“Do you follow the pope or Jesus?” I was actually asked this question the other day. It came about in a rather indirect manner with a friend asking my mom what she thought my answer would be. Since I never had the chance to respond directly to the person who had asked the question, I would like to do so now.
My answer is yes.
If asked whether I follow the truth or Jesus, my answer would also be yes. Same response if asked whether I submit to the authority of the Church or that of Scripture. Maybe you can start to see where I’m going with this? This is another example of the sort of false dichotomies that I tend to be regularly presented with. You have to choose between either this or that – Ready? Go!
But invariably the choice is between two things which aren’t really in conflict with each other.
But let’s look at the question in a more direct manner. Perhaps we can even rephrase the question to cast some light on the situation. Did the children of Israel follow Moses or Yahweh in their exodus from Egypt? Well, as is obvious from the biblical account, Moses was the instrument by which the Lord led his people out of Egypt. In other words, if they wanted to follow God then they had best follow the man whom He had sent to lead them. This is, in fact, the primary means by which God guides His people in the Old Testament – by giving them men to follow. Over and over He sends them prophets, priests, and judges who will speak on the Lord’s behalf to His people. And believe it or not, this very same model continues in the New Testament. In fact, St. James commends to us the example of the Old Testament prophets in his epistle when he writes, “As an example of suffering and patience, brethren, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.”1 And St. Paul in many instances instructs his followers to follow him as they follow the Lord.
“For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me.”2 A clear call to imitation, and also a succinct response to those who accuse the Church of disregarding Christ’s “instruction” to call no man father… “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you,”3 Another call to imitation of the Apostles. Also note the call to follow in the traditions handed down by the them. “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.”4 Again there is the admonition to imitate and to maintain the traditions delivered.
Admittedly, this is a call is to follow men as they follow Christ – but it is this very reason which prevents the conflict. Scripture recognizes that not all who call themselves Christians are true followers of Christ and worthy of our imitation. St. Paul says as much when he writes, “Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ.”5 The truth is, there were false prophets in the Old Testament as there are false teachers in the New. This is the very reason why apostolic succession became such a critical issue in the early Church as false teachers and Gnostic heresies began to multiply.
Early Church historian J.N.D. Kelly, a Protestant, writes, “[W]here in practice was [the] apostolic testimony or tradition to be found? . . . The most obvious answer was that the apostles had committed it orally to the Church, where it had been handed down from generation to generation. . . . Unlike the alleged secret tradition of the Gnostics, it was entirely public and open, having been entrusted by the apostles to their successors, and by these in turn to those who followed them, and was visible in the Church for all who cared to look for it”6 This testimony can be found in the earliest writings of the Church fathers starting with Pope Clement 1 writing to the Corinthians in AD 80 less than 50 years after Christ’s death and while some of His disciples still lived, “Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier. . . . Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry”7
Irenaeus writes in AD 189,“Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time”8. And again, “[I]t is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church—those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the infallible charism of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father. But [it is also incumbent] to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever, either as heretics of perverse minds, or as schismatics puffed up and self-pleasing, or again as hypocrites, acting thus for the sake of lucre and vainglory. For all these have fallen from the truth”9 And, Augustine himself writes in AD 397, “[T]here are many other things which most properly can keep me in [the Catholic Church’s] bosom. The unanimity of peoples and nations keeps me here. Her authority, inaugurated in miracles, nourished by hope, augmented by love, and confirmed by her age, keeps me here. The succession of priests, from the very see of the apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after his resurrection, gave the charge of feeding his sheep [John 21:15–17], up to the present episcopate, keeps me here. And last, the very name Catholic, which, not without reason, belongs to this Church alone, in the face of so many heretics, so much so that, although all heretics want to be called ‘Catholic,’ when a stranger inquires where the Catholic Church meets, none of the heretics would dare to point out his own basilica or house”10
So, my answer is yes. Yes I follow the Pope, and yes I follow Christ who said to the very first Pope all those many years ago, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”11 It is in following Christ that I am willing to follow those who He has placed in positions of authority.
After answering the question of whether I follow the Pope or whether I follow Christ, I would also respond with several of my own. Echoing the earliest Church Fathers I would ask, “Who do you follow? Whose teaching authority do you submit to? Your pastor’s? Your own? Does the teaching authority that you submit to come from apostolic succession? Was it instituted by Christ?” Yes we must follow Christ, but we must also follow those who He left to guide us. When Christ reinstates Peter, He asks Him, “Simon,…do you love me more than these?” referring to the other disciples sitting nearby. When Peter replies that he does, Jesus asks the question two more times, twice telling him to, “feed [his] lambs” and also instructing him to, “Take care of my sheep.”12
We are indeed the Lord’s sheep – thanks be to God that He has left us with true Shepherds! [Tweet This]
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James 5:10 ↩
1Corinthians 4:15-16 ↩
2 Thessalonians 3:6-7 ↩
1 Corinthians 11:1-2 ↩
Phillipians 3:17-18 ↩
Early Christian Doctrines, 37 ↩
Letter to the Corinthians 42:4–5, 44:1–3 [A.D. 80] ↩
Against Heresies, 3:3:4 [AD 189] ↩
ibid., 4:26:2 ↩
Against the Letter of Mani Called “The Foundation” 4:5 [A.D. 397] ↩
Matthew 16:18b-19 ↩
John 21:15-17 ↩