But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 1 Peter 2:9 (NRSV)
(Jesus said): “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:18-19 (NRSV)
In the Matthew passage, Jesus was addressing His disciples (plural) who were gathered with Simon Peter. The name Peter means “rock.” Even though Jesus called Simon by the name Peter, in this passage He wasn’t just addressing Simon Peter, or referring to him alone as the “rock,” but he included all the disciples as well. The slight misinterpretation of taking the “you” of this passage to be singular rather than plural led to the establishment of the Roman Catholic papacy and of a concept called apostolic succession.
The difference between the priesthood of believers, in which every member of the Body of Christ is intended to be and invited to be the rock upon which Jesus builds His church, and apostolic succession (authority and leadership is concentrated in the hands of One Guy) is a very important distinction.
In human history it never fails that when power is concentrated in the hands of one person (dictatorship) or held by a small group of select people who share a like mind (oligarchy) that power will be misused. Absolute power, as the expression goes, corrupts absolutely. Human beings are by our very nature, fallible (prone to error) and in need of correction. We need community. We need to act as checks and balances on each other. The “Great Experiment” of American government (still fallible, but in many ways self-righting) is based on the concept of government by consent of the governed, and on the premise that all people have a role in government and in the community.
In the Roman Catholic teaching of apostolic succession, the declaration to the disciples regarding both the establishment of the Church and the authority to bind and loose (known as the office of the keys) is taken to mean a singular rather than plural “you,” and was interpreted to mean Jesus was only addressing the apostle Simon Peter and not the other disciples. So in Catholicism, the Pope is considered to be a direct spiritual descendant of the apostle Peter, as Peter is considered to be the first Pope. This keeps the line of authority firmly in the hands of One Guy- the Pope.
The Pope was considered to be the “Vicar of Christ.” A rule was set down making him a sort of “substitute Jesus” here on earth. The Pope was considered to be infallible, meaning he was not capable of being wrong or of making an error. Unfortunately the only person who ever lived who could claim to be infallible is Jesus Himself.
Throughout the history of the Church, (and to this day, we as Lutherans share common history and many, but not all, doctrines with the Roman Catholic Church) the doctrines of papal infallibility and apostolic succession have proved time and time again to be rather damaging. Many Popes in early Church history were thoroughly corrupt and more concerned with secular politics and building their own wealth than with being Jesus followers here on earth.
Under the government of the Popes – with One Guy in charge rather than all believers contributing to the growth and development of the Church- the Gospel got lost in a lot of man-made rules and silly superstitions. The average person couldn’t read the Bible in his or her own language. The knowledge of Scripture was reserved for the priests and monks- who could interpret it in any way they pleased, or not interpret it properly at all. The Church claimed authority over granting absolution (forgiveness of sins) rather than acknowledging the truth that Jesus had already paid the price for our sins, and that our forgiveness is entirely a free gift from Him.
By the time the sixteenth century rolled around, the Church was full of profiteers and others who had completely gotten out of touch with the original message of the Gospel. The small misinterpretations of the doctrines of the priesthood of believers (the call to be the Body of Christ, and to embrace Jesus as our Savior is for ALL Jesus followers, and is not determined on the authority just one human, fallible guy) and the office of the keys (the authority to bind and loose, aka: make rules for the Church) led to countless abuses of power and severely weakened the Church and its mission in the world.
This was the primary and the most radical premise of the Reformation- that ALL people are invited into the Body of Christ, and to BE the Church. It’s all about Jesus, and not about one, human, fallible guy being in control.
ALL believers have the power to interpret and live out their calling as the Holy Spirit leads them.
Jesus died on the Cross to save us from sins. At His death the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple was torn in two- (Matthew 27:50-52) and the Holy Spirit was set loose over all the earth. We no longer needed a priest as a mediator, because Jesus became our Mediator. We are free to go directly to Him with anything, any time, all the time.
ALL believers have the authority to be as Martin Luther put it, “Little Christs,” doing Jesus’ work here on earth- forgiving, healing, restoring, and letting the Holy Spirit work in and through us.