Il Papa! Papal Infallibility, pt. 3: The Good Shepherd Calls a Shepherd

This is part three of an exploration of the origins of the papacy and the idea of papal infallibility. Yesterday, we looked at how papal infallibility is the natural result of a Holy Spirit protected Church lead on Earth by one man. This raised the obvious question: did Christ establish a Church to be lead by one man, serving as his vicar (representative) on Earth? Having looked at the central verse used to justify a “yes” to that question, Matthew 16:17-19, I wanted to explore some of the other routes you can arrive at the Papacy through the Bible.

The structure of the Church is hinted at in Matthew 16. It is, for example, a singular Church – there is One True Church, one “church of the living God” (1 Timothy 3:15). More evidence for what the Church looks like comes from John 10, during the Good Shepherd discourse. You might want to glance the passage over before we go any further).

Before Christ describes Himself as the “Good Shepherd,” (John 10:11, 14), He describes Himself as “the door for the sheep,”v. 7, 9), saying that the “one who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.” (v. 2). In contrast, “the one who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs in some other way, is a thief and a robber” (v. 1), who “comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (v. 10). Christ then describes Himself as the “Good Shepherd,” who “lays down his life for the sheep” (v. 11).

These other shepherds (the ones who Jesus is letting in, in verses 1-10) are the hierarchy in the Church. Paul tells the Ephesian elders (see Acts 10:17) to “Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you bishops, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son” (Acts 10:28). We find references like these elsewhere, as well. In the Old Testament, God promises “I will give you shepherds after my own heart. They will lead you with knowledge and insight” (Jeremiah 3:15). These shepherds (the term was translated “pastors” in the KJV) are those assigned to tend the flock of Christ, the “Good Shepherd.”

In John 10:11-18, Jesus models what a shepherd should be: one willing to lay down his life “for the sheep” (John 10:15), rather than abandoning the sheep in the face of adversity (v. 12-13). Jesus describes Himself as “the Good Shepherd,” rather than simply a shepherd, because “no one is good except God alone.” (Luke 18:19). As God, and as the perfect man, Jesus is the perfect model for Christian leadership.

An important example of this pastoral leadership comes from the Old Testament: God says to David, “You will shepherd my people Israel,”(2 Samuel 5:1-3; see 1 Chronicles 11:1-3), yet David still proclaims in Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.” (Psalm 23:1). David is the shepherd, God is the Good Shepherd. Much later, Peter is the shepherd, and God remains the Good Shepherd.

So we know that this is a passage dealing with Christian leadership, but how do we know who the true shepherds are, and who are merely “hired hands,” (John 10:12), or worse, thieves who have come to steal and destroy? Jesus mentions one shepherd by name, and it is the same man He told “upon this rock I will build My Church.” Singling Peter out of all the disciples, Jesus asks him, “do you truly love me more than these?” and instructs him, “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15). Peter was then asked two more questions about his dedication to Christ, mirroring the three questions he had failed in the courtyard(John 18:15-18, 25-27), and instructed by Jesus to “take care of my sheep,” and “feed my sheep.” (John 21:16-17).

As mentioned yesterday, Jesus identifies Himself with a Church to an astonishingly degree. Yesterday, we looked at Acts 22:7-8, where Jesus identified Himself as the Church being persecuted by Paul. Today, we see Jesus describing Himself as the door for the sheep. In other words, Jesus is describing Himself as the Church (and specifically, as the boundaries of the Church). We see this elsewhere when Jesus describes Himself as “The Way” (John 14:6), an early name for the Church (Acts 24:14: see also Acts 19:18-19, 23, Acts 22:4, and Acts 24:14). Jesus does not draw a distinction between Himself and the Church, for in Baptism, through the Holy Spirit, all enter into the One Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). For that reason, when He sent out the seventy-two, Jesus told them, “The one who listens to you listens to me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects the one who sent me” (Luke 10:16).

This uniting in Christ means that there is to be unity on Earth as well, a point which Christ arrives at in John 10. Speaking of the faithful Gentiles, Jesus says: “I have other sheep that do not come from this sheepfold. I must bring them too, and they will listen to my voice, so that there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16).* The unity of Christians requires a unity under both Christ, the Good Shepherd, and the shepherd appointed by Christ, the shepherd who arrives in through the Gate.

Finally, a faithful shepherd keeps the flock as one, and does not scatter them, as the wolf does (John 10:12). There is more than one shepherd in the Church today (as Paul’s language in Acts 20:28 suggests), but they still survive as one flock because they follow a single Earthly shepherd, just as the Jews of old did. In the early Church, that shepherd was Peter, called by name by Jesus Christ in John 21:15-17 as well as Matthew 16:18-19, and his successor is Pope Benedict XVI. So how does this advance the role of papal infallibility? Well, we see Christ appointing a human shepherd to lead the organs of His Mystical Body, the Church. And since Christ will never lead His Body into error, He will not allow the pope to lead the Church into error – particularly since Scripture sets up the Church as the “pillar and foundation of Truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). Tomorrow, we’ll look at some of the arguments against papal infallibility, and some answers to those oppositions.

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