There is a profound sense in which the New Testament presents Peter as the fundamental paradigm for later popes. Through his personality and experience, the New Testament spells out unequivocally the model of leadership that is appropriate for the Christian community.
In Matthew's gospel Jesus contrasts the exercise of secular power with the kind of authority that must be found in the church. The church is a unique institution and the way it operates must reflect this. In the Christian understanding the co-relative of authority and power is humble service: "But Jesus called [the disciples] to him and said, 'You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.'" [Matthew 20:25-28]
Here Jesus presents a stark contrast between the secular exercise of tyrannical power through force and the Christian emphasis on slave-like service. Jesus models this himself when he washes his disciples' feet at the last supper (John 13:3-11). It is ironic that, once again, it is Peter who, in his embarrassment, misunderstands Jesus' action, and protests, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus responds bluntly: "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me."
In Matthew's gospel Jesus also stresses that leadership is not about the perks and symbols of office. He specifically accused the religious leaders of his day of making "their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher and you are all students. And call no one your father . . . Nor are you to be called instructors . . . The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted." [Matthew 23:5-12]
Here the emphasis is on the contrast between the attitude and titles adopted by the religious establishment who have rejected Matthew's community of Christians as "heretics," and the humility required of the leaders of the community by the teaching of Jesus. The clear implication here is that some Christians are already abrogating to themselves titles such as "rabbi," "father" and "instructor" that are totally alien to the followers of Christ. It is texts like these that the strong sense of equality operative in the early Christian communities emerges: titles and distinctions of rank were anathema and there was a willingness to act against them. In this context the person who led the church was both disciple and servant.
. . . [I]t is . . . clear that even in New Testament times Christians did not achieve their own ideals, and that power, politics, clericalism and manipulation were part of church life. The attainment of humility will always be a struggle. This is precisely why Matthew emphasizes the failures of Peter as the primal leader of the New Testament church.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Paul Collins and Marilyn Hatton
In the Garden of Spirituality – Paul Collins
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
Authentic Catholicism: The Antidote to Clericalism
Quote of the Day – November 12, 2010
Rita Larivee on Being "Authorized by Baptism"
It's Time We Evolved Beyond Theological Imperialism
Jesus: A Uniquely Liberated Man
The Real Crisis
Responding to Cardinal Pell
Casanova-inspired Reflections on Papal Power – at 30,000 ft.
Robert McClory's "Prophetic Work"
Here Comes Everybody!
Related Off-site Links:
Gay Marriage, Bishops and the Crisis of Leadership – National Catholic Reporter (July 5, 2011).
Father Doesn't Know Best – Maureen Dowd (New York Times, May 22, 2012).
The Call of the Baptized: Be the Church, Live the Mission – Paul Lakeland (The Progressive Catholic Voice, September 19, 2010).
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 1) – Rosemary Radford Ruether (The Progressive Catholic Voice, July 15, 2010).
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 2) – Rosemary Radford Ruether (The Progressive Catholic Voice, July 19, 2010).
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 3) – Rosemary Radford Ruether (The Progressive Catholic Voice, July 28, 2010).