How the Papacy Was Born

Ask anyone who attends a church what the leadership structure is, and you’ll get various answers. Some people have a pastorate, presbytery (elders), and a diaconate (deacons). Others have the pastorate and diaconate (e.g., Baptists). We have presbytery and diaconate with the ministers acting in a role akin to the monarchy of England—we really have no power but yield influence. It’s become common to refer to the preacher as “pastor” in nearly every tradition except the high church traditions where they’re notably called “priest” or “father.” Among us, such preachers are the minister unless also an elder. He can be called pastor then but is usually not.

The person standing in the pulpit is usually esteemed differently than what he would have been in the early church. Church leaders in the New Testament were well thought of but not venerated. They would have been respected for their station and looked to for concrete leadership since the Gospel Way was usually oral more than literary. The Hebrew Scriptures were indeed used in the early church, as they were in the synagogue. Still, the first-century church lacked a complete New Testament as we have today. Instead, they had the leaders of the church (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11) and in the congregations (Acts 14:23) to guide them. Additionally, the early church liturgy included robustly doctrinal hymns instead of modern praise and worship one witnesses in most churches. The ancient hymns were statements of belief, and when chanted repetitiously, even the simplest of Christians was capable of repeating them to explain Christianity (Phil. 2:5–11; Col. 1:15–20; 1 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 1:1–3; 1 Peter 2:21–25).

By the end of the second century, Ignatius’ tripartite polity was common throughout the church. After all, his urging Christians to submit to their bishops in all things would have ensured that the one bishop was regarded as the protector of truth. He was a local bishop of a city at the time, but later the position would grow to a territory. By the end of the second century, Hegesippus and Irenaeus had produced lists of bishops throughout various cities. The latter would draw up a list of bishops and strengthen such by arguing their succession from apostles.

The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the [Roman] Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, 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.

Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.3.3

Gnostic teachers first claimed an apostolic succession of their teachers, so Irenaeus’ list became a hallmark of the orthodox faith taught in churches. The Roman church rose to prominence for numerous reasons, the least of which entailed Peter and Paul having ministered there for several years. 

The Rise of Roman Primacy

The church at Rome had emerged as a leader of Christianity by the end of the second century. “For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this [Roman] Church, on account of its preeminent authority” (Iren., Ag. Her. 3.3.2). Being the capital of the empire also had its perks. The Roman church grew immensely during the second and third centuries. Despite being as large as they were, they maintained fidelity in preserving apostolic traditions. Their wealth allowed them to be noticed for their charity, often sending aid to the churches throughout the known world when needed. Some of the members held political positions of influence in the empire as well. This congregation was known to have had direct contact with Peter and Paul, who were put to death in the city.[1] These factors elevated this church throughout the universal assembly of Christians. In time, this notoriety would vest significant authority in the church’s bishop.

Though Peter is often touted as the first pope and founder of the Roman church, history and Scripture would dictate otherwise. When Pentecost came in either the late twenties or early thirties CE, “visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes” (Acts 2:10), were among those who heard the good news. Jews had lived in Rome as far back as the second century BCE, with many more becoming slaves due to Pompey’s triumph in the first century BCE. Among the Jews who came for Pentecost were also proselytes—Gentiles who’d fully converted to Judaism.[2] That both existed in Rome indicates that a converted Gentile population already identified as Jewish, so the mix of Jew/Gentile in Rome existed before even the church’s first Pentecost.

When Paul wrote his letter to the church, he made no mention of Peter. Paul’s close familiars, Aquila and Prisca, met him in Corinth when Jews were exiled from Rome, suggesting that the church was already in existence (Acts 18:1–2). Peter went to Rome in 42 CE after having been a bishop of Antioch.[3] As an elder in Rome (1 Peter 5:1, 13), Peter may have aided the church in becoming better structured and ordered, but he didn’t establish the congregation. Paul wouldn’t arrive in Rome until 60 CE and would live there and minister for at least two years (Acts 28:30). After that, we don’t entirely know where he went until the traditional date of his and Peter’s martyrdom in 67 CE. Given the time they spent in Rome, they would have been able to make headways and solidify Christian orthodoxy that would have been the envy of the church.

Ignatius, Clement, and Hermas wrote to the Roman church in the late first and early second centuries. In their writings, the Roman church had a plurality of presbyters-bishops and not a pope. Near the end of the second century, an ongoing debate on the proper date of Easter persisted. Until this time, peaceful tolerance over this difference had prevailed, but the discussion flared up again. Bishops from all over called meetings to discuss this. Some in Asia reaffirmed the practice of observing Easter on the 14th day of Nisan regardless of which day of the week it fell.

In contrast, the others insisted that it should always be celebrated on a Sunday. Victor of Rome grew frustrated by this ongoing controversy and attempted to excommunicate the Asian churches for their view (Hist. Eccl. 5.24.9). This was likely the first time a Roman bishop exercised power over the church universal. Still, this attempt at ex-communication failed despite Sunday being the day that prevailed. Nearly fifty years later, however, Cyprian of Carthage and Stephen of Rome disputed over baptism. Stephen of Rome invoked Matthew 16:18 for the first time to assert Roman privilege. By 382 CE, that text was solidified as a passage of Roman primacy since the see of Rome was then taught to have succeeded Peter. Then, the occupier of Peter’s see became regarded as holding priority over others but was not then necessarily head of the church universal.[4]  

The Papacy as We Know It

As time went on and Christianity grew, the bishop over a capital city or province became known as a metropolitan. Among the metropolitans, those in a city with a more extraordinary claim to apostolic succession were given the title of patriarch. This form of church polity was extant at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. An enormous issue arose when Constantine, in 330 CE, relocated the empire’s capital from Rome to Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey). This city, so named after the emperor, was referred to as “New Rome.” Some believed that the relocation of the imperial capital meant a change for the church, but Rome did not take well to this belief. If the seat of imperial power now rested in Constantinople, fine. However, the Roman church was still to be esteemed as first among equals because both Peter and Paul had pastored there, thus giving them the purest form of Christianity. The first three patriarchates were Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria. Later added to them were Constantinople and Jerusalem. The Nicene Council gave more tremendous honor to Rome and Constantinople, but not authority.

At the Council of Chalcedon (c. 451), equal privileges were given to Constantinople as Rome wielded. These two sees were constantly battling over power and prestige. The Patriarch of Constantinople in 595 assumed the title of “Ecumenical Patriarch.” John the Faster, who’d taken that title, provoked Gregory the Great (Pope Gregory I) to petition the emperor, requesting that he not acknowledge such. By this time, the Western Roman Empire had fallen, and people in the West looked to Gregory for a sense of continuity. Being from a senatorial family, one might think that Emperor Maurice would have weighed this. Still, instead, he acknowledged John the Faster as Ecumenical Patriarch. Maurice was slain by a usurper a few years later, and Gregory sent letters praising the new emperor. Emperor Phocas would, in 606, transfer the title “Universal Bishop” to Boniface III, thus establishing the Roman supremacy of the pope. As you might imagine, the Eastern church didn’t accept this.


[1] Everett Ferguson, Church History: From Christ to Pre-Reformation, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 138.

[2] Horace portrayed the Jews as forceful in their proselytizing (Sat. 1.4.142–3; cf. Matt. 23:15). Many were Jews by conversion rather than by birth (Acts 13:43. Cf. Juvenal, Sat. 14.102–03). A Gentile could become Jewish by circumcision, immersion, and a sacrifice (Keritot 9a; cf. Pesahim 8.8; Exod. 24:8).However, Gentile conversion was not always welcomed and in some cases was even rejected.

[3] Jerome, On Illustrious Men 1.

[4] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 237–38.

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