Reformed theology includes a system of belief that traces its roots back to the Protestant Reformation over 500 years ago. It also contains many of the doctrines taught by Augustine in the 4th and 5th centuries.

A brief history

The Reformation was an extensive religious revolt against the abuses and authoritarian control of the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformers included Martin Luther in Germany, Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland, and John Calvin in France. These men protested the unbiblical practices of the Roman Catholic Church and encouraged a return to sound biblical doctrine. The triggering event of the Protestant Reformation is generally considered Luther’s posting of his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church on 31 October 1517.

The Theses focused on sin and forgiveness, mainly how people were to seek pardon and salvation. They protested against the Roman church and how it was selling forgiveness and pardon through indulgencies (A letter of indulgence was given in exchange for a monetary gift or a charitable deed). Indulgences often led people into poverty and reduced the amount of charity people could do. People experiencing poverty, Luther said, should be helped.

A copy of the Ninety-five Theses was sent to Rome, and efforts began to convince Luther to change his tune, but he refused to keep silent.  In 1521, Pope Leo X formally excommunicated Luther from the Catholic Church. The Reformers, their followers and successors, formed a theology that they believed better represented the original intention of scripture and Jesus for his church.

Reformed theology

Reformed theology is not a new belief system but seeks to continue apostolic doctrine. In summary, reformed theology holds to:

  • The authority of Scripture.
  • The sovereignty of God.
  • Salvation by grace through Jesus Christ.
  • The necessity of evangelism.

Reformed theology is also called Covenant theology, Calvinism, the Doctrines of Grace, or Augustinian theology. It is alive and well in Reformed Churches, some Presbyterian churches, some Baptist churches, Lutheran Churches, and the Acts 29 movement, a global family of church-planting churches that adheres to Calvinist theology.

Recognising the good

There is much in reformed theology that is good. I appreciate the high regard for scripture, the focus on Jesus and salvation, and the desire for others to experience the gospel. I acknowledge that there are various streams of reformed theology and that not all reformed theologians hold to all its tenants of the faith.

In addressing my concerns about reformed theology, I am not critical of individuals or churches. I acknowledge that people who hold to reformed theology love Jesus and are part of the Christian family. Christians have and do differ on all sorts of doctrines. I appreciate the words of 17th Century Lutheran theologian Rupertus Meldenius, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Having said that here are my chief concerns with reformed theology:

* Reformed theology denies people’s free will

Augustine wrote, “By Adam’s transgression, the freedom of the human will has been completely lost … we have lost the free will to love God.” Martin Luther said, “For if man has lost his freedom, and is forced to serve sin, and cannot will good, what conclusion can more justly be drawn concerning him, than that he sins and wills evil necessarily?” I believe reformed theology has an unhealthy emphasis on sin and people’s lack of free will not to sin. Their doctrine of total depravity states that human nature is thoroughly corrupt and sinful due to the fall.

While I believe the Bible teaches that “all have sinned” and that no one is righteous outside of God’s grace, we witness human beings exercising their free will to do good. Most people are NOT depraved. Scripture also attests to people’s inherent goodness. The Bible starts at Genesis One, not Genesis Three, with people created in God’s good image. While the image has been marred, it has not been destroyed.

Reformed theology denies personal accountability

The blame for every person’s sinfulness is placed on Adam. John Calvin noted, “Adam drew all his posterity with himself, by his fall, into eternal damnation.” Whether we like it or not, we’re all going to hell, and it’s all Adam’s fault. Reformed theology buys into the blame game of Genesis Three – Adam blamed God and “that woman”. Eve blamed the snake, which didn’t have a leg to stand on.

Reformed theology has a harmful obsession with original sin. Scripture teaches that each person is responsible to account for their sins.

Reformed theology denies Christ died for everyone

Aussie evangelist Joshua Williamson said, “If Christ died for everyone, everyone would be saved.” And yet, the New Testament is replete with verses that use words like EVERYONE and ALL. The New Testament affirms that Christ died for all people. God’s boundless atonement does not make salvation automatic but available for everyone. **

Reformed theology teaches an unhealthy view of predestination

There are some horrific statements made by reformed thinkers about the destiny of the “unsaved”. Consider John Calvin, “not only was the destruction of the ungodly foreknown, but the ungodly themselves have been created for the specific purpose of perishing.” Let that sink in. Author Alan Kurschner said, “God desires that his people are saved. He does not desire that every single individual who has ever lived live in glory with him forever. If that were the case, we have an incompetent, unhappy, and impotent God.”

Erwin Lutzer (former Senior Pastor Moody Bible Church, Chicago) said, “The revealed will was that all men be saved, but the hidden will was that the greater part of mankind be damned.” Seriously? Does God have a hidden will? And John MacArthur comments: “[God’s] patience is not so He can save all of them, but so that He can receive all of His own …” The rest be dammed.

Have you noticed that people who say these things are always in the “saved” category? How easily we condemn people who are not us. Contrast the above quotes with Jesus, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” The apostle Paul wrote, For as in Adam all die, so in Christ, all will be made alive.

For in-depth teaching on Romans 9:12-21 and why I believe those who embrace reformed theology misinterpret these verses, listen to my podcast on predestination.

Reformed theology pushes the sovereignty of God too far

Martin Luther believed, “God worketh all things in all men, even wickedness in the wicked …” John Calvin stated, “Whatever things are done wrongly and unjustly by man, these very things are the right and just works of God.” It reminds me of the meme, “You’re telling me that when God told Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit that he really wanted them to?”

While it is true that, because of free will and the laws of nature, God created the potential for bad things to happen in the world, to say that God works wickedness in the wicked is to deny the heart of God, who is LOVE and GOODNESS. *** James is especially concerned that we’re not misled: Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

Reformed churches diminish the role of women

Reformed churches are invariably complementarian, believing that men and women are equal but different. Valid, except in these churches, men are usually more equal than women, to misquote George Orwell.

Complementarianism holds to exclusively male leadership in the church and home, and women should not have church leadership roles that involve teaching or authority over men. Women are expected to support and submit to male authority. I recently saw a Facebook post where a pastor shared his joy about a retreat with his fellow pastors (all men) and thanked the wives for “holding the fort”. I have written about complementarian elsewhere and recorded a podcast outlining my views that complementarianism does an injustice to scripture and women.

For these reasons, I believe Reformed Theology could do well to experience another Reformation.


* Lev. 18:29; Deut. 24:16; 2 Kings 14:6; 2 Chron. 25:4; Eze. 18:2-6; Eze. 18:20; Jer. 17:10; Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:5-6; Rom. 14:12; 2 Cor. 5:10; 2 Cor. 11:15; 1 Pet. 1:17; Rev. 20:11-12; Rev. 22:12.

** Heb. 2:9; 2 Cor. 5:14-15; 1 Jn. 2:2, Jn. 3:14-17; 12:46; Acts 10:43; Rom. 10:11; Rev. 22:17, Rom. 14:15; 1 Cor. 8:11; 2 Pet. 2:1.

*** Gen. 1:31; 6:5-6; 1 Sam. 15:22; Jer. 19:5, 32:35; Isa. 5:4; Zeph. 3:5; Ecc. 7:29; Matt. 6:10; Lk. 7:30; 1 Cor. 14:33; Heb. 1:9; James 1:13; 1 John 1:5

On the long weekend, I watched The Kingdom twice. I encourage you to watch it too.  The Kingdom is a documentary in which Australian journalist Marc Fennell “investigates the successful but scandal-plagued megachurch Hillsong, stepping back into the world of Pentecostalism that he left behind and asking what happens as the Hillsong kingdom crumbles.” Unlike other documentaries on Hillsong, The Kingdom interviews people from various standpoints and looks for the good in Pentecostalism and the not-so-good.

And so, I write this blog NOT as another voice to knock Hillsong, but rather to ask what we can learn to ensure the church’s future is better than its past. I write as someone from within the church who loves and values the church and wants the church to be everything Jesus had in mind when he started it.

My Experiences

I attended Hills Christian Life Centre in the mid-80s while studying full-time at Bible College. Hills was in a school hall, Geoff Bullock was on piano, and the place was jumping. I stayed with Hills CLC as it moved into a factory. Eventually, I joined a small outreach from Hills, Westside CLC in St Marys, and was on the Ministry Team for over two years. We had a Sunday afternoon service and headed to Hills for Sunday night. It was an exciting, vibrant Pentecostal church. I loved every minute of it.

Since relocating to Melbourne in the late 80s, I have observed Hillsong from a distance, watching its phenomenal growth and influence. My interactions with Hillsong have mainly been positive, but I realise that is only the case for some. So, what can we Pentecostal Christians learn from all the scandal, negative press, and the multitudes who have been hurt and disillusioned by their experiences in our churches? What lessons can we learn to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself and that the future is safer and, simply, more like Jesus?

As I reflect on these questions, I am not targeting Hillsong or any other church. I have identified some of these negatives in my ministry and church leadership approach and have worked hard to address them in the past few years.

American Influence

The American version of the church highly influences Australian Pentecostals. It’s no secret that Brian Houston’s trip to the US in 1989 proved a turning point for his church as he bought into the health, wealth, and success doctrines that had gripped the US church for a decade. As Hillsong leapt from success to success, many other Australian churches copied them, myself included. All this led to the second major problem amongst Pentecostal churches.

The Frenetic Pace

Marc Fennell said, “The insatiable growth of Pentecostalism has left far too many casualties.” I agree. The church growth movement of the 1980s focused our (pastors) attention on growth at all costs. At pastors’ conferences, the most often asked question was, “How many people do you have in your church?” It was like comparing sizes in the boys’ locker room at school. “How many are you running at Bayside these days?” The pressure was filling facilities, starting more services, opening campuses, and planting churches. Bayside Church had five services over three campuses every weekend at one stage. We were successful and exhausted.

I watch other pastors do the same thing and hear of their burnout and need for time off. I recently saw a Facebook post by a young man outlining his ministry schedule in the US, touring Australia, speaking at churches and conferences, producing a podcast and vlog, and running a youth conference. I wanted to comment, “It sounds like a recipe for burnout.” I didn’t, but it is. I know; I’ve been there. Not all growth is good. Cancer is growth, and we cut it out! Scripture says, “God doesn’t count us; he calls us by name. Arithmetic is not his focus.” (Romans 9:31 MSG)

Unholy Expectations

Many years ago, a pastor friend stepped away from Pentecostal leadership and accepted a pastoral role in an evangelical church. He told me the difference was stark. The people expected so much less, and his job became manageable rather than exhausting.

Pentecostal churches have created a harrowing “success” cycle. Everything always has to be better. This year’s conference was phenomenal but wait for next year’s; it will be the best ever. Today’s service was incredible; next weekend will be even better. Once you’ve set the bar so high, you must keep performing to attract more Christian consumers. You can’t have great music one Sunday but an average band the following weekend. And no, you can’t take a break because the show must go on. The best is yet to come!

The expectancies of the senior leadership on their people are enormous, and the congregation return the compliment—the demands of leadership overwork volunteers and leaders are exhausted by the people’s expectations. I bought into this kind of churchianity in the past. I do so no longer, but I know that I’ve hurt some people on the way. And for that, I apologise unconditionally.

Being driven by success and wanting more people, resources, services, and campuses becomes more like an enterprise than a church. These are unholy expectations.

I feel deeply for Brian Houston. Keeping the show going for so long has taken its toll on him, and he’s turned to medication, alcohol, and other unhealthy practices to cope. He looks tired and shaken. I pray that he will take the time to heal and be restored. But how do you stop when you’ve been doing this for so long? I loved John Sanderman’s words in The Kingdom when he was asked what he hopes will happen for Brian: “that he takes time out, and he goes and does something of redeeming value that gives him pleasure and hope. He does not try and be what he was before.”

Manipulative Offerings

I have listened to more than my fair share of coercive offerings over the years in which people are made to feel guilty for not giving or not giving enough. “God has told me fifty people here will give $1000 each in the offering.” “Invest in this offering for your God-given breakthrough.” Don’t get me wrong. I believe in giving, tithing, and generosity to God and the work of a local church, but there’s a fine line between teaching Scripture and the high-pressure tactics of some Pente preachers.

Paul wrote this to the Corinthian church: “you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” The Greek word translated as “compulsion” means “to bend the arm.” I promised Bayside Church at its first service in 1992 that I would NEVER pressurise people to give. I vowed to teach the Bible and present needs when they arose but never to compel anyone. I have kept that promise.

I feel for the many good people in Pentecostal churches who have succumbed to coercion and given to the point where they are struggling financially because they’ve given more than they can afford. Seeing their leaders flying in private jets, receiving luxury gifts, money laundering, evading tax, and getting and providing huge offerings rubs salt in their wounds. People feel hoodwinked and often quietly walk away from the church and sometimes from Jesus.

But Wait … There’s More!

Time doesn’t allow me to detail every concern about the Pentecostal church or outline everything Marc Fennell raised in The Kingdom. So, here are a few other considerations:

  • Sexual misconduct is sometimes common and invariably covered up. When sin is discovered, pastors take the role of victim and victim-shaming—blaming people and the devil instead of taking responsibility for mistakes.
  • The power trap. When I first joined the Pentecostal church, we were on the fringes of society and the church world. And that’s where we thrived. Gaining power and respectability have not done us any favours. We don’t do well when we’re in charge.
  • A lack of accountability, honesty, transparency, and good governance.
  • The celebrity pastor who is beyond questioning or critique.
  • Entertaining Christians rather than making disciples. It is my experience that many people from this church background have a wafer-thin understanding of Scripture and what it means to follow Jesus.
  • Reserved seating for VIPs and famous people flies in the face of James’ injunctions to the church to treat all people equally (James 2:2-4). These churches also discriminate against women (men dominate) and LGBTIQ+ people. I have a gay friend who used to attend Hillsong Sydney, and when he came out, he was stepped down from all ministry. He said, “All they’d let me do is tithe.”
  • Toxic positivity. We can’t just celebrate the good. We must own the damage that’s been done.

The Pentecostal / contemporary church must do better. Paul’s words to the Romans ring true here, “And Israel, who seemed so interested in reading and talking about what God was doing, missed it. How could they miss it? Because instead of trusting God, they took over. They were absorbed in what they themselves were doing. They were so absorbed in their “God projects” that they didn’t notice God right in front of them, like a huge rock in the middle of the road. And so, they stumbled into him and went sprawling.” (Romans 9:31-32 MSG)

Of course, thousands of pastors are getting it a good deal right, and we should thank God for them. These days my goal is to know and serve our people at Bayside Church, whether they be few or many, a shepherd that leads, teaches, loves and guides. People are precious; they are not numbers to make me look good at pastors’ conferences. People are not there to serve the pastors. Christians are called to support one another with humility and grace (John 13:1-17; Matthew 20:25-28; Philippians 2:1-7).

Marc Fennell ended The Kingdom by stating that he didn’t belong in a Pentecostal church anymore. And that’s fine. Pentecostal Christianity is just one flavour of Jesus’ church; not everyone will enjoy every aspect. The supernatural power of God attracted me to Jesus four decades ago, and I remain very much at home in that space. But people will explore their spirituality differently and should not be coerced or controlled in their search for meaning. God does not do control, and neither should his people!

Hillsong has given a gift of incredible worship songs to the church. I, for one, will keep singing them. After all, we sing songs (psalms) by people who are all equally flawed. In the meantime, let’s keep our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus, and whenever you encounter someone who’s been hurt by a church, listen, refrain from judgement, apologise, be kind, and don’t preach at them. They’ve had enough of that.

I have been following The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes’ investigation into the link between The Potter’s House Church and the Eastern Freeway truck crash which killed four police in 2020. “The truck driver, Mohinder Singh, claims he raised issues about his fatigue and delusions with his boss, Simiona Tuteru, also known as Simon, who laid hands on him and prayed before they agreed Singh would drive one last load.” Tuteru is a senior leader, former missionary, and pastor within the Potter’s House.

I watched the 60 Minutes investigation and read the follow-up articles in The Age this week. It brought back all kinds of feelings and memories of my experiences with this church several decades ago.

A Little History

The Potter’s House Christian Church (not to be confused with Bishop T.D. Jakes Church in Dallas) sprung up in the early 70s during the Jesus People movement, which saw thousands of hippies come to know Jesus.

Pastor Wayman Mitchell was a pastor who experienced hippies joining his church and welcomed them with open arms. The Potter’s House was born, a church focused on evangelism through movies, concerts, and coffee shops. Over the decades, they have established over 3000 churches in the US and 120 nations.

First Encounters

After two years of drifting from Jesus, I returned to my faith in 1979 and joined the local Assemblies of God (AOG) Church. I started sharing the gospel with my friends; many came to faith in Jesus.

My first encounter with Potter’s House was in the early 1980s when an American couple, Lynn & Linda Litton, came from Perth to establish a church in Geraldton. The new church began the aggressive evangelism that Potter’s House is known for and quickly gathered a core group of young people. I attended some of their movie and concert nights, but I didn’t resonate with the ultra-American aggressive approach of Lynn Litton. Neither did I appreciate his long, drawn-out altar calls that sought to drag as many people to Jesus as possible on every occasion.

Over the next few years, some people I had led to Jesus left the AOG church and started attending Potter’s House. I remember being very disheartened about this, but I also understood because there were some profound problems within the AOG church at the time.

Major Concerns

I was not surprised by any revelations about the Potter’s House on 60 Minutes. It showed me that little or nothing had changed in the church since my experiences forty years ago.

The church I remember was legalistic, controlling, aggressive, harsh, and judgmental. The leaders used fear tactics to control the members. For example, the AOG Church I attended had a weekly prayer meeting at 6 am. Because of my work as the breakfast announcer on Geraldton’s commercial radio station, I couldn’t usually attend the prayer meeting. But I did go when I was on holiday and in town. One morning, a young guy (I’ll call him Matt) came into our prayer meeting. He was breathless and agitated. He had slept in and was freaked out that he would miss the early prayer meeting at Potter’s House (our church was closer for him to get to). Matt begged our pastor to phone Lynn Litton and let him know he had been at a prayer meeting. There were consequences that he didn’t want to endure.

Fear Tactics

As highlighted by 60 Minutes, Potter’s House engages in fear tactics to attract new members and retain existing ones. In the early 80s, they repeatedly showed the dreadful “Christian” movies circulating then. Films like A Thief in the Night, A Distant Thunder, and Image of the Beast frightened a generation of young people, myself included. If you weren’t “saved”, this is what would happen to you, and it would all happen very soon. Of course, nothing happened, but we didn’t know that then. I now know that these films are based on a bogus interpretation of the Bible that a cult leader developed.

It doesn’t surprise me that Potter’s House still uses these same tactics on impressionable people. Fear is a powerful controlling agent that churches have used for centuries. Dangling people over hell and threatening them with demonic activity is not Jesus’ way. Attributing every human ailment to personal sin and demonic control is overly simplistic and downright dangerous.

Evangelism or Exasperation?

In Geraldton, Potter’s House started an aggressive campaign of street evangelism and a constant stream of so-called revival meetings featuring American preachers. The town was already experiencing an incredible move of God, and many people were coming to Christ, but the aggressive approach by Potter’s House people got the town offside. Admittedly, their tactics worked on some people, and a few people I knew became Christians and joined Potter’s House, but people were angry that they couldn’t walk through town without being accosted by some street preacher.

But There’s More!

Time and space don’t allow me to address all my experiences in detail, so here are a few other things I witnessed:

  • Potter’s House teaches insecure salvation.

You could quickly lose your salvation; you’d have to be saved again if you sinned. I have seen this more than once.

  • Potter’s House is judgmental of other Christians.

They used a term for those of us who attended other churches. We were “Lukeys”, slang for being a lukewarm Christian. We weren’t considered full-on for Jesus like the Potter’s House Christians. I now recognise this as the gnostic pride that it is.

  • Potter’s House exerts excessive levels of control.

Members of Potter’s House were discouraged from taking holidays (holidays were for lukeys) and told not to watch television or non-Christian movies or listen to secular music. All of these were “of the devil.” And they had to attend every service, prayer meeting, revival, and outreach night.

  • Potter’s House leaders need to be more trained.

Bible Colleges and formal training were the butts of jokes at Potter’s House. Seminaries were called cemeteries because your faith would die there. As a result, the pastors I knew about were untrained and ill-equipped.

  • Potter’s House echoes some of the practices found in cults.

While Potter’s House preaches the Christian gospel, many of their beliefs and practices should ring alarm bells. In my experience, there was an emphasis on getting to know unbelievers only to evangelise them. Those who left the church were shunned; families became divided and broken. Members were encouraged to only marry within the church. They were exclusive and tended to isolate their members by keeping them busy doing “the Lord’s work.”

I understand the appeal of churches like Potter’s House, especially for young people. They are zealous, radical, and uncompromising. Many of my friends were drawn to the church in the 80s, but they have all since left for the reasons I’ve stated above. Many returned to the Geraldton AOG church, which still thrives today under new leadership. Others are active in local churches in Australia and New Zealand.

I have written this blog as an encouragement to remain vigilant. Sometimes a church can look very appealing, but watch out for warning signs and listen to your intuition and the Holy Spirit.

This week, I received a question from a new member of Bayside Church on the subject of Papal succession. Papal, or Apostolic, succession is the Roman Catholic teaching “that each pope is the successor to the Apostle Peter who was chosen by Jesus as the rock on which the church was to be built.”

The person who asked the question has come from a Roman Catholic background. Regarding Papal Succession, she wrote, “That’s the big thing for me that always made me believe the Catholic Church is the true church. Jesus gave the keys to Peter. Then Linus was the 2nd Pope. Peter would have known of Linus. And then the handover goes down through the years ending up at Pope Francis.” She then asked, “Do you believe that is what Jesus meant to happen when He handed over the keys? That it would be handed down to each new Pope?”

It’s a great question and one I will seek to answer in this blog. I should add here that I’m not writing this to criticise the Catholic Church. All Christian churches have differences over doctrine, but we all hold to the Christian faith’s vital truths. I am not anti-Catholic, and I do not criticise other churches.

Peter in Rome

The Apostle Peter likely ended his days in the city of Rome. In 1 Peter 5:13, he wrote, “She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark.” “She” refers to the church. Babylon denotes the city of Rome from where Peter (and Silas and Mark) were writing the letter. Rome was often referred to as Babylon in the Jewish and Christian literature of the time. The Christians who stayed in Rome were greeting those who had fled for their lives under Nero’s persecution. Peter, Silas, and Mark were leading the church in Rome.

There is no mention in the Bible of Peter being Pope. There is no mention of Peter being Bishop of Rome until the middle to the late second century. The words Pope and pontiff do not appear in the Bible.

Peter died in Rome at about the same time as Paul. Peter was crucified as attested to by the apostle John in his gospel, “Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God” (John 21:18-19). Some church tradition teaches that Peter deemed himself to be unworthy to be crucified in the same way as Jesus, and so he asked to be hung on a cross upside down.

In the same year (68 AD), Linus was appointed overseer of the church in Rome (Linus is mentioned in 2 Tim 4:21) and was well known to Paul and Peter.

The Church’s Centre

The Christian church didn’t become centrally organised until it became “legal” under Constantine in 313. Nicene Christianity* then became the State Religion in the Roman empire with the Edict of Thessalonica in 380, under Emperor Theodosius I.

The first-century church was first based in Jerusalem and was led by James, the brother of Jesus (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18). The Gentile church was centred in Antioch (Acts 13). While the church at Rome was significant in the first century, it didn’t become the church’s headquarters until much later. The first use of the title Pope was the middle of the tenth century. The first use of the name Roman Catholic was in 1208 and the Vatican was built in 1929. The word Catholic, wasn’t used until the early second century. Up to then, followers of Jesus were called Christians (Acts 11:26). Collectively, the church was called The Way (Acts 9:2).

Pope Peter?

So, what does it mean that Jesus gave Peter the Keys of the Kingdom? Simply that Peter would be the one who “unlocked” the truth of Jesus the Messiah first to the Jews (Acts 2), and then to the Gentiles (Acts 10).

Was Jesus declaring that Peter would be the Pope who would hand the keys down to each new Pope?

The events are recorded in Matthew 16:13-19. Jesus wanted to know who people thought he was. The disciples let him know: “Some say John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Jesus was using this question to discover what he really wanted to know, “who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” At this point, Jesus declared Peter blessed because the revelation came straight from the Father in heaven. “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build My church, and the forces of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven.”

In the Greek language, Jesus is using a play on the words “Peter” and “Rock” ~ “You are Petros, and on this petra, I will build My church.” Petros is a small stone or pebble, while Petra is an enormous mass of rock. It’s like Jesus was saying to Peter, “You’re a spot on a little stone. And on this massive rock of the revelation of who I am, I will build my church.” The church is built on the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God! Jesus is the foundation stone of the church (1 Cor. 3:11). The church is built on Jesus Christ, not on a succession of popes.


* Nicene Christianity is a set of Christian doctrinal traditions that reflect the Nicene Creed, formulated at the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325 and amended at the First Council of Constantinople in AD 381.

History reveals that Christianity rarely flourishes when it has the power.  Consider the first few hundred years of the church’s existence.  The Book of Acts tells of a church that exploded in growth especially when persecution scattered the believers.  “The spread of the Christian church in its earliest centuries is one of the most amazing phenomena in all of human history.” [1] The church was on the edges of society and took up Jesus’ mandate to love and serve those who were also marginalised.

Justin Martyr, an early Christian theologian, wrote to Emperor Antoninus Pius describing Christians as follows: “We formerly rejoiced in uncleanness of life, but now love only chastity; before we used the magic arts, but now dedicate ourselves to the true and unbegotten God; before we loved money and possessions more than anything, but now we share what we have and to everyone who is in need; before we hated one another and killed one another and would not eat with those of another race, but now since the manifestation of Christ, we have come to a common life and pray for our enemies and try to win over those who hate us without just cause.”

Christians met together in close-knit communities and lived out their faith in their daily lives.  They were known for their honesty and integrity in business dealings, care & prayer for the sick, and for looking after widows and orphans.  By the year 250 A.D., Christians were feeding more than 1,500 of the hungry and destitute in Rome every day.

Emperor Julian (“the Apostate”), who was no friend of the Christian faith, said that Christianity “has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers and through their care of the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar and that the [Christians] care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help we should render them.”

The early Christians were often scorned and ridiculed.  They had no government approval, political power or official support but they lived out the Gospel, the Good News about Jesus Christ and, by the end of the First Century, there were an estimated one million believers in the Roman Empire.  Christianity continued to grow throughout the next two centuries as it started to get more organised; something that became necessary once Christians realised the Second Coming of Christ was not as imminent as the apostles believed it would be.

But everything started to change for the church in 312 A.D. when Constantine and his troops marched towards Rome to do battle with Maxentius.  Constantine’s army was smaller than that of his opponent, and so he sought divine help.  The historian Eusebius wrote, “So, he sought his father’s God in prayer, pleading for him to tell him who he was and to stretch forth his hand to help him. As he prayed (it was a little after noon), Constantine had an absorbing vision. He saw the sign of the cross emblazoned across the sky and the words “In hoc signo vinces,” “In this sign, you will win.”  Constantine was struck with amazement, along with his whole army (which also witnessed the miracle). That night in his sleep it was confirmed: this was the Christ of God he was dealing with.  Constantine accepted the vision. He adopted the sign. He had the cross inscribed on his soldiers’ armour. He went into battle. Even though his forces were outnumbered, he won.” [2]

The irony of this was that a pacifist Christian Church would receive its right to exist through a political and military conquest; and it would never be the same again.  Constantine eventually made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Unbelievers flooded into the church, but many did not convert, choosing instead to bring their pagan practices into the Church. Being a Christian was now the fashionable thing to do.  The church became diluted in spiritual power as its prestige increased and, with political power, the church became the oppressor as much as it had been the oppressed.  For the next one thousand years, the world entered the Dark Ages which included the Crusades and the Inquisitions (the latter not entirely ending until the 20th century).

In the 1930s Germany was a “Christian” country, and what a disaster that turned out to be. Two-thirds were protestant and one-third Catholic, and the church, by and large, supported Hitler.  We often wonder how a Holocaust can happen; one way is when the church finds itself in bed with politics and demonising groups of people.  Jesus told His first followers that all power was given to Him, and He was empowering them to “go and make disciples of all the nations.” [3] He didn’t tell them to Christianise countries, nor to lobby governments to enforce morality. Jesus’ way is subtler; the inward transformation of individuals who desire to work together in a community and manifest heaven on earth in their everyday lives.

The one thing we learn from history is that we rarely learn from history.  Some churches, church leaders, and Christians are still hell-bent on political power mongering and the Gospel is always the loser.  Consider the recent survey in the USA showing 14% of Christians have left their churches since the last election because of their clergy being too political, especially by endorsing Donald Trump. [4] In the United States, almost a billion dollars is spent every year by so-called Christian organisations on lobbying politicians.  The same takes places in Australia albeit on a much smaller budget.  One can only wonder at the impact that money would have if it were used to help the poor, to spread the true gospel of Jesus, and to speak out for those who have no voice as the Bible asks us to: “Speak out on behalf of the voiceless, and for the rights of all who are vulnerable.  Speak out in order to judge with righteousness and to defend the needy and the poor.” [5]

Whenever the church tries to get its way through political power, the Gospel message always gets drowned out.  In fact, the only countries where Christianity is still growing is where the church and Christians work humbly, and sometimes secretly, on the margins of society; like Nepal, China, and the UAE. [6] Most of these countries are in Asia and Africa and many in Muslim majority nations.  In 2015, mission organisation Operation World named Iran as having the fastest growing evangelical population in the world, with an estimated annual growth of 19.6 percent. [7] In North America, Europe, and Australia the church is shrinking.  In these countries, the church’s position on ethical and moral issues is well known, but people don’t understand the gospel message because it’s been drowned out by all the other things they hear from us.  This needs to change!  People need to discover the gospel, the good news about Jesus Christ.

Richard Rohr sums all this up so well, “Christians are usually sincere and well-intentioned people until you get to any real issues of ego, control, power, money, pleasure, and security. Then they tend to be pretty much like everybody else. We’re often given a bogus version of the Gospel, some fast-food religion, without any deep transformation of the self; and the result has been the spiritual disaster of “Christian” countries that tend to be as consumer-oriented, proud, warlike, racist, class-conscious, and addictive as everybody else-and often more so, I’m afraid.” [8] Confronting words and sadly true.




[3] Matthew 28:19


[5] Proverbs 31:8-9



[8] Richard Rohr, Breathing Underwater


There are over 100 references of the word “gospel” mentioned by several authors in the New Testament.  But it wasn’t a new word that they made up to describe what was accomplished and offered by Jesus.  It was a well-known word in classical Greek (euangelion) referring to a message of victory, or other political or personal news, that caused joy!  It was a word that was commonly used by people in the Roman Empire.

When Julius Caesar was assassinated on March 15, 44BC in the Theatre of Pompey, a period of political unrest followed.  The Roman Republic struggled for a time in civil war until Julius Caesar’s nephew Octavian (later called Augustus) took the throne in 31BC.  Caesar Augustus is the earliest figure of the Roman Empire mentioned in the New Testament as he was the emperor during the time of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2).

Caesar Augustus was called the “son of god” who was the great “Saviour” of the whole earth through bringing an end to civil war and ushering in the Pax Romana (200 years of “peace” to Rome).  The themes of freedom, justice, peace and salvation permeated his reign. Whenever the great deeds of Augustus were proclaimed, they were presented with the Greek term euangelion.  His deeds were celebrated with poems and inscriptions, coins and images, statues, altars and structures.

An imperial quote stated, “All the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine Caesar as the new beginning of the year … the birthday of the god [Augustus] has been for the whole world the beginning of good news (euangelion) concerning him [therefore let a new era begin from his birth].”

Caesar is depicted as having been born, and therefore as human, but also in some mysterious way, he is also divine.  The poet Horace put it this way: “upon you [Augustus] however, while still among us, we already bestow honours, set up altars to swear by in our name, and confess that nothing like you will arise hereafter or has ever arisen before now” (Epistles 2.1.15-17)

So to summarise: Augustus was seen as a god in human form who ushered in a new era of peace. He was called the son of god and the Saviour. His birth changed the calendar and his deeds were celebrated as good news, or gospel, that brought joy to people.  In the midst of this, Jesus was born – the one referred to as the Saviour, the Son of God who would bring peace and good news that will cause great joy for all the people (see Luke 1:35; 2:10-14).

No wonder the introduction of the Christian faith brought such a clash of cultures that resulted in Rome persecuting Christians for the best part of 300 years.  Author Edward Gibbon put it this way: “By embracing the faith of the Gospel the Christians incurred the supposed guilt of an unnatural and unpardonable offence. They dissolved the sacred ties of custom and education, violated the religious institutions of their country, and presumptuously despised whatever their fathers had believed as true, or had reverenced as sacred.”

Throughout the centuries the radical teaching of grace and love by Jesus and His followers has continued to create a clash with the culture of the day – and life today is no different.  In this age of entitlement, the “like me” generation that is looking for its “best life” clashes severely with the teaching of Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Emphasising only the internal aspects of the gospel has raised up a generation of selfish consumer-Christians who stop at Jesus being their “own personal Saviour,” while neglecting the fact that the gospel is not just something you experience – it’s something you live!  The gospel of Jesus is not just about “me” – it’s about “us” and it’s about “others.”

When Jesus began His ministry He did so by reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in a synagogue on the Sabbath Day.  He presented the gospel – a message of victory that caused joy!  Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

Jesus taught that living the gospel message would mean that He and His people would bring:

  • Good news to the poor
  • Freedom for the prisoners
  • Sight for the blind
  • Freedom for the oppressed

He finished the reading by saying that the gospel was a proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favour.  Interestingly enough Jesus stopped reading halfway through a sentence.  The next line says, “and the day of vengeance of our God.”  Jesus announced that this was the time when God is willing to accept people.  The original word refers to an amnesty – a general pardon for offenses, often granted before any trial or conviction, as well as an act of forgiveness for, and the forgetting or overlooking of any past offense.  What wonderful news Jesus proclaimed for all people.  All of us who have been changed by the gospel are carriers of good news that should bring great joy to others.