Pastor's Blog

A Short Background on the Papacy

Posted under: Reformation — Tags: , , — by Leroy Demarest

Roman Catholic tradition can trace their leadership all the way back to the New Testament Period and the Apostle Peter. Based off of Peter’s confession in Matthew 16 and Christ’s response to him, namely that Christ would build his church on ‘this rock’ (Peter means rock) and that he would be given the keys of the kingdom. This, in Catholic tradition, gave Peter primacy over all other Apostles and church leaders. His position would then, according to tradition, be passed on from bishop to bishop all who have the rule of the church and in 1870 (during Vatican Council I) would be given the designation of infallible when prescribing church doctrine.

As one might imagine, the first few ‘Popes’ or leaders of the Roman church did not live very long under Roman persecution. Tradition teaches that Peter was crucified, upside down, in 67 AD. This would be just before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, which at the time was largely considered, for obvious reasons, as the center of Christianity. After Peter died, Linus, Anacletus and Clement, who died in 97 AD, served as popes. This is of course according to Catholic tradition. Clement, an early church father, did serve as the Bishop of the Roman Church, much like Timothy served in his Church or Cyprian or Tertullian served in theirs. His letter to the Corinthian Church, years after Paul’s epistles, can still be read ( This is often considered, in Catholic tradition, as an Apostolic Epistle to a subordinate church. However, this letter is better read as a letter from one church pastor to another admonishing them to repent and turn back to the Lord. Apparently, the Corinthian church learned little from Paul’s exhortations.

Things would change significantly, as the Roman rule began to soften towards Christianity, the most notably event being the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 312 AD. While there is debate about his true conversion, this certainly changed the State’s view towards Christianity.  It shouldn’t be surprising that those in the church closest to Rome and specifically the emperor saw their power began to conglomerate in Rome.

Power would continue to grow in Rome and would make great strides after 410 AD with the sacking of Rome. The empire was slowly losing power and influence in the world as was the emperor, especially as he was now no longer considered semi-divine. Debate still remains as to the what, how and when Rome fell, but this certainly was a significant milestone in the descent. Meanwhile, the church in Rome was strengthening its role in the state.  By this time, the 40th pope sat on the seat of Peter. However, most of these popes were very short-lived and in some cases, they had overcome those that the Catholic church now deems as antipopes (but at the time certainly confusion about who was the true pope abounded).

Great strides in the papacy occurred in 440 AD with the appointment of Leo I or Leo the Great. Sometimes, he is considered the behind the scenes emperor of Rome as well during the chaos that was Rome at the time. He is credited, accurately or not, with talking down Attila and Gaiseric the Vandal from utterly destroying the city of Rome during their rampage in 452 and 455 respectively. Ruling for 21 years as ‘pope’ allowed Leo to concentrate power in a number of ways. These included defining Catholic doctrine (early doctrine that is, things like Apocryphal book canonization, Papal infallibility and the immaculate conception would come much later), supremacy of the Bishop of Rome over all other Bishops and he makes strides in the power of the Pope over the state as well, which Pope Gregory the Great would capitalize on 150 years later.

As we continue to think about the Reformation, the build-up of power in Rome and the movement away from biblical truth (and in some cases their return) will be explored. While the reformation occurred 1000 years after these events, this sets the backdrop for the need for reformation.


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