Some of you may have read the exchanges Steve and I have had with a Catholic by the name of Ben on Al Kimel's Pontifications blog. In the course of that discussion, I mentioned a passage of scripture that doesn't receive much attention when discussing the doctrine of the papacy: Acts 15:7.
Many non-Roman-Catholic scholars, including Evangelical scholars, believe that Peter is the rock of Matthew 16 and believe in some sort of Petrine primacy. Often, Evangelicals will respond to Catholic arguments for the papacy by arguing against every form of Petrine primacy, even though Peter could have some type of primacy without being a Pope. I see no reasonable way to deny that Peter was the most prominent of the apostles in some contexts, just as other apostles were most prominent in other contexts. Instead of denying that Peter had any primacy, we ought to acknowledge the unique roles Peter had and ask whether any of them logically lead to the doctrine of the papacy. Since none of those unique roles do lead to a papacy, Petrine primacy can't be equated with a Petrine papacy.
In the New Testament record, Peter often asserts authority, and he sometimes describes his role in the early church. In addition to the role he describes in Acts 15:7, he tells us that he's an apostle, an elder, and an eyewitness of Christ's life, for example (1 Peter 1:1, 5:1, 2 Peter 1:1, 1:16). Peter wasn't trying to avoid asserting authority, nor was he trying to avoid discussing his role in the church. He did discuss such issues, but a papal office wasn't something he included.
Though Peter is most prominent among the apostles in the gospels, I see no reasonable way to deny that Paul becomes more prominent once he comes on the scene. And the earliest post-apostolic sources say more about Paul, and speak more highly about Paul, than they do about Peter. Terence Smith comments:
"there is an astonishing lack of reference to Peter among ecclesiastical authors of the first half of the second century. He is barely mentioned in the Apostolic Fathers, nor by Justin and the other Apologists" (cited in Robert Eno, The Rise of the Papacy [Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1990], p. 15)
Various types of Petrine primacy are often mentioned by sources from the third century onward, perhaps largely because the written apostolic records, especially the gospels, were becoming more prominent and oral tradition was becoming less prominent. But even among these later sources, we still see comments about other apostles having some sort of primacy. Origen, for example, comments:
"I do not know how Celsus should have forgotten or not have thought of saying something about Paul, the founder, after Jesus, of the Churches that are in Christ." (Against Celsus, 1:63)
Can you imagine what Roman Catholics would make of such a comment by Origen if the name of Paul was replaced with the name of Peter? But since Origen mentions Paul instead, most Catholics probably haven't ever heard of this passage before, nor would they think that it has implications for a Pauline papacy.
Modern Catholic apologists single out the patristic comments on Petrine primacy, so those passages receive a lot of attention while passages like the one above don't. But even if we were to focus only on the comments made about Peter, the fact remains that a Petrine primacy isn't equivalent to a Petrine papacy. The failure to rightly distinguish between the two is largely a result of Catholic apologists trying to equate the two, since there isn't any credible evidence that would take us from a primacy to a papacy.
Some modern Catholics recognize this problem, so they argue that the papacy is just one option among others. If you prefer the papacy to other forms of church government, perhaps because you think it's more effective at bringing about Christian unity, then you can follow the papacy as your personal preference. That sort of reasoning is radically different from what Catholics have traditionally argued. It doesn't lead us to the conclusion that the papacy is an institution established by Christ, one to which we're obligated to submit. A doctrine like the papacy isn't something you ought to put forward as one possible option among others. The claims the papacy makes and the perceptions people have had of the office go far beyond the sort of vague references to Petrine primacy and philosophical speculations that we see coming from so many modern Roman Catholic apologists.