Papal Succession

By James M. Rochford

For more resources on this subject, see our earlier article “Catholicism.”

Papal infallibility goes hand in hand with the doctrine of papal succession. According to the Catholic Church, Peter was the first pope (based primarily on Mt. 16:18), and his divine authority has been passed on from pope to pope down to the present day. Vatican II declares:

In order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided, He placed Blessed Peter over the other Apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and fellowship (John 21:15-17; Luke 22:32). And all this teaching about the institution, the perpetuity, the force, and the reason for the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and of his infallible teaching authority, this sacred Synod again proposes to be firmly believed by all the faithful.[1]

Peter died under the Roman Emperor Nero in AD 67. According to Catholic authorities, Peter’s successor was Linus.[2] After Linus died, another pope replaced him—d0wn to the present day. But in contrast to this view, we deny both the office of the papacy and papal succession. While we believe that we have the writings of the apostles, we do not believe that we have the office of apostleship. There are a number of reasons for denying papal succession:

REASON #1: The office of apostleship is closed to the first century

First, the criterion for being an apostle was being an eyewitness of Christ and performing miraculous signs. When replacing Judas, Peter said, “One of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection” (Acts 1:22). Paul defends his apostleship by asking, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (1 Cor. 9:1; cf. 15:5-8) Paul also claims that true apostles were able to have miraculous signs to confirm their apostleship: “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles” (2 Cor. 12:12). Since Christian leaders after the first century cannot meet this qualification, they are not qualified to have apostolic authority.

Second, only the Bible is called infallible—not people. Jesus said, “The Scripture cannot be broken” (Jn. 10:35). Elsewhere, he said, “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Mt. 5:18). This has brought biblical readers to conclude the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

Third, biblically, the Holy Spirit is our teacher and guide into the truth—not the Pope. John 14 and 16 declare that God gave us the Holy Spirit to guide us. If he had given a papal succession, we would surely expect this to be mentioned somewhere.

REASON #2: The NT is suspiciously silent to Peter’s papal authority

First, Peter’s self understanding seems to contradict his supposed papal authority. Peter didn’t consider himself to have any sort of special papal authority in the early church. He believed that he was just one of the apostles—not the only apostle. For instance, both Peter and John were sent to Samaria (Acts 8:4-13). Peter wrote, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ…” (1 Pet. 1:1). Notice, he did not write that he was the apostle of Jesus Christ. Later, he wrote, “I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder” (1 Pet. 5:1). Again, he considered himself a fellow leader—not the leader. Peter referred to Jesus as the “cornerstone” (1 Pet. 2:7) of the church, and the rest of the believers as “living stones” (1 Pet. 2:5). He also affirmed the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet. 2:9). He doesn’t seem to elevate his own authority in any way, which we would expect, if he saw himself as having papal authority.

Second, why were all of the disciples debating over who was the greatest, if Peter was the first Pope? When the disciples were debating over who was the greatest (Lk. 22:24ff), why didn’t they all capitulate to Peter?

Third, in his final letter, Peter never names his successor. If Peter passed on his authority to Linus, as the Church teaches, then why wouldn’t he state this in his final letter? Instead, even though he is about to die, he points his audience to the Bible—not experience or people. He writes, “We have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Pet. 1:19).

Fourth, if Peter was in Rome, why didn’t he come to Paul’s defense? Paul writes, “At my first defense no one supported me, but all deserted me” (2 Tim. 4:16). If Peter was in Rome, can we really believe that he had “deserted” Paul?

Fifth, in addition to being silent to Peter’s papal authority, the NT is silent to his supposed successor’s authority. If Linus truly took over Peter’ papal authority in AD 67, then why do none of the NT authors mention this fact? Can we really imagine John of Zebedee writing Scripture, while “Pope Linus” was the chief leader of the church?

Sixth, there is no evidence for Peter ruling from the church in Rome. Even Catholic apologist Karl Keating writes, “Admittedly the scriptural evidence for Peter being in Rome is weak. Nowhere does the Bible unequivocally say he was there; neither does it say he was not.”[3]

REASON #3: The NT doesn’t support Peter’s papal authority

First, the premier passage for papal authority doesn’t support papal authority. The primary passage for supporting papal infallibility is Matthew 16:18, which doesn’t support this doctrine. Catholic apologist Tim Staples offers various other passages to support the papacy of Peter.[4] He notes that the papacy is prefigured in Peter not drowning in the water (Mt. 14), Peter paying the drachma tax (Mt. 17), and being called a fisher of men (Lk. 5). We will let the reader determine whether these verses point toward the papacy of Peter (Mt. 10:2; 14:23-33; 17:24-27; Lk. 4:16-5:10; 22:24-32; Jn. 10:16; 21:1-17; Acts 1:15-26; 10:1-48; 15).

Second, the NT doesn’t revere Peter as having papal authority. For instance, Peter is one of the pillars of the church—not the pillar (Gal. 2:9). Paul writes, “In no respect was I inferior to the most eminent apostles” (2 Cor. 12:11). The book of Acts spends more time on Paul’s ministry (Acts 13-28) than Peter’s (Acts 1-12). Moreover, James gave the final words at the Council of Jerusalem—not Peter (Acts 15:22-23). Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong retorts that James was merely repeating what Peter had already said, because he spoke first.[5] However, James clearly says, “It is my judgment [not Peter’s] that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:19). Moreover, their letter to the churches is written in the plural form—not the singular (“we have heard… we gave no instruction” v.24, “it seemed good to us” v.25).

Third, Peter is far from an ideal leader in regards to faith and morals. Christ prays specifically for Peter’s failing faith (Lk. 22:32). Catholic apologist Karl Keating writes, “Christ prayed that Peter would have faith that would never fail, that he would be a guide for the others, and Christ’s prayer, being perfectly efficacious, was sure to be fulfilled. Here we see the roots of papa; infallibility and the primacy that is the Bishop of Rome’s.”[6]

Peter impetuously speaks up at the Transfiguration (Lk. 9:32). Peter even denies Christ and weeps bitterly (Lk. 22:54-62). In fact, when Paul was in Antioch, he corrected Peter for a theological error. He writes, “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 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… I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:11-12, 14). If Peter was the first pope, how could another bishop (i.e. Paul) correct him on an issue of faith and morals? Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong (quoting Bertrand Conway) writes, “The rebuke, however, did not refer to the doctrine, but to the conduct of St. Peter.’”[7] However, notice that Paul’s concern was with “the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14).

Fourth, Peter is called an apostle to the Jews—not the Gentiles. Paul writes, “But on the contrary, seeing that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised” (Gal. 2:7). If Peter was the chief leader of the early church, why would Paul divvy up their ministry in this way?

OBJECTION #1: Peter is always named first among the apostles

Catholic apologist Karl Keating writes, “There is ample evidence in the New Testament that Peter was first in authority among the apostles. When they were named, Peter almost always headed the list (Mt. 10:1-4; Mk. 3:16-19; Lk. 6:14-16; Acts 1:13).”[8]

We do not deny that Peter was a special apostle. However, this doesn’t demonstrate papal authority. While Peter was mentioned first, how does this demonstrate his authority as pope? This is a giant theological leap.


Surely more could be written on the office of the papacy. However, for these reasons we do not hold to this office.

[1] Pope Paul the VI. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. Lumen Gentium. November 21, 1964. “Chapter III: On the Hierarchical Structure of the Church and in Particular on the Episcopate.” 18.

[2] Denzinger, Heinrich. The Sources of Catholic Dogma. St. Louis, MO: Herder Book, 1957. 19.

[3] Keating, Karl. Catholicism and Fundamentalism. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988. 200.

[4] Staples, Tim. “No Rocks Required.” This Rock. Volume 20. Number 1. January, 2009.

[5] Armstrong, Dave. A Biblical Defense of Catholicism. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute, 2003. 232-233.

[6] Keating, Karl. Catholicism and Fundamentalism. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988. 208.

[7] Armstrong, Dave. A Biblical Defense of Catholicism. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute, 2003. 230.

[8] Keating, Karl. Catholicism and Fundamentalism. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988. 205.