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The Church in Rome - Growth of its Power

Julian Spriggs M.A.

During the first three centuries of the Christian church, Rome was the capital of the greatest empire that the world had seen, so it was almost inevitable that the church in Rome would also become the centre of ecclesiastical power. Rome was the largest city and the centre of government and administration of the empire, as well as an important centre of trade and commerce. It was at the hub of the network of Roman roads and shipping routes, so it was true that ‘all roads lead to Rome’.

Although the true origin of the church in Rome remains a mystery, it is clear that some of the apostles, including Peter and Paul, and many of the most significant leaders of the early church, spent at least some part of their ministry in Rome. Some of the leading heretical teachers also gravitated to Rome to communicate their views.

Like all capital cities of great empires, Rome also became a centre of intellectual discussion, whether of philosophy or theology, or any other system of thought. Rome never became the location of a distinctive school of thought within the church, like Antioch or Alexandria. Instead, it became more of a melting pot for all schools of thought. Because of this, the tendency began for all teachers to look to Rome for approval of their teaching. To have Rome supporting them would give them great authority. Inevitably, this gave the opinion of the church in Rome great weight, and often placed the Roman Church in the position to judge between two opposing viewpoints. They tended to stand back to let others conduct the debates and arguments, and then make its mind up later, attempting to avoid being sucked into the controversies. Historically, the city of Rome’s strength was in its practical organisation, rather than its intellectual creativity and originality. This also became true of the church, as it grew strong in its administrative and judicial power.

It seems that two trends were happening together. Churches began to look to Rome for the lead, and as the church in Rome began to become conscious of its power, it increasingly considered itself as the church that was supreme over the others. This was reinforced by many major Christian leaders, like Tertullian, teaching that the church in Rome was the guardian of the Apostolic faith. The Apostle Peter was held to be the chief of the apostles, and his primacy was increasingly applied to the Roman Church, as the belief grew that the Apostle Peter was the founder of the church in Rome. The promises Jesus gave to Peter of being the Rock on which he will build his church, and of him being given the keys of the Kingdom (Matt 16:18-19), were increasingly taken, not only to apply to Peter, but also to his successors in Rome.

The power of the Roman church grew as it became the normal procedure for churches to ask the opinion of the bishop of Rome (or Pope) over any controversy or conflict. The bishop of Rome also began to take the authority to excommunicate anyone they did not agree with. However, many bishops, like Cyprian, could not agree with this, and acknowledged the bishop of Rome only as the first among equals.