Everyone Follows a Pope

Everyone Follows a Pope

In a previous post I answered the question, “Do you follow the Pope or Jesus?” If you haven’t read it yet, I would suggest taking a moment to do so now so that there is no confusion moving forward; but for those of you who don’t have the time, here’s a brief summary. When asked, “Do you follow the pope or Jesus?” my answer is an unqualified “yes” for the following two reasons:

  1. There is no contradiction.
  2. It is in following Jesus that I am willing to submit to the authority He has placed over me.

In this post I would like to go on to suggest something rather audacious. Everyone follows a pope. This is true for Protestants as well as Catholics. The pope you follow may be a TV evangelist, a theologian, a Christian author, a particular denomination, or pastor, but make no mistake we all have someone who fills the role of the ultimate spiritual authority in our lives –  even if it is just ourself.

No One Wants to Be a Pawn

I know that my Protestant friends will immediately object, saying that for them the only authority in their lives are the Holy Scriptures. I can sympathize – I used to make the same claim. But in reality, this is a claim to an “authority” which lacks the means to adjudicate. While it is true that Scripture is authoritative, it cannot by itself be an authority. Why? Because Scripture must always be interpreted by an individual – and to be frank, most of us aren’t bible scholars.

We don’t speak Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic. We don’t live in the Ancient Near East, and we certainly aren’t a part of that culture or those times. We’re not trained theologians; I mean lets face it, most of us are blissfully unaware of the various literary genres employed within the text, much less being able to differentiate between the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses of Scripture. I read an excellent article the other day entitled 3 Ways Not to Use Greek in Bible Study, which made the following three points:

  1. Usage trumps etymology
  2. Scholars are necessary
  3. Context is king

All three points (and their explanations) are excellent, but I would like to focus on point number two.

Scholars are Necessary

We can see this most clearly when we look at the account of the Ethiopian eunuch in the Acts of the Apostles who sat in his chariot reading the Scriptures.

“Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.”1

In other words, the bible acknowledges that it can be a difficult book to understand. St. Peter says as much when he writes, “There are some things in [the letters of Paul] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.”2

Gilbert Meilaender, a Lutheran who holds the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University, wrote an article in the November 2007 issue of First Things, entitled Conscience and Authority, in which he quotes a Methodist theologian who says, “I cannot accept the conflation of genuine obedience to the gospel with ‘submission’ to authority. In fact, in the name of ­Christian freedom and the priesthood of all believers Protestants must oppose the enterprise of concentrating power in the hands of elites to whom everyone else is to submit. Truth, especially hermeneutic truth, is not a subset of authority; authority, for a Protestant, must be based on truth.” 

“Which,” as Meilaender points out, “is to say, of course, that there is no genuine authority other than the aesthetic power of the genius.”

How authoritative, in other words, is your interpretation of Scripture? Is your interpretation infallible? Are you some sort of sublime genius? If not; is it really Scriptural authority that you appeal to or merely your own? – Tweet This

Some Would be Pastors and Teachers

“The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”3

It is because we are not all bible scholars (or theologians, or geniuses) that God has gifted His body with apostles, pastors, and teachers in order to equip His saints. It is His Church which is to be the, “pillar and bulwark of the truth4 – not you and I as individuals. And, according to the Scriptures, this Church has been gifted with leaders to equip the saints. “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.”5

I would submit that even Protestants recognize the need for this authority structure within the Church. In 1988 the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution affirming that the pastor was the ruler of the church. W. A. Criswell said, “Lay leadership of the church is unbiblical when it weakens the pastor’s authority as ruler of the church . . . a laity-led church will be a weak church anywhere on God’s earth. The pastor is ruler of the church.” 

That’s pretty strong language for folks who dismiss the idea of a pope as being entirely un-biblical! But, as a matter of fact, this need for ecclesial authority was something that was recognized by the fathers of the Reformation themselves!

The New “Popes” of the Reformation

The following excerpts are from Dr. David Anders’ excellent article entitled, How John Calvin made me a Catholic:

“In Calvin’s native France, there was no royal support for Protestantism and no unified leadership. Lawyers, humanists, intellectuals, artisans and craftsman read Luther’s writings, as well as the Scriptures, and adapted whatever they liked. This variety struck Calvin as a recipe for disaster. He was a lawyer by training, and always hated any kind of social disorder. In 1549, he wrote a short work (Advertissement contre l’astrologie) in which he complained about this Protestant diversity: ‘Every state [of life] has its own Gospel, which they forge for themselves according to their appetites, so that there is as great a diversity between the Gospel of the court, and the Gospel of the justices and lawyers, and the Gospel of merchants, as there is between coins of different denominations.’

I began to grasp the difference between Calvin and his descendants when I discovered his hatred of this theological diversity. Calvin was drawn to Luther’s theology, but he complained about the “crass multitude” and the “vulgar plebs” who turned Luther’s doctrine into an excuse for disorder. He wrote his first major work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), in part to address this problem.

Calvin got an opportunity to put his plans into action when he moved to Geneva, Switzerland. He first joined the Reformation in Geneva in 1537, when the city had only recently embraced Protestantism. Calvin, who had already begun to write and publish on theology, was unsatisfied with their work. Geneva had abolished the Mass, kicked out the Catholic clergy, and professed loyalty to the Bible, but Calvin wanted to go further. His first request to the city council was to impose a common confession of faith (written by Calvin) and to force all citizens to affirm it. Calvin’s most important contribution to Geneva was the establishment of the Consistory – a sort of ecclesiastical court- to judge the moral and theological purity of his parishioners. He also persuaded the council to enforce a set of “Ecclesiastical Ordinances” that defined the authority of the Church, stated the religious obligations of the laity, and imposed an official liturgy. Church attendance was mandatory. Contradicting the ministers was outlawed as blasphemy. Calvin’s Institutes would eventually be declared official doctrine.

Calvin’s lifelong goal was to gain the right to excommunicate “unworthy” Church members. The city council finally granted this power in 1555 when French immigration and local scandal tipped the electorate in his favor. Calvin wielded it frequently. According to historian William Monter, one in fifteen citizens was summoned before the Consistory between 1559 and 1569, and up to one in twenty five was actually excommunicated.6 Calvin used this power to enforce his single vision of Christianity and to punish dissent.

Calvin once persuaded an Anabaptist named Herman to enter the Reformed Church. His description of the event leaves no doubt about the difference between Calvin and the modern Evangelical. Calvin wrote: ‘Herman has, if I am not mistaken, in good faith returned to the fellowship of the Church. He has confessed that outside the Church there is no salvation, and that the true Church is with us. Therefore, it was defection when he belonged to a sect separated from it.’7 Evangelicals don’t understand this type of language. They are accustomed to treating ‘the Church’ as a purely spiritual reality, represented across denominations or wherever ‘true believers’ are gathered. This was not Calvin’s view. His was ‘the true Church,’ marked off by infant baptism,8 outside of which there was no salvation.”

Calvin believed in the authority of Scripture alone – provided it was his interpretation of Scripture, and his interpretation alone.

It is obvious that Calvin didn’t believe that the, “crass multitudes” and, “vulgar plebs” were able to properly interpret Scripture for themselves with the Holy Spirit to guide them. He wrote his Institutes of the Christian Religion precisely to, “aid those who desire to be instructed in the doctrine of salvation,” – a noble cause to be sure, but so much for the doctrine of perspicuity! The bible (and the doctrine of salvation) are apparently so easy to understand that they require a twenty-two volume work to make them clear!



Going far beyond Calvin’s commentary on the Scriptures, Martin Luther simply changed the Scriptures to suit his theology. He adds a word here, removes seven Old Testament books there, and vigorously petitions to remove New Testament books as well – especially the Epistle of James saying, “St. James’ Epistle is really an epistle of straw, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.” In defending himself, Luther wrote,

“If your papist wishes to make a great fuss about the word sola (alone), say this to him: ‘Dr. Martin Luther will have it so, and he says that a papist and a donkey are the same thing.’ …For we are not going to be students and disciples of the papists. Rather, we will become their teachers and judges. For once, we also are going to be proud and brag, with these blockheads; and just as Paul brags against his mad raving saints, I will brag against these donkeys of mine! Are they doctors? So am I. Are they scholars? So am I. Are they preachers? So am I. Are they theologians? So am I. Are they debaters? So am I. Are they philosophers? So am I. Are they logicians? So am I. Do they lecture? So do I. Do they write books? So do I…Let this be the answer to your first question. Please do not give these donkeys any other answer to their useless braying about that word sola than simply this: ‘Luther will have it so, and he says that he is a doctor above all the doctors of the pope.’ Let it rest there. I will from now on hold them in contempt, and have already held them in contempt, as long as they are the kind of people (or rather donkeys) that they are.”9

Papal authority indeed!

The Necessity of Human Authority

The long and the short of it is that it is impossible to be a Christian and not submit to some form of human authority. I will repeat what I said earlier, all of us as Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, follow a “pope”. The pope you follow may be a TV evangelist, a theologian, a Christian author, a particular denomination, or pastor, but make no mistake we all have someone who fills the role of the ultimate spiritual authority in our lives – even if it is just ourself.

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”10

The good news is, submitting to authority is entirely Scriptural. The bad news is you aren’t the infallible authority on which Christ established His Church and through which He promised to preserve it.11 – Tweet This

As Dr. Jeff Mirus points out in responding to Meilaender’s article, “The article looks squarely at three imperatives which Meilaender takes as givens:

  1. The need for the ‘Church’ to speak with authority in order to preserve and transmit Christianity.12
  2. The need for the individual Christian to respect that authority.
  3. The need for the Christian to form his conscience ultimately through a direct personal relationship with God.

As the author rightly notes, these givens necessarily create a tension which cannot be completely resolved. After struggling for some 5,000 words to maintain both the authority of the ‘Church’ and the primacy of the individual conscience, Meilaender concludes that when the individual Christian feels bound to disagree with the ‘Church’, he may do so only while acknowledging that he cannot claim ‘Church’ authority for his decision.”13

Resolving the Tension

There is a way to resolve this tension. If Christ established His Church on the Apostles saying something along the lines of, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”14 And if Scripture actually bore witness to this saying something like, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”15 And if Scripture furthermore instructed us to,“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing—for that would be harmful to you.”16

Well then…. this apparent conflict between individual conscience and Church authority could all be resolved by forming one’s conscience according to the Church’s teaching authority – without exception. In other words, rather than trying to conform the church to our whims, we should allow Christ to work through His Church in order to properly form us.

And that goes double for dissenting and rebellious Catholics.

“Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it—not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away. In the same way, you who are younger must accept the authority of the elders.”17

It is Christ’s plan that Peter should lead His Church.

We all follow a pope – be sure that you follow the right one! – Tweet This


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  1. Acts 8:29-31 

  2. 2 Peter 3:16b 

  3. Ephesians 4:11-13 

  4. 1 Timothy 3:15b 

  5. Acts 20:28 

  6. “The Consistory of Geneva, 1559-1569,” Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 38 (1976): 467-484 

  7. Letters of John Calvin, trans. M. Gilchrist, ed. J.Bonnet, New York: Burt Franklin, 1972, I: 110-111 

  8. Calvin associated regeneration with baptism and taught that to neglect baptism was to refuse salvation. He also allowed no diversity over the manner of its reception. Anabaptists in Geneva (those who practiced adult baptism) were jailed and forced to repent. Calvin taught that Anabaptists, by refusing the sacrament to their children, had placed themselves outside the faith. 

  9. Martin Luther, Open Letter on Translating, 1530 

  10. Romans 13:1-2 

  11. Matthew 16:18-19 

  12. Matthew 28:18-20, Luke 10:16, Matthew 18:17-18, 1 Timothy 3:15b 

  13. Conscience and Authority: The Protestant Dilemma, Dr. Jeff Mirus 

  14. Matthew 16:18-19 

  15. Ephesians 2:19-20 

  16. Hebrews 13:17 

  17. 1 Peter 5:1-5a 

I want to hear your thoughts! Go ahead and keep the conversation going, but please keep it at least PG and respectful.

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