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The Power of the Keys

Question: Only Peter, not the other apostles, was given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. This means that Peter had supreme authority in the church.

Answer: The Lord Jesus told Peter: "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" (Matthew 16:19). Catholic apologists often allude to this passage as important biblical evidence for the papacy.

Undoubtedly the Lord entrusted Peter with authority in the church; yet he was never made a pope. To prove the papacy it must be shown that Jesus delegated supreme power to Peter to rule over the entire church, and that this authority is passed on to his alleged successors, the bishops of Rome.

Catholic apologists note that since the Lord gave the "keys of the kingdom" to the apostle Peter alone, he must have a unique and superior authority. A Catholic writer states: "Since 'the keys' were confided to Peter alone, we understand that our Lord conferred upon Peter a particular authority within the whole company of the Apostles." [1]

Was Peter's authority really "particular" or, to be more exact, "superior"? No, not really, for the Lord goes on to explain how this authority is exercised, saying, "and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Elsewhere, the Lord gave the same authority of binding and loosing to all the apostles (Matthew 18:18; John 20:23). Therefore Peter had an equivalent (not superior) authority to the other apostles. In Matthew 16, Peter is representative of the other apostles and all the Church, who follow him in confessing Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God. Therefore the whole Church shares the power of the keys.

Sometimes Matthew 16 is compared to Isaiah 22:22: "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." A Catholic apologist argues, "Christ also gave Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 16:19), a direct reference to Is. 22:22 where the servant Eliakim is granted, using the symbol of the keys, the authority of his master to become the Prime Minister, as it were, of the Davidic Kingdom. Here in Matthew we have Christ using the same language and the same symbol of the keys to grant His authority to His servant Peter, making Peter the Prime Minister of His Kingdom." [2]

It is doubtful whether Matthew 16 is at all a direct reference to Isaiah 22. For example, Isaiah speaks about "the key" (singular) while Matthew of "the keys" (plural). There is in fact a direct reference to Isaiah 22 in the New Testament but it is found in Revelations 3:7: "These things says He who is holy, He who is true, 'He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens.'" The person holding the "key of David" is the Lord Jesus Christ, and not Peter or the bishop of Rome.

While it is true that Christ did confer authority on Peter, it is also true that this authority was not unique to Peter, nor was it supreme over the other apostles and the entire church. The power of the keys was granted to the whole church to be exercised in the forgiveness of sins. The apostle Peter was the first to open the way of salvation by the preaching of the gospel, first to the Jews at Pentecost and later on to the Gentiles at Cornelius house. The church continues to exercise that authority through the gospel, proclaiming forgiveness to those who believe in Christ, and withholding forgiveness to unbelievers. The church is also duty bound to discipline obstinate sinful members; she also enjoys the happy privilege to restore penitents to full fellowship. Such was the interpretation of the power of the keys by the Church Fathers. The Catholic Encyclopaedia admits:

"In the Fathers the references to the promise of Matthew 16:19, are of frequent occurrence. Almost invariably the words of Christ are cited in proof of the Church's power to forgive sins. The application is a natural one, for the promise of the keys is immediately followed by the words: "Whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth", etc. Moreover, the power to confer or to withhold forgiveness might well be viewed as the opening and shutting of the gates of heaven." [3]

The Fathers generally attributed the "keys" as the prerogative of the church, not the exclusive power of any individual, whether the bishop of Rome or anyone else. They interpreted this authority in reference to the forgiveness of sins, as the scriptural text does, and not as supreme jurisdictional authority of one bishop over the entire church, as the Roman Church does.

The following excerpt from Augustine illustrates the Fathers' interpretation of the keys. He writes:

"He has given, therefore, the keys to His Church, that whatsoever it should bind on earth might be bound in heaven, and whatsoever it should loose on earth might be loosed in heaven; that is to say, that whosoever in the Church should not believe that his sins are remitted, they should not be remitted to him; but that whosoever should believe and should repent, and turn from his sins, should be saved by the same faith and repentance on the ground of which he is received into the bosom of the Church." [4]

Writing in the fifth century, Augustine knew nothing of the Roman Catholic claim that Peter or the bishops of Rome had the exclusive right to the power of the keys. Augustine saw Peter as the representative of the Church; therefore the keys are given by Christ to His Church. Moreover, the Church binds and looses people from sin through the personal response of faith and repentance of the individual, on account of which a person is received in the Church. That is what Evangelicals believe.

Roman bishops have usurped this passage and gave it a novel interpretation to bolster their proud claims to universal and supreme jurisdiction. This idea is foreign to the Fathers, and more importantly, it contrary to sound exegesis of the biblical text.


[1] To the See of Peter, by Archbishop Raymond L. Burke [back]

[2] St. Peter & the Scriptures: Eight questions about the papacy, by Matthew A. C. Newsome [back]

[3] Power of the Keys, Catholic Encyclopedia [back]

[4] On Christian Doctrine, by St. Augustine [back]

Dr Joseph Mizzi