In what ways can Protestants accept papal primacy today?


#1

I don’t just mean “today” as in “already,” what some are doing now. I mean, what are some ways fellow Protestants can re-imagine and better appropriate the historical role of Rome, even if they don’t want to be fully Catholic?

To say that being Protestant means an automatic 100% rejection of the papacy is a bit simplistic. Yes, the Protestant Reformation assumed that the papal office was in SOME sense a corruption (some Reformers even calling the Pope the Anti-Christ).

I suppose there will always be the “Whore of Babylon” breed of Protestants. But Protestantism is diverse. So here’s the question: How can Protestants today accept and utilize the Petrine office in Rome?

Any honest observant of Christian history will see that the papal office and Rome have played a central role in the Church from the beginning. Even the Orthodox, who do not accept the full Catholic understanding, acknowledge a proper primacy of Rome in the early Church — or else their own church today would not claim a primacy (Constantinople, in their view).


#2

So again, I don’t want to talk about the theory of primacy. I mean practically, how can an individual Protestant or entire Protestant churches and groups learn to appreciate the role of Rome in the Church?

Perhaps looking to Rome first in the sense of “Let’s see how Rome deals with this issue X, Y, or Z first. Whether or not we’ll agree is a different story, but we should at least first see what they say.” This is a very Irenaeus-model, who in the second century said all churches must look to Rome as the chief example of apostolic teaching.

Or is it more person to person, respecting individual Popes: I have many Protestant friends who come up to me and say things like “I really like Pope Francis. I really like what he had to say about such and such.”

Ideas?

If you are Protestant, do you look to Rome and the Pope at all today? How? For what reasons?


#3

There are plenty of of protestant churches that have made joint statements of faith with Rome. If there was no legitimacy to the Pope, then I’d doubt they’d do so. Even if you take away the argument of whether the Papal office is the true successor to Peter, the office remains a highly important one historically and in the development of faith.

That said, one hallmark of virtually all “Protestant” churches is the primacy of the Bible. However the level of pastoral training and theological grounding varies wildly. Most “main line” churches have a theology easily as developed as that of the Catholic church; some of it derived directly. Others like the Baptist churches of course believe in the priesthood of believers, aka pretty much no well defined theological background.

What’s the point here? There are many levels of removal from the Catholic church and I think that reflects a graduated relationship to Rome and the Pope.


#4

Good points.

I think much of what you say could be described in terms of Protestantism’s relationship with Catholicism more generally. But there is definitely probably some correlation: like a Baptist is less likely to care about the Pope’s role, precisely because the Baptist faith is far removed from Catholicism.

Still, I find it odd that Protestantism almost inherently includes complete detachment from the Papal Office. Even apart from the blunt anti-Romanism, it seems no one apart from Catholics really looks to Rome for Christian leadership.

Say what one wants about supremacy and corruption, we should all – Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant – at least agree that Christians in the early centuries looked to Rome as at least a chief Christian speaker and unifier. And, as Irenaeus said, even by the second century Christians were looking to Rome as the chief expression of orthodoxy.

And true enough: Even if one does not accept the divine or even apostolic basis of the papacy, Protestants should at least admit that (1) It has been a crucial structure to the Church throughout its history and (2) as the leader of the world’s largest Christian communion, the pope is likely to have a prominent role until, well, the end of time (to which a Catholic would say “duh!” but I’m speaking from a hypothetical Protestant perspective).


#5

I don’t know any Baptists that are even remotely interested in deferring to the pope out of any understanding of primacy. He is just another religious person like anyone else in their eyes. They might agree with something he says, but that bit of information does not carry any additional weight by virtue of his office.


#6

There are plenty of of protestant churches that have made joint statements of faith with Rome. If there was no legitimacy to the Pope, then I’d doubt they’d do so.

Also, I appreciate this optimistic outlook. But I wonder if it actually implies legitimacy as a Christian* (and not just Catholic) leader. I don’t think it necessarily does.

For example, the Vatican has ecumenical conversations with plenty of Christian and non-Christian groups all the time, but that doesn’t imply a legitimacy in the sense of these other churches have real authority over Catholics. If that makes sense?

In other words, I’m sure many Protestants are open to dialogue with Rome precisely because Catholicism is a major Christian faith — not necessarily because they agree Rome itself has genuine authority for themselves.


#7

As a former Baptist, you could probably speak to this more:

But do you think part of it is the more general Baptist dismissal of historic church structures, in the first place? If you don’t think apostolic succession and bishops or even historic continuity is important, the idea of the Pope is just another “eh? who cares?” (at best).


#8

Probably. For Baptists, your local church is most important. You probably hold your pastor in very high esteem, but you might be suspicious of other Baptist ministers. There are some Baptist associations and conventions, but they don’t hold any additional legitimacy or primacy per se. If anything, these organizations serve to highlight some commonalities held by the member churches.


#9

The more historically-minded the Protestant is perhaps he could view the pope as some Orthodox do—as the primary pastor of the church. That is, not going so far as to agree with Vatican I’s view of the papacy but nevertheless seeing a universal pastoral office for the pope, rather than holding a universal authoritative office.


#10

But besides just seeing the Pope as theoretically supposed to have this kind of universal role, how can it be achieved in the daily life of a Protestant who holds this view?

For example, you mention the Orthodox. Well, they don’t actually consider the Pope of Rome to hold this role anymore — the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople does, so there is no reason for them to currently look to Rome for this pastoral role, as you say.

How do you think a Protestant could acknowledge the Pope as encompassing this “universal pastoral office”? Does that mean personally considering him to be your own chief pastor? Does it mean looking to the Pope’s teaching first, before even one’s own denomination? Could it include giving a privileged place for how Rome speaks to modern issues (say, the death penalty, to take a recent example — or artificial insemination, or cloning, or abortion)? What do you think?


#11

Could a Protestant group – a denomination, individual church, etc. – ever get together and decide “We will acknowledge the Pope of Rome to have the universal pastoral role in the Body of Christ, even if we don’t agree with every teaching, or Catholicism in general”?

Or does accepting Roman primacy automatically mean conversion to Catholicism?

Or is this the only option because there has never been another option?


#12

Yes, I would see viewing the pope as primary or universal pastor to encompass much of what you list in your last paragraph. Of course, viewing the pope this way is the historical view, which is why some Orthodox (e.g., Metropolitan Kallistos Ware) actually advocate for the Orthodox to view the pope in this manner. So, for Protestants who are shallow in history, this may be a hard sell. But, maybe not! I like how you’re entertaining and thinking through this. Perhaps the easiest place for a Protestant to start would be with your last suggestion. Popes, after all, publish and speak a lot. They engage in their pastoral office frequently (encyclicals, exhortations, letters, etc). I can see a broad-minded Protestant consuming papal writings within a legitimate pastoral framework (for the good of the whole church).


#13

I would suggest to you that there are a fair number of Christians who would do precisely what you suggest in the first sentence above–“We will acknowledge the Pope of Rome to have the universal pastoral role in the Body of Christ, even if we don’t agree with every teaching, or Catholicism in general.” As I say, some Orthodox already view the pope this way.

Accepting Roman _pastoral_primacy entails no conversion to Catholicism. Accepting Roman authoritative primacy seems to entail such a conversion.


#14

Yeah, that’s honestly how the vast majority of Protestants probably view the Pope. And I’m saying this as a former Protestant myself.


#15

As a former Baptist, I was always intrigued by the Pope, mainly as a historical and somewhat “political” figure. When he spoke, people around the world took note. My particular Baptist Church was
“independent” meaning we were not bound to any teaching or jurisdiction of any other church. We had our pastor, board of elders for leadership. We had our own constitution and bylaws which could only be amended by a vote of the congregation membership. I don’t see accepting Roman primacy ever happening.


#16

Accepting Roman _pastoral_primacy entails no conversion to Catholicism. Accepting Roman authoritative primacy seems to entail such a conversion.

This is an interesting distinction, but I’m not sure I understand it — mainly because I haven’t seen these terms used in this context before.

Do you mean “authoritative” as the concept of supremacy?

For I think someone could still consider the Pope’s “pastoral” role to include universal “authority” – if his pastoral role is indeed universal. Just a clarification of terms. Thanks.


#17

Right, well I’m personally interested in ecumenism. So, I’m really just following Metropolitan Ware on this distinction. He states that what the pope historically received from the Orthodox, and the extent of what he could expect to receive from the Orthodox now and in the future is supreme pastoral primacy. That is, he is the pastor of pastors. His supremacy is in this role as universal teacher and guide. However, when it comes to authority (i.e., governance of Sees outside of Rome), he would have no such primacy. The historical Sees (and the Russian Orthodox) are self-governing, and the pope can exercise no authoritative office over them. But, he can (and does for some) occupy a pastoral primacy. Does that make it any clearer?

Perhaps something along those lines could be hoped for, maybe not for Southern Baptists, but for broad-minded or historically-minded Protestants.


#18

Right, well I’m personally interested in ecumenism. So, I’m really just following Metropolitan Ware on this distinction. He states that what the pope historically received from the Orthodox, and the extent of what he could expect to receive from the Orthodox now and in the future is supreme pastoral primacy. That is, he is the pastor of pastors. His supremacy is in this role as universal teacher and guide. However, when it comes to authority (i.e., governance of Sees outside of Rome), he would have no such primacy. The historical Sees (and the Russian Orthodox) are self-governing, and the pope can exercise no authoritative office over them. But, he can (and does for some) occupy a pastoral primacy. Does that make it any clearer?

Yes, this is clear! I understand what you mean by “authority” now. But don’t the Eastern Catholic Churches now already have this as their model?

But I would say not all Orthodox welcome the idea of the Pope as “pastor of pastors,” though.


#19

No, you’re right. Not all Orthodox are there in their thinking. I wish I knew more about how the Eastern Catholics are governed, but I’m afraid I’m almost entirely ignorant of that!

But, the point I guess I was making was that, just as some Orthodox can approach the pope as enjoying supreme pastoral primacy, so too could some Protestants. It does not commit one to becoming Catholic and it does not speak to the issue of governance, which Protestants couldn’t get behind anyway. But, it does acknowledge the historical role and allows Protestants to glean from the depth and insights that the pope offers through his various writings and speeches.


#20

The tricky part is that, in acknowledging the Pope to be universal pastor, then you are already implicitly saying that he is your pastor. And therefore, we must obey him in some way – to some extent.

That whole “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account” from Hebrews 13:17.

In other words, the Protestant must ask himself: Does the Pope have pastoral jurisdiction over me?


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