We know with a high degree of historical accuracy that Paul wrote his letter “to the Church at Rome” in the years 56-58 AD. He wrote an extensive set of greetings to Christians who were known at Rome, and Peter was not one of them.
In fact, Paul’s letter to the Romans indicates a network of “house churches” in Rome, each with its own group of leaders – and Peter was not among them.
There was not a hint of “succession” in the New Testament or the ancient church.
Citing Oscar Cullmann, “the principle of succession cannot be justified either from Scripture or from the history of the ancient Church” (from “Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr”, Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 2nd Edition, © 1962, pg 242).
There is no trace of “primacy” in one of Rome’s strongest “proof texts”, the first-century letter of “First Clement” (96 AD).
In that letter, “Pope Clement”, traditionally held to be the writer, is never mentioned. The address is “from the church of God at Rome” to “the church of God at Corinth”, implying equal status between the two.
Further, the letter is written in the style, common in that culture, of a persuasion letter between churches that are equals, not in a “commanding” tone, as some Roman Catholics have represented it.
The next point reinforces this assessment of “First Clement”:
There was no “bishop” of Rome until well beyond the year 150 AD.
In 150 AD, a contemporary writer, in “The Shepherd of Hermas”, confirms that the Roman church is still overseen by a plurality of “elders”. Moreover, these “elders” fought among themselves and brought scandal to the church.
Hermas, wrote: “But you yourself will read [my book] to this city [Rome], along with the elders (“presbuteroi” in the original Greek) who preside (proistamenoi – plural leadership) over the church.” (Vis 2.4). Hermas could not be more clear. There is a plurality of presbyters who “preside over” the church at Rome. There is no one person in charge.
But more, he urged them,
“I say to you [tois – plural] who lead the church and occupy the seats of honor: do not be like the sorcerers … You carry your drug and poison in your heart. You are calloused and do not want to cleanse your hearts and to mix your wisdom together in a clean heart, in order that you may have mercy from the great King.
Watch out, therefore, children, lest these divisions of yours [among you elders] deprive you of your life. How is it that you desire to instruct God’s elect, while you yourselves have no instruction? Instruct one another, therefore, and have peace among yourselves,”
We’ve seen Jesus admonish this behavior when the disciples themselves “argued among themselves as to who was greatest”. Nor does Hermas attribute any gift of “infallibility” to these elders, who themselves “have no instruction”.
There was no “papacy” for the first three centuries, and when Roman “bishops” tried to exert “authority” based on some connection to Peter, they were severely reprimanded by other bishops.
Cyprian, in his Letter 73, he wrote of Stephen, who was claiming to be a “successor of Peter”, that “more and more observe his error”. Further, Cyprian accused Stephen of “bitter obstinacy” (letter 73).
His fellow bishop Firmilian said of Stephen (Letter 74) that he “has not done anything deserving of kindness and thanks” In the next sentence he compares Stephen with Judas, guilty of “perfidy” and “treachery” having “wickedly dealt concerning the Saviour” – as Stephen himself claimed that he “had been the cause of such great advantages, that through him the world and the people of the Gentiles were delivered by the Lord’s passion”. Those were bold claims, and they were swiftly rebuked.
A Regional Council openly stated that there was “no bishop of bishops”: This is from The Seventh Council of Carthage under Cyprian:
“For neither does any of us set himself up as a bishop of bishops, nor by tyrannical terror does any compel his colleague to the necessity of obedience; since every bishop, according to the allowance of his liberty and power, has his own proper right of judgment, and can no more be judged by another than he himself can judge another.”
The Council of Nicaea (325 AD) ascribed only regional “oversight” to the Roman church – and that because of “custom”, not “divine institution”.
Later councils, both Constantinople (381 AD) and Chalcedon (451 AD) held that the Roman church should be honored not because of a “divine institution” but because it was “the old Capital” of the empire.
In fact, the second ecumenical council, Constantinople I, was called in 381. The bishops of this council met, decided the issues, and adjourned without the “pope” at the time, Damasus I (366-384), ever having been notified that a council was being held.
It wasn’t until the 4th and 5th centuries that Roman “primacy” began to take shape, as early bishops modeled themselves after Roman senators.
In short, while these Roman “bishops” wanted to emphasize their own importance, no one else in the world wanted to recognize it.
Other churches throughout the world were kind and deferential in the face of Roman bishops asserting their own importance. But up through the 5th and 6th centuries, no one believed them. Only with the backing of Roman Imperial power and money could the claims stick.
Ultimately, “Pope Leo I” made the claims stick by relying on Roman adoption law to affirm that he had all “the same rights, authority and obligations as the one he replaced”. 400 years after the death of Peter.
There are, in fact, Biblical guidelines as to who may be a “bishop” (“overseer”) and what the lives of those individuals ought to be like.
Further, the metaphor “Roman adoption law” was not used in early centuries to justify “the papacy”. In fact, the second century writer Irenaeus uses “adoption law” to characterize the relationships between Christ and humans:
“the Son of God was made a son of a human that through him we might receive adoption—humanity bearing and receiving and embracing the Son of God” (Irenaeus, “Against Heresies”, 3.16.3).