The Catholic Church is a hierarchy, not a democracy, for she is not a political system invented by man but a cosmic system invented by God. How perverse and suspicious we must be to think “tyranny” whenever we think “hierarchy”. That is like thinking “counterfeit” whenever we think “money”, or “rape” whenever we think “sex”.
The Protestant Church of Christ also calls itself the Churches of Christ. The utilization of both names grants the group flexibility: the word “Church” (singular) communicates unity, and the word “Churches” (plural) communicates the autonomous nature of each local congregation. It makes sense; the Catholic Church has used the same names for centuries, but the Catholic Church’s use of the words do not indicate autonomy, but rather, unity.
“Autonomy” is a goal and mark of the Protestant Church of Christ, whereas “Catholicity” is a goal and mark of the Catholic Church of Christ; and even into the local congregations the Catholic Church remains united. And she, the real Church of Christ, remains united because she is hierarchical, as I will illustrate throughout this essay.
One Protestant Church of Christ writer, Edward C. Wharton, describes his group’s position well, and he provides insight into your group’s collective mind. He introduces the subject of autonomy in his book, The Church of Christ, by writing:
Contrary to the complex hierarchical system of one ruling bishop over many churches, the New Testament presents the autonomy of each local church, whether or not they have elders. Local church autonomy means that each local church is self-governing.1
It is expected and clear that Wharton begins to establish his group by comparing it to the Catholic Church: “Contrary to a complex hierarchical system … .” It is reasonable for a Comparative Religion writing, such as this essay, to compare religions; but Wharton’s book is intended to describe “The Distinctive Nature of the New Testament Church” (Wharton’s subtitle), yet it, like nearly all apologetics material provided by the group, is an attempt to establish its Restoration tradition by comparing it to a competing tradition—it is an indication that his position antagonistically relies on a pre-existing platform. Imagine the surprise if the Catechism of the Catholic Church (an exegesis of the Scriptures) established the Catholic Church by disestablishing any Protestant sect!
Is not the Protestant Church of Christ’s readiness to discredit a competing paradigm in order to establish its own credibility an indication that it is only reactionary—not leading, secondary—not primary? Is heresy not in the hands of those who protest a pre-existing paradigm? Nobody knows what is “complex” about a hierarchy; autonomy and its provable and inevitable breakdown into disunity, is a much more complex option. But as an indicative apologia for the Protestant Church of Christ’s position, please consider the illogic of Wharton’s sect-wide accepted introduction.
Is not the fact that he refers to the New Testament Scriptures an acknowledgement that a hierarchy of some sort existed to create the New Testament? Could he argue that autonomous churches autonomously created the canon of Scripture? The Protestant group takes what a hierarchy already produced, and then presents history as if that hierarchy had never existed—the group has no memory because it is new.
Autonomy is a founding tenet of the Protestant Church of Christ, it is a granted premise, and it is necessary for the group’s survival. If autonomy is shown to be wrong, then of course, the group is wrong; and the Catholic Church of Christ’s legitimacy is strengthened. I will show you how the Old Testament provides the model of how the Church is structured, that the Christian kingdom has a prime minister (a pope), how the New Testament reflects the already-present hierarchy, how important a prime minister is for maintaining orthodoxy, and of course, how the Catholic Church’s hierarchy throughout history is Jesus’ intent.
St. Peter Was First
St. Peter’s position and importance is clearer than any other Apostle. Every major group of New Testament texts is acquainted with the subject of St. Peter—illuminating his universal (catholic) significance. St. Peter’s marathon lists of “firsts” overflow the New Testament, not because of chance, but deliberate choice. (The Bible’s formation was not an accident.) St. Peter is given Christ’s flock to shepherd (cf. John 21:17), headed the meeting to appoint the first apostolic successor (cf. Acts 1:13-26), preached at Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:14), received the first converts (cf. Acts 2:41), performed the first miracle after Pentecost (cf. Acts 3:6,7), presided over the first ecclesial punishment (cf. Acts 5:1-11), excommunicated the first heretic (cf. Acts 8:21), presided over the first council (cf. Acts 15:7-12), and it is St. Peter who spoke for the Apostles (cf. Matthew 18:21, Mark 8:29, John, 6:69). This is not an exhaustive summary, but it does raise some questions: Why was so much responsibility and authority given to one person? And why did his duties, as presented in these passages, provide a rough job description of every pope throughout history, yet attract reflexive repugnance from the Catholic Church’s Protestants today?
Within the New Testament Scriptures, St. Peter’s authority among Jesus’ disciples and Apostles is unmatched. St. Paul ranked his own status as the least of the apostles and St. Peter’s as …[the first] then to the twelve (1 Corinthians 15:3-9). Within the 1 Corinthians passage, St. Paul repeated the name that Jesus gave to St. Peter, the Aramaic word for rock (Cephas). St. Paul acknowledged St. Peter as first, then the twelve, then himself. In parallel fashion, every list of the Apostles within the New Testament lists St. Peter as first (cf. Matthew 10:1-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:14-16, Acts 1:13).2
Concerning the 1 Corinthians passage, St. Peter was the first Apostle to witness the risen Christ—juxtaposed with St. Paul as the last Apostle to witness the risen Christ. Similarly, St. Peter was the first Apostle to acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ, and St. Paul, again, was the last Apostle to confess. It is clear to Catholic Christians of every generation, including St. Paul and his, that St. Peter was not a random member of the twelve. The evidence provides an ancient pre-Pauline formula and insight into the Sacred Tradition of the practicing (and real) Church of Christ.
St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians, consisting of an internal chiastic-like hierarchical theology of the office of Apostle, reveal his own acceptance of St. Peter’s supremacy. Further texts, even within the Pauline corpus, reveal more than what could be construed, at least in an accusatory manner by Protestants, as mere Catholic theory. St. Paul’s actions admit that a supreme authority existed within the Church. By his own hand, we know that St. Paul traveled to Jerusalem, not to teach or exercise his authority as an autonomous equal, but to meet Cephas (Galatians 1:18). He only saw one other Apostle, but his reason for going was explicitly recorded.
The Protestant groups, in an effort to disestablish St. Peter’s primacy, focus on a specific verse within the Galatian passage: I [St. Paul] opposed him [St. Peter] to his face … (2:11); but the context is more important than the proof-text. It is interesting to note that St. Paul’s Galatian audience had a foreknowledge of who Cephas was—again revealing the catholicity of St. Peter’s position, a position that existed prior to any New Testament text. Had St. Paul not defended his new position within the fledgling hierarchy—by appealing to his communion with St. Peter—the gospel he preached might have been suspect of being a tradition of men: Of which I am writing to you, I do not lie! (Galatians 1:20).
St. Paul introduced his letter by establishing his credibility and authority by emphasizing his association with St. Peter, which is a practice that is internally present here in the New Testament, and externally portrayed by all the successors of the Apostles (the bishops) throughout the remainder of Christian history. After fourteen years, St. Paul again submitted his message to the leadership of the Church for approval—so that he was not running or had run in vain (Galatians 2:2). It is within this context that the Apostles’ disagreement in Galatians 2:11 is shown to be a preview of how the papacy would operate throughout history—welcoming the consult of its bishops, and an acceptance by even the least of the Apostles to recognize the supreme leadership of Christ’s Church on earth.
The Protestant Church of Christ presumes that the Galatian passage emphasizes an autonomous plane between the Apostles and creates an ecclesiological pattern that allows for the undermining of the Catholic Church of Christ’s hierarchy. Therefore, it is important to recognize that the greater context of cherry picked anecdotes includes more than what all of Protestantism, including your newer form, wishes to acknowledge; and admit that St. Paul apparently recognized that Christ the King had appointed ministers and a type of prime minister for His kingdom, and that he, himself, was the least of the upper ring (1 Corinthians 15:9). Should a passage that illustrates a disagreement within the hierarchy be used to disprove the hierarchy?
The New Testament, as a unit, is a witness to St. Peter’s primacy. And for the Bible to become a witness of St. Peter’s primacy, the a priori requirement for the material would be another witness—a living Church—from which the Bible came. The Old Testament is a third witness. It provides the typology from which historical Christianity understands the stewardship and power of a prime minister.
Regarding the Old Testament, both the Catholic Church of Christ and the Protestant Church of Christ believe that God used prophets to communicate in various ways to His people. Catholics also believe that God used “types” to aid people in understanding His perfect plan. A “type” is a shadow of a person, thing, or action that precedes a greater person, thing or action. Examples of these are: Adam was a type of Christ, Eve was a type of Mary, Noah’s ark was a type of the Church, and manna was a type of the Eucharist. An internal affirmation of typology is presented by St. John the Baptist’s fulfillment of Elijah’s type (cf. Mark 11:9-13). Typology brings us back to Jesus’ words when he spoke to St. Peter. In the previous essay, I showed you how the Catholic Church of Christ is built on Rock. I also showed you how Jesus gave that Rock keys, and I now ask you to read Jesus’ words once again.
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:19).
Have you ever been curious as to where, specifically, Jesus’ terminology came from? Have you ever heard a Protestant Church of Christ preacher explain it to you? Have you attended a Bible study that examined the passage? Have you wondered why the Protestant Church of Christ might offer personal interpretations of the passage, yet rarely, if ever, refer to the specific Old Testament passage that Jesus was citing—a passage that presents the typology and power that a Davidic kingdom’s prime minister is vested with?
What Are the Keys?
The most powerful position under the king was that of the Royal Steward—the prime minister. King Solomon instituted the office in 1 Kings 4:6 when he appointed Ahi’shar (Ahi’shar was in charge of the palace), and Isaiah provides a more thorough description of the office. Now that you have re-read Matthew 16:19, please read what Jesus was referencing, and what Jesus’ audience would have recognized as the structural paradigm of the new kingdom—of the true Church of Christ:
And I will place on his [Eli’akim’s] shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open (Isaiah 22:22).
Eli’akim was a type of St. Peter—his position was a type of the papacy. As shown in Isaiah, Eli’akim was given the key to the kingdom and was promoted to the most prestigious office in the kingdom—the master of the palace (Isaiah 22:15 New American Bible). Eli’akim’s position was that of prime minister; sharing in the king’s authority, governing in the king’s name, and acting for him in the king’s absence. Keys are a symbol of power, granting or denying admittance to the royal presence.
Matthew 16:19 shares a royal context provided by the Old Testament Scriptures, and supported by a cultural context that acknowledged how kingdoms are governed. Jesus was saying that St. Peter would be the new master of the palace in His kingdom. Since the keys symbolized how the Davidic king vested his prime minister with his very authority, Jesus was vesting St. Peter with the keys to His kingdom, essentially; “You, Peter, will be the prime minister in my kingdom.”
The office of prime minister is pre-supposed, and Jesus chose to utilize that pre-supposed hierarchical paradigm when He assigned the keys to St. Peter. This might be the first time you have seen this connection; can you ignore the similar language and parallel structure of the passages found in Matthew and Isaiah? Do you believe the earliest Christians (Jewish converts) would not have noticed! Did Jesus intend to create an autonomous ecclesial structure when he chose to utilize a hierarchical Davidic paradigm when he called St. Peter to office? St. Peter seems to have understood that the Steward would be set over Christ’s household, because Jesus asked him, Who then is the faithful and wise steward, whom his master will set over his household, to give them the portion of food at the proper time? (Luke 12:42 emphasis added).
However, many non-Catholic Christians prefer a more cryptic and docetized interpretation of Jesus’ words form Matthew 16—a preference to deny a practical existence of the Old Testament types; resulting in a theory that Jesus did not realize the confusion he would create by quoting Isaiah when calling St. Peter to office. But nobody in the historical Church of Christ was confused. Even the secular world throughout history has recognized that St. Peter and his office held authority over the worldwide Church; the theory of Church-wide ecclesial autonomy is no older than Protestantism itself, yet the drive for personal promotion is as ancient as the fall of man.
Keys are Forgiveness
As shown, Christ Jesus is our Messianic King, and He is at the top of the Church’s hierarchy. The King chose St. Peter to be the Royal Steward. The other Apostles, including St. Paul, were subordinate to St. Peter, yet held authority within the Church (cf. Matthew 18:17-20). This primitive hierarchy is reflected in the Scriptures, and as a reflection, it represents what was already present: the hierarchical structure that in fact created the Bible, which is the product that your community parses to argue against the hierarchy.
That early structure was perpetuated into all generations, which I show you in other essays (here, here, here, here, here, and here); but for now, it is important for you to understand why the hierarchy is important to recognize: it not only safeguards orthodoxy, but it establishes the conduit back to Jesus, the Savior who forgives sins.
The passage from Isaiah, I have found, is one that is new to most members of the Protestant Church of Christ—it does not fit into its accepted narrative, and therefore, it is not acknowledged. There is another passage from the New Testament that is often overlooked as well:
As the Father has sent me, even so I send you … . If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained (John 20:21-23).
It is important to acknowledge Jesus’ audience. He was speaking to the Apostles, which renders the meaning of the text as, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you … . If you [clergy priests] forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you [clergy priests] retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus, again, reminded the twelve that they are sent just as the Father sent Him. All authority was given to Jesus, and He then gave His authority to the twelve. The power of the keys recalls the role of Eli’akim from Isaiah 22:22. Eli’akim was granted dominion and control over the dynasty of the descendants of David. St. Peter and his office, the fulfillment of Eli’akim’s type, illuminates how keys allow entrance into Christ the King’s court.
In comparison to those who shut the door (Matthew 23:13), St. Peter would be the one who would open the door to the kingdom of heaven. St. Peter, as prime minister, shares the King’s authority and possesses/shares the keys of admission and of rejection (cf. Revelation 3:7). When the full context of Scripture is viewed, the words of Jesus to St. Peter, … whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven, embody the truth of what the keys are: keys are forgiveness! Binding and loosing are the acts of forgiving sins—and only properly ordained priests—ordained through the proper manner and in communion with the authority of St. Peter’s office, and therefore, Christ, have them.
But this is a hard teaching for you because you have come to the understanding that there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5). The passage, of course, is correct; but heresy is not in the Scripture—heresy is in the interpretation of Scripture. Your group teaches that the passage is an indication that any ecclesial hierarchy is a barrier to the one mediator, and your group has accepted the myth of “Jesus-only and me Christianity”. Jesus is indeed our one mediator to the Father—And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12); but that one fact does not disqualify other facts—that Jesus intended for other lesser mediators to act as directional conduits or vehicles to gather people to Him. Are not the Apostles mediators? Was Mary not the mediatrix that allowed Jesus to become our Mediator—the deliverer of our Deliverer? Were not the writers of the Holy Scriptures mediators? Were not the men (bishops) who collected the New Testament writings and discerned the canon of Scripture mediators? Is not their final product, the Bible, a mediator? Are not your loved ones who pray for you mediators? The Church is Jesus’ intended ordinary means for people to access the sacraments. The sacraments, including Confession to a priest for the forgiveness of sins, are instituted by Jesus—the priest is a lesser mediator to Jesus: our One Mediator to the Father.
And so the Catholic Church of Christ and the Protestant Church of Christ have different interpretations of the passage, and you must make a wise decision on which is most reasonable. Either Jesus intended for his clergy to share in the dispensing of grace and forgiveness (If you forgive … I will forgive …), or he intended for your proof-text to somehow override all of the holly passages that demand a harmonizing theology.
John 20:21-23 cannot harmonize with the Protestant Church of Christ’s needed interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:5; there is no wriggle room to rationalize a theology that does not include the clergy’s participation in Jesus’ mediation and intention of vesting His clergy with such powers. Catholics call the exercise of such powers acting in persona Christi,6 (endnote jump) or, “in the person of Christ.” By virtue of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, the priest possesses the authority to act in the power and place of the person of Christ himself.7 When Catholics receive forgiveness for sins through the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession), the priest is not forgiving sins; it is God who is forgiving sins.
The priest, given authority by the successors of the Apostles who were given authority by Christ Jesus, forgives sins in Jesus’s name. The harmonizing theology regarding the Catholic Church of Christ’s stance could be stated as:
• Jesus was given all authority by the Father,8
• was sent by the Father to offer forgiveness of sins,9
• gave His authority to the Apostles,10
• to forgive sins by the authority given to them.11
Ergo, a conduit of mediation offering forgiveness of sins by virtue of a legitimately ordained priest acting in persona Christi (in the person of Christ)—a theology in perfect harmony with 1 Timothy 2:5,6; completely faithful to the meaning of the text:
For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony to which was borne at the proper time.
Throughout this book, a theme continues to surface: the New Testament is a reflection of the living Tradition of the Church. The acts of binding and loosing are older than the New Testament Scriptures, and Jesus’ words instructing the clergy to hear and forgive sins are older than the New Testament Scriptures as well.
The Johannine passage that so clearly displays the words of Jesus granting authority to the New Covenant priests as mediators of forgiveness would not have received residence in the Bible if the Catholic Church, at the time of the Bible’s compilation (fourth century councils), disagreed with the passage—it would not have reflected and supported the Faith of the Apostles nor the Faith of the successors (bishops) present at the councils. Put another way, the New Testament, by means of its origination, as a product of the apostolic tradition, must be a thoroughly Catholic book. And as such, any interpretation that appears to contradict what the Catholic Church teaches is an incorrect interpretation—a tradition of men.
It therefore becomes clear that the early Church did in fact recognize the role of the keys, that the Church at the time that St. John’s Gospel was written and at the time St. John’s Gospel was included in the canon of Scripture accepted and practiced a form of sacramental mediation, which included a physical apostolic element—an element that does not claim a new authority to forgive sins and communicate grace, but is the humble agent in which Christ chose to transmit his own authority and communicate grace.
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1 Edward C. Wharton, The Church of Christ (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1997), 85.
2 The Greek word protos, used in the book of Matthew when describing St. Peter, has a spectrum of meaning that includes: leading, most important, and chief. Nearly all ancient texts list St. Peter as first. When St. Peter is not listed as first within partial lists, reasonable textual criticism is able to reconcile the anomaly. In every case, theological status is always given to St. Peter, and only St. Peter. The particularity of St. Peter’s ministry is always set apart from the general ministry of remaining Apostles.
(Endnotes 3-5 removed; those goodies are in my book The Church of Christ Is Built on Rock)
6 The term “acting in persona Christi” is derived from 2 Corinthians 2:10. Many Bible translations have changed the reading to undermine the historical meaning of the text; they typically read, “I [Paul] have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake” (italics mine) instead of “in the person of Christ.” With such nebulous translations, no modern reader could guess the meaning of the text. The Latin of this verse, as translated from Greek by contemporaries who spoke Greek (= pre-Protestant scholars), understood and then translated the verse into Latin as, “… in persona Christi” (in the person of Christ). The term came from Greek drama where actors would represent characters by use of masks (mask/face = prosopo in Greek); understood as “acting” in the person of Christ. Voilà! Acting in Persona Christi.
7 Catechism of the Catholic Church #1548.
8 cf. Matthew 28:18; Ephesians 1:20-22; Catechism of the Catholic Church #553, 1444.
9 cf. Matthew 9:6; Mark 2:10; Luke 5:21; Catechism of the Catholic Church #1441.
10 cf. John 13:20; 17:18; 20:21; Catechism of the Catholic Church #852-62.
11 cf. John 20:23, Matthew 16:19; 2 Corinthians 2:10; Catechism of the Catholic Church #553, 730.