Peter, the Papacy, and the Keys of the Kingdom

On the occasion of the visit of pope Francis to Ireland, it is time to re-examine papal claims. The pope claims that he alone is the true successor of Peter, prince of the apostles, and the head of the church, gifted with supreme authority to define, with the gift of infallibility, matters of faith and morals.

Did Jesus not say to Peter: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18)? He did, but He did not mean, “You are Peter and upon YOU I will build my church.” He meant, “You are Peter (a little stone) and upon this rock (your confession that I am the Christ) I will build my church.” Peter is too weak a foundation on which to build the church. Peter himself writes later about Jesus Christ that he is “chief cornerstone” and that “he that believeth on him (Jesus) shall not be confounded” (1 Peter 2:6). 

Moreover, there is no evidence in the New Testament that Peter is the prince of the apostles. Although he is usually named first in the list, he is not accorded special titles or privileges: in Galatians 2:9 he is named with James and John as one of those who “seemed to be pillars” in Jerusalem; in 1 Peter 5:1 he calls himself “also an elder” and warns against being “lords over God’s heritage” (v. 3); he did not even preside at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15; and he is not even mentioned in Paul’s epistle to the Romans despite the papal claim that he was the bishop of Rome! Moreover, Paul  boldly “withstood [Peter] to his face” for the sake of the integrity of the gospel in Galatians 2:11. 

But what about the keys of the kingdom—did Jesus not give them to Peter in Matthew 16:19? He did, and he repeats it in Matthew 18:18, where he gives the keys of the kingdom to the other disciples, and to the whole church. But those keys do not give Peter—or the pope, or any bishop or priest—the power to forgive sins, or to admit people to or exclude people from heaven. Jesus retains those keys in Revelation 1:18 and 3:7. The keys of the kingdom are declarative, that is, when the gospel is preached (by Peter or by another faithful preacher), God declares that believers in Christ are forgiven and saved (the kingdom is opened to believers) and God declares that unbelievers are not forgiven, but condemned (the kingdom is closed against unbelievers).

Besides this, the idea that Pope Francis is the successor of Peter is indefensible, biblically, theologically, and historically. 

Read through the book of the Acts of the Apostles and you will see Peter and the other apostles using the keys—by preaching the Word of God. Nowhere does Peter determine for himself who is saved and who is lost. Nowhere does Peter himself forgive sins. The keys of the kingdom are used, therefore, not where popes sit, but where the Bible is open, explained, and applied by a man sent by Jesus Christ through the church institute. Sadly, the keys of the kingdom are rusty in many churches: there is little to no preaching, but a few minutes of cute stories and moral platitudes. Are you hearing the gospel in the church where you attend? We invite you to hear the gospel in the Limerick Reformed Fellowship.