IN PETER’S FOOTSTEPS
Pope Benedict resigned. This bit of news shook the world. Before this, no Pope, in living memory, had resigned.
While the New Testament uses the terms ‘bishop’ and ‘elder’ interchangeably, after the Apostolic Age, notions of hierarchy had crept into the Church. It became worse after Constantine’s conversion made Christianity the State religion of the Roman Empire. Bishops began to arrogate more and more power over others in the ministry. There were five key cities: Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Jerusalem. The bishop of Rome claimed supremacy because Peter had ministered there before his martyrdom.
It is not our belief that Peter was the First Pope. Peter never assumed supremacy over any of the other apostles. He did take the lead after the ascension of our Lord. That was as commanded by the Lord that he should tend the Lord’s sheep and feed them (Jn.21:15-17). He took the initiative in finding the replacement for the traitor Judas (Acts 1:15-20). Peter and John were together delegated by the Church to admit Samaritans into the fold (8:14-17), and Peter was the first one to bring Gentiles into the Church, even before Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles (10:34-48).
While there has been no proof of Peter being the First Pope, in his last act as pope, Benedict XVI has certainly followed in Peter’s footsteps by giving up his office. Unlike others who left the office, forced out by circumstances (four were arrested or exiled) or removed for turning apostate (one sacrificed to pagan gods) or for wrongdoing (one sold his office and the other bought it), Benedict gave up the papacy for the benefit of the Roman Catholic Church. To top it all, in step with Peter, Benedict has promised submission to the authority of the new man who will become pope.
The Spirit of Jesus still moves in the Roman Church. Protestants are largely averse to this notion. But there are persons who have at various times shown that Jesus still has a place in that church.
Leave that aside. Does the Spirit of Jesus rule in Protestant or Evangelical churches? Are there people willing to give up office within our circles? Like Peter, like Benedict XVI?
Take Peter. Though he had taken the lead initially, he didn’t keep increasing his powers to the point of diminishing others and subordinating them. Instead, he himself submitted to being questioned and investigated for behaviour considered suspect by the first believers who were all Jews and thought that their faith was just Judaism, in a new garb and reformed. Peter was criticised by the rank and file of the community (Acts 11:2-3), requiring Peter to give a complete explanation for his actions (vv.4-18). That’s not what popes are subjected to.
More significantly, when the Judaising controversy erupted in the Church, with Jewish believers insisting on imposing Jewish practices on new Gentile converts, mainly requiring them to be circumcised, Peter was not the one who presided over the meeting. James, the brother of our Lord, a newcomer, presided over the meeting (Acts 15:13) and in fact, gave a chairman’s ruling (v.19; let’s not think that the Church elevated James because of his blood relationship with Jesus, because if that was the case, then it would have done that with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Instead, the last sighting of Mary in the Church showed her “included” as just one of the members of the Church (1:14).
When Peter wrote to the Church at large, reflecting on his own ministry, he wrote, “And now, a word to you who are elders in the churches. I, too, am an elder and a witness to the sufferings of Christ. And I, too, will share in His glory when He is revealed to the whole world. As a fellow elder, I appeal to you: Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. And when the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of never-ending glory and honour” (1Pet.5:1-4, NLT).
Peter counselled that those in leadership should show the way things are done by example. They should not require something of those who are subordinate that they themselves were not doing. He had learnt that from His Master, who had not commanded anyone to wash another’s feet, but Himself had gone down on His knees before those who were His subordinates to quietly do the washing. All notions of personal importance and grandeur the disciples cherished were driven from their hearts, when the Lord shocked them by this most humble act of His. Peter had learnt that he himself was only an under-shepherd. The Great Shepherd was Jesus.