Concerning the Primacy of Peter

The following was written by a priest of the Canadian Orthodox Church



What follows is a brief treatment of certain Scriptures and of certain of the Sacred Canons concerning the role of the holy apostle Peter in the life of the Church. All Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible, unless otherwise noted.



Let us begin with Matthew 16:13-19. In response to our Lord’s question “Who do you [the disciples] say that I am?,” Peter answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The Lord then says, “Blesséd are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father Who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter [Rock], and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give you [singular] 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.”


Verse 18:

Now note first of all that Peter’s confession of faith is not at all of his own doing or conceiving; it is, rather, a pure gift of grace: “for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father Who is in heaven.” And it is plain from comparing Scripture with Scripture, rather than taking texts in isolation from their immediate and larger contexts that when our Lord calls Simon by a new name, “Peter,” which means “rock,” and promises that “on this rock I will build My church,” He does not mean that the rock on which His church is built is Peter Himself. In 1 Corinthians 3:11 the holy apostle Paul teaches that “no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” It is not Peter, but Christ Himself Who is the foundation of the Church. And not incidentally, in 1 Corinthians 10:4 St. Paul speaks of a “spiritual Rock” from which Israel drank in the wilderness, and says plainly “and that Rock was Christ.” Further, In Ephesians 2:19-20 the Apostle teaches that “the household of God” is “built upon the foundation of the apostles [plural!] and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone.”


How, then, is Simon a “rock”? He, by his profession of faith in Christ, is the very first to come to Christ “as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious,” and thereby to become the first of what Peter himself calls “living stones [again, plural]” who “are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5).


But what is the “rock” on which the Lord builds His Church? Again, Peter’s confession of faith is that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In Romans 10:9, St. Paul explains that “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” Similarly, in 1 John 5:1 the Belovéd Disciple teaches that “whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves Him Who begot also loves Him Who is begotten of Him.”


In the Catena Aurea complied by Thomas Aquinas, St. John Chrysostom is quoted as explaining: “That is, On this faith and confession I will build my Church. Herein shewing that many should believe what Peter had confessed, and raising his understanding, and making him His shepherd” (emphasis added).  That is followed immediately by a quote from the blesséd Augustine of Hippo, from his Retract. i. 21.: “I have said in a certain place of the Apostle Peter, that it was on him, as on a rock, that the Church was built. But I know that since that I have often explained these words of the Lord, Thou art Peter, and on this rock will I build my Church, as meaning upon Him whom Peter had confessed in the words, Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God; and so that Peter, taking his name from this rock, would represent the Church, which is built upon this rock. For it is not said to him, Thou art the rock, but, Thou art Peter. (1 Cor. 10:4.) But the rock was Christ, whom because Simon thus confessed, as the whole Church confesses Him, he was named Peter” (emphasis added). Thus, the “rock” is both the confession of faith that Peter made and the object of that confession, Jesus Christ; and the Church is built of those “living stones” who make the same confession of faith that Peter made.


Verse 19, part 1:

In verse 19, Our Lord says to Peter individually, “ And I will give you [singular] 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.”  The image of “keys” is rooted firmly in the culture contemporary with our Lord and the Disciples and in the Old Testament as well. Consider Isaiah 22:15-23. There, God says to “this steward, to Shebna, who is over the [royal] house” that he is about to be replaced with a new steward, Eliakim. Now, a “steward” is one who “wards” (guards) the “stead” (place, position and authority) of the master of the house. The “stead-ward” was a servant, oftentimes a slave, who administered the affairs and assets of a wealthy family’s household. As we see even on episodes of Downton Abbey, it is the butler and the housekeeper, exactly like the ancient stewards, who have charge of all the keys for all the doors and every room in the house. And in a royal or noble household, the steward not only carried they keys but also admitted visitors into the royal/noble presence. Hence, in Isaiah 22:22 God says of Eliakim, “The key of the house of David I will lay on his shoulder; so he shall open, and no one shall shut; and he shall shut, and no one shall open.”


Certainly, Peter exercised a crucial role in opening the door to the Kingdom of God. On the day of Pentecost, through his preaching 3000 souls entered the Kingdom (Acts 2:41); God used Peter to open the door for the Gentile centurion Cornelius and his family (Acts 10:1-48); and Peter’s testimony at the Council of Jerusalem helped open the door for the Church to all Gentiles (Acts 15:6ff).


But Peter was not the only Apostle to exercise that power of the keys. Certainly Paul was the “Apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13) and admitted them to the Church even when Peter— the incident with Cornelius notwithstanding—started waffling, such that Paul publicly rebuked Peter: “Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed” (cf. Galatians 2:11ff). As one English writer said about that moment, “I should hate to have been the one to tell Paul that Peter was head of the Church.” And note that Paul began admitting Gentiles to the Church as Gentiles without first “consulting with flesh and blood,” without getting permission from “those who were apostles before me,” much less from Peter in particular (Galatians 1:16-17). So the power of the keys is not unique to Peter.


Verse 19, part 2:

When Jesus gives Peter the authority to “bind” and to “loose,” the Lord is using phrases regularly employed among the rabbis for taking decisions in regard to the Law of Moses. To “bind” meant “to forbid” and to “loose” meant “to allow.” What does the teaching of Christ allow, and what does it forbid? As circumstances change, those questions need to be asked again, because our 21st-Century world is not quite the same as the 1st-Century world of the Apostles. In this writer’s lifetime there have been raucous debates about whether or not such things as drinking alcohol, dancing, going to movies, watching television, on-line gaming, etc., are allowed to a Christian or forbidden. So the binding and loosing are part of the apostolic authority to teach and apply the Gospel.


But this authority to bind and to loose is not unique to Peter, as we see in Matthew 18:18, where our Lord says to all the disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you [plural], whatever you [plural] bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you [plural] loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” And from the context of this chapter, we see that bind and loosing here refers specifically to matters of discipline in the Church, as (again in the Catena Aurea) St. Jerome teaches: “Because He had said, If he will not hear the Church, let him be to thee as a heathen, and a publican, whereupon the brother so contemned might answer, or think within himself, If you despise me, I also will despise you; if you condemn me, you shall be condemned by my sentence. He therefore confers powers upon the Apostles, that they may be assured that when any are condemned after this manner, the sentence of man is ratified by the sentence of God. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose upon the earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Note also from John 20:22-23 how this authority to bind and to loose is given to all the apostles when, on that first Pascha evening, the risen Lord “breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.‘”


Luke 22:31-32

Shortly before His Passion, our Lord said to Peter, “Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.” Note, first of all, that at least momentarily Peter’s faith did fail, in that three times he denied even knowing Jesus, much less being one of His followers. But, secondly, note how the Lord foreknows Peter’s repentance (“when you have returned to Me“); so unlike that of Judas, Peter’s failure is not spiritually fatal. However, note also that Peter’s ministry of strengthening his brethren comes only after his repentance. And we see from John 21:15ff that our Lord made that repentance and Peter’s restoration as public as his denials and fall had been. In any case, the ministry of strengthening his brethren can no more be included in some putative “Petrine office” than can the denials, the repentance, and  the restoration to apostolic office. To put it simply, this is a one-off, dealing with Peter alone and personally; it is his story, not the story of any Bishops of Rome following him.


However, it is important to note that the ministry of strengthening the brethren can only be exercised by standing among the brethren, not over them, contrary to the claim in Pastor Aeternus of the immediate and universal jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff over the whole Church. Note in Mark 10:41-45, when the Lord catches the disciples squabbling among themselves over power and position, He commands servanthood to one another rather than lording it over one another: “Whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”


Peter’s Exercise of Primacy

Assuming for the sake of argument that Peter was commissioned by the Lord to lead the apostolic band, it is crucial to examine the Scriptures to see how Peter understood that leadership by how he exercised it.


Acts 1:15ff

Faced with the issue of replacing Judas among the Twelve as “a witness with us of [Christ’s] resurrection, it was indeed Peter who “stood up in the midst of the disciples,” articulated the problem, and summarised the qualifications for Judas’ replacement. Then “they [the assembled disciples] proposed two: Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias.” Next, “they [again, the assembled disciples] prayed” for God to show them “which of these two You have chosen.” But then, contrary to the claim by the Roman Pontiffs of sole authority to appoint bishops, “they [yet again, the assembled disciples] cast their lots, and the lot fell on Matthias. And he was numbered with the eleven apostles.” The choosing of the new apostle was done collectively or, as Orthodoxy would say these days, in a conciliar manner, not as an exercise of “papal authority.”


Acts 15:1ff

The first major conflict within the infant Church was over the admission of Gentiles to the Church as Gentiles, without having first to convert to Judaism. Some Jewish believers came from Jerusalem to Antioch “and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.'” That raised the ire of Paul and Barnabas, who “had no small dissension and dispute with them.” So the Church at Antioch sent “Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them” to Jerusalem, “to the apostles and elders with this question.”


When “the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter,” there was what we might delicately call “vigorous discussion. Finally, “when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up” and gave them his understanding of the Gospel: “But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.” But that did not settle the matter, as if by some “infallible statement” given ex cathedra. Rather, “then all the multitude kept silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul declaring how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles,” i.e., the assembled apostles and elders went on to consider further evidence in the matter.


Finally, when Barnabas and Paul “had become silent,” it was not Peter, but James, as the bishop of Jerusalem, who took charge. Firstly, it was he who passed judgment on and validated Peter’s teaching that “God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name” by declaring this teaching to be in agreement with “the words of the prophets.” Then it is again, not Peter, but James who sums up the consensus and says “Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God” and outlines what the letter to the Gentiles should say. And note that the letter was composed and sent, not by Peter as a papal encyclical or motu proprio, but by “the apostles [plural] and elders, and the brethren” (v.23).


1 Peter 1:1 and 5:1

Crucial to this discussion is how Peter himself understood his own office and ministry. In 1 Peter 1:1 he refers to himself simply as “Peter an apostle of Jesus Christ:” not “the apostle,” not “the only apostle,” not even “the chief apostle;” but simply “an apostle of Jesus Christ.” Then, in 1 Peter 5:1, he writes “The elders who are among you I exhort [not ‘command’ or ‘order’ but ‘exhort, encourage’], I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed.” Peter claims for himself no higher title or authority than “an apostle” and “fellow elder.” Clearly, then, Peter himself did not understand his office and authority to be the kind of primacy claimed for his successors by papal teaching, especially by Vatican I’s Pastor Aeternus. Nor is there any scriptural evidence to support such claims.



Neither Orthodoxy nor the Roman Communion accept the maxim that doctrine is derived sola scriptura, but rather place the Scriptures in the centre of that larger context we call Holy Tradition. In a sense, Holy Tradition (by which we mean the writings of the ancient Fathers, the teachings and canons of the Ecumenical and local councils, the liturgical texts, and so forth) answer the question: “How has the Body of Christ consistently understood and applied the Scriptures from the beginning?”  So in reference to the matter before us, the question is “How did the ancient and undivided Church understand the issue of the primacy of Peter and his successors?”


Naturally, our first instinct would be to search out the writings of the various fathers, such as Augustine, John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Cyprian of Carthage, etc. The problem with that approach is that because we cannot ascribe infallibility to any single one of the fathers, and because the fathers sometimes disagree in their individual interpretations of Scripture, we can come to no definitive understanding from the fathers.


We can, however, come to a definitive understanding from the Sacred Canons. However, we must first understand the meaning of the word “canon.” In the West, there has developed the unfortunate phrase (too often borrowed by English-speaking Orthodox) “canon law.” Such language goes hand-in-hand with the Western notion of canons as laws which can be changed, abrogated, replaced, or dispensed from by the law-giver, whether that be pope or synod.


In the East, the word κανϖν is understood in its original sense of “plumb line, ruler, measuring stick,” because we see the canons as the measure of what it means to be and to behaving as a Christian in this or that specific circumstance. In other words, the East understands the Sacred Canons, not as laws, but as applications of doctrine to specific situations, as directions on how to live the Gospel, applications of doctrine binding upon the whole Church because they were decreed or approved of by Ecumenical Councils of the whole Church. This huge difference in the definition of “canon” is often quite difficult for the Westerner to take in all at once; but understanding the difference is crucial. Why? Because in the current discussion, how the canons of the Ecumenical and local Councils understand the role and authority of the Bishop of Rome constitute nothing less than a doctrinal statement on the Petrine primacy.


Let us note also that the Sacred Canons which the Orthodox Church holds as binding are those decreed by the Seven Ecumenical Councils acting to set forth Orthodox Christian doctrine and its application to specific circumstances. The canons set forth by the local councils and by the various holy fathers were explicitly adopted and given ecumenical authority by Canon 1 of the 4th Ecumenical Council, Canon 2 of the 6th Ecumenical Council, and Canon 1 of the 7th Ecumenical Council.


Canon 3 of the Council of Sardica (A.D.347) provides that if two Bishops in a province have a dispute with one another, they ought not to request Bishops from a foreign province to investigate the matter, but rather let it be tried by their fellow Bishops in their own province. If one of them is condemned by the Bishops of their own province but still maintains that he is not in the wrong, the Bishops who have tried the case ought to write to the Bishop of Rome, telling him that the condemned Bishop does not agree with their decision, in order that the Bishop of Rome, if he deems the case to merit a review, may order it re-tried by Bishops of provinces nearby the original province; otherwise, the original verdict stands. Canons 4 and 5 of this Council repeat and further explain this provision. But note that this council was a local council, dealing with matters in its own area; at the time Sardica was part of Moesia, a province subject to the Bishop of Rome. Therefore this canon refers only to provinces subject to the Roman patriarchate. So the right of appeal to the Roman See is not universal, but limited to the provinces subject to the Roman See.


Canons 2 of the 2nd Ecumenical Council (A.D.381) mandates explicitly that “Bishops must not leave their own diocese and go over to churches beyond its boundaries, but on the contrary, in accordance with the Canons, let the Bishop of Alexandria administer the affairs of Egypt only, let the Bishops of the East govern the Eastern Church only, the priorities granted to the church of the Antiochians in the Nicene Canons being kept inviolate, and let the Bishops of the Asian diocese (or administrative domain) administer only the affairs of the Asian church, and let those of the Pontic diocese look after the affairs of the diocese of Pontus only, and let those of the Thracian diocese manage the affairs of the Thracian diocese only. Let Bishops not go beyond their own province to carry out an ordination or any other ecclesiastical services unless (officially) summoned thither. When the Canon prescribed in regard to dioceses (or administrative provinces) is duly kept, it is evident that the synod of each province will confine itself to the affairs of that particular province, in accordance with the regulations decreed in Nicaea. But the churches of God that are situated in territories belonging to barbarian nations must be administered in accordance with the customary practice of the Fathers.”


The reference to “the regulations decreed in Nicaea” is to Canon 6 of the 1st Ecumenical Council, which confirms the ancient prerogatives of the Alexandrian and Antiochian Sees, and prescribes that in general a candidate may be made a Bishop only with the approval of the Metropolitan of that province (which means, effectively, by majority vote of the province’s synod of Bishops); and to Canon 7 of the 1st Ecumenical Council, which confirms that the Bishop of Aelia (Jerusalem) “have the sequence of honour, with the Metropolitan having his own dignity preserved” as fourth in dignity, after Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. But in any event, this Canon restricts the authority of Bishops to their own diocese and Metropolitans and Synods to their own province.


Canon 3 of the 2nd Ecumenical Council then provides, “Let the Bishop of Constantinople, however, have the priorities of honour after the Bishop of Rome, because of its being New Rome.” Note carefully the language of the Canon. Firstly, the priority is “of honour,” not of authority. Secondly, the Bishop of Rome comes first in the priority of honour because he is the Bishop of what was once the capital of the Roman Empire. Thirdly, the Bishop of Constantinople comes second in the priority of honour because he is the Bishop of the new capital of the Roman Empire.


This is confirmed by Canon 28 of the 4th Ecumenical Council, by which the gathered fathers “decree and vote the same things in regard to the privileges and priorities of the most holy church of that same Constantinople and New Rome.” Then the fathers give their rationale: “the Fathers [i.e., of previous councils] naturally enough granted priorities to the throne of Old Rome on account of her being the imperial capital. And motivated by the same object and aim the one hundred and fifty most God-beloved Bishops [i.e., of the 2nd Ecumenical Council] have accorded like priorities to the most holy throne of New Rome, with good reason deeming that the city which is the seat of an empire, and of a senate, and is equal to old imperial Rome in respect of other privileges and priorities, should be magnified also as she is in respect of ecclesiastical affairs, as coming next after her [i.e., old Rome], or as being second to her” (emphasis added). The Fathers clearly explain that the primacy given to old Rome was on the basis of it being the imperial capital, not on the basis of any sort of permanent “Petrine Primacy.”


Because some on old Rome tried to interpret the words “after” Canon 3 of the 2nd and “second” in Canon 28 of the 4th to mean that Old Rome had or retained some sort of authority over New Rome, Canon 36 of the 6th Ecumenical Council (A.D.691) reiterated the decisions of the 2nd and 4th Councils: “we decree that the throne of Constantinople shall enjoy equal seniorities (or priorities) with the throne of older Rome, and in ecclesiastical matters shall be magnified like the latter, coming second after the latter; after which the throne of the great city of the Alexandrians shall come next, then that of Antioch, and after this the throne of the city of the Jerusalemites” (emphasis added). By this Canon, Constantinople enjoys exactly the same rights, honours, authority and privileges as old Rome in the exercise of ecclesiastical matters; but in the matter of protocol, old Rome comes first, followed by Constantinople and the other three ancient patriarchates in their order. As a matter of interest, all of the Canons of the previous 6 Ecumenical Councils are confirmed by Canon 1 of the 7th Ecumenical Council, by popes Adrian I, Gregory II, and Innocent III, and by the papal legates to the Council of Constantinople in A.D. 861.



The Scriptures and the conciliar interpretation of the Scriptures by the Church gathered in Ecumenical Councils, as recorded in the Sacred Canons do grant to Peter and to the throne of old Rome primacy among the brethren but not over them; and a primacy of honour but not of authority. But even that primacy is null, void and of no effect unless and until old Rome rejects its heresies, most notably both the addition to the Creed and the doctrine of the filioque and the doctrines of papal infallibility and immediate and universal jurisdiction as defined by Vatican I in Pastor Aeternus, and returns to the true Faith.