First of all I should put my cards on the table and state that I am neither Protestant nor Catholic and would describe myself as an atheist. In my early days I liked to debate with fundamentalist Christians but in recent years as my health has declined I have found my self re-visiting Catholicism; the religion I was born in and where I spent four and a half of my teenage years in a junior seminary. I will not say why I left the church, this is not my purpose here other than to show were my biases lie.
For example I assume that the Bible is not the word of God either literally or metaphorically and I assume that the teaching of the church (bearing in mind that not all teaching is dogma) has bent, even changed over the centuries and this is what I would expect of a human organisation as it adapts to the needs of different times. Those are my a priori assumptions which I know a Catholic would challenge.
This short work will use examples from the Bible that will show whether wittingly or not that St Paul was an exemplar in being a bit of a rebel from authority. But first I will look at how authority in the church in New Testament times from my own perspective. I will look at the Gospels, the epistles and the Acts of the Apostles.
The Gospels are considered younger than the Pauline epistles, so no doubt ideas of authority are more developed there. In the Gospels, whilst Peter is not the most loved of the disciples, he features prominently as someone whom Jesus expects much of. This despite, Peter’s all too human failings, i.e. his temporary disloyalty after Jesus’ arrest. However, it is obvious that the Gospels show that Jesus wants to build his church on the rock (Peter) Matthew 16:18 and requested that he feed his “sheep” John 21:15-17
In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter features heavily up to chapter 12. However, it is a different Peter from the Gospel accounts. He is brave, bold and fearless. Yet he is also modest, “I am only a man myself.” Acts 10:26. He is held in high esteem because of miracles performed and it was believed that even his shadow passing over the sick would cure them Acts 5:15. He is , also a decision maker. It is him who initiates and decides that a replacement is needed for Judas. The apostles agree.
However, whilst he was in prison it seems that the leadership of the church passed to James. This would seem quite a practical thing to do. After Peter is miraculously released from prison by an angel he wants the brothers and sisters to tell James and the other apostles. After this the story turns to Paul and Peter is only mentioned in Acts, one more time in chapter 15. Here though, Peter is respected he does not have a primary decision making role. He gives a speech against putting a heavy yoke on the gentiles with regard to the dispute as to whether they should be circumcised and subject to the laws as Jewish Christians were. Paul and Barnabus then speak but it is James who makes the final decision. Based on this decision the apostles and elders at the Council of Jerusalem write a letter to the Gentiles and rather than just give the letter to Paul and Barnabas, they send two of their own men to go back with them with the letter. What is clear from Acts 15 is that James is seen to be the decision maker and not Peter. This would make an interesting discussion because it seems to indicate that someone who was not a Bishop of Rome held the highest position even whilst Peter was still alive and had not relinquished it even after Peter was freed. James, however, is not listed amongst the popes , so I am aware what I am suggesting here is highly contentious.
Paul’s attitude to Peter and the other apostles is revealing. Unlike the other apostles he was neither chosen by a flesh and blood Christ like the initial twelve, nor by a vote of the apostles as Matthew had been. Paul, therefore has the difficult task of convincing the Christians he had hitherto persecuted that his apostleship was genuine. In Galatians 1 Paul makes it clear that after his vision he felt no need to consult any human being. In fact it was three years before he went to Jerusalem and then only to be acquainted with Cephas. He also saw James but did not see the other apostles. He describes himself as “Paul, an apostle*—sent not from men nor by a man,but by Jesus Christand God the Father,*who raised him from the dead”. In other words he gets his authority directly from Jesus, he does not need the approval of the other apostles. Can you imagine the children of Fatima taking such a position that they had received a message from Our Lady and did not need the approval of the church or Peter’s successor.
In Galatians 2 he is somewhat dismissive of those held in high esteem, “whatever they were makes no difference to me” and that “they added nothing to my message”. Most of Peter’s scorn is addressed to Cephas (Peter) who he claims he has castigated to his face for forcing Gentiles to live like Jews. He accuses Cephas (Peter) of hypocrisy because he stops eating with the Gentiles when some of James’s party turns up. Although Luke is a companion of Paul’s, yet in the Acts of the Apostles this story of Peter’s chastisement is not mentioned. In fact it is to Peter that God gives the vision upon which the idea the Gospel should be preached to the Gentiles. Rather than Peter avoiding the circumcision party he is criticised by it. Acts 11:2.
Paul, however, needed James and the Apostles to make an authoritative decision on the question of whether Gentiles should be circumcised and subject to the Law. James judges and the apostles and elders agree, "…For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.“Acts 15:28,29. However, his rebellion took more subtle forms. It is interesting to note that when referring to the Council of Jerusalem he states not James’ judgment as given in Acts but claims James’ and the apostles said. “They desired only that we should remember the poor, the very thing which I was also eager to do.” Galatians 2:10. Which rather leaves a lot out and adds in something new. Not quite the spirit of obedience that is expected from the church.
So I would argue that there is a lot in Paul’s behaviour that protestants can look to that would encourage rebellion from Rome. His claim that his revelation did not need to be vetted by the other apostles and his disrespectful attitude to Cephas (Peter). Protestants might baulk at the idea that Paul would bend the truth but his distortion of what the Council of Jerusalem required of the Gentiles in order to proclaim his own anti Law stance is glaringly obvious.
For me Peter comes out as a more attractive character than Paul. In Acts, Peter becomes bold after receiving the spirit, speak out against his detractors from the circumcision party and maintains his modesty. His leadership is more quiet and restrained. He is not a self publicist. Paul on the other hand sows the seeds of religious self determination, though he would no doubt be horrified at the division it has reaped in the churches.