What you ask is a good question, and one that doesn’t have a simple answer. There is no magic point where one person flipped a switch, but I’ll try to give a brief history of the Papacy.
In the 1st and 2nd Century, the Roman Church had some prestige simply because it was in the Capitol of the Empire — so it was larger and had ease of communication with the area churches. Really by around 200 it was view as one of the 4 major churches (along with Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Constantinople becomes a fifth in the 4th Century). The Bishops in these churches were know as Patriarchs, and they were the most influential churches, especially upon their neighboring area (Jerusalem not as much because it was depopulated). The idea was that these four were the “first among equals” — that their was no actual power, but by custom they held some sway.
In the 3rd century the Church in Rome really shifts to speaking Latin instead of Greek, along with a lot of the Churches in the Western Empire (Spain, North Africa, somewhat in Gaul/France). This ends up tying these churches even closer to Rome’s influence.
By the 5th Century, Rome is adopting an attitude that they ought to be the most important bishopric. In part this is for two reasons. First, in the theological arguments of the day, it tended be Alexandria vs. Antioch, with Constantinople being played politically – so Rome viewed itself as being almost the outside, impartial judge. As an example of this, in 451 at the council of Chalcedon, its Pope Leo who brings up the language of “One Person, Two Natures” to describe Jesus (and basically settle 70 years of infighting in the East).
While the Papacy is assuming (at least in its own mind) greater and greater prestige theologically, the Western Empire also collapses. While the government falls apart, the Church structure remains intact, so more and more political power falls upon the Papacy. The person who really ties this off is Gregory the Great (590-604). He had been a brilliant politician who retired to monastic life, and then he got elected pope, and put that civil power to use.
Also, with the collapse of the Western Empire, contact between East and West declined – so the Papacy becomes more and more independent of the Eastern Church. Customs start to diverge, which causes friction because both East and West thinks the other is being terrible rude (and probably heretical) for changing customs without consulting the other – and by 1054 East and West officially split.
There’s one other major factor that plays in to the rise of the Papacy. From around 300 on, there were two types of clergy. There were the secular clergy (who lived out in the world, the secula), and then there were the regular clergy (who lived in a monastery under a “regula” – a rule of a monastic order). Secular clergy could marry, regular clergy didn’t because they were also monks. What happens is that the individual Popes ended up… enjoying their political power and prestige often for ill… then for flat out wickedness (some of the stories of the Papacy in the 900s will curl your hair!). So what happens is when the Pope get out of line, Rome ends up every once in a while calling a fellow from the monasteries to assert some good law and order, to “clean the joint up” as it were.
Monks generally took three vows – chastity (no nothing with anyone), poverty (no private property), and obedience – that is, you obey your superior. Therefore, if you elect popes from the monastery to clean house, they are going to pull on these vows to do it — which is why it’s only in 11th Century when you have full secular clergy forbidden to marry (chastity will keep us in line!) and the full assertion of Papal Primacy (against the Eastern Churches).
By 1215 the Pope is the only game in town, and really his authority is codified at the 4th Lateran Council in Rome… which is really the “Bad” council — lots of lousy powerplay things happen there, as well as the declaration of Transubstantiation as dogma. But that’s the slide – it’s really an example of best intentions going beyond what the Scriptures say and leading to troubles and wickedness — a warning it is always good for us to remember today.
Hope that helps,
Rev. Eric J. Brown
Zion Lutheran Church – Lahoma, OK
Editor’s Note: You may also find the following information from Pr. Bryan Wolfmueller helpful (CLICK HERE)