January 18th marks a day in the liturgical calendar which highlights both the unity and the division of the Church as we know it today. Today we crack open our Bibles to Matthew 16 together and read the same words and come to very different conclusions.
We see there one of the most beautiful and succinct summation of who Jesus is: “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” As Christ, he is the long-awaited human Messiah. As Son of the living God, he is God himself incarnate. Rarely do we find such perfect clarity during Jesus’ ministry! This is so incredible that Jesus commends Simon Peter, pointing out that such knowledge only could have come from God.
But what our Lord says next has gotten us all in a tizzy: “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.” In recent centuries the Roman Catholic Church has put this forward as the first hint of the Papacy beginning with St. Peter. This was probably an attempted push-back against Protestantism or its precursors in the Lollard movement or other such dissenters. They have come to focus “this rock” upon the person of Peter to the expense of Peter’s confession. In predictable reaction, Protestants have focused “this rock” to be Peter’s confession to the expense of his person.
From what I have read thus far of early Christian writings, both Peter’s person and confession seem to be in mind here. The focus on Peter as an individual who is a rock at the foundation of the Church is very real. But his confession of faith is very much needed here too. The special authority to loose and bind Jesus extends to the rest of the twelve two chapters later, and finally bestows in John 20. And that is significant: the foundation of Christ’s Church is made up of all the Apostles together. St. Paul makes his very observation himself. Although Peter is the initial mouthpiece for the whole group, and he serves as a sort of leader early in the book of Acts, there is no biblical foundation for Petrine supremacy.
And so we have today’s splits in the Western Church, ironically centered (in part) around these verses that call for unity. Protestantism calls for the true confession of faith as the required source of unity, and Roman Catholicism calls for the true leadership of the Church as the required source of unity. But what if both are right?
As I already pointed out, the rock foundation of the Church is not Peter or the subsequent Papacy, but “the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” What if the unity of the Church is based both on Peter’s confession and the historic line of leadership? This is the witness that we as Anglicans put forth to the world. We have confessional documents like Classical Protestants, but they’re very short and summary. We have Bishops in apostolic succession, but they’re not overshadowed by a Pope.
The Gates of Hell
In this day and age, many will point to the rampant problems across the Anglican Communion – problems of heresy and disunion and malpractice and schism. How on earth can we be any sort of witness or good example to our Christian brethren in this condition?
First of all, none of our problems are unique to us. We have the same issues as our Protestant cousins – erosion of the true confession faith, the popular winds of false doctrines swooping many people astray, charismatic leadership speaking louder than God’s Word. And we have the same issues as our Roman Catholic cousins – overblown faith in leaders who aren’t as godly as they ought to be, fixation on the Church as an institution rather than the Body of Christ, preference for “walking together” at the expense of theological integrity.
The way I see it, the fact that we have both buttresses supporting our Church (a confession of faith and apostolic succession), the Enemy has two fronts on which to attack us. And yet here we stand in the midst of the chaos, beaten up but not defeated, and the Gospel is still being promulgated throughout the world. I don’t think our problems discredit our witness to the promises of Christ in Matthew 16 any more than the problems of other Christian traditions discredit theirs. If anything, I can’t help but suspect that our having a broader ecclesial foundation makes us a bigger target for the Enemy worthy of particular attack.
Whateverso, whether I’m right or whether I’m wrong, we stand in the promise of Christ that the “gates of hell” will not prevail against his Church; rather, the Church will withstand the onslaught unto the End. Until that day, let us “Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Timothy 6:12). And let us continue united with the Apostles from whom we receive the words, “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3).
For it is not a burden to be bound either by the Apostolic faith nor by the Apostolic succession. For it is in that perfect and complete fellowship “that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1:4).