Contrary to the Roman Catholic assertion that Peter and his successors are the Supreme Pontiff, the Orthodox Catholic Churches assert that Peter and his successors hold the honorary title of the First Among Equals.

When was the actual title of First Among Equals used to define the Petrine bishopric?

I'm curious as to whether the Orthodox Churches began asserting this title specifically after the Schism began to take shape, or if it was something that the Latin Church decided to reject that was there from the beginning.

1 Answer 1


I assume that your question is not about the exact usage or origin of the phrase First Among Equals rather the primacy of the bishop of Rome. i.e., The office of the bishop of Rome is considered preeminent.

The Orthodox Churches did not begin to assert this title after the Schism nor did the Catholic Church reject it after it. Both the churches always agreed that the bishop of Rome is first among the Pentarchy (Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem). The problem was on whether this primacy is just a honorary title or does it have functions/privileges attached to it (which is in and of itself a completely different question).

There has been many instances before the Schism which shows that the papal supremacy was an accepted fact.

  • "For it is with this Roman church, by reason of its more powerful preeminence that every other church, that is to say all the faithful everywhere, ought to agree, inasmuch as in this church the apostolic tradition has been preserved continuously by those who come from everywhere." St. Irenaeus ("Against All Heresies," c. 180 A.D.)
  • The first bishop to claim primacy in writing was Pope Stephen I (254-257)
  • Where Peter is, There is the Church - St. Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan ("Commentary on Twelve Psalms of David" c. 389 A.D.)
  • "'But,' you [Jovinian] will say, 'it was on Peter that the Church was founded' [Matt. 16:18]. Well . . . one among the twelve is chosen to be their head in order to remove any occasion for division." St. Jerome ("Against Jovinian," c. 393 A.D.)
  • "Among these [apostles] Peter alone almost everywhere deserved to represent the whole Church." St. Augustine of Hippo ("Sermon 295," c. 411 A.D.)
  • Edicts of the Emperor Theodosius II and of Valentinian III proclaimed the Roman bishop as "Rector of the whole Church". The Emperor Justinian, who was living in the East in Constantinople, in the 6th century published a similar decree.
  • First Council of Constantinople decreed: "The Bishop of Constantinople, however, shall have the prerogative of honor after the Bishop of Rome because Constantinople is New Rome.

They might have used different words, but neither the Catholic church nor the orthodox church has ever refused the primacy of the Bishop of Rome till today. They always considered him to be First Among Equals. It is whether this primacy has extra function is what is been questioned after the east-west schism.

  • I am specifically asking for an approx. date as to when this phrase was first used. What the Orthodox churches define as First Among Equals is dramatically different than what the Roman Church defines as Supreme Pontiff. Im somewhat knowledgeable of how the Schism happened. I just can't dig up any sources about the initial usage of First Among Equals.
    – user5286
    Oct 11, 2013 at 9:23
  • "Wherefore we teach and declare that, by divine ordinance, the Roman Church possesses a pre-eminence of ordinary power over every other Church, and that this jurisdictional power of the Roman Pontiff is both episcopal and immediate. Both clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both singly and collectively, are bound to submit to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, and this not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world." Vatican I, Chapt.3
    – user5286
    Oct 11, 2013 at 9:23
  • The above canon clearly leaves no room what so ever for a conciliatory church structure...which is exactly what the title First Among Equals calls for.
    – user5286
    Oct 11, 2013 at 9:27
  • "Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff." Pope Boniface VIII, Unam sanctam, 1302ad.
    – user5286
    Oct 11, 2013 at 9:36
  • 1
    Also you seem to be of the understanding that the term first among equals and the term supreme pontiff are not compatible with each other.In a catholic understanding they are compatible. As a bishop, the bishop of Rome is equal to any other bishop in the world. The CCC goes in length to explain this. The bishops should not be thought of as vicars of the Pope. All Bishops receive their authority from Christ not pope. The bishop of Rome has extra duties in order to protect the unity of the Church. Pope is NOT the ruler of the church rather a guardian of it. Oct 11, 2013 at 12:41

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