Roman Catholicism is installing Francis as pope today. And much has been made of his bus rides and apartment dwelling back home in Buenos Aires. (The fact that people are impressed by his studied avoidance of opulence actually speaks volumes about Roman Catholicism in general). But while the press fawns and Rome beams over his supposed humility, what should Bible-believing Protestants say? Probably something like this: “How great sin have you heaped up for yourself, when you cut yourself off from so many flocks! For it is yourself that you have cut off. Do not deceive yourself!”
Now that would probably not make the cut for a Christianity Today editorial, like A Pope for All Christians, but it is how Christians responded the first time a bishop in Rome made the incredibly arrogant claim that he was supreme pontiff.
Conflicting over Church Membership
Stephen, the bishop of Rome in the third century (d. A.D. 257), was actually the first guy to pull the “no, you kiss my ring” card. He did so during a conflict over church membership that was one of the most important debates in the early church – how to treat “lapsed” Christians. That is, how should churches receive Christians who had buckled in the face of Roman persecution, but who later wanted to rejoin the Church after the threat of persecution subsided.
Should the “lapsed” be permanently banned as apostates? Or accepted immediately as though no harm had been done? Perhaps the Church should create some kind of second-tier status for them? It was a tricky issue that resisted easy solutions. And it certainly wasn’t absent of passion, especially if it was your friends and family who had gone to the lions without wavering.
Once churches began to adopt differing approaches, the problems only multiplied. You can imagine the difficulties. How were the more “lenient” churches, those who immediately accepted lapsed Christians, to be treated by those who took a stronger stance? And how were other churches to view new converts in “lenient” churches? Was their baptism and Christian profession even valid? Some guys, like Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (d. 258), said no. While others, like Stephen of Rome, said yes.
Who Made You Bishop of Bishops?
Whatever our assessment of the immediate issue, Stephen’s method left much to be desired. Not content to reason through the disagreement, Stephen one-up’d everyone because he was, after all, bishop of Rome, the capital of the earth’s greatest empire! Ministering in Rome, Stephen felt he should pull more weight, so he effectively excommunicated the churches in North Africa and around the Mediterranean. Cyprian’s response to him is still instructive:
It remains that we should individually express our opinions on this same subject, judging no one, and removing no one from the right of communion if he should entertain a different opinion. For neither does any one of us set himself up as a bishop of bishops, or by tyrannical terror force his colleagues to the necessity of obeying, since every bishop, in the free use of his liberty and power, has the right of free judgment, and can no more be judged by another than he can himself judge another. But we are all awaiting the judgment of our Lord Jesus Christ who alone has the power both of preferring us in the government of His Church, and of judging of our actions (Cyprian, cited by Augustine in Writings Against the Manichaeans and Donatists).
In other words, Cyprian wanted to know who had died and made Stephen pope. No one has the prerogative to “set himself up as a bishop of bishops” and tyrannically force obedience upon others.
But even more to the point was Cyprian’s friend, Firmilian, bishop of Caesarea (d. 268), in Against the Letter of Stephen (A.D. 256):
And this indeed you Africans are able to say against Stephen, that when you knew the truth you forsook the error of custom. But we join custom to truth, and to the Romans’ custom we oppose custom, but the custom of truth; holding from the beginning that which was delivered by Christ and the apostles…
For what strife and dissensions have you stirred up throughout the churches of the whole world! Moreover, how great sin have you heaped up for yourself, when you cut yourself off from so many flocks! For it is yourself that you have cut off. Do not deceive yourself, since he is really the schismatic who has made himself an apostate from the communion of ecclesiastical unity.
For while you think that all may be excommunicated by you, you have excommunicated yourself alone from all; and not even the precepts of an apostle have been able to mold you to the rule of truth and peace, although he warned, and said, ‘I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in us all’ [Eph 4:1-6].
Personally, I like Firmilian’s style – Scripture-quoting and straight to the point. Stephen opposed the truth delivered by Christ and the Apostles, something we call the New Testament! By violating it, Stephen had effectively excommunicated himself. And that’s still what every pope effectively accomplishes, including Francis.
Breaking Unity… in Humility?
Let’s be clear, Francis is not humble. He’s actually quite adorned with pride, especially today. Any leader who announces his own supremacy and draws self-imposed boundaries around his own authority has flagrantly violated the peaceful unity of Christ’s body – a peace over which every Christian is accountable to stand guard (Eph 4:3). Firmilian was right, the papacy is an act of self-excommunication out of the Church. And it is impossible to do that humbly.
Dividing the Church is never a humble act. There is no humble way to break the unity of the Spirit (Eph 4:1-6). You can never exceed what has been written in Scripture with humility (1 Cor 4:6). It is impossible to humbly love first-place, like Diotrephes (3 John 3). So, irrespective of his bus route or his amiability at press conferences, Pope Francis along with each of his predecessors, is inexcusably arrogant. By definition, there can be no such thing as a humble pope.
Tomorrow, I’ll address why I think it is pastorally important to still say to the Pope: “It is yourself that you have cut off. Do not deceive yourself.”