“With all power and signs and lying wonders.” 2 Thessalonians 2:9

The Papacy truly is a unique phenomenon  – the descriptions of papal power and  blasphemy are virtually unparalleled in  the rest of Scripture. Throughout the pages of His  book, God condemned false gods, mocked their  futility, and stood against their disciples. Yet unique  to the Papacy comes one specific aspect of divine  denigration. Not only would the Catholic church  be full of falsehood and blasphemy – it would come to be headed up by one man, and that man would assume the role of God on earth:

“And the king shall do according to his will; and he shall exalt himself, and magnify himself  above every god, and shall speak marvelous things  against the God of gods, and shall prosper till  the indignation be accomplished: for that that is determined shall be done” (Dan 11:36).

“Let no man deceive you by any means: for that  day shall not come, except there come a falling away  first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of  perdition; who opposeth and exalteth himself above  all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that  he as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing  himself that he is God” (2 Thess 2:3–4).

Aside from prophecies about the king of  Babylon and the king of Tyre (Isa 14:13, Ezek 28:2),  the descriptions of this system are quite unique. The  Papacy would be led by a man who would “magnify  himself above every god”, “shewing himself that he  is God”. In our modern day, this type of exaltation  and adoration by the people is almost completely  unheard of – except within the realm of the Catholic  church. There, the Pope rules as God on earth – a  man who can ‘speak infallibly’ and who is the ‘vicar  of Christ’. How did this come to be? How was it  possible for a single man to amass this great wealth  of power within an ecclesiastical system? How did  the leadership of the apostles eventually become  rulership by the ‘vicar of Christ’? This article  addresses these questions and shows the way in  which the bishop of Rome exalted himself above  every god and how he came to rule the flock with  which he had been entrusted.

Ecclesial leadership in apostolic times

During the time of the apostles, the leadership of  the ecclesia had been given to a group of elders  known as the bishops and deacons. As a group,  these men worked together to make decisions and  so guided the ecclesia in the right direction, much  like the arranging brethren today. This can be seen  by what the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, when  writing about the ecclesia at Ephesus.

“This is a true saying, If a man desire the office  of a bishop, he desireth a good work … Likewise  must the deacons be grave, not double tongued, not  given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre”(1  Tim 3:1,8).

The apostle gave the directions for choosing both  bishops and deacons to Timothy, who was working  with the ecclesia in Ephesus. Thus, a single ecclesia would have at least one bishop and one deacon –  otherwise why would the apostle write about the qualifications for both of them to Timothy, who  was guiding a single ecclesia? Adding to that, he  wrote of “deacons”, which is clearly plural. Thus,  in the ecclesia at Ephesus, there was at least one  bishop and multiple deacons.This understanding  of the leadership in the Ephesian ecclesia is verified  by the record in Acts.

“And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and  called the elders of the ecclesia” (Acts 20:17).

When Paul needed to pass certain information  on to the ecclesial leaders, he called the elders  together. He did not call a single bishop or a  single deacon – he called a group of brethren  together. Again, this picture of ecclesial eldership  is confirmed by Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He  did not just write to the single bishop or deacon in Philippi, but to many of them who were part of  that ecclesia.

“Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus  Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are atPhilippi, with the bishops and deacons”(Phil 1:1).

This letter was written to the entire ecclesia, which included multiple bishops and deacons.  The leadership was not provided by a single man, but to a group of brothers. To add to that, the  leaders of the ecclesia were not considered ‘rulers’; instead, everyone shared the same status – they  were all saints in Christ. Even though the bishops and deacons guided the ecclesia, they were not  considered lords or gods, but were simply leaders.  This was the model which was passed on by the  Lord Jesus (Matt 23:8) and confirmed by the  Apostle Peter (1 Pet 5:1–3). All were brethren and  one was their master – the Lord Jesus Christ.

A change emerges

The model of ecclesial leadership in the first century  was simple – there was a group of brethren who  directed each ecclesia. Yet though they were in a  leadership position, they were not lords over the  flock, but everyone shared the same status before  God; they were all brothers, saints in the Lord Jesus  Christ. Unfortunately, as time passed, this began to  change. By the third century, the leadership in the  church was different – leadership by a small group  was virtually non-existent. Each church had one  bishop and that bishop ruled over that church and  congregation as though he were a king. Mosheim, the respected ecclesiastical historian wrote:

“The face of things began now to change in  the Christian church. The ancient method of  ecclesiastical government seemed, in general, still  to subsist, while, at the same time, by imperceptible  steps, it varied from the primitive rule, and  degenerated toward the form of a religious monarchy  … the bishops assumed, in many places, a princely  authority, particularly those who had the greatest  number of churches under their inspection, and  who presided over the most opulent assemblies” (An  Ecclesiastical History: Ancient and Modern – Volume  1, Johann Mosheim; 1832, page 84).

The bishops became virtual princes over the  churches – they were the rulers! Gibbon also  testified to this:

“The bishops were the vicegerents of Christ, the  successors of the apostles, and the mystic substitutes  of the high priest of the Mosaic law … if, in the  administration of the church, they still consulted  the judgment of the presbyters, or the inclination  of the people, they most carefully inculcated the  merit of such a voluntary condescension. The  bishops acknowledged the supreme authority which  resided in the assembly of their brethren; but, in the  government of his peculiar diocese, each of them  exacted from his flock the same implicit obedience  as if that favourite metaphor had been literally just,  and as if the shepherd had been of a more exalted  nature than that of his sheep.” (The History of the  Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – Volume 1;  Edward Gibbon; 1826, pages 429–430)

The bishops became the rulers over their  congregations – not only just the common people,  but also over the other deacons, or the presbyters,  as Gibbon styled them. This was the situation in the  third century. At the same time, the church of Rome  was considered the greatest and most powerful of  all the churches.

The bishop of Rome – Peter’s successor

“… the Roman church was the greatest, the most  numerous, and, in regard to the West, the most  ancient of all the Christian establishments, many  of which had received their religion from the pious  labours of her missionaries” (The Decline and Fall of  the Roman Empire – Volume 1; Gibbon; page 431).

The Roman church was the greatest of the  churches in the West – thus making the Roman  bishop the most powerful bishop in the West.  Yet this Roman ruler was not content to be the  greatest in the West – he wanted to be greatest in  the world. Thus, it was around this time that the  bishop of Rome began to disperse the idea that  he was Peter’s successor – the successor of the one  who had been given the “keys of the kingdom of  heaven”. Again, just after writing about the might  and power of the Roman church, Gibbon wrote of  their connection to Peter:

“… the bishops of Rome very prudently claimed  the inheritance of whatsoever prerogatives were  attributed either to the person or to the office of  St Peter” (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire  – Volume 1; Gibbon; page 431).

Though all bishops had gained great authority  and though the Roman bishop was considered  the most powerful in all of the West, this was not  enough for this “name of blasphemy”. He then  sought to amass to himself the supposed authority  which the Lord Jesus had given to Peter when he  said “upon this rock I will build my ecclesia”. By  claiming that Peter had been granted the rulershipover the church by Christ and by saying that Peter  was the first bishop of Rome, it was a simple  thing for the Roman bishop to claim to be Peter’s  successor. If he was Peter’s successor, it therefore  stood to reason that he, too, had been given the  charge to rule over the church. Just as the other  bishops were lords over their flocks, so was he –  yet his flock was not limited to Rome; it stretched  throughout the entire realm of Christianity. Thus  through these claims to be the successor of Peter  the Roman bishop advanced in power and influence  above all of the other ecclesiastical princes. As time  went by, this claim continued to lift up the status of  the blasphemous ‘monarch’, and in the fifth century,  this man was finally called the “vicar of Christ” (ie  “instead of Christ”).

“Papal claims were high: for what seems to have  been the first time, Gelasius was addressed, at the  Roman synod of May 495, as ‘vicar of Christ’ ” (The  Popes; Michael J. Walsh; page 36).

This was the first time that the Roman bishop  was officially acknowledged as the representative of  Christ on earth – he had stood in the “temple of  God”, “shewing himself that he is God”. He had  finally reached that position – he was known as the  one who had the authority of Christ; he was backed  by the power of God! As the years passed, this title  and this claim of authority over the Church were  both confirmed by various emperors. Justinian, in  his code of laws (AD 529–533), affirmed that the  bishop of Rome was the chief bishop and the leader  of the church. The same was said by the emperor  Phocas(ad606–610). The Pope had become a  mighty ruler over the world – dictating his will as  the “vicar of Christ”!

Truly, the Papacy is a unique phenomenon. Not  since pagan times had a man come to be known  as ‘God upon earth’. Through “signs and lying  wonders”, the Pope so deluded and made drunk  the inhabitants of this world (Rev 17:2) that even  in our day this doctrine of apostolic succession still  exists. Once our eyes have been opened and we are  able to see this blasphemy for what it truly is, we  should be filled with zeal for the Truth. May our  hearts well up with a desire to resist this system and  its harlot daughters – and may we stand firm upon  the strong foundation of Scripture, abhorring that  which is evil, and cleaving to that which is good.