An artist rendering of three medieval popes - Public Domain

Anyone paying attention to the news last week could not have missed Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States. Perhaps the most alarming aspect of his visit was the way in which some evangelical leaders enthusiastically embraced him. Today’s article addresses one of the many reasons why evangelicals should neither endorse nor applaud the office of the papacy.

Watch Jamie Jackson’s interview with Dr. Nathan Busenitz concerning the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church.

The Popularity of the Papacy

Francis is unarguably one of the most popular popes in recent memory. That popularity has been fueled, largely, by his unexpected message of tolerance toward those who have historically been condemned by the Catholic Church.

In last few months, Francis has even shocked many Catholics with statements he has made about homosexuality, divorce, abortion, capitalism, climate change, and how he views of people in non-Catholic religions.

Some of his comments have been so surprising, in fact, that it leads one to wonder about the continuing validity of the rhetorical question: “Is the Pope Catholic?” With Francis, it’s getting harder and harder to say for sure.

In spite of all of that, the pope has never been more popular. Type the words “Pope Francis souvenirs” into Google and over 1.8 million results show up. There are Pope Francis bobble heads, coffee mugs, commemorative buttons, key chains, wall art, collectible stamps, prayer cards, throw pillows, and a whole lot more.

Incredibly, the pope’s popularity has even spilled over into Protestant circlesenticing a number of evangelical leaders to embrace him as a brother in Christ, rather than to reject him as a false teacher. In the words of one well-known television preacher, regarding Francis: “I love the fact that’s he’s made the Church more inclusive. Not trying to make it smaller, but to try to make it larger—to take everybody in. So, that just resonates with me.”

But the fact of the matter is that the popularity of this pope or any other pope represents the tragic reality that there are more than a billion people today caught in the clutches of a false religious system. The Roman Catholic church is not the true church. It is an apostate movement that has undermined the gospel by elevating the traditions of men above the Word of God.

The Preeminence of the Papacy

A quick survey of Roman Catholic literature demonstrates that Catholicism regards the pope as the head of the church. The 2009 Catholic Almanac puts it this way: “The pope is the supreme head of the Church. He has primacy of jurisdiction as well as honor over the entire church” (Bunson, 273).

The Catholicism Answer Book, published in 2007, makes a similar assertion: “[T]he pope possesses full, supreme, immediate, and universal authority to run the Church. . . . There is no appeal above the pope’s authority, since he is considered the Vicar of Christ on Earth” (Brighenti and Trigilio, 376–377).

The Roman Catholic church is not the true church. It is an apostate movement that has undermined the gospel by elevating the traditions of men above the Word of God.Catholicism asserts that there is no appeal above the pope’s authority. But what happens when a pope teaches things that are contrary to the Word of God, as has happened repeatedly throughout church history? The authority of Scripture is contravened and sound doctrine is obfuscated.

Though the pope claims to be the vicar of Christ, the reality is that the office of the papacy stands in direct opposition to both the work of Christ (the gospel) and the Word of Christ (the Scriptures). That is why the Protestant Reformers referred to the papacy as “antichrist,” a term that they meant in the general sense of one who claims to represent Christ but in fact opposes Him. Popes may claim to be the head of the church. But the Reformers, armed with the truth of God’s Word, were quick to point out that no mere man can rightly occupy that position, because Christ alone is the head of His church (cf. Col. 1:18).

The Priesthood of the Papacy

There are many ways in which we could illustrate the elevated position of authority that the papacy claims for itself. One that you might not expect comes from a source no less mundane than the Pope’s Twitter handle: @pontifex.

At first glance, that username may not seem very significant. But from a historical perspective, the term “pontifex” is quite revealing.

Going back a couple hundred years before the birth of Christ, in the Roman empire, the High Priest of Roman paganism was called the “Pontifex Maximus.” There is a little bit of debate as to the etymology of the term “pontifex,” but when the title “Pontifex Maximus” was translated into Greek, it was rendered by the Greek term “ἀρχιερεύς” (ark-hee-er-yooce) which in English means “high priest.”

(There is some evidence that the term “Pontifex” may have originally meant “bridge-builder” and was used in a spiritual sense to indicate that the pagan high priest was the bridge builder between pagan gods and human beings.)

Around the time of Julius Caesar, the title and role of Pontifex Maximus became exclusively associated with the Roman emperor. The emperor was viewed as the high priestly head of Roman religion. That position fit with the cult of emperor worship that prevailed in the pagan empire itself.

When Rome became Christianized in the fourth century, Emperor Constantine retained the title, considering himself the Pontifex Maximus of the Christian church. But by the end of the fourth century, around the time of Gratian and Theodosius, the Roman emperors stopped using the title.

However, the title of Pontifex Maximus was soon picked up again (likely in the fifth century) by the bishops of Rome, perhaps beginning with Leo the Great. Consequently, as we survey the Middle Ages, we find the medieval popes applying the title to themselves, using either the designation “Pontifex Maximus” or “Summus Pontifex” (Supreme Priest) as a way to describe their self-perceived role in the church.

Medieval popes attempted to justify their use of the title by appealing to the Jewish priesthood of the Old Testament. But the concept of the Pontifex Maximus as the head of Roman religion is actually rooted in ancient paganism. (Even the Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges this connection, in its article on “The Pope” under the heading “Pontiff.” There we read: “As regards the title Pontifex Maximus, especially in its application to the pope, there was further a reminiscence of the dignity attached to that title in pagan Rome.”)

But even if the term was primarily used in reference to the high priestly office of Old Testament Judaism, the point remains: when Pope Francis uses the Twitter handle “@pontifex,” he is embracing the historic notion that the pope is nothing less than the high priest of the Catholic church.

Again, a survey of pro-Catholic literature demonstrates that this is how the pope is viewed within Catholic circles. As Cardinal James Gibbons, in his book The Faith of Our Fathers, explains: “We must therefore find in the Church of Christ a spiritual judge, exercising the same supreme authority as the High Priest wielded in the Old Law [i.e. Old Testament]. For if a supreme Pontiff was necessary, in the Mosaic dispensation, to maintain purity and uniformity of worship, the same dignitary is equally necessary now to preserve unity of faith” (Gibbons, 105).

In the same way that Old Testament Israel had a high priest, so we are told, the church today also needs a high priest. Cardinal Gibbons goes on to assert that the church’s supreme Pontiff is none other than the pope.

A popular Catholic website called Catholic Answers makes a similar claim. There we are told that the pope “has a function similar to that of the high priest [in the Old Testament] as the earthly head of God’s people.”

So, Pope Francis is regarded as the high priest of Catholicism. That is why he wears the robes and the hat, and it is also why he uses the Twitter handle: @pontifex. He is viewed, by Catholics, as the spiritual bridge-builder between God and man, the visible head and high priest of the church.

The Problem with the Papacy

From a biblical perspective, there are significant problems with this Roman Catholic position. The New Testament teaches that God’s people no longer need an earthly high priest, because we have one great High Priest—the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the one to whom the priestly system of the Old Testament pointed, and in whom it was fulfilled.

I saw a blog article last week that asked the question, “Why don’t Protestants have a pope?” There are many answers to that question. But one simple answer would be this:

We don’t have a pope because the New Testament (in places like the book of Hebrews) reveals that the priestly system that characterized the Old Testament has passed away. In Christ, we celebrate the priesthood of all believers; and more than that, we look to Him alone as our great High Priest.

Christ alone is the Mediator between God and man (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5). He alone is the head of the church (cf. Eph. 5:23). In Him alone, we have been reconciled to God (cf. 2 Cor. 5:1819). Consequently, we have access into God’s presence through Him alone (cf. Heb. 4:1416).

To suggest that the sinner still requires an earthly priest in order to confess his sins or to be forgiven or to gain access to God is nothing less than an affront to the High Priestly ministry of Christ Himself.

We have but one High Priest. He is the one who died at Calvary, rose in victory from the grave, ascended to the right hand of the Father, and sat down having made perfect and final atonement for sin (cf. Heb. 10:12).

And so, we reject any system in which we are told that we must rely on an earthly priest in order to have access to God.

The renowned 19th-century British preacher, Charles Spurgeon, writing in The Sword and the Trowel, said it like this:

Reader, do you believe that men like yourself have priestly power? Do you think that they can regenerate infants by sprinkling them, and turn bread and wine into the very body and blood of Jesus Christ? Do you think that a bishop can bestow the Holy Ghost, and that a parish [priest] can forgive sins ? If so, . . . you are the victim of crafty deceivers. Your soul will be their prey in life and in death. They cajole you with soft words, fine vestments, loud pretensions, and cunning smiles, but they will conduct you down to the chambers of death, and lead you to the gates of hell. . . .

Jesus Christ is the true Priest who can forgive all your sins; go to him at once, without the intervention of these pretenders. Make confession to him! Seek absolution from him! The Holy Ghost alone can cause you to be born again, and the grace of God alone can bring you to glory. Avoid . . . Romish foxes, for they seek to make a gain of you, and lead you not to Jesus, but to their Church and all its mummeries. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and not in these deceivers. (Sword and Trowel tracts, no. 22)

Those are strong words but they are also true words. And they are words that contemporary evangelicals would do well to consider carefully, before they jump on the popular bandwagon of papal adulation.

As Spurgeon rightly observes, Jesus is our great High Priest and there is no other. Anyone today who claims that title for himself is a usurper and a fraud.