But some are more equal than others

Book 4 Chapter 6 Section 1-17

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an allegorical novel about the revolt of a group of farm animals against their human rulers. The revolution promises freedom and equality for all. “All animals are equal” being one of the 7 commandments  that unite the animals against their common enemy (humans!). But soon the utopia turns sour as the pigs slowly begin taking more and more authority at the expense of the other animals. Eventually they even modify the founding principles to allow for their new found dominance – “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”. They abuse their positions of power and return the farm to the repression that it originally revolted against.

As a scholar in the 16th century Calvin see the repression and dominance of the Roman See and asks – How did Rome achieve this dominance and what were the reasons it used to justify its superiority to the other churches? His proposition is that in a similar way to which the animals in the farm began equal and free, the church began with equal authority amongst its leaders that, over time and with very little justification, a rigid hierarchy was introduced with Rome at the top and all others subordinate. Calvin traces the arguments which have been put forward to justify the fact that “some churches are more equal than others.”

1. The high priest was appointed by God with supreme jurisdiction in Jerusalem. While this is true, Calvin recognises that there is no reason “to extend what was useful to one nation to the whole world.” God appointed such a figure that his people “might not be distracted by a variety of religions…that they might be the better kept in unity.” Moreover, as the high priest was a type of Christ, with the priesthood being transferred to Christ, so also this office.

2. Peter was appointed as the leader of the apostles by Jesus in Matthew 16.18-19. When Christ said “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church etc”, was he appointing Peter as his successor and representative on earth? Calvin argues that just as “Peter had received a command from the Lord, so he exhorts all other presbyters to feed the church (1 Peter 5.2)”. And in the giving of the keys in v 19, there is nothing more here than the power to “retain and remit sins…as ministers of the gospel are commissioned to reconcile men to God, and at the same time to exercise discipline over those who reject the benefit.” Calvin argues that “nothing is here given to Peter that was not common to him with his colleagues.” However, he will concede that “Peter surpasses others in fervid zeal, in doctrine, in magnanimity” therefore we might rightly say he was “first among the faithful”. But “there is a great difference between the honour of rank and the possession of power.” Peter was “one of the twelve, their equal, their colleague, not their master.”

3. Peter ministered at Rome, and as the head of the early church conferred his authority to it. Calvin goes on to say that even if, for the sake of progressing the logic, we concede that “the primacy of the church was fixed in Peter, with the view of remaining for ever by perpetual succession”, how does this then confer on Rome the right to first place? They claim Peter lived and died in Rome, but actually Antioch was his first place of ministry. Why is this not the supreme seat of authority? Well, they claim that when he left Antioch, Peter “transferred the honour which he had brought with him to Rome.”

4. The Early Church recognised Rome as the supreme head. This Calvin admits was the case, but he says this was for three reasons: 1) “the opinion which had prevailed that the church was founded and constituted by the ministry of Peter” (despite there being no textual evidence to support this claim, it somehow became the established view), 2) the seat of the Empire was there and 3) the church of Rome was calmer and less troubled than its compatriots in the East, Greece and Africa. While it may have been the convenient and logical decision to give deference to Rome at the start of the church’s growth, this is a far cry from there being any biblical justification for such a position.

Indeed, Calvin sums up the possible options for perpetual succession  in three options, either the seat of authority is personal (tied to a person), real (tied to a place) or mixed (elements of both the former concepts). From their own arguments Calvin claims they must concede that it is mixed for “the mere consideration of a place is not sufficient unless the person also correspond.” Hence, Calvin reveals how shallow and retrospective are the various arguments that claim Rome as the rightful ruler over Christendom.

Response 

While I do not hold to the view that Peter was somehow superior to the other apostles, I think the gospels do show that there were three apostles who were in Jesus’ inner circle. Peter, James and John were the ones who he took with him nearly everywhere, who he revealed himself to on the mount of transfiguration. If there was any form of hierarchy among the apostles and early church then I would say Peter, James and John should have equal weight. Indeed, when Paul comes on the scene, it seems that despite his “unnatural” birth he is recognised as an equal by Peter and the others (Galatians 2.6-10).

It’s interesting how Jesus speaks to Peter throughout his life. He is often directly singled out by Jesus for warnings, challenges, exhortations and praise. I think Jesus knew that Peter was a natural leader with strong passions. When he speaks to him in Matthew 16 about being the rock at the foundation of the church, I think this is preparation for what Peter would learn only a few months later in Matthew 26.31-35 & John 21.17 – that in his own strength he was not equal to such a role. Yes the promise of Matthew 16 was given to all the disciples, but it was said to Peter because Jesus knew that he would need to know the truth of this promise when he failed his test. Jesus never gave up on Peter, and after his failure, enabled him to write two of the most humble, challenging, encouraging and inspiring letters in the New Testament.

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Luke 22.31-32

Father, may we learn from Peter’s example that in our own strength we can do nothing, but in your strength we can do all things. Amen

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