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In this brief clip from his teaching series A Survey of Church History, W. Robert Godfrey examines the claim that the whole church rests on the bishop of Rome. Watch this entire message for free today.
It is true that from fairly early on bishops of Rome began to argue that they had a special place in the life of the church. And that argument resonated with many Christians. After all, Rome was the capital city of the empire. It’s where the emperor was, and therefore, Rome was particularly important, and therefore it made sense that the bishop of Rome would be particularly important. And so, for the first time probably in the middle of the third century, often in the study of the ancient church, you have to say probably because we don’t know as much as we’d like to know. The historical record particularly of the second and third century is really pretty sketchy. We have evidence, but we’re never quite sure how full that evidence is.
But in the middle of the third century, about 250, as far as we can tell for the first time a bishop of Rome quoted the words of Jesus to Peter, “You are Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my church.” And it was Pope Stephen about 250 for the first time said, “This shows the primacy of the bishop of Rome. This shows that in some fundamental way the whole church rests on the bishop of Rome.” Now, if we were a Roman Catholic apologist we would say, “Well 250, that’s a long time ago.” But from the perspective of the church, the church had been going without apostles for a hundred and fifty years, which is also a long time, without this papal claim.
But even more importantly, we have to recognize, it’s one thing to claim something, and it’s quite something else for anybody to pay attention to the claim. And for a very long time the bishops of Rome did make claims for themselves, but the rest of the church wasn’t buying it, wasn’t paying attention. The bishops of Rome had more success in the west, of course, because they didn’t have as much competition. But in the east there was very little inclination to grant that the bishop of Rome was in charge.