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When I first built this page, it was primarily an argument against Roman Catholic claims. I have not dropped any of those arguments, and there are links to them at the bottom of this page.
On the other hand, the story of how the church of Rome, the one that we read about in the Bible, became the Roman Catholic Church is fascinating and touches on the history of all other churches. It is a fabulous story to tell.
You can navigate this page with these links:
Let's begin with the first thing we know about the church in Rome, that it received a letter from the apostle Paul.
All Scripture quotes on this page are from the New American Bible, Revised Edition, which is one of the Roman Catholic Church's approved Bibles. Copyright notice is here.
Paul wrote his letter to "the beloved of God in Rome" rather than "the church in Rome." Some suggest this was because there were many churches in Rome or the Christians were spread out in small groups, not yet a church, perhaps because of persecution. We don't know, and we can't really draw conclusions specific to Rome because Paul's letter to Ephesus was addressed to "the holy ones who are in Ephesus" rather than the church in Ephesus.
More importantly, Paul points out that the Romans' faith was known "throughout the world." It was already a notable church at that time. Historians point out that because Rome was both a wealthy city and a hub of the empire that the church there was noted for its hospitality and giving.
Paul not only wrote a letter to Rome, but he was imprisoned there for two years. He spend those years teaching those who visited him (Acts 28:30-31). Many believed that he was martyred there immediately after that imprisonment, but it is much more likely that he was released and went west to preach in Spain and possible even Britain.
He was martyred in Rome during Nero's reign, and Peter was martyred there as well.
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Peter was in Rome in the later years of his life. This is simply undeniable. How many years he lived there is subject to debate. There is no doubt (except among the most obstinate of Protestants) that Peter wrote his first letter from Rome. The "chosen one at Babylon" is code for "the church in Rome" (1 Pet. 5:13).
The earliest writings we have from Christians all acknowledge that Peter was in Rome. I found this page listing many references. We will cover some references ourselves in this history. No historian denies that all early Christians after the apostles write that Peter lived his last years in Rome.
The Roman church's next appearance in history is a letter they sent to the church in Corinth.
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In A.D. 95 or 96, (though some say even earlier), the church at Rome wrote a letter to the church at Corinth. The letter does not say who wrote it, but it is universally acknowledged to have been written by an elder named Clement. In fact, his letter is generally known as 1 Clement. (It can be read here and here.)
1 Clement deals with division and the ousting of two elders in Corinth. It lets us know that Corinth repented thoroughly after receiving the Apostle Paul's letter about division in the church (1 Corinthians). Nonetheless, forty years later, when this letter was written, their divisiveness had returned. The Church in Rome judged the cause to be envy, and Clement spends a large part of the letter on speaking against envy.
This is a point of argument on the subject of Papal Primacy (The Roman Catholic Church's claim that the bishop of Rome is "full, supreme, and universal authority over the whole Church" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 882). Apologists for the Roman Catholic Church (from here on "RCC") argue that Clement was the third pope (after Linus and Anaclecus) and 1 Clement was an act of papal authority over Corinth.
There are at least two problems with this argument:
We do know that in the late first century, the church in Rome was respected enough to intervene in the affairs of the church in Corinth. At that time, the apostle John was alive and living in Ephesus, just across the Aegean sea from Corinth. Though John himself was near or past age 90 by that time, the fact that Christians from Corinth appealed to Rome rather than Ephesus shows the respect the church in Rome had in the late first century.
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Justin Martyr gives a small bit of fascinating insight into the church of Rome in his day, around A.D. 150. He was a prodigious author, but he said little about the church in Rome (or anywhere else). There is this interesting tidbit in "The Martyrdom of Justin Martyr" (which is a redundant title because Justin is only called "Martyr" because he was martyred).
Rusticus the prefect said, "Tell me where you assemble, or into what place do you collect your followers?" Justin said, “I live above one Martinus, at the Timiotinian Bath; and during the whole time (and I am now living in Rome for the second time) I am unaware of any other meeting than his. And if any one wished to come to me,I communicated to him the doctrines of truth." (ch. 2)
We can be certain that there were more gatherings in Rome than this one at the house of Martinus. Either Justin is lying to protect his brothers and sisters in Christ, or he is being very literal with the prefect. The prefect asked for Justin's followers, and it is very likely that Justin, who styled himself a Christian philosopher, met only in one place while in Rome to answer questions from those who were interested in hearing him.
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Even though Irenaeus began his Christian life under the teaching of Polycarp in Smyrna and wound up a missionary and bishop in Gaul (modern France), he provided what is probably the most fought-over sentence in regard to the authority of the church in Rome that has ever been penned:
Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who ... assemble in unauthorized meetings ... by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul ... which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere. (Against Heresies, Bk. III, ch. III, par. 2, brackets in original)
It is obvious that defenders of the "full, supreme, and universal authority" of the Pope love this passage. It does not say what they hope it says, though.
First, let's be clear, Irenaeus does say that the Roman church is great, founded by Peter and Paul, and that every church needs to agree with it. He grants to it "preeminent authority," though he cushions it a bit with some difficult to understand wording about the faithful everywhere. Neither the translation or intent of the last part of the passage is certain, but I will give my interpretation of "the faithful everywhere" after the next quote.
The context of this passage from Book III of Irenaeus' opus magnum is found way back in Book I, chapter 10, where he explains apostolic tradition. Jesus appointed apostles to bring the Gospel into all the world and to establish churches that would preserve the truths they taught. One of the ways the church preserved apostolic teaching was to collect the apostles' (or their companions') writings into what we now call the New Testament. Another way the apostles' teaching could be known was by the preservation of their teaching in the church they started. As Irenaeus put it:
Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church; since the apostles, like a rich man [depositing his money] in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth: so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life. For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. ... Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary ... to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches? To which course many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition. (Against Heresies, Bk. III, ch. 4, par. 1-2; brackets in original)
As you can see, Irenaeus' great concern is that the truth of the apostles be passed down to all the churches. (He specifically mentions the barbarians because he was a missionary to Gaul among the barbarians. He eventually became bishop there.)
Irenaeus gives the lineage of the Roman church because "it would be very tedious ... to reckon up the succession of all the churches." Yes, the church in Rome is special, but not so special that it is the only one that matters. Additionally, the reasons Irenaeus gives for the "preeminence" of Rome are not the reasons the modern RCC gives. The RCC today says that the pope has authority over the whole Church because of his descent from Peter, the promises to Peter in Matthew 16, and that the pope has authority even if he is evil. They claim authority for the office of bishop apart from the person who inhabits the office, and the claim is for Rome's bishop rather than its church.
Irenaeus, on the other hand, counts the church in Rome, rather than its bishop, great and preeminent because ...
it has maintained apostolic tradition;
That last point is my interpretation of Irenaeus' cryptic statement about the apostolic tradition being preserved by the faithful everywhere. The old adage was that "all roads lead to Rome," and more interaction with Christians from other cities happened in Rome than anywhere else. Thus, "the faithful everywhere" help preserve the apostolic tradition in Rome.
There is nothing in this passage that lends credence to modern Rome's Audacious Claim.
The most important contribution Irenaeus makes to this page is his discussion of apostolic tradition--the preservation of apostolic teaching in the churches--which I address more fully here. While the traditions of men are rejected soundly by Jesus (Mark 7:7-13), but the traditions of the apostles, the ones sent by Jesus to bring the Gospel to the world, are spoken of positively in Scripture (e.g., 1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15).
The teaching of the apostles is important to Irenaeus, whether in the Scriptures or by transmission through the churches. As he himself writes:
We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. For it is unlawful to assert that they preached before they possessed "perfect knowledge," as some do even venture to say, boasting themselves as improvers of the apostles. For, after our Lord rose from the dead, [the apostles] were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down [upon them], were filled from all [His gifts], and had perfect knowledge. (Against Heresies, Bk. III, ch. 1, par. 1; brackets in original)
We learn from Irenaeus that the church in Rome was the greatest of churches, at least in Irenaeus' opinion, in the late second century. We also learned the reasons why, which are listed above. We also find that despite Irenaeus' attention to Rome, he had never heard the idea that Rome's bishop had any authority over other churches, nor that the promises to Peter in Matthew 16:17-19 applied to the bishop of Rome. In Irenaeus' time, Rome was known to be founded by Peter and Paul, not just Peter.
Thus, we learn that there was no pope, nor any claim to authority over all churches, in Irenaeus' time. We also learn that many doctrines that are taught only by the Roman Catholic Church today were not taught by late second-century Rome. Instead, it was not only a good example of the teaching held by all the churches, it was the best example, partly because of its great heritage from Peter and Paul, but also because interaction with the "the faithful everywhere" helped preserve apostolic tradition there.
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To be continued ... (Aug. 13, 2019)
Additional Pages on Roman Catholicism
Various Subjects and Doctrines
My Arguments Against Roman Catholicism as the One True Church
Popes and Stories About Popes