Matthew 16:18—Is Peter the rock on which the church is built?
Problem: Roman Catholics use this passage to support their belief in the primacy of Peter, that is, that he is the rock on which the church is built. But Paul said the church is built on Christ, not Peter (1 Cor. 3:11). Is Peter the “rock” in this passage?
Solution: There are different ways to understand this passage, but none of them support the Roman Catholic view that the church is built on St. Peter, who became the first Pope—infallible in all his official pronouncements on faith and doctrine. This is evident for many reasons.
First of all, Peter was married (Matt. 8:14), and Popes do not marry. If the first Pope could marry, why later pronounce that no priest (or Pope) can marry.
Second, Peter was not infallible in his views on the Christian life. Even Paul had to rebuke him for his hypocrisy, because he was not “straightforward about the truth of the Gospel” (Gal. 2:14).
Third, the Bible clearly declares that Christ is the foundation of the Christian church, insisting that “no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11).
Fourth, the only sense in which Peter had a foundational role in the church, all the other apostles shared in the same way. Peter was not unique in this respect. For Paul declared that in this sense the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). Indeed, the early church continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine [not just Peter’s]” (Acts 2:42). Even “keys of the kingdom” given to Peter (Matt. 16:19) were also given to all the apostles (cf. Matt. 18:18).
Fifth, there is no indication that Peter was the head of the early church. When the first council was held at Jerusalem, Peter played only an introductory role (Acts 15:6–11). James seems to have a more significant position, summing up the conference and making the final pronouncement (cf. Acts 15:13–21). In any event, Peter is never referred to as the “pillar” in the church. Rather, Paul speaks of “pillars” (plural), such as, “James, Cephas, and John” (Gal. 2:9). Peter (Cephas) is not even listed first among the pillars.
Sixth, many Protestant interpreters believe that Jesus’ reference to “this rock” (Matt. 16:18) upon which His church would be built was to Peter’s solid (rock-like) testimony that Jesus was “the Christ, the son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). But even if this rock has reference to Peter (Petros, rock), which is certainly a possible interpretation, he was only a rock in the apostolic foundation of the church (Matt. 16:18), not the rock. Nor is he the only apostolic rock. Even Peter himself admitted that Christ is the chief rock (“cornerstone,” 1 Peter 2:7). And Paul notes that the other apostles are all part of the “foundation” (Eph. 2:20).
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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.