I’ve really enjoyed reading your book, “The Christian Story” (editor: and hope to finish it soon. A question came up in our last Bible study that I didn’t remember reading about, so I’m hoping you could answer it for me. Who started the argument that the head of the Church was in Rome and cited the authority of the bishop of Rome back to Peter himself? The question was asked when we read Matt 16:18 where Jesus said “you are Peter (pebble) and on this rock (boulder) I will build my church”. Do you address this issue in your book?


The early church began identifying the sequence of monarchical bishops for the principal churches from the early second century. Eusebius lists the bishops of Antioch Ephesus, Alexandria, Jerusalem and Rome–all going back to the late first century. The church began to develop the monarchical bishop, principally as a means to neutralize false teachers such as the Ebionites or the Gnostics. A single bishop who moved toward heretical teaching could be replaced, and the orthodoxy of a local church saved. By the end of the second century, keeping track of the succession of bishops became even more important and useful. Irenaeus, in battling the teachings of the Gnostics (late second century), found it easier to defeat their heretical teaching by proving that their beliefs were not taught by the early church fathers than by proving them wrong in the scriptures. The Gnostics were able to come up with biblical defenses of their false teachings, but everyone in the church knew that their teachings were not “apostolic” and had never been taught by the church fathers or by the bishops of Rome, Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus or Alexandria.

Over time, the power of the monarchical bishops increased gradually. Also, by the second half of the second century, the Roman bishop started to claim a higher authority, not to tell the other bishops what to do, but as an authority with regard to teaching. By the third century, the bishops were starting to claim the chief authority over all the other bishops, but this claim was rejected wholesale. It was only after Constantine legalized Christianity and political Rome divided that the preeminent claims of Rome began to be taken seriously, especially in Western Rome. By the fifth century, the Roman bishops, especially Leo, began to claim an authority somewhat similar to what we would call a pope, and that authority was wielded to a significant extent over the West. Even then, in the fifth century, it was not even close to the absolute rule of modern popes. It was only with the reign of Gregory (The Great), in the sixth century that something fairly close to a papacy came into place, where the pope was accepted as the bishop of the church and even began to exercise political control over Rome. Gregory based his authority, to a very significant extent on his direct connection to Peter and Paul. Significantly, Gregory used Matthew 16 to bolster this claim.

John Oakes


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