Rome can help other churches find authority
This week, Catholics celebrate the feast of Peter and Paul, yoking together two quite disparate characters. Peter, despite his foibles and failings was one of the early companions of Jesus, accompanying him (with the occasional wobble) to the end and beyond.
Paul came late to the nascent Christian movement. Both had different missions: Peter centrally, among the core of disciples who followed Jesus, Paul more adventurously reaching out to new people.
The church in Rome known by Peter and Paul would have been a loose collection of independent assemblies, each with its own leaders.
As time went on, this loose confederation thought of itself as one Church, based on the special status of Peter in the gospels.
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The Church of Rome then, from early times, took on the role of primary witness and guardian of the faith to the wider Christian commonwealth. According to the evangelists, especially Matthew and John, Peter's role is central among the apostles.
Still, his was not the only voice. While Paul recognises Peter's special place among the apostles and his role in the mission to the Jews outside Palestine, he vigorously defends his own mission to the gentiles, even to "withstanding Peter to his face" in Antioch.
The habit of appealing to the Bishop of Rome in doctrinal disputes came from his status as head of a community that had inherited both the teaching and the ultimate act of witness – martyrdom – of the princes of the apostles.
The Roman church, then, became the point of reference for Christians elsewhere, based on the combined authority, uniquely, of two apostles: Peter, to whom the commissions to bind and to feed had been given by Christ himself; and Paul, charismatic preacher of a gospel received direct from God.
This enhanced status with respect to other apostolic sees was one of degree, not of kind.
At the Reformation, many Christian groups broke communion with Rome, but many even in the reformed traditions still look to the Roman church as a standard of orthodoxy.
Perhaps the most pressing problem of authority faced now by the Church of Rome is how to help other churches rediscover their dignity and authority in a revived Christian commonwealth.