchical papacy?

Jesus certainly did not plan for the inflated and corrupt popes of the popular imagination. He intended to found a church, but that Church was not democratic in structure. It was established with clear individual leadership. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says to Simon Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it.” So, Jesus established his Church not on a congregational model, but on the model of personal leadership.

Was this a monarchical papacy? In a way it was. In Matthew 16:19, Jesus goes on to say to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” This is a direct reference back to Isaiah 22:22, where the prophet recognizes Eliakim as the steward of the royal House of David. The steward was the prime minister of the kingdom. The keys of the kingdom were the sign of his personal authority delegated by the king himself.

Jesus never intended a monarchical papacy in the sense of the pope being an absolute worldly monarch, but the Church leadership Jesus intended was monarchical because it was based on his authority as King of Kings. Matthew’s reference to Isaiah 22 shows that the structure of Jesus’ kingdom was modeled on King David’s dynastic court. In Luke 1:32-33, Jesus’ birth is announced in royal terms. He will inherit the throne of his father David. He will rule over the house of Jacob and his kingdom shall never end. Like Eliakim, to whom Jesus refers, Peter is to be the appointed authority in this court, and as such his role is that of steward and ruler in the absence of the High King, the scion of the House of David. That Peter assumes this preeminent role of leadership in the early Church is attested to throughout the New Testament: from his first place in the list of the apostles, to his dynamic preaching on the day of Pentecost, to his decision-making at the Council of Jerusalem and the deference shown to him by St. Paul and the other apostles.

Did Jesus plan a monarchical papacy? He did not plan for the sometimes corrupt, venal, and worldly papacy that history has occasionally recorded. But Jesus did plan for one man to be his royal delegate on earth. He did plan for one man to lead the others (Lk 22:32). He did plan for one man to take up the spiritual and temporal leadership of his Church. We see this not only in Matthew 16, but also in the final chapter of John’s Gospel, where Jesus the Good Shepherd hands his pastoral role over to Peter.

2. Was the early Church decentralized?

Independent Evangelical churches follow the Baptist Successionist idea that the early Church was decentralized. They like to imagine that the early Christians met in their homes for Bible study and prayer, and that in this pure form they were independent of any central authority. It is easy to imagine that long ago in the ancient world transportation and communication were rare and difficult and that no form of centralized church authority could have existed, even if it were desirable.

A straightforward reading of the Acts of the Apostles shows this assumption to be untrue, and a further reading of early Church documents shows it to be no more than a back-projected invention. In the Acts of the Apostles, we find a Church that is immediately centralized in Jerusalem. When Peter has his disturbing vision in which God directs him to admit the Gentiles into the Church, he refers back at once to the apostolic leadership in Jerusalem (Acts 11:2).

The mission of the infant Church was directed from Jerusalem, with Barnabas and Agabus being sent to Antioch (Acts 11:22, 27). The Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) was convened to decide the Gentile question, and the council sent a letter of instruction to the new churches in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia (Acts 15:23). Philip, John, Mark, Barnabas, and Paul travel to and from Jerusalem, providing a teaching and disciplinary link between the new churches and the church in Jerusalem.

After the martyrdom of James, the leadership shifts to Peter and Paul. Now, authority is not centered in Jerusalem, but rather vested in Peter and Paul as apostles, as their epistles to the various churches attest. This central authority was very soon focused on Rome, so that St. Ignatius, a bishop of Antioch, wrote to the Romans in the year 108, affirming that their church was the one that had the “superior place in love among the churches.”

Historian Eamon Duffy suggests that the earliest leadership in the Roman church may have been more conciliar than monarchical because in his letter to the Corinthians, Clement of Rome doesn’t write as the Bishop of Rome. Even if this is so, Duffy confirms that the early Church believed Clement to be the fourth Bishop of Rome and viewed Clement’s letter as supporting centralized Roman authority. Duffy also concedes that by the time of Irenaeus in the mid-second century, the centralizing role of the Bishop of Rome was already well established. From then on, citation after citation from the apostolic Fathers shows that the whole Church—from Gaul to North Africa and from Syria to Spain—affirms the primacy of the Bishop of Rome as the successor of Peter and Paul.

The acceptance of this centralized authority was a sign of belonging to the one true Church, so St. Jerome could write to Pope Damasus in the mid-300s,

I think it is my duty to consult the chair of Peter, and to turn to a church whose faith has been praised by Paul . . . My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the Rock on which the Church is built! (Letter 15)

3. Was the early Church local and congregational?

We find no evidence of a network of independent, local churches ruled democratically by individual congregations. Instead, from the beginning the churches were ruled by elders (bishops). The New Testament describes the apostles appointing these elders (see Acts 14:23, Ti 1:5). The elders kept in touch with the apostles and with the elders of the other churches through travel and communication by epistle (1 Pt 1:1, 5:1). Anne Rice, the author of the Christ the Lord series of novels, has pointed out how excellent and rapid the lines of communication and travel were in the Roman Empire.

In the early Church we do not find independent congregations meeting on their own and determining their own affairs by reading the Bible. In the first two centuries there was no Bible as such, for the canon of the New Testament had not yet been decided. Instead, from the earliest time we find churches ruled by the bishops and clergy whose authenticity is validated by their succession from the apostles. So Clement of Rome writes, “Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on the question of the bishop’s office. Therefore for this reason . . . they appointed the aforesaid persons and later made further provision that if they should fall asleep other tested men should succeed to their ministry” (Letter to the Corinthians, 44). Ignatius of Antioch writes letters to six different churches and instructs the Romans, “be submissive to the bishop and to one another as Jesus Christ was to the Father and the Apostles to Christ . . . that there may be unity.”

This apostolic ministry was present in each city, but centralized in Rome. The successors to the apostles reject the idea of a church being independent, local, and congregational. Thus, by the late second century, Irenaeus writes,

Those who wish to see the truth can observe in every church the tradition of the Apostles made manifest in the whole world . . . therefore we refute those who hold unauthorized assemblies . . . by pointing to the greatest and oldest church, a church known to all men, which was founded and established at Rome by the most renowned apostles Peter and Paul . . . for this Church has the position of leadership and authority, and therefore every church, that is, the faithful everywhere must needs agree with the church at Rome for in her the apostolic tradition has ever been preserved by the faithful from all parts of the world. (Against Heresies, 3:3)

4. Did the Church only become hierarchical after Constantine?

Independent Evangelicals imagine that the church only became hierarchical after it was “infected” by Emperor Constantine’s conversion in 315. At that time, they argue, the monarchical model was adopted from the court of the emperor and the Church changed from independent, local, and congregational to a centralized, hierarchical arm of the Roman Empire.

Again, this theory has no relation to reality. As we have seen, the idea of a monarchical papacy was there from the beginning in Jesus’ identity as the great scion of David the King, with Peter as his steward. The steward, like the king he served, was to be the servant and shepherd of all, but he was also meant to rule through the charism of individual leadership. This form of governance was hierarchical from the beginning for it is grounded in Jesus’ own concept of the Kingdom of God. A kingdom is hierarchical through and through, and the Church, as Christ’s kingdom, is hierarchical from its foundations. Furthermore, the leadership of the Jewish church (on which the Christian Church was modeled) was similarly hierarchical, with its orders of rabbis, priests, and elders.

Obedience to the bishop as the head of the Church was crucial. Ignatius of Antioch writes to the Christians at Smyrna and condemns congregationalism using language that is clearly hierarchical:

All of you follow the bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and the presbytery as the apostles; respect the deacons as ordained by God. Let no one do anything that pertains to the church apart from the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is under the bishop or one who he has delegated . . . it is not permitted to baptize or hold a love feast independently of the bishop. (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, ch. 8)

The hierarchical nature of the Church is confirmed and sealed through apostolic succession. Church leaders are appointed by the successors of the apostles, and there is a clear chain of command which validates a church and its ministry. So Ireneaeus writes:

It is our duty to obey those presbyters who are in the Church who have their succession from the apostles. . . the others who stand apart from the primitive succession and assemble in any place whatever we ought to regard with suspicion either as heretics and unsound in doctrine or as schismatics . . . all have fallen away from the truth. (Against Heresies, 4:26)

The New Testament and the writings of the apostolic Fathers portray the Church as centralized, hierarchical, and universal. The need for unity is stressed. Heresy and schism are anathema. Allegiance to the hierarchical chain of command guarantees unity: God sent his Son Jesus. Jesus sent the apostles. The apostles appointed their successors. The bishops are in charge. So Clement of Rome writes:

The apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ: Jesus the Christ was sent from God. Thus Christ is from God, the apostles from Christ. In both cases the process was orderly and derived from the will of God. (Letter to the Corinthians, ch. 42)

5. Was St. Leo the Great the real first pope?

The term pope is from the Greek word pappas, which means “Father.” During the first three centuries, it was used of any bishop. Eventually the term was applied to the Bishop of Alexandria, and finally, by the sixth century it was reserved for the Bishop of Rome. Therefore it is an open question which bishop was first designated by the term pope.

But critics of the Catholic Church aren’t really worried about when the term pope was first used. What they mean when they say that Leo the Great was the first pope is that this is when the papacy began to assume worldly power. This is, therefore, simply a matter of definition of terms. By pope, Evangelicals mean what I thought of as pope after my Evangelical childhood. In other words, they equate the word pope with “corrupt earthly ruler.” In their understanding of the word, Leo should be considered the first pope because as the Roman Empire disintegrated, he was the first to involve himself in temporal matters.

To view the pope, however, as a mere temporal ruler is to take a simplistic view. Catholics understand the pope’s power to be spiritual. While certain popes did assume temporal power, they often did so reluctantly—and they did not always wield that power in a corrupt way. We may argue whether popes should have assumed worldly wealth and power. We can agree that every pope should have known that the Kingdom of the Lord they served was not of this world. Their rule was to be hierarchical and monarchical in the sense that they were serving the King of Kings and Lord of Lords—not in the worldly sense.

The Protestant idea that the papacy was a fifth-century invention relies on a false understanding of the papacy itself. After the Church attained official status during Constantine’s reign, the Church hierarchy did indeed become more influential in the kingdoms of this world, but that is not the essence of the papacy. The essence of the papacy lies in Jesus’ ordination of Peter as his royal steward, and his commission to assume the role of Good Shepherd in Christ’s absence. The idea, therefore, that Leo was the first pope is a red herring based on a misunderstanding of the pope’s true role.

Same as It Ever Was

From the Reformation onward, Protestant Christians have fallen into the same errors as the Reformers—the idea that the existing Church has become corrupt and departed from the true gospel and that a new church that is faithful to the New Testament can be created. These sincere Christians then attempt to “restore” the church by creating a new church. The problem is each new group of restorationists invariably create a church of their own liking, usually subject to their contemporary cultural assumptions. They then imagine that the early Church was like the one they have invented.

All of the historical documents show that, in essence, the closest thing we have today to the early Church is actually the Catholic Church. In these main points the Catholic Church is today what she has always been. Her leadership is unapologetically monarchical and hierarchical. Her teaching authority is centralized and universal, and the pope is what he has always been, the universal pastor of Christ’s Church, the steward of Christ’s kingdom and the Rock on which Christ builds his Church.

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