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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Church Survival—Matthew 16:13-20 (Timothy Simpson)

Matthew 16:13-20 has fuelled theological conflict between Roman Catholics and Protestants for centuries. However, revisiting this controverted text, we can recover neglected truths about the character of the Church that are good news in an era of Christian institutional decline.

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14 And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15 He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ 16 Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17 And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you 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.’ 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

The politics of Matthew 16 are deeply complex and involve arguments that go back centuries. Few passages of scripture have had as much ink spilled and blood shed over their meaning than this one. Because it has been so divisive for Christians, some pastors may steer clear of it when choosing a lectionary passage from which to preach this coming Sunday. That’s unfortunate, in my judgment, because there is a lot of Good News here from which congregations can richly profit.

The setting of the scene, Caesarea Philippi, had a political dimension all it’s own. It was the site of an ancient sacred spring emanating from the mouth of a cave at which a shrine to the god Pan had been established, which is reflected in the modern Arabic name of the nearby village, Banias. Herod the Great and then his son, Herod Philip, as was their family custom, built there a resplendent complex of buildings designed to showcase Rome’s wealth and power.

Jesus takes this time with his disciples to do some public opinion research on the nature of his identity. This question makes more sense when one realizes that the rock face of the mountain that forms the backdrop for the cave of Pan had carved into it numerous niches, still visible today, into which miniature shrines to various other deities in Rome’s pantheon could be ensconced. Rome had a “big tent” perspective on religious devotion and as such was quite ecumenical, validating a variety of beliefs and practices. So long as one was able to participate in civic aspects of Roman religious life (from which Jews were exempted), Rome was all about options, and the narrator may be suggesting that this setting evoked in Jesus a desire to talk about options that the Jews of his day might have had in assessing who he was and what he was doing.

Peter, as we all know, delivered the correct response when Jesus shifted his poll question from Judeans in general to the disciples in particular: “You are the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the living God.” Some have tried to mitigate Peter’s assertion by saying that he was speaking, not simply for himself, but for all of the disciples as their representative, it being too cumbersome to have all of the rest of them saying the same thing. This is perhaps the case, but the scene’s continuation appears to speak against this view because only Peter is addressed hereafter. The narrative does not seem constructed to buttress broadly apostolic authority but rather Petrine supremacy specifically.

And it is at this point in interpretation that the gloves come off in the church and everybody chooses sides. Space does not permit even an executive summary of the mountain of scholarship on 16:18-20, so let me save you a lot of trouble and get directly to the point. The text means exactly what it seems to be saying, and no amount of exegetical obfuscation can diminish that reality. Peter is both the “little stone” (petros) and the “rock” (petra) to which Jesus refers. Protestants have for centuries tangled themselves up in the most convoluted game of intellectual Twister trying to deny this, but it is unavoidable. The narrator has Jesus making a pun and it’s only funny if Peter is its object: “You are a pebble and upon this ‘rock’ I’m going to build my church…” As a humorless Protestant I was raised to believe that Jesus suffered from both ADD as well as some undefined personality disorder, such that he started a sentence talking about Peter but then ended up talking about himself using a metaphor apropos of nothing. Jesus was the rock, we were told, and in case we didn’t get it we were treated to endless iterations of the Sandi Patty gospel song. Likewise, we resisted the idea that Peter had been given any authority over anything by Jesus, but to do thus we had to run roughshod over all of the normal rules for interpreting scripture which we scrupulously followed everywhere else in the Bible. For the plain sense of the scripture has Jesus giving Peter binding and loosing authority in heaven and on earth, which in context seems to be granting him interpretive authority over Torah implementation from the perspective of Matthew’s community, which appears to be the most Jewish of any of those that produced a gospel.

Now all of this leaves Protestants cold, for obvious reasons. This is the text that Roman Catholics have used to validate their claims regarding the papacy, so resistance to anything that could be construed as supporting the papacy has been wired into our DNA. But I don’t believe that kind of reaction is necessary and, indeed, think it counter-productive insofar as it turns what I think is an extremely relevant text for all Christians into something polarizing, which is actually at odds with the very message that the text offers us.

I want to make two observations that I hope will make my Protestant colleagues more open to preaching this text. First, while I think there is absolutely no question that Matthew’s gospel is arguing for the primacy of Peter, Matthew’s assertion is by no means the only such claim in the New Testament and as such has to be balanced against other sources of authority. Indeed, the vehemence with which Matthew makes the case for Petrine primacy subverts his own presentation. If the matter was that clear, one would not have to make it so forcefully. Thus it is no surprise that we find similarly combative claims being staked out in the gospel of John for the Beloved Disciple, who is seen regularly besting Peter and earning Jesus’ favor at Peter’s expense, and in the writings of Paul, who savages Peter’s hypocrisy in Galatians 1. My point is that there was a vigorous contest for authority in the first century, the threads of which are collected in the New Testament, without a winner ever being decided. Much as we find in the Old Testament, where the three “major prophets” provide three opposing views of how Israel got itself into exile and how it should get itself out of its mess, so the New Testament gives us a set of options in its presentation of the various available Christianities without telling us which one is the “right” one.

Second, it is perfectly reasonable to take Matthew 16 as establishing the primacy of Peter without accepting the modern institution of the papacy which traces its founding to this text. There have been plenty of good Roman Catholics who lived and died understanding Matthew 16 as establishing Peter as the bishop of Rome and the leader of the church but yet who would have had no conception whatsoever of that office as now construed. That office developed across centuries under a variety of influences and circumstances which have nothing whatsoever to do with Matthew 16. In his book Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe, British historian Peter Heather has a wonderful explanation of the development of the medieval papacy beginning around the time of Charlemagne. Prior to that time, there were certainly people who believed that the Bishop of Rome should be respected above other bishops, but there were also many other people who ignored or disregarded whatever whomever was pope at the time had to say when it differed from their own perspective, and did so without a hint of worry about their standing before God. None of this is to suggest that Roman Catholics are somehow wrong for their construal of Matthew 16 as being the foundational text for what has become the structure of their branch of Christianity. That is certainly a legitimate construal of the text. But this is not a zero-sum game. If the Roman Catholics are right about Matthew 16, it doesn’t mean, therefore, that Protestants are wrong and vice versa. The application of Matthew 16 to actual situations can be very different and, as I said in my first observation, there are always other texts that push against Matthew 16 in terms of the issue of authority.

So where is the Good News in all of this? For me, the most important part of this passage has nothing to do with Peter’s authority whatsoever. Rather, it is in Jesus’ assertion that “the gates of hell” would not prevail against the church. The image of “the gates of hell” seems to have been drawn from the physical features of Caesarea Philippi, namely the entrance to the cave at the shrine of Pan, which descends to the bowels of the earth, into which pagan sacrifices were hurled, sometimes even ones of the human variety. With this hellish scene before them, Jesus confidently asserts the stability and security of this new community against the onslaughts of even the forces of darkness.

We live in a cultural moment in which the religious impulse in community life is beating a hasty retreat. Every other month a new poll comes out showing a decline in religious belief, a decline on church attendance, a decline in personal religious practice and so on. Those secular polls are interspersed with bulletins from denominational headquarters about church closures, administrative down-sizing and other acts of retrenchment. We go to meetings of our parish councils and see the bills for shoring up our collapsing physical plants, while absorbing the treasurer’s report of the decline in per capita giving, all this after listening to a reading of the names of those saints—tithers all—who have been raised to the church triumphant since the last meeting. Having no idea how we’re going to make it into next year, we shuffle home from our meetings and watch the evening news, only to be told that there are crazy people chopping off the heads of our fellow Christians in other parts of the world. “How can this go on,” we ask ourselves.

I have sat through countless children’s sermons in which the presenter asks the kids, “Do you know what the church is?” Invariably, little Johnny or Susie will pipe up and say, “The building!” Whereupon all the adults will smile knowingly at the trap into which the little tyke has fallen. “No Johnny/Susie,” the presenter replies, “the church is all of us.” Whereupon all the adults will smile knowingly at the “lightbulb moment” which the church has just facilitated for the next generation.

As I see it, however, the biggest challenge on this front facing us today is not the children confusing the church for the building, but rather the adults confusing the church with the institution.

So much of the church’s energy these days is directed, unhelpfully, into institutional survival. It’s a normal response towards any transgenerational undertaking: nobody wants it to fold on our watch. But what we are witnessing is the folding of administrative structures, of buildings, of staffing arrangements, and compensation packages. None of that is the church. They’ve been nice accoutrements that have helped the church do its work, but they were always add-ons, side dishes, non-essential elements that perhaps made life easier and more manageable, but nothing more. This week’s gospel text provides a tremendous opportunity for the thoughtful pastor to talk to their congregation about this important subject in a way that reclaims this text from the wars of the Reformation and which reminds the church of the true source if its life and strength, namely, Jesus Christ, the son of the living God. This one is Lord of both Protestants and Catholics. It is in him that we find our strength, our unity and, most importantly for this conversation, our future.

Timothy F. Simpson is Editor Emeritus of Political Theology.

One thought on “The Politics of Church Survival—Matthew 16:13-20 (Timothy Simpson)

  1. Found this to be a thoughtful discussion of how we’ve often sinfully interpreted this text to guard our own fishing grounds. I appreciate the background about the Matthean community as one not anchored by our myopic church forms, but freed by the gospel to move from these idols of our making… to that which benefits proclamation.

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