July 5, 2013
vi. There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ; nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.
The biblical doctrine of the church revolves around Jesus Christ. He is the head of the church, which is His body, and He must have the preeminence (Col. 1:18). He has supreme authority (Col. 2:10). The church submits to Him as its Lord (Eph. 5:22-24). He is the source of our life (Eph. 4:15-16). When men claim to follow Christ but really follow their own personal notions or traditions and manmade rules and forms of worship, they are not holding the Head (Col. 2:18-23). Christ must always be first, or we have ceased to be the church of Christ.
One of the great heresies of the Roman Catholic Church is their exaltation of a man to the place of Christ. The Pope or Bishop of Rome takes the title "Vicar of Jesus Christ," meaning that he acts as Christ's representative, ruling as the supreme head of the church on earth. He is also called "Pontifex Maximus," meaning supreme or great high priest (Lev. 21:10, Vulgate), but the Bible says our great high priest is Jesus, the Son of God (Heb. 4:14). Invoking the authority of Peter, the Pope claims to speak infallibly on matters of faith or life, placing his own words on the level of the words of Christ.
It may surprise modern readers that the Westminster Confession calls the Pope the Antichrist. Today the Antichrist is popularly conceived to be a great military leader who will rule the world with supernatural powers. But in the Scriptures, the word antichrist is used of false teachers who deny fundamental teachings of the faith. John wrote, "Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists" (1 John 2:18; cf. 2:22; 4:3; 2 John 7).
The Lord Jesus warned that "false Christs, and false prophets" will come (Matt. 24:24). Paul foretold that the coming of the "man of sin, the son of perdition" who would exalt himself to the place of God in the temple (2 Thess. 2:3-4). The Westminster divines believed (and make a good case for their beliefs in their frequent writings on this subject!) that the office of the Papacy (not any one individual Pope) fulfilled these prophecies, asserting its claim to rule the universal church, which is the New Testament temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16).
Thus the Westminster Confession closes its chapter on the church with a solemn warning. Christ alone is the head of His church. He who dares to usurp Christ's place becomes an enemy of Christ. The confession of the true church has ever been, "Jesus is Lord!" It was this conviction that led early Christians to choose death rather than to worship the emperor of Rome, and the same conviction strengthens the church in every age. The blessed hope of the church is the return of her King, and her prayer is ever, "Come, Lord Jesus!"
Dr. Joel Beeke is the President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.