Why Protestant Christians Don’t Have a Pope


This is one of my favorite URC stories.

Back in our old building–located on a busy street and right across from MSU–people would park in our parking lot without permission. While we tried to be gracious and as slow-moving as possible, sometimes we would have to tow vehicles parked on our property. On one occasion, a young man came into our building looking for his car. Our building manager kindly and patiently informed him that as per the signs in the parking lot, his car had been towed. The man was not happy. Our building manager continued to calmly explain the situation, but this man was having none of it. Even though he saw the sign which clearly stated his car would be towed, he just couldn’t believe a church would do this. Finally, he stomped out of our building and told our building manager exactly what was on his mind: “You guys, aren’t very good Catholics!”

By definition Protestants do not make very good Catholics. (Or to be more precise, we are not good Roman Catholics, though I’d like to think a robust Protestant is a small-c catholic in the best sense of the word.) However much Protestants and Catholics can work together on social issues, and however much we may share an early creedal tradition, there are still many significant issues which divide us. One of the most important of those issues is how we understand the government that Christ gave to his church. In his massive four-volume Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) gives six reasons Protestants reject the primacy of the Pope and the Catholic understanding of apostolic succession.

1. The distinction between clergy and laity that underlies the Roman Catholic hierarchy is neither taught in the New Testament nor exhibited in the organization of the first-century church. To be sure, the Bible distinguishes between shepherds and flock. Church offices are manifestly biblical, but in Catholic theology “clergy” and “laity” refer to more than just “pastor” and “church member.” As Bavinck explains, “In the Roman Catholic Church ‘clergy’ has become the word for a special class of ecclesiastical persons who by being tonsured and consecrated have been separated from all others, constitute a unique class of ‘clerics,’ are in a very special sense the Lord’s possession” (4:358). By contrast, the Scriptures teach that the people as a whole are thekleros, the Lord’s possession and inheritance (Exod. 19:5-6). There is no special priestly class in the New Testament, for all true believers are filled with the Spirit, led by the Spirit, share in the Spirit’s anointing, are a royal priesthood and God’s treasured possession. Pastors and elders are shepherds who serve the flock, not priests who make sacrifices or hierarchical bishops who rule over the people. “Office in the church of Christ is not a magisterium but a ministerium” (4:359).

2. The New Testament knows no episcopacy that is different from the presbyterate. Acts 20 is the classic text, for there we see Paul using the Greek words for overseer (episkopoi) and elder (presbyteroi) interchangeably (Acts 20:17, 28). Peter even calls himself an elder (1 Pet. 5:1). “Aside from the extraordinary offices of apostle, prophet, and evangelist, there are only two ordinary offices, that of deacons and that of presbyteroi (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1, 8): pastors and teachers (Eph. 4:1; 1 Tim. 5:17), those with gifts of administration (1 Cor. 12:28), those in positions of authority (Rom. 12:8; 1 Thess. 5:12), and leaders (Heb. 13:7, 17)” (4:360).

3. The apostolate was an exceptional and temporary office in the New Testament church.Granted, there should be a succession of apostolic truth, and there is a sense in which overseers/elders care for churches like the apostles did. But in the strictest sense, the apostles have no successors. They are a part of the non-repeatable, once-for-all foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20). “The apostles had been the ear-and-eye witnesses of Jesus’s words and deeds. They were directly called by Christ himself to their office, received a special measure of the Holy Spirit, and were called to a unique task, that is, to lay the foundation of the church and to offer in their message the permanent medium of fellowship between Christ and his church. In all these things they are distinguished from all others, are situated on a level far above all their successors, and hold an office that is nontransferable and nonrenewable” (4:362).

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SOURCE: The Gospel Coalition
Kevin DeYoung

One comment

  1. The universal (which is what katholicos, or “Catholic” mean) church is the true and only church. I’m sorry if this offends, but it’s the truth.

    I would ask a defender of Sola Scriptura the following questions:

    1. Which Scripture do you use? Protestant? Catholic? Orthodox? Ethiopian Orthodox? They’re all different canons.

    2. After you’ve chosen which canon you accept, I would then ask why. Why that particular canon and not another, or why not build your own canon? The canon you accept was either degermines by a church council or, in the case of the Protestant canon, by Martin Luther. Why not choose which books you want in the bible like early churches did? The Didache was popular (and still is part of the Ethiopian canon to this day, along with Barnabas and 3 and 4 Macabees, plus many more.) The Shepherd of Hermas was a popular early Christian text, as was the Epistle of Clement, disciple of St. Peter and third Bishop of Rome. Some even considered the epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch, bishop and disciple the Apostle John, to be divinely inspired. Why do Protestants listen to Catholic authority by disregarding these books?

    3. What about the earliest churches? The earliest NT writing is Galatians. Imagine what the Galatian churches were like. They only had an Old Testament, and bishops and the Eucharist. They couldn’t practice Sola Scriptura because there was no Scripture! From the earliest times to now, the fullness of the church can be found in the union of the local bishop and his flock and they celebrate the Eucharist, the central mystery of the faith. (Read St. Ignatius if you doubt that.) The tradition of the church existed before the New Testament was even written. If no New Testament had been written, then there would still only be sacred tradition!

    4. Protestantism is a religion that is only a few centuries old. The Catholic Church is 2,000 years old. Christ said that His church would remain until the end of time, and yes, He established it as both a spiritual AND a physical community. Why? Because we’re material beings. The sacraments have a spiritual nature, but the normal medium is material. God isn’t limited by the material, of course, but this is the beautiful reality He made for us. The Protestants have so many splinters and fractures, and because Christ said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” the only way Protestants have been able to justify so many splinters and factions and sects is by creating some silly humanist doctrine about how he church is the “invisible body, regardless of doctrinal contradiction between groups.” That makes no sense. The Church was established by Christ to teach and to rebuke, to correct and heal, to bind and to loose. Martin Luther committed a profane sacrilege against the Church by attempting to sever the unity of His body.

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