The Equality of Peter Among the Apostles

Equality of Peter Among the Apostles

Ye are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone.” (Ephesians 2:20)

And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:14).

James Bannerman
The Church of Christ
IV.iii.2., pp. 774-779.

There are certain scriptural intimations bearing upon the position of Peter among his brother apostles, which are adduced by Romanists in support of the doctrine of his official primacy. The scriptural evidence appealed to by the advocates of the Papacy on this point is of the very slenderest kind, and certainly wholly insufficient to support the magnificent superstructure of ecclesiastical polity reared upon it.

The Arguments of Rome Refuted.

1. The Leadership of Peter.

1st, The precedency of Peter in the college of apostles is argued from his name generally appearing first in any list of them given in Scripture, and from the place he usually occupied as leader or representative of the rest, in speaking or acting on many occasions recorded in the Gospel histories.

Now, in reference to this point, there is a very plain distinction to be drawn between a precedency which is personal and a precedency which is official,—the one pertaining to the man, and the other pertaining to the office held by him. That Peter was in certain respects superior to his brethren in the apostleship, in natural gifts and energy, or in zeal and devotedness in his Master’s service, may be readily conceded; and that this superiority marked him out on many occasions as the natural leader or spokesman of the rest, may be no less readily allowed. And this is all that can fairly be argued from the evangelical narrative as belonging to him. But this personal precedency or superiority over the rest is a very different thing from that official superiority claimed for him by the adherents of the Church of Rome, and necessary to their theory. Such a personal precedency of one man over others, is what necessarily arises out of the different characters and endowments possessed by the members of every society in which men meet and act together, and can no more be transmitted by the individual who enjoys it to another than he can transfer to him his own personal character or qualifications. Peter, on not a few occasions, took the place or lead assigned to him by the rest of the twelve; he stood forward as the leader or spokesman of the Apostles, acting and speaking on behalf of the others. But there is no evidence in Scripture that this personal superiority was ever transmuted into an official superiority, as if, not the man, but the office-bearer, was different from the rest.

That the circumstance of Peter’s name appearing first in the lists of the apostles given in the Gospels is no evidence of official precedent, is apparent from the fact, that in other passages of Scripture, when Peter and others of the apostles are mentioned, the order of names, as found in the Gospels, is not adhered to, but those of some others of the apostles occur first.

2. Matthew 16:17-18.

2d, The primacy of Peter among the apostles is very generally made to rest by Romanists upon the words addressed to him by our Lord, as recorded in the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel by Matthew: “And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mat. 16:17-18).

Now, in reference to this passage, it is not necessary to go into the many different interpretations that have been given of it, all of them excluding the idea of an official primacy granted to Peter by our Lord. Some of these interpretations assert that “the rock” that was to be the foundation of the Church, as declared in this passage, is not meant of Peter, but of Christ Himself. Others of them assert that “the rock” is to be understood of the previous confession made by Peter when he said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” rather than of the apostle personally.

I cannot help thinking that the natural interpretation of the passage does seem to involve the declaration that, in some sense, and to a certain effect, Peter is to be regarded, in his official character of an apostle, as upholding the superstructure of the Christian Church. The allusion in the passage to the name given to the apostle by our Lord, σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, seems naturally to imply that in a certain sense the Church was to be built upon the apostle, as its support. But while admitting this, it can be easily proved that this declaration to Peter conveyed to him no superiority over the other apostles, and constituted him the foundation of the Christian society in no other sense or way than that in which the other apostles are to be regarded as its foundation also.

1. Foundation in a secondary sense to that of Christ.

In the first place, it is apparent that, in whatever sense Peter was constituted the foundation of the Church, it can only be in that inferior and secondary sense in which such an honour is consistent with the prerogatives of Christ, as the true and proper foundation of the Church. Its Divine Author and Head is the only real rock on which the Christian Church is built; for “other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 3:11).

2. Inclusive of the other Apostles.

In the second place, there seems to be sufficient ground for affirming that the declaration and promise made to Peter by our Lord were made to him, not individually, but as the representative, on this occasion, of his brother apostles, and that the privilege conferred through him was conferred on all. The occasion on which our Lord’s words were spoken, was one on which, not Peter separately, but all the apostles, had been addressed and appealed to by Christ: “When Jesus came into the coasts of Cæsarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?” (Mat. 16:13). And after their reply, stating the opinion of others, our Saviour renews the question, still addressing, not Peter, but all the apostles: “But whom say ye that I am?” It was in answer to this question that Peter, standing forth as the spokesman of the rest, gave utterance to the confession in their names as well as in his own: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And it is hardly possible to believe that the promise of our Lord, granted in answer to this joint confession, was restricted to Peter, and did not include the other apostles in whose behalf, as much as for himself, he had spoken.

3. Other statements of Scripture.

In the third place, the special privilege granted to Peter by our Lord’s promise, of becoming the foundation or the founder of the Christian Church in a secondary sense, is a privilege which other express declarations of Scripture, made in the same terms, confer equally upon the other apostles. “Ye are built,” says the Apostle Paul to the Ephesians, “upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone.” (Eph. 2:20). That new Jerusalem which John saw in the Apocalypse, had, we are told, “twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” (Rev. 21:14). In other words, we are expressly taught that, in the same sense in which Peter was the founder of the Church, the other apostles were the founders of it also.

4. A privilege to be shared in equally by all the Apostles.

In the fourth place, the power or authority over the Christian society, conveyed by our Lord to Peter on this occasion, is the very power at other times handed over to the rest of the apostles as rulers of the Church. It is plain that the authority implied in the place assigned to Peter as the foundation of the Church is in this passage to be interpreted by the words that follow: “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mat. 16:19). This language is obviously explanatory of the power implied in the office or privilege of being the foundation of the Christian Church, assigned to Peter. Now this very power is, in the chapter next but one following, conveyed in the very same terms to all the apostles, when, in connection with the command to cast out the offender who refused to hear the Church, our Lord says, not to Peter, but to all the apostles: “Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mat. 18:18). And again, a power of the same nature and amount is conferred once more upon all the apostles, when receiving the authoritative commission from our Lord before His departure: “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.” (John 20:23). So very strong and distinct is the evidence, that the privilege conferred upon Peter in the declaration of our Lord, although addressed to him as the representative of the others, was not intended for him alone, but was a privilege to be shared in equally by all the apostles.

3. “Feed my lambs.

3d, The official superiority of Peter among the apostles is sometimes based by Romanists on the commission given to him by our Lord after the resurrection, to feed the lambs and the sheep of Christ (John 21:15).

It is hardly necessary to deal with this argument. The thrice repeated injunction, “Feed my lambs,” “Feed my sheep,” so pointedly addressed to Peter, might have reminded him, as it was no doubt intended to remind him, of his threefold denial and fall; but it could hardly by any possibility convey to his mind the idea of superiority over his brethren. The very same injunction to feed the flock of Christ—ποιμαίνειν τὴν ἐκκλησίαν—is given more than once to the presbyters or bishops of the Church, as part of their ordinary vocation, and implies no distinctive or superior authority (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2).

Indeed, the history of Peter after he received this charge, coupled with that of the other apostles and disciples, as it is to be gathered from the Acts and the Epistles, is a sufficient evidence of the interpretation he himself put upon these words, and of the absence of any attempt to claim or exercise official superiority over his brethren. In that history we see him the same ardent and earnest man, ever foremost among his equals, but asserting no official precedence over them, and sometimes frankly confessing his faults and inferiority (Acts 11:8-17; Gal. 2:11; 2 Pet. 3:15 ff.). In the Acts of the Apostles he appears on the same level with the rest of the disciples in council, and in labours in the cause of the Church. At Antioch he erred in conduct and speech, and was rebuked sharply by Paul, and submitted to the brotherly censure (Gal. 2:11-21). In his own Epistle to the Christian Jews scattered abroad throughout the world, there is not the slightest trace of the high and paramount authority claimed for him by Romanists,—a silence on the point not to be accounted for, on the supposition that it actually belonged to him.

In the Epistle to the Romans, addressed to the Christians in the very place where it is alleged that he had the seat of his ecclesiastical supremacy, his name and power and office are nowhere mentioned,—an evidence in itself conclusive against the Romish dogma of the primacy of Peter.

In short, the whole inspired history of the Church after the ascension of our Lord, alike by its silence and its express assertions, contradicts the theory of Peter’s absolute and official superiority to the rest of the apostles.

So much for the first and leading proposition involved in the Popish theory of Church government, namely, that Christ conferred upon Peter an official supremacy over the other apostles and over the Church at large.

Remaining Popish assumptions are moot points.

The absence in Scripture of any evidence for such an assertion, or rather, the positive contradiction which Scripture evidence affords to it, supersedes the necessity of our entering upon a consideration of the two remaining propositions in the Romanist scheme of ecclesiastical polity, founded as they are upon the first.

The second assumption implied in the Popish theory, or the assertion that Peter transmitted his official supremacy to his successors, the Roman Pontiffs, is contradicted by these two considerations: first, that the apostolical office, whatever powers or prerogatives belonged to it, was, as we have already seen, extraordinary, and terminated with the apostles themselves; and second, that there is no evidence in Scripture, and nothing but the slenderest possible presumption from ecclesiastical antiquity, to show that Peter was ever at Rome, far less to show that he was bishop of the Church there.

The third assumption involved in the Popish theory, or the assertion that the supremacy of Peter was such in nature and amount as to constitute him and his successors in office the true vicars of the Lord Jesus Christ on earth,—ruling with His power and authority over the universal Church, and administering vicariously in the Christian society the absolute supremacy and supernatural infallibility of our Lord,—is contradicted by the whole tenor of Scripture, which tells us that the office of Christ is peculiar to Himself, and incommunicable, and that He has not handed over His place or His glory to any earthly successor.

The theory of the Romish Church involves a daring dishonour to Christ the Head.

cf. The Pope is Antichrist: Audio Lectures from the Reformation 500 Winter Conference

The Pope of Rome is the Antichrist by Wilhelmus à Brakel


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