How can I answer my Protestant friends who say Paul was most likely the leader of the early Church? They claim he wrote half the New Testament and he was correct over Peter about circumcision.
Throughout the history of the Church there have been highly influential bishops and theologians. For example:
- St. Athanasius fought the Arian heresy and became known as the "Father of Orthodoxy," the "Pillar of the Church," and "Champion of Christ's Divinity." Those are some pretty heady titles, yet no one considers him to have been the authoritative head of the Church.
- Cyril of Alexandria not only was the leading bishop against Nesotorius but also chaired the Council of Ephesus. However, he too is not considered the head of the Church at that time; even he sought approval from the bishop of Rome.
- St. Augustine of Hippo was the dominant theologian of his time, and he was not considered a greater authority than the pope.
- St. Thomas Aquinas shaped theology from the Middle Ages all the way to the present day, yet no one considers him to have been the leader of Church.
It is a reality of human nature that some individuals have great gifts of charisma or intellect and wield tremendous influence, even more so than those who hold official positions of authority. However, that does not mean those who hold official positions do not legitimately hold their position and legitimately make use of their official powers. Community leaders sometimes have wonderful ideas and can organize people better than politicians, yet it is the politicians who are the only ones who can make or change the laws. It is similar in the Church. There will always be laity and various clergy who have great gifts of influence and intellect, but that doesn't change the fact regarding who holds official positions within the Church.
As for Peter and Paul's debate about circumcision, it had nothing to do with theology and everything to do with behavior. In chapter 10 of the book of Acts, St. Peter baptizes the gentile Cornelius without demanding he be circumcised first. There is no record of St. Peter requiring Gentiles to be circumcised. However, some early Christians did apparently insist on this, and it caused controversy and arguments. In chapter 2 of his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul writes that he confronted St. Peter about the fact that he had stopped eating with the circumcised. He accused St. Peter of hypocrisy, not error in teaching. The idea that a pope might need a kick in the pants every now and then is not outside the Church's understanding of the papacy.