The bishop of Rome is one of the primary factors that sets Roman and Eastern Catholics apart from all other Christian denominations. Most Christians who are not in communion with Rome reject the papacy as a valid authority over the entire Christian church. Their most common objection towards the papacy is the perception that the pope takes away from the glory of Christ. The objection can be answered consistently and biblically with careful assessment.
Christ’s Kingdom and the Royal Steward
The papacy points to the everlasting dominion of Christ. It is always important to view the role of the pope through the structure of the Davidic kingdom. The title “steward” wasn’t always applied to the papal office. During the reign of the Davidic kings, the caretaker of the king’s household was referred to as the royal steward, effectively, the overseer of the palace. Throughout the Old Testament, however, the title is used in a wider sense to denote an authentic authority over the whole house of Israel.
The role of overseer in a king’s palace was not unique to Israel. It is listed as far back in scripture as Genesis 15 and 24, where Abraham describes Eliezer of Damascus as the steward of his household (Genesis 15:2, Genesis 24:2). In Genesis 39 we see a great example with Joseph. In the story, Pharaoh made Joseph overseer of everything he had, and Joseph would not betray his trust when Potiphar’s wife told him to lie with her.
The Steward in Scripture
Genesis 39:4-5 describes this position: “So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field.”
In the context of Israel, this position is consistently demonstrated throughout the Old Testament reigns of the kings of Israel and Judah. Ahishar was appointed over Solomon’s palace (1 Kings 4:6); Obadiah was King Ahab’s steward (1 Kings 18:3); and Eliakim is listed as being over the household for King Hezekiah (Isaiah 36:3).
The Structure of the Kingdom
The Gospel of Matthew was written in a way that vindicated Jesus as the Christ, or Messiah from the house of David. The Gospel begins by listing the genealogy of Jesus. It references Him as the Christ twice and lists a number of prophecies He fulfilled as the Messiah. Matthew also uniquely shows in what ways Jesus was the final Davidic king.
The word Christ can be translated from the Greek as “anointed”. The book of Matthew begins Christ’s public ministry with Him being anointed with the Holy Spirit through baptism in the Jordan. Jesus shares this anointing, in a way, with the other royal sons of David in the past who were anointed with oil. Jesus’ fulfillment of the messianic prophecy entails the king having a court of royal officials. As such, Jesus appoints His twelve officials (the disciples), one of whom is His royal steward.
Peter the Royal Steward
Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ in Matthew 16. Jesus gives Peter a special blessing and vocation right after he confesses Him as the Christ:
Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell 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. (Matthew 16:16-18)
Two things are confessed in these bible verses: Jesus is the Christ, and Peter is the rock who will receive the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
The dual images of the keys of the kingdom and the binding on earth/in heaven are taken from Isaiah 22. A prophecy is being delivered against Shebna, the royal steward over Hezekiah’s house, which foretells him being cut down from office and replaced by Eliakim. In Isaiah 22:22, the language is striking: “And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut, and he shall shut, and none shall open.” When addressing Peter, Jesus took – almost verbatim – the language that Isaiah used for the authority and initiation of a new royal steward.
The Faithful Steward
The role of the royal steward is also mentioned by Jesus elsewhere in the New Testament. In Luke 12 Jesus gives us the parable of the faithful steward. Peter asks Jesus if His prior parable is directed towards the apostles, and Jesus answers Peter by saying, “Who then is the faithful and sensible steward, whom his master will put in charge of his servants, to give them their rations at the proper time?”(Luke 12:42). Jesus is letting Peter know that His parable is for him and the other disciples.
A Closer Look at Isaiah 22
A very common objection to the papacy is the prophecy against Eliakim in the later verses of Isaiah 22. The prophecy describes Eliakim as inheriting the entire honor of the house of the Lord and everything in it. The honor of the house of Israel, the people, and even every vessel is included. The prophecy goes on to describe Eliakim as being “fastened like a peg”. The peg then becomes unfastened, and the whole house and everything in it falls under it (Isaiah 22:23-25).
People who oppose the papacy often point to this verse as a prophecy of the papacy’s demise and fall in scripture. Is this really the correct interpretation of the verse?
Scripture doesn’t vindicate this interpretation. The prophecy is about Eliakim himself, and not about the office of the royal steward. The historical context of the passage is in reference to the taking of Israel by the Assyrians, where the prophecy of the fall of the house of Israel and the destruction of Eliakim’s honor are both fulfilled until God turns the Assyrians away.
Isaiah 36 and 37 describe the day of Judgement upon King Hezekiah’s house and the cry of repentance that allowed the Israelites to be brought back into right standing with God. Israel was stripped of its honor but delivered after a desperate cry of repentance.
New Testament Application
All bishops and priests in the New Testament receive the authority of the household of God to bind and loose, but, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains,
Jesus entrusted a specific authority to Peter: “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.” The “power of the keys” designates authority to govern the house of God, which is the Church. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, confirmed this mandate to Peter after His Resurrection: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). The power to “bind and loose” connotes the authority to absolve sins, to pronounce doctrinal judgments, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church. Jesus entrusted this authority to the Church through the ministry of the apostles and, in particular, through the ministry of Peter, the only one to whom Jesus specifically entrusted the keys of the kingdom (CCC 553).
St. Paul often compares priests to stewards of God’s household in his letters. In 1 Timothy 3:1-7 Paul describes the qualification for overseers of the Church. He says that they must control their own household. If they cannot control their household, how can they oversee God’s?
The dilemma one encounters in understanding the prophecy about Eliakim as “the fall of the papacy” is that the prophecy actually says that the entire house will fall with the unfastened peg. If you are not Catholic and view overseers as pastors, this prophecy would mean that the entire office of pastor would fail and also that all churches would come tumbling down with it.
On the other hand, if you recognize the prophecy as being addressed to the papacy, then you acknowledge that the entire household of God is fastened through the keys of Peter. If that’s the case, then the entire New Testament church falls since it’s fastened on the office of royal steward and overseers. Scripture tells us otherwise. The household of God is the pillar of truth, and hell will not prevail against it (1 Timothy 3:15, Matthew 16:18).