It seems as if periodically that some celebrity pastor falls from grace and the status of their church becomes suspect thereafter. The most recent such pastor is James MacDonald. The fault in such ideas of church is that they are tied to the identity of one particular person, often a man and sometimes a woman. These pastors peddle the ideals of Christ from their pulpits while living questionably off the stage: Mark Driscoll, Jimmy Swaggart, and Jim Bakker all come to mind—each of whom “earned” exorbitant salaries beyond what any servant of Christ should reasonably expect.
Anytime a church is built upon a faulty human, bad things are sure to follow. Humans use their ingenuity and marketing skills thinking that they have to make the Gospel appealing to humans while it is we humans who need to alter our tastes to comprehend and take hold of the divine. Concerts, smoke, lighting, coffee bars are all part of the modern idea of making church appealing. When do we begin to ask, “Is this what God wants?” Upon what rock did Christ intend to build His church? Was it a rockstar pastor? What was it? Who was it? Peter?
As Christianity spread, bishops arose in cities who served between the bishops and presbyters (elders) of rural congregations. Among city-bishops arose men named metropolitans who superintended capital cities and provinces. As the metropolitans arose, those churches that had close ties to an apostle were given higher esteem because they were supposed to bear the purest form of apostolic tradition. The bishops of these capital cities and provinces received the honorary title of “Patriarch,” and at the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) this form of ecclesiastical government is assumed to have already been in operation.
The most prominent of congregations thought to hold the purest form of apostolic tradition and teaching were Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria. Later added to the list were Constantinople and Jerusalem. Constantine moved the head of his rule from Rome to modern-day Istanbul, Turkey in AD 330. He named the city after himself (Constantinople), and the world recognized it as the head of the Roman rule and it was dubbed the “New Rome.” However, the church in Old Rome did not accept this distinction because of the empire’s relocation. One church believed they still had the prominence, and the relocated church thought that because it followed the emperor, it had the preeminence.
Centuries earlier in refuting Gnosticism, Irenaeus (AD 180) had pointed out the succession of bishops to establish sound doctrine in the church. The Gnostics did not have such a historical claim of apostolic succession, but they had their list of sequence that Irenaeus refuted with his own.
The blessed apostles [Peter and Paul], then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric … To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Sorer having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth. (Against Heresies 3.3.3. [AD 180])
Irenaeus also pointed out in the previous verse that Peter and Paul established the church and handed over the episcopate (bishopric)—not Peter only as the claim has been. Since Peter and Paul were at Rome for their execution and since many remaining Christians had communed with these esteemed apostles, the church (universal) assumed that a purer apostolic tradition lay in the Roman church. This gave way to Rome’s exaltation before the church.
With this list of succession was added Matthew 16:18, “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.” This passage was taught as having spoken of Peter’s preeminence over the church. However, church historian Henry Chadwick wrote,
[This text] cannot be seen to have played any part in the story of Roman leadership and authority before the middle of the third century when the passionate disagreement between Cyprian of Carthage and Stephen of Rome about baptism apparently led Stephen to invoke the text as part of his defence against Cyprian. But it was not until Damascus in 382 that this Petrine text seriously began to become important as providing a theological and scriptural foundation on which claims to primacy were based.¹
Peter, therefore, cannot be the “rock” upon which the church is built, in my opinion.
Two other probable interpretations of the rock upon which the church is built are: 1) the confession itself (Chrysostom, Calvin) or 2) Jesus Himself (Origen, Augustine, Luther). Confession is an integral part of our faith (cf. Acts 2:21; Rom. 10:9–13). However, having a high Christology as I do, I exalt Christ and His person as the rock upon which the church is built, and the confession of such being paramount to the actual building of the church. To posit that it is either/or in this case presents a false dichotomy. I would see it as both/and with favor toward the person of Christ over confession if I were forced to choose.
To Israel, they were hewn from the rock of Abraham (Isaiah 51:1–2)—a notion that a rock pointed more so to a person than a confession. However, the assembly that Christ promised to built would derive from Him (Eph. 2:19–22; cf. Isaiah 28:16; Rom. 9:32–33; 1 Cor. 3:9–11)—to believers as the rock of our foundation, but to unbelievers, a stone of stumbling.² Connected to Christ’s Messiahship is His death and resurrection (Matt. 16:21), and when the first sermon of the church was preached, Jesus was proclaimed to have died and been raised from the dead (Acts 2:36)—a fact which led to the pierced hearts on Pentecost, and ultimately a reality that led to the building of His assembly.
When we consider that the rock upon which the church is built happens to be Jesus, this ought to define our identity. A lot of “newer” churches define their identity based on what they do for people as churchgoers. We all ought to have our identity revolve around the death and resurrection of Jesus because this is the rock upon which His church was built and shall continue to be built. All other options are cheap imitations borrowing a scheme from Him to promote their own wishes. I leave you with the following:
The early church didn’t need the energetic music, great videos, attractive leaders, or elaborate lighting to be excited about being a part of God’s body. The pure gospel was enough to put them in a place of awe.
We’re not doing people any favors by pretending they are the center of the universe. Either people will be awed by the sacred or they will not. If the sacred is not enough, then it is clear that the Spirit has not done a work in their lives. If the sheep don’t hear His voice, let them walk away. Don’t call out with your own voice. Too often we add in our own voices, thinking if we offer just the right services or package the gospel in just the right way so no one gets offended, we can convince people to stay. By catering our worship to the worshippers and not to the Object of our worship, I fear we have created human-centered churches … Many of us make decisions based on what brings us the most pleasure. This is how we choose our homes, jobs, cars, clothes, food, and churches. We pursue what we want; then we make sure there are no biblical commands we are violating. In essence, we want to know what God will tolerate rather than what He desires. Maybe we are afraid to ask what will bring Him the most pleasure. Ignorance feels better than disobedience.³
¹ Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, rev. ed. (London: Penguin Books, 1993), 237–38. The earliest traces of this passage referring to the Bishop of Rome or other such bishops as Peter’s successor can be traced to the early third century according to Oscar Cullman (Peter, Disciple, Apostle, Martyr: A Historical and Theological Study, 2nd ed. [London: SCM Press, 1962], 165–67).
² Oscar F. Seitz, “Upon this Rock: A Critical Reexamination of Matt 16:17–19,” Journal of Biblical Literature 69, no. 4 (Dec. 1950), 329–40.
³ Francis Chan, Letters to the Church (Colorado Springs: David Cook, 2018), 43, 53–54.