One of the most fascinating (and controversial) stories of early church history is the story of how the papacy (the Roman Catholic lineage of popes) developed. Catholic and Protestant Christians disagree on the narrative of how the role of the bishop of Rome evolved to that of the Pope over all Christendom. Catholics claim that Jesus’ remark toward Peter in Matthew 16:18 is an initiation of an ecclesiastic office, while Protestants claim that Jesus’ words are figurative and refer to either Christ himself or Peter’s affirmation of Jesus’ deity as the foundation of the Church (read more here).
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. | Matthew 16:18
The evolution of the status of the Bishop of Rome toward the role of the leader of global Christianity was a long process.
Scholars generally agree that Peter did extensive ministry in Rome and was martyred there (read more here). According to some sources, Peter fled to Rome during the first century and established the church there. He could have written his epistle(s) from there since there is a possible reference to Rome in 1 Peter 5:13. Church fathers such as Iranaeus, Clement, Jerome, and Lactantius refer to Peter’s work in Rome in their writings. Legend has it that Peter was crucified upside down under the reign of Nero in 64 CE (Acts of Peter).
Additionally, Paul was imprisoned in Rome for years and wrote many of his letters from there. Peter and Paul’s influence in Rome, as well as Rome’s centrality in the Empire, led the early church to view Rome as an important location. According to Iranaeus, Peter and Paul jointly established the church in Rome and appointed Linus as the succeeding bishop. Around the turn of the second century, the offices of bishop (episkopos) and elder (presbuteros) grew into a hierarchical structure, with one bishop overseeing multiple elders in a local church or city of churches.
During the Catholic Age, the office of the pope did not technically exist, but the role of Bishop of Rome gradually gained respect and was viewed as a key leader.
Eastern Christian bishops viewed the office of Bishop of Rome as a mark of honor, but not necessarily a position of higher authority than theirs. Occasionally, patriarchs of the Church would go to Rome to settle theological disputes, giving Rome’s leadership more influence over time. By the end of the second century, the Roman church had considerable influence but didn’t necessarily have a claim to higher authority.
“With [the Church of Rome], because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree … and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition.” | Iranaeus, Against Heresies
Constantine’s decision in 312 CE to make Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire further established the centrality of Rome, and in the 400s, Pope Leo I officially declared the primacy of the Bishop of Rome as the Pope of all Christendom. After his declaration, the lineage of the bishops of Rome was retroactively given papal status.
The institution of the office of the pope is a contentious debate in Christendom that finds its confusion on the myriad of historical (and sometimes conflicting) accounts of the early church.
The Christian response is to look at all of this history critically in light of Jesus’s establishment of the church found in the gospels and Apostolic epistles and to determine how God wants His church structure to function as emissaries of the gospel.