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The Papacy in the Early Church

God not only established his Church, he also ordained its structure

One of the strongest arguments by both Protestants and Catholics against same-sex marriage and other innovations is that the basic structure of marriage is God-ordained. As Focus on the Family puts it in its “Foundation Values,” “The institution of marriage is a sacred covenant designed by God to model the love of Christ for his people and to serve both the public and private good as the basic building block of human civilization.” Thus, “Christians are called to defend and protect God’s marriage design.”

Marriage, in other words, is something we discover and respect as designed by God, not something that is up to us to invent or define for ourselves. This is the same message that Jesus proclaims in Matthew 19:4-6, when he says that “he who made them from the beginning made them male and female,” and “what therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”

What many Protestants fail to recognize is that God ordained the structure of his Church as well. It would certainly be odd if God, having spent so much time shaping and cultivating the structure and leadership of his people—from the patriarchs to the judges to the priests, prophets, and kings of the Israel down to the apostles—should decide he no longer cared about ordaining a design for the Church he created and simply left it up to our own broken devices.

In Hebrews, the following instructions are given:

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith. . . . Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you (Heb. 13:7, 17).

But these instructions become meaningless if each of us has the authority to choose our own personal “leadership.” We can easily subvert the need for obedience to Church leadership by declaring ourselves leaders to some other leadership of our own choosing.

Moreover, when we hear Jesus say, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18), our minds can easily race to the questions of “Who or what is ‘this rock’?” and “What does this all mean for Peter?” But we should be loath to overlook the glaringly obvious: that Jesus is promising to build the Church. In other words, the design of the Church is not up to us to invent but for us to discover and revere as coming from God.

Unchanged through the ages

If there is such a thing as a God-ordained structure for his Church, what is it? It might be helpful to consider what we’re not looking for. We’re not looking to find the “modern papacy” in the early Church. “Helicopter parents” today have the capacity for more direct oversight over the day-to-day activities of their kids (from anywhere on the planet!) than would have been imaginable for parents even recently.

The same is true of the papacy: as a sheer matter of necessity, most decisions in the early Church were made “on the ground,” because communications to and from Rome were often laborious or simply impossible.

We’re also not looking for is the “strawman papacy.” Believing that dad is the head of the family doesn’t necessitate believing that mom and the kids have no rights or valuable input to family discussions. And it doesn’t mean believing that dad has to decide every day-to-day decision.

The same is true of the Church. Belief in the papacy doesn’t mean rejecting the authority of bishops or of ecumenical councils. Even the declaration of papal infallibility was instituted not by a pope unilaterally declaring it but by the First Vatican Council defining it in 1870.

Instead, in understanding the structure of either the family or the Church, we’re looking to find a basic structure that remains unchanged down through the ages. After all, one of Jesus’ promises in Matthew 16:18 is that the gates of hell will not overcome the Church he is creating, and so it would be inconsistent to believe that he created a structure that was entirely overcome and replaced by some foreign structure.

For the papacy, we should expect to see Peter and the subsequent bishops of Rome viewing themselves (and being viewed by others) as having a particular authority in settling disputes within the Church in a final way.

Important in times of conflict

It’s significant that we generally find this core structure expressed only in times of conflict and disputes. In the words of soon-to-be-saint Cardinal John Henry Newman, “It is a common occurrence for a quarrel and a lawsuit to bring out the state of the law.” And indeed, Jesus outlines the Church’s binding and loosing authority precisely in the context of an otherwise-irresolvable conflict (Matthew 18:15-18).

Why is this? Because when things are going well, one’s focus is rarely on legal rights and responsibilities. Newman aptly compared the early Church to family members who “live together in happy ignorance of their respective rights and properties till a father or a husband dies; and then they find themselves against their will in separate interests, and on divergent courses, and dare not move without legal advisers.”

With all of this in mind, just what do we find in the earliest days of the Church? Exactly what we would expect to find. There’s a myth that the papacy was created by the Emperor Constantine (A.D. 272-337) or the First Council of Nicaea (325). But, in fact, we see popes acting like popes long before Constantine ever came along.

Dispute over Easter

For example, in the last part of the second century, Pope Victor I (who reigned c. 189-199) was in a heated dispute with the bishops of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) over the dating of Easter. The difficulty is that the first Easter was both three days after the start of Passover and on “the first day of the week” (John 20:1). Most years, however, Christians had to choose between either celebrating Easter in relation to Passover, regardless of the day of the week, or else celebrating on Sunday, regardless of when Passover fell.

The bishops in the west, including Pope Victor, wanted uniformity in the Church and agreed to have a common Easter celebration on Sunday. As the early Church historian Eusebius (263-339) would recall, “Synods and assemblies of bishops were held on this account” and unanimously declared that “the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord should be celebrated on no other but the Lord’s day, and that we should observe the close of the paschal fast on this day only.”

But the bishops of Asia Minor dissented. Their tradition of celebrating based on the dating of Passover was descended directly from the apostle John, and they were loath to change it. They responded not to the various synods and councils but in a letter “addressed to Victor and the church of Rome,” which declared that “we ought to obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29).

Everything about their response suggests that the Asian bishops viewed Victor as possessing—but abusing—legitimate authority. It’s unthinkable that one would write to a subordinate “we ought to obey God rather than man” in denying a request, and it’s striking that their refusal was strictly on the grounds that they viewed it as a violation of apostolic tradition.

More shocking is Pope Victor’s response: Eusebius records that he “immediately attempted to cut off from the common unity the parishes of all Asia, with the churches that agreed with them, as heterodox; and he wrote letters and declared all the brethren there wholly excommunicate.” St. Irenaeus of Lyon, one of the pope’s allies in setting a Sunday dating for Easter, successfully acted as “a peacemaker in this matter, exhorting and negotiating in this way in behalf of the peace of the churches.”

But the point here is not that the pope acted rightly in excommunicating a huge swath of the Church for holding to what they reasonably viewed as apostolic tradition (he almost certainly did not). It’s rather that none of the parties seriously contested whether or not Victor had such authority.

Clement rebukes Corinth

Speaking of Irenaeus, his own writings are revealing about the way the papacy was viewed. In his Against Heresies (c. 180), he spoke of how “it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with” the Roman Church “on account of its preeminent authority [potiorem principalitatem].” Tracing the succession of bishops of “the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul,” Irenaeus proceeded to name (by name) every bishop of Rome from the time of the apostles down to Pope Eleutherius in Irenaeus’s day.

The third of the popes (after Peter) that Irenaeus mentions is Pope St. Clement, whose pontificate was c. 88-99. Eusebius reports that this is the Clement to whom St. Paul referred as a “co-laborer and fellow soldier” in his greeting in Philippians 4:3. Irenaeus writes of him that “as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes.” Tertullian tells of how he was ordained by St. Peter himself. Around the year 96, Clement wrote a letter to the church in Corinth.

The occasion for the letter, as Clement said, was a “shameful and detestable sedition” in which a group of Corinthians refused to submit to their rightful presbyters (priests). In responding to this, Clement reminds them of the apostolic origin of the structure of the Church, comparing the bishops, presbyters, and deacons of the Church to the high priests, priests, and Levites in ancient Israel. As Clement notes, even the apostles’ being sent by Christ, and Christ’s being sent by God the Father, were “appointments” that “were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God.”

The meaning is clear: the people didn’t choose Jesus as the Messiah, they didn’t get to pick his apostles, and it’s not for them to decide whether or not to obey the bishops who serve as successors to those apostles. Thus, the seditious parties needed to return to obedience of the validly ordained clergy.

Emphasis on structure

There are several details about the letter worthy of closer attention. The first is Clement’s insistence that the structure of the Church comes from Christ. In the words of Fr. Michael C. McGuckian, S.J., “The notion of a church choosing its church order is unheard of in Christian tradition until the sixteenth century with the Reformation in Switzerland,” and Clement’s letter reflects this.

He speaks of the structure of the Church as something fixed by Christ, not something that evolves based upon the needs or desires of the local church. McGuckian has shown that while the “process of canonization of the Scriptures is documented,” there is no trace of a “corresponding process of canonization of the episcopate.” In other words, the Bible doesn’t come down to us in fixed form from the first century, but the structure of the Church does.

It’s also worth noticing that Clement is involved in this situation at all. It’s clear from the outset of the letter, in which he apologies for being “somewhat tardy in turning our attention to the points respecting which you consulted us,” that it was actually the Corinthians who reached out to Clement and the Church at Rome. This isn’t a case of a meddlesome Roman bishop but of a Greek church reaching out to the Roman bishop to settle a strictly internal dispute.

Consider also the reception of St. Clement’s letter. If the early Church were Protestant, we might expect them to pay little heed to St. Clement, treating him merely as another churchman or as a threat to the apostolic order (per George Rutledge’s reasoning—see below).

But that’s not the case at all. Writing about three centuries later, St. Jerome notes that Clement’s epistle to the Corinthians “in some places is publicly read.” That is, even into the fourth century we find churches using Clement’s letter liturgically alongside of Sacred Scripture. And indeed, we find the letter included (after the Book of Revelation) in the fifth-century biblical manuscript known as the Codex Alexandrinus as well as other ancient Greek and Coptic biblical manuscripts.

The point here is not to argue that Clement’s letter was inspired Scripture (the Church concluded it wasn’t). But the mere fact that there was a question on this point tells us something about how Church members beyond Rome viewed the bishops of Rome following St. Peter.

‘Primacy of honor’

Some writers, particularly Eastern Orthodox, have suggested that the Bishop of Rome enjoyed only a “primacy of honor” in the early Church. But this suggestion misunderstands the way that “primacy” and “honor” were understood in antiquity.

In both Greek and Roman usage, “honor” was a way of speaking of office and authority. It’s why Aristotle declares in his Politics that “the offices of a state are posts of honor,” and those “excluded from power will be dishonored” and recounts how “riches became the path to honor, and so oligarchies naturally grew up.” Primacy was therefore something more than just “honor” in the narrow sense that we mean the term today, which is why the First Council of Nicaea (325) speaks of Alexandria having “jurisdiction” to name local bishops but then speaks of Jerusalem as having “the next place of honor” in doing so.

What the council was delineating was not who it liked best or thought the most honorable but which bishops had the jurisdiction in particular regions to select bishops. Recognizing the pope’s “primacy of honor,” properly understood, is a recognition of papal authority and papal supremacy.

The Church Fathers, taken individually or together, reflect the same structure of the Church: a small, collaborative family in which conflicts would occasionally arise, conflicts which could and would be adjudicated by the Bishop of Rome. In this way, the successors of Peter carried out (and continue to carry out) the unique mission entrusted to Peter by Jesus Christ.

The gates of hell shall not prevail

At the Last Supper, contrasting the authority of the Gentiles with authority within the Church, Christ said, “Let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:26). Turning to Peter, he then said, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you [plural], that he might sift you [plural] like wheat, but I have prayed for you [singular] that your [singular] faith may not fail; and when you [singular] have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:31-32).

The structure Christ created was one in which, in response to Satan’s desire to destroy all of the apostles and the whole Church, Jesus spiritually supported one man who was then tasked with strengthening the others. This is exactly what Jesus just described as “authority” within the Church (cf. Luke 22:25-26). It’s an authority that Peter’s successors—from Linus and Cletus down to Benedict and Francis—have consistently exercised, even if sometimes imperfectly.

Sidebar: St. John Had No Problem with a Pope

What makes Pope Clement’s involvement in the Corinthian dispute more shocking is that it happened around the year 96, while the apostle John is still alive. In a colorful 1914 anti-Catholic sermon, pastor George Rutledge proclaimed to a crowd of about 1,500 people that the Catholic claims to the papacy couldn’t be true because “the apostle John lived a number of years after Peter’s death. Yet Rome declares a fellow by the name of Linus was made pope while an apostle was living!”

Rutledge argued that since apostles are the highest order within the Church (1 Cor. 12:28), St. John would have “had a just grievance and could have bankrupted the whole business.” Yet St. Clement’s letter is evidence that St. Peter’s successors did play a central role in the governance of the early Church, even during the lifetime of the apostle John—and that John, as far as is recorded, did not object.

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