Rebecca asked:

What is the biblical basis for establishing a pope?

Jimmy Akin replied:

"There are a number of ways to look at this. Now the fundamental one is Jesus established a hierarchy in his Church. In the first century it's just not the case that all believers were equal in terms of their function in the Church. Jesus set up the apostles initially, and then over the course of time the hierarchy in the Church became elaborated more. So you had bishops and priests and deacons and so forth. And the reason for that was the increasing size of the Church needed increasing organization. Because you know it wasn't just all located and operating out of one house in Jerusalem any more. It was all over the known world.

So as the Church grew it's hierarchy grew in order to accommodate the spiritual needs of the people. Eventually the apostles passed from the scene because one of the requirements of being an apostle was you had to be an actual witness of Jesus Christ. ... So eventually God chose to let the world go on beyond the lifespan of those who were witnesses of the ministry and he also chose not to keep appearing to people the same way he did when he commissioned Saint Paul. And so consequently the leadership passed form the apostles to the bishops of the Church which was the next highest level. And so the bishops are the successors of the apostle in the overall governance of the Church.

But one of the things, even when you have a hierarchy you still need somebody to serve as the center point of it. You need somebody to be the overall leader. That's a principle that Jesus acknowledged in the first generation of the Church because he appointed Peter to fulfill that role. And that's something that we have stressed in multiple different ways in the New Testament. One of the most famous verses is Matthew 16:18 where Jesus tells Peter, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And there are various ways to show that he really is talking about Peter there. But that's not the only passage.

If you look for example in Luke 22 there's a dispute that arises among the disciples about who among them is the greatest and in response to this Jesus says three things. The first thing he says is to tell the disciples look you don't want to be lording it over other people with leadership. That's what gentiles do, but that's not the way it should be among you so you need to employ servant leadership ...

Secondly he assures them that all twelve of them are going to sit on twelve thrones judging the tribes of Israel. So he reassures them, don't worry all of you are going to have a leadership role including in the next life ... But then the third thing he says is he turns to Peter and he says, Peter I've prayed for you. The devil has asked to be able to sift you as wheat, you meaning the disciples, but I prayed for you and he uses in Greek the singular form of you. He doesn't say y'all as he does in many occasions ... and when you have turned back strengthen your brothers. So he's giving a special pastoral role to Peter.

You see the same thing in John 21 after the resurrection when Jesus is talking to Peter and he tells him to feed his sheep and he says specifically to him, referring to the other disciples who are present, do you love me more than these? And when Peter says you know I love you, he says feed my sheep. So he's including the other disciples as sheep that Peter would be feeding spiritually. So Jesus himself acknowledged in the very first generation of the Church this principle that even when you have a hierarchy like the group of the twelve apostles, there still needs to be an overall leader. And if that was true even in the first generation of the Church when it was relatively small, then as it grew and needed even more organization and even more oversight, that principle would continue to be true.

And so it's implicit that just like there was a successor to the apostles and the bishops, there would be a successor to Peter and his successors as the popes. There are also predecessors to this. For example if you look back in the book of Isaiah there is a passage where the Lord is giving a prophesy to the chief steward of the house of David ... God was promising to clothe him with the robe of the previous chief steward of the house of David and to place on his shoulder the key of the house of David, and to give him authority so that whatever he opens no one can shut ... and this is part of the background to what Jesus tells Peter in Matthew 16. So in Isaiah 22 where we read this we have an indication of the kind of office that Jesus is giving to Peter. It's the kind of office where once Jesus is in heaven Peter will be running the Church on his behalf."


Catholic Answers, "Open forum for non-Catholics" (San Diego: Catholic Answers, 2015)

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Show air date: March 16, 2015

Name of show: Open forum for non-Catholics

Guest comments by: Jimmy Akin

Question appeared in show: 2:34

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"...and upon this rock I will build My Church..." Matthew 16:18