Bible Question:

What does the New Testament say about the Vicar of Christ?

Bible Answer:

The term “Vicar of Christ” was first adopted and used by Pope Gelasius I (492-496 A.D.). According to the Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary Unabridged the word “vicar” means “a person who acts in the place of another.” A secondary meaning of the word is one who is “a member of the clergy who exercises a broad pastoral responsibility as the representative of a prelate.”[1] This secondary meaning defines how the first meaning is applied in the Roman Catholic Church with respect to the pope’s oversight of the faithful. The first definition reveals why the pope is called the “Vicar of Christ.” The church believes that the pope has obtained his authority from God. That is, the Roman Catholic Church believes the pope is God’s representative here on earth.

Roman Catholic Catechism

The Roman Catholic Catechism states,

The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor “is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.” “For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.” – The Catechism, Article 9, para. 4, #882

The Lord made St. Peter the visible foundation of his Church. He entrusted the keys of the Church to him. The bishop of the Church of Rome, successor to St. Peter, is head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ and Pastor of the universal Church on earth.” – The Catechism, Article 10, para. 2, #936

The Roman Catholic popes have also claimed other titles that include the word “vicar.” They are “Prince of the Apostles,” “Vicar of St. Peter,” and the “Vicar of the God.” All of the titles imply that the Roman Catholic pope has assumed the responsibility and ministry of the Apostle Peter and ultimately that of Jesus Christ our God.

The question before us is, “What does the Bible say about the Vicar of Christ?” The Bible says nothing about anyone functioning as the “Vicar of Christ.” The phrase does not appear in the New Testament. Neither the Apostle Peter nor any other apostle was or ever became the Vicar of Christ. That is, while the apostles functioned as pastors over the developing church, none of them had singular authority over the other apostles or the entire church on earth. None of the apostles, including Peter, stood in the place of Christ as His representative here on earth.

God’s Representative

Is the pope the representative of Jesus Christ here on earth? The New Testament records Jesus’ own words that He is with us always. Yes, He ascended up to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father (Col. 3:1) but He is still with us.

. . . and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (NASB) Matthew 28:20

That is, Jesus is still with us and ministers to us through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is His primary means of ministry to us. Jesus Himself told us that the Holy Spirit came to convict us of sin and to guide and teach us truth. This theme is repeated throughout the New Testament (John 14:26; 1 Cor. 2:11-14; 1 John 2:27). Jesus is actively ministering among us through His Holy Spirit.

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you. (NASB) John 14:26

When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me . . . (NASB) John 15:26

But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment; concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father and you no longer see Me; and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged. (NASB) John 16:7-11

As for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him. (NASB) 1 John 2:27

The Holy Spirit is God’s representative here on earth. He speaks and acts for Christ.

But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you. (NASB) John 16:13-14

Passages of Dispute

Yet, God did leave the apostles and established under-shepherds (Acts 2:1-4; Acts 20:1-32; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9) who would guide and teach His church. But what role did God intend for them to have? Were they supposed to be God’s representatives on earth? An important passage in this discussion is the meaning of Matthew 16:18-19. It has been a passage of great dispute and is the passage that we will explore next.

I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. (NASB) Matthew 16:18-19

In order to understand this passage, one must look beneath the English text to the original Greek. The original language reveals that Peter’s name comes from the Greek word petros. Petros means “rock, a piece of rock, or a stone”[2] and it is in the masculine form. But the word translated as “rock” is translated from the Greek word petra. It is in the feminine form and means “bedrock or rock.”[3] The two words have important shades of meaning. Jesus was simply stating that the church would be built upon a solid foundation, the testimony that Peter stated in verse 16, and not on Peter. Otherwise, Jesus would have said, “I will build My church upon you, Peter.” But He did not say that. The reference of “bedrock” was a reference to Jesus Himself. Jesus is the foundation stone, the bedrock, or the chief corner stone as Acts 4:11 and other passages remind us.

He is the STONE WHICH WAS REJECTED by you, THE BUILDERS, but WHICH BECAME THE CHIEF CORNER stone. (NASB) Acts 4:11

Peter was only a piece of the bedrock – a stone.

It has been suggested that petros and petra have a blurred meaning and that petra eventually came to mean “rock” and petros was no longer used sometime after Christ.[4] Yet, the fact that Jesus used two different words implies He wanted to communicate something different. Peter (petros) was not the petra. Does Matthew 16:19 provide light on this issue? It is clear from the passage that Jesus is giving Peter authority. Jesus uses “you” in the singular referring to Peter. Whatever Peter binds and looses will be bound and loosed in heaven. However, these terms are also used in Matthew 18:18,

Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. (NASB) Matthew 18:18

They are used in the context of church discipline and did not necessarily refer to ecclesiastical authority over the other disciples.

Digging Further

While it is important to note that Jesus used all of the apostles to establish His church, we must ask, “Did Jesus use Peter in some special way to establish the church?” “Did Jesus give Peter authority over the other apostles?” The answer can be found in the rest of the New Testament.

Who Rebuked For Sinning? Acts 1:15-26 would seem to suggest that Peter was in fact the leader among the apostles. This passage tells us that Peter stood up amongst a crowd of 120 people and directed the selection of the twelfth apostle to replace Judas Iscariot. Yet, Galatians 2 reminds us that Peter was subject to the Apostle Paul. When Peter had sinned during a meal with Jews and Gentiles present, Paul rebuked him publicly.

But when Cephas [that is, Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews? (NASB) Gal. 2:11-14

Peter was still a sinner and capable of sinning. Paul was not beneath Peter. Peter did not have a superior position over Paul.

Who Is Head of The Church? When we look at Acts 21:15-18 and Gal. 1:19 and 2:12, we discover that the head of the Jerusalem church was not Peter but James, an apostle (Gal. 1:19) and one of Jesus’ brothers. Acts 21:15-18 singles out James as a leader in the Jerusalem church and Galatians 2:9 states that James, Peter, and John were “reputed to be pillars” in the church. Why was Peter excluded in Acts 21:18? Galatians 2:12 indicates that “certain men” were sent by James.” Why didn’t Peter send them? If Peter was the lead apostle, wouldn’t Paul have indicated that in some way? Why group James, Peter, and John together as equals if Peter had the ecclesiastical authority? Peter’s name never appears again outside of the gospels, Acts or Galatians, except in the epistles that he wrote. Peter’s name never appeared again in any of Paul’s writings. It does not appear in Hebrews, James, or the books of 1-3 John or Revelation. The New Testament clearly indicates that James was an apostle and the lead apostle in the Jerusalem church.

Difficulty Understanding

In 2 Peter 3:15, the apostle Peter wrote these words,

Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. (NASB) 2 Peter 3:14-16

In this passage Peter makes an important statement. Peter admits that some had difficulty understanding some of Paul’s writings, which are considered to be scripture, while others did not and could not understand. The Greek word that is translated as “hard to understand” is dusnoeta. It refers to someone’s ability to understand “but only with great effort.”[5] As a result, some have difficulty and others cannot understand. Those who did not understand, distorted and twisted Paul’s meaning. If they had understood, they would not have distorted the scriptures. Those who do understand do so only with great difficulty, and Peter, an apostle, admits in this passage that he is one who found some of the apostle Paul’s writings hard to understand. If Peter was the head of the church and the Vicar of Christ, then why did he have difficulty understanding what Paul wrote? By Peter’s own confession, the apostle Paul wrote scripture which Peter had difficulty understanding. Yes, Peter understood Paul’s writings but at times with difficulty. Surely, the Vicar of Christ should have easily understood God’s communication – God’s Word.

Conclusion:

Why did Peter sin if he was the Vicar of Christ? Why was James the head of the church in Jerusalem and not Peter if Peter was the Vicar of Christ? Why did Paul write most of the New Testament and not Peter? Shouldn’t the “Holy See” have done that? Through the Apostle Paul, the Holy Spirit established the doctrine of the church as outlined in Acts, 1 Timothy and Titus. Paul even defined the order of church government and the qualifications and responsibilities of church leaders (Acts 6:1-6; Acts 20:1-32; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9). The New Testament tells us that Paul, not Peter, selected and established the early churches and their spiritual leadership (Acts 14:23; Acts 15:2; Titus 1:5). And why did Peter have difficulty understanding Paul’s books if he was the Vicar of Christ? The answer is obvious! We conclude that Peter was not the Vicar of Christ, he was not the lead apostle, and he was not the bishop of Rome. He was the Apostle to the Jews and Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles. The keys of heaven were given not just to Peter but to all of the apostles. Christ is the chief cornerstone, and the prophets and apostle were the foundation.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit. (NASB) Eph. 2:19-22

Jesus Christ does not need a vicar. He is already present with us through His Holy Spirit who is guiding and teaching each one of us. He ministers through the saints to one another.

References:

1. Merriam-Webster Online (http://www.m-w.com/home.htm).
2. Liddell and Scott. Greek-English Lexicon. Clarendon Press -Oxford Press. 1996., p. 1398.
3. Louw and Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. United Bible Societies. N.Y., 1989. vol. 1 p. 291.
4. John Nolland. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Eerdmans Publishing. 2005. p. 669.
5. Louw and Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. United Bible Societies. N.Y., 1989. vol. 1 p. 383.

Reference Links:

Recovering the Pattern of Biblical Leadership
Thoughts On Selecting A Pastor