Is the Pope the Vicar of Christ? Is he a divine person and Jesus Christ on earth? Many anti-Catholics seem to believe so. While some popes have stated that that they are Christ on earth, non-Catholics misunderstand these claims. They believe that such a title and position exalts the pope to a place of divinity and replaces Christ. As one non-Catholic site writes, “Throughout the centuries of Rome’s existence, the popes have regularly claimed to be divine.”
While that is incorrect, another famous anti-Catholic site similarly states, “The majesty, greatness and indescribable power of the office of Vicar of Christ are such that a believer stands in awe of His divine Person. That any human being should lay claim to the office of Vicar of Christ seems totally absurd and blasphemous.”
It’s no wonder many anti-Catholics claim that Catholics worship the pope. Clearly, some believe him to be of divine status since he “replaces Christ” and is his “substitute.” For them, the pope is taking Christ’s place and usurping his divine authority.
To help us understand the Catholic position, let us look at what Catholics believe about the pope and the title “Vicar of Christ.”
First, this title in no way implies that the pope replaces Jesus Christ, or that the pope is Jesus, or that he is divine. The word ‘Vicar’ means “instead of” or “in place of,” and many non-Catholics will be surprised to learn that this office of vicar comes directly from the Bible itself. In Holy Scripture, this office is known as the office of Royal Steward. In Israel, it was known as the office of the Prime Minister. In Christianity, it is the office of the Papacy. Let us examine this further.
In the Bible (Gen. 35-50), we have the story of Joseph and his brothers. After years of suffering, being betrayed by his family, being sold into slavery, and being put in jail unjustly, Joseph is eventually looked favorably upon and raised up by Pharaoh. Joseph interprets his dream correctly, and Pharaoh then appoints Joseph to be the Royal Steward over his whole land.
Joseph was second in command to Pharaoh himself throughout the land and operated with Pharaoh’s full authority. He ran the kingdom for Pharaoh, made decisions, and the people all answered to him. There were other authorities in Egypt to be sure, but by Pharaoh’s command, every authority answered to and reported to Joseph who was the highest authority under the Pharaoh. Moreover, if Pharaoh happened to journey or go away for a while, Joseph would run the land in his place as acting Pharaoh. The only person Joseph was subject to was the Pharaoh himself.
Fast forward. Many years later, the Israelites wished to model the great kingdoms of the earth, like Egypt. To this end, they chose a king and instituted the exact same office of Royal Steward. However, in Israel, it was known as the office of the Prime Minister, but it operated the exact same way with one person appointed by the King and who operated with the king’s full authority.
Like Joseph, the Prime Minister ran the kingdom, made decisions, and people answered to him. The Prime Minister himself was only subject to the King. We see this for example in Isaiah 22 when one corrupt Prime Minister is replaced by a more noble one, also denoting a succession of Prime Ministers. Each Prime Minister received the king’s authority which was represented by a key. Keys in the Bible denote authority.
Listen to what the Bible states as authority is bestowed upon the new Prime Minister Eliakim:
Then it shall be in that day,
That I will call My servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah;
I will clothe him with your robe
And strengthen him with your belt;
I will commit your responsibility into his hand.
He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem
And to the house of Judah.
The key of the house of David
I will lay on his shoulder;
So he shall open, and no one shall shut;
And he shall shut, and no one shall open.
I will fasten him as a peg in a secure place,
And he will become a glorious throne to his father’s house.”
This key gave Eliakim authority over the whole kingdom, and he exercised the king’s authority. There were other authorities in the land to be sure, but they in turn all answered to the Prime minister.
This was the same office that Jesus gave to Peter in Mt. 16:18-19. The observant reader will even notice similar language of authority along with keys of authority being given.
“I say to you that you are Rock, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Notice the language above in Isaiah about opening and shutting (terms denoting authority) and receiving the key to the house of David. Notice the similar language that is said to Peter about binding in loosening and it being ratified in heaven. Notice too that he also received keys of authority. (Even some Protestant scholars have recognized these parallels.) While the other Apostles received a similar authority in Mt. 18:15-18, only Peter received the keys of the kingdom of heaven indicating final authority who would act in Christ’s name and with His very authority.
Peter is raised up by Christ the same way that Joseph was raised up by Pharaoh and Eliakim by King David. They all received authority over a people and land to operate in the king’s name and with his authority. In this case, Peter is given authority to operate in the King of king’s name.
Just like the Royal Steward and the Prime Minister of old, there are other authorities in the Church of God to be sure. However, they all answer to the head authority who acts in Christ’s name and by His command. The only person this new office answers to is Christ Himself.
So, we see that the “Vicar of Christ” doesn’t actually replace Christ in the same way that Joseph did not replace Pharaoh. He merely received authority from him to act in his name and run the land for him, and Joseph (and Eliakim) did just that. So does the pope today.
Of course, this does not mean that all people in authority are just, holy, or good, unfortunately. Just as there were corrupt Prime Ministers and prophets in Israel, so too there have been some popes who did not live up to the glory of the office given to them.
Yet, the pope, who is the Vicar of Christ, has been appointed by Christ to run the church on earth while the King is away. Each and every pope will have to answer directly to the King of Kings and offer an account of how they did.
In closing, being the Vicar of Christ does not mean they are Christ, but that they have His authority. In Jn. 21:15-17, Peter is commissioned to feed Christ’s sheep (the church) and to shepherd them. 2000 years and 266 popes later, we still have men operating with Christ’s authority by His command.
May we pray for them often and ask the Holy Spirit to guide them, empower them, and help them to be good stewards of this office.