In the Old Testament, when God established His Covenant with the nation of Israel, He provided for a living, continuing authority in the Mosaic priesthood (see 2 Chr 19:11; Mal 2:7.) This authority did not end when the OT Scripture was written; rather, it continued as the safeguard and authentic interpreter of Sacred Scripture. When Christ established His Church, the New Israel, He set up a living, continuing authority to teach, govern, and sanctify in His name. This living authority is called “Apostolic” because it began with the twelve Apostles and continued with their successors. It was this Apostolic authority that would preserve and authentically interpret the Revelation of Jesus Christ. This same Apostolic authority determined the canon of the Bible, and will preserve the teachings of Jesus Christ in all their fullness, and uncorrupted from error, until the end of time.
Among the twelve Apostles St. Peter is clearly the head. Know Matthew 16:13-19 well: ” And so I say to you, you are Peter [Rock], and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter, which mean “rock.” Our Lord says this rock will be God’s way of preserving the Church from corruption until the end of time.
Our Lord knew St. Peter would be dead by 70 AD Therefore Christ must have intended the office of Peter to last until the end of time. St. Peter is given the “keys to the kingdom of heaven.” This is an awesome gift. To nobody else does Christ give this ruling power. Reflect on this unique privilege. Why would Jesus would give this tremendous authority to St. Peter and not intend for it to be passed on? If he early Christians needed an authoritative leader, later Christians would need one even more. After all, many of the early Christians heard the Gospel from Christ Himself and knew the Apostles personally. After all the Apostles died, the Church would have even greater need of the power of the keys when enemies would try to corrupt the teachings of Christ.
Although all the Apostles as a group were given the power to “bind and to loose” in Mt 18:18, St. Peter received this power individually at the time he was given the “keys.” Jesus would not have guaranteed to back up the doctrinal teachings of St. Peter and his successors unless He was also going to protect them from teaching false doctrine in their official capacities as Shepherds of the Church. Read Lk 22:31-32 and John 21:15-17. In the passage from St. Luke, Jesus prays that Peter’s faith would not fail; Peter in turn would strengthen the other disciples. In the passage from St. John, Jesus clearly makes Peter the shepherd of His Church. So St. Peter is the rock on which Christ builds His Church. He is given the “keys of the Kingdom” and he is made shepherd of Christ’s flock: solid biblical evidence that Jesus made St. Peter the first Pope.
Now you might be saying, “where does the pope play into all of this?” Well, the popes are Christ’s vicars, the visible and earthly heads of Christ’s Church while Christ is the invisible and supreme head. Read Acts 15. This gives an account of the first Church council, the Council of Jerusalem. Called at the request of St. Paul, this council met to decide whether Gentiles had to follow the Law of Moses as well as the Law of Christ. Notice that there was much discussion among the Apostles and presbyters. However, after Peter spoke, the assembly fell silent. His statement ended the discussion. This council obviously considered St. Peter’s authority final. Some may claim that Acts 15 shows that James, not Peter, was the head of the Church. Since James the Lesser (not James, the brother of John) gives the concluding remarks at the council of Jerusalem and also recommends some marriage and dietary regulations for the Gentiles, they conclude that James must be the head of the Church. All I can do is tell those people to read the Gospels, where St. Peter is unmistakably presented as a leader among the Apostles, whereas James the Lesser is not.
Read the first twelve chapters of Acts, which describe the early Church in Jerusalem. Every chapter (except 6 and 7, which describe Stephen’s martyrdom) shows St. Peter in a leadership position while St. James appears only briefly, and never in a leadership role. In Galatians 1:18-19, we are told that Paul went to Jerusalem after his conversion specifically to confer with Peter. He stayed with Peter 15 days. In contrast, Paul visited James only briefly during this time. At the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, it was St. Peter’s statements that settled the serious doctrinal dispute that was the reason for the council. As we saw earlier, St. Peter’s statements silenced the assembly of presbyters and the Apostles (including St. James). We know from Church history that St. James was the Bishop of Jerusalem and, as Acts 21:15-25 describes, he was concerned for Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who felt their ancient customs threatened by the great number of Gentile converts. This background explains why St. James made the concluding remarks at the council and asked Gentiles to respect certain Jewish practices. People are grasping at straws when they claim that Acts 15 proves that James, instead of Peter, was the head of the Church.
Some have also cited 1 Peter 5:1 numerous times to claim that Peter was not the head of the Church. They note that Peter, in addressing some elders (Church leaders), calls himself a fellow elder. They therefore conclude that Peter had no more authority than any other elder. But this is just like the President of the United States saying, “My fellow Americans.” This would certainly not indicate that the President has no more authority than an ordinary citizen. As an Apostle, St. Peter certainly considers his authority to be greater than that of an ordinary elder. After all, St. Peter goes on to admonish these “fellow elders” (1 Pet 5:2-4) as one having authority over them. In calling them fellow elders, St. Peter is simply acknowledging the obvious: like himself, they are also Church leaders. To insist that Peter, as an Apostle, had no greater authority than an ordinary elder, shows how little is appreciated about what Scripture says about the great office of Apostle.
Many people quote Gal 2:11-14 as well, attempting to show that Peter was not infallible and that Paul did not consider him the head of the Church. This position is not supportable. First of all, if they think Peter was not infallible, why do they accept his two letters as inspired and, therefore, infallible? We must accept that all the Apostles were infallible. After the Apostles, the popes individually and the bishops as a group in union with the pope, are infallible. St. Paul correcting St. Peter for weak behavior is no different from St. Catherine of Siena correcting weak popes in the Middle Ages. There was no doctrine involved. St. Peter himself had settled the doctrinal point at the Council of Jerusalem. St. Paul corrected St. Peter for being unwilling to confront the Judaizers from Jerusalem. Remember, St. Paul was among those who fell silent at the Council of Jerusalem once St. Peter spoke.
The early Church always accepted the Bishop of Rome as head of the Church. In about 80 AD, the Church at Corinth deposed its lawful leaders. The fourth bishop of Rome, Pope Clement I, was called to settle the matter even though St. John the Apostle was still alive and much closer to Corinth than was Rome. St. Irenaeus, who was taught by St. Polycarp (a disciple of St. John the Apostle), stresses that Christians must be united to the Church of Rome in order to maintain the Apostolic Tradition. He then lists all the bishops of Rome up to his time. St. Irenaeus presents this teaching as something taken for granted by orthodox Christians. For 250 years the Roman Emperors tried to destroy Christianity through persecution. In the first 200 years of Christianity, every Pope but one was martyred; the Romans certainly knew who was the head of the Church! A Roman Emperor’s greatest fear was a rival to the throne. Nevertheless, the emperor Decius (249-251 AD), one of the harshest persecutors of the early Christian Church, made the following remark, “I would far rather receive news of a rival to the throne than of another bishop of Rome.” Decius said this after he had executed Pope Fabian in 250 AD.
Suppose that the owner of a company had called all the employees together and announced that he was going to be gone for a while. During his absence, he was going to give the keys of the company to Billy Bob and that whatever Billy Bob commanded would be backed by him. Would you have any doubt that Billy Bob was going to be in charge of the company while the boss was away? Of course not! Then why is it so hard for some to accept that this is exactly what is described in Mt 16:13-19?