November 24, 2020

Thoughts on Acts 15 and Early Church Leadership

paulbarnabas.jpgA few nights ago, Denise and I were reading the scriptures together when I was struck by what we see in regard to church leadership in Acts 15. When we are discussing how Jesus established leadership in the early church, and how that leadership functions, this passage is crucial. The implications for the claims of some churches in regard to authority are obvious.

We ought to go all the way through Acts 15. Take note:

1. The leadership of the church in Antioch responds to a crisis involving Judaizers by sending Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem “about this question.” Acts 15:2

2. The leadership at Jerusalem is referred to as “the apostles and elders.” “Apostles” is a term that goes back to Jesus, but “elders” goes into synagogue leadership, which the early Christians adopted as the leadership model for themselves. So, at least at this point, the leadership of the church in Jerusalem is plural and possibly of two different types. The church in Antioch recognizes the authority of the Jerusalem leadership in the case of settling controversies such as this one. Acts 15:3

3. In Acts 15:3, those welcoming of Paul and Barnabas are described as “the church and the apostles and the elders.”

4. In Acts 15:6, the apostles and elders gather together “to consider” this matter. The word choice has to do with listening, deliberation and coming to a conclusion. Obviously, it implies that the apostles and the elders are functioning as an authoritative council of some kind.

5. In Acts 15:7, Peter stands up and reminds those gathered of the previous work of God in commanding him to preach the gospel to Gentiles without requiring circumcision. Readers ought to note how Peter functions in what we’ve already been told is a gathering of apostles and elders. Peter is, of course, both.

6. The assembled leaders hear Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15:12.

7. James, the brother of Jesus and the apostle most associated with the leadership of the Jerusalem church, speaks in Acts 15:13 AFTER everyone has finished speaking. This appears to be close to an authoritative, final summation of what’s been heard.

8. In Acts 15:19, James- not Peter- speaks of “my judgement” and puts the conclusion of the controversy into its first form. (Acts 15:19-21)

9. In Acts 15:22, “it seemed good to the apostles and the elders with the whole church” to send representatives with Paul and Barnabas to personally deliver a letter giving the judgement of the gathered leadership of the Jerusalem church.

10. The letter refers to the authoritative group as “we” and “us.” Acts 15:23-25. Further, it says that the false teachers are speaking without the authority of the apostles and elders. Acts 15:25 says that the council did what seemed good to “us” after coming into “one accord.” These are decisions presented in the authority of the entire group.

11. In Acts 15:28, the council says “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” to make “requirements.”

It is difficult to avoid the overwhelming evidence in this passage that the first church council is operating as a gathering of all the apostles and elders of the Jerusalem church. Peter speaks as one of the apostles, and James seems to have the last word. Where there could be opportunities to show deference given to Peter, there are none.

I think this Orthodox priest gets it.


  1. Brian Pendell says

    Have you read Wikipedia’s article on Ebionites? They make a pretty convincing case that James was … among some “Christian” sects and particularly among the Judaizers … considered something of a high priest and if there’s any church that deserved to be considered “primary”, it’s the church at Jerusalem.


    Brian P.

  2. I think that there’s an overwhelming amount of evidence here for what the early church was up to in larger questions of leadership.

  3. One thing that I’ve noticed that few people bring up is that the “mother” church – Jerusalem – actually ended up following the ways of the “daughter” church – Antioch. I agree that deference was not given to Peter, and it is also surprising that even Paul and Barnabas are allowed to speak, even though they are not part of the “leadership” of the Jerusalem church. Very interesting study… thank you!


  4. Heteroclite says

    This might not be exactly the right essay for this question, but it does connect, I think: what do we make of the picture we get in 1 Corinthians 14: 26-31, especially the first chunk: “when ye come together, every one of you [!!!] hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying”? This sounds like organic, spontaneous, democratic, non-bulletinized, H.S.-directed worship (no, I am not advocating Charismania or Emergentism, LOL!); nobody up front orchestrating everything. The leadership seems to be in the background, acting as a sort of “filter” system (“And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.”) Another clue that these meetings were quite loosely structured is the admonition that the women keep silent, asking their husbands questions @ home: this seems to indicate that there was in fact something of a “pow-wow” atmosphere in these assemblies.

    Correct me if I’m mistaken here. I’m trying to understand a passage which has intrigued me for decades.

  5. Very good post Michael.

    I keep asking where the pastor centric model we have in Evangelical churches comes from, and get no answer. I ask who the pastor of the Galatian church was. Or the Corinthian church. Or the Roman church. Or the Ephesian church, etc.

    But today a church and its pastor are practically synonymous. What is the origin of that model? It does not seem to have originated from the early church although pastor centric churches bill themselves as “Bible churches.”

  6. Brian Pendell says

    All right, Michael, I have a question.

    You say ‘it is obvious what the early church had in mind’.

    Well, I’m a little stupid, so can you spell it out for me?

    is it …
    1) A collegial body of elders who meet and come to a consensus, where James is ‘first among equals’?

    2) A papal model with James as high priest, making a Catholic model with the head being the closest hereditary relative of Jesus, rather than the bishop of Rome?

    Also, is James the head of the entire church, or merely the (former) leader of the Judaizing faction, who is conceding Peter and Paul’s argument?


    Brian P.

  7. This is a REALLY, REALLY good commentary on Acts 15.
    It is also a great reminder.
    So encouraging…thank you, brother.

  8. Nicholas Anton says

    It seems to me that too frequently we evaluate the contemporary church and it’s practices around a contemporary bias rather than according to Jesus’ teaching as seen within Scripture, within it’s original cultural context.

    As I understand Scripture, in the New Testament church as revealed in the Bible, an “elder”, according to the normative usage of the term at the time and in the context in which it was written, is an older (not necessarily the oldest), mature person of faith, with a proven track record in Faith and life, functioning within a patriarchal context. The term itself as used in the New Testament, with the exception of two instances when it is used as a noun, is an adjective. It is, generally speaking, a relational term (older versus younger). The significance of being an elder is not the authority and respect inherent in a title (Jesus forbids titles in Matt. 23). The lists of qualifications as given in 1 Tim. and Titus are not given to define an elder, but rather to qualify an elder/senior (presbuterus) for superintending (episkope) in the church. In other words, a superintending elder is an older/elder/senior person who is qualified according to Paul’s designated qualifications, rather than a bureaucratic representative of Jesus Christ who attains a title, position of eldership by appointment, election etc. Simply crowning a person with the “title” of authority and dignity is the way of the kings and autocrats of this world (Matt. 20). On the other hand, encouraging and permitting one who is qualified to exercise that responsibility, and passing it on to future generations by word and example is the way of God.

  9. Brian:

    There are probably a number of interpretations, but Petrine supremacy isn’t coming out of this passage. Not if we go with the text.

    James may have the last word because of age, or relation to Jesus, or just consensus. He’s not a “priest” however. That’s not there at all.

  10. Concilliarism, especially as Tim Enloe describes it, seems to be the best possible deduction here. However, as chances for any type of true concilliarism started evaporating at around 1054, we do have a problem…

    But that problem does not justify individualism though.

    I’d like to extend your study to the OT Church as well, and the question of authority and leadership there. Could be a worthwhile exercise.

  11. Brian Pendell says


    Even if Petrine Supremacy WAS preached in this passage (and it isn’t) … but let’s pretend that it was … so what?

    What is the HISTORICAL evidence that Peter was ever bishop of Rome? To me, the stories about Peter in Rome smack somewhat of ‘George Washington slept here’.

    1) Did Peter ever live in Rome? Was he a guest, a prisoner?

    2) If he did, did he function as an elder?

    3) If he did, does that mean he wanted the bishop of Rome to be primary? George Washington made his HQ in Valley Forge, but there’s no way he wanted Valley Forge to be the permanent capital.

    ISTR John calling Rome all kinds of names in Revelation. What is the odds that Peter would want the spiritual power of the church to combine with the secular power of the Roman Empire?

    I just don’t see it, even if this passage *did* teach Petrine Supremacy.


    Brian P.

  12. Given what is said above, I don’t think this comports well with Sola Scriptura and with one of its necessary components, the right of private judgment.

    The Apostles and presbyters decided-done deal-debate finished. And the whole process is divinely ordered. This is why many later ecumenical councils spoke of themselves and others as “inspired.”

    Something else to think about-There is an implicit Trinitarian order to early church structure-Apostle-presbyter-deacon. The Father sends the Son and the Spirit. When the Apostles die, the episkopos or bishop, which was a distinguished presbyter, becomes the source of ordination so that there is a shift to bishop-presbyter-deacon. This is why ordination was reserved to bishops alone. This is in fact what constitutes a “monarchial” single source, episcopacy.

  13. bookdragon says

    I think this supports the model used by the Orthodox church very well – a council of bishops with the primate being ‘first among equals’ (more of a prime minister than a king).

    It also follows the basic pattern of a rabbinical council, and esp. the church at Jerusalem seems is more along the lines of a Sanhedrin. If that is the pattern (and given that Christianity was still very close to its Jewish roots at this point in history, I think it likely), then the assembly of apostles and elders in Jerusalem was more of a Supreme Court than a governing body. Over-arching questions on doctrine and practice would be brought to it for decisions, but more basic questions would be left to each local church’s council of elders, which would also govern the local church.

    It does seem that James, as the leader of the Jerusalem church also has a leadership role the council. Whether he acts as chair or secretary, however, could be debated. Perhaps even he leads the elders and Peter the apostles? But whatever the polity of the church in Jerusalem, it’s place as the seat of the ‘elders and apostles’ ended with the Roman seige and destruction of the city and Temple. The location of the leadership of the church changed not because of Peter being assigned to Rome, but because the leadership was forced to flee Jerusalem and those who remained, such as James, were killed.

  14. Interesting how all of us read the scriptures not to find out what it says but to substantiate what we want to believe. Acts 15:12 (after Peter’s speech) “this silenced the entire assembly,and they listened…..” To me that would seem to say that Peter had the last word, and since it occurred under the direction of James as head of the local church. So your reading doesn’t prove a point at least to me. Come on and be fair.

  15. Jeff Nettles says

    Hey Michael, good post on Acts 15. I think Alexander Strauch (in his book Biblical Eldership) is wise to point out that the controversy in Acts 15 was dealt with in Jerusalem not because of a central authority or power structure that emanated from Jerusalem, but rather because the controversy emanated from Jerusalem (15:1-2). We don’t see a hierarchal/bishopric type of structure taught in the ensuing epistles, either.
    Thanks for your blog, you often make me think a bit deeper or wider.

  16. Brian P: This isn’t going to answer your question, but the Orthodox Church also holds that Peter was, in fact, in Rome, and that Rome is the Seat of Peter. Another reason for Rome’s prominence is that, IIRC, in many of the early heresies, Rome had a tendency to stay steadfast in orthodoxy.

    Before the Schism, Rome did indeed have a prominent place in the life of the Church, but as a “greater among equals.” The Roman Bishop was held in higher honor, but not in higher authority. Papism is not a part of the Apostolic Tradition. It was really when Rome began asserting that it was (along with Rome’s unilateral change of the Creed, which can be seen as defiance against the authority of the Ecumenical Councils) that things began to fall apart.

    Oh, and as a side note, perhaps the reason why James has the final word in the council is because he was the Bishop of Jerusalem.

  17. Ray: Why did you stop at verse 12. There is more to the story. More than that the assembly became quiet to hear the testimony of Paul & Barnabas. We see this by the word “and”. The testimony collaborates what Peter had spoken. Then James makes the final statement noted by the word “after”.

    [moderator edited]

  18. Ray:

    Good grief. I know you guys can find it anywhere……but “silence” proves what?

  19. Silence is compatible with Peter having a prominent place in the early church. That much everyone agrees with. The question is, does the text provide sufficient support for the idea that there is here expressed in nascent or embryonic form the claims of Vat I? I don’t think so, but then again, I am Orthodox.

    Of course the “silence” might also have something to do with the fact that Peter A) has a vision and B) the vision via divine command brushes aside a long held Jewish belief that some foods are unclean. That’sa biggie.

  20. Nicholas Anton says

    Because of continually experiencing autocratic tyranny in the church, I have spent hundreds of hours this past year attempting to uncover from the Bible and history what the Bible actually teaches and what was actually practiced in the New Testament church especially in regards to church government.

    The question; “What did Jesus indeed teach in regards to church government”?

    The answer (What I discovered); Jesus taught a brotherhood of equals. “What Jesus taught in the Gospels, versus how the Acts and Epistles are generally interpreted, as well as what the average contemporary church practices are two opposites”.


  21. Brian Pendell says

    “James has the final word in the council is because he was the Bishop of Jerusalem. ”

    Evidence? I don’t see him given that title in the Bible. Do you have an extra-Biblical source for this? Preferably a contemporary one?

    As towards Sola Scriptura … remember the Bereans searching the scripture to see what Paul had said was true. Remember also Paul rebuking Peter ‘to his face’ when he fell into error as described in Galatians.

    Remember that the first century churches continually had swarms of Ebionites, Marcionites, and all manner of sects claiming to be ‘apostles’ and ‘prophets’ sent from all kinds of people with all manner of credentials with really important names on them (2 Cor 3:1). There simply is no way for them to remain free of error for even a month if they aren’t continually testing what they hear against the only objective source they had, which is the OT scriptures. They had no other way to easily distinguish false teachers from true (and there were many false teachers) unless they were fortunate enough to have an apostle actually in residence.

    More broadly, all human authority is fallible. Therefore, no human authority can be given full trust. Therefore, at all levels of authority those submitting to it must be prepared to ‘obey God rather than man’ if necessary. Therefore, it is incumbent on every Christian to know his/her Bible and his/her faith.

    1 John 2:27 tells us

    “As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.”

    In other words, the Spirit that dwells within Christians is sufficient to keep them from error. He uses and equips human ministers to help him do this, but their work must necessarily be secondary to His direct work in the human soul. We humans are imperfect. He is not.


    Brian P.

  22. Brian Pendell says

    Second question:

    A gentleman above tells me ‘the Orthodox church believes that Peter was in Rome’. That’s nice, but it’s an Appeal to Authority. What evidence do we have for it, beyond the fact that lots of people, including people in authority, believe it to be true?


    Brian P.

  23. Nicholas Anton says

    As a clarification to my previous quote;

    By “…a brotherhood of equals”, I am not referring to a ruling council of elders, but to all believers in general.

    Matt. 23, is not written to the disciples only, but to the multitudes at large
    Matt. 23:1 (“Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples…”).
    Verses 8-11
    (“…But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.”)
    must therefore refer to relationships among people/disciples in general rather than only to the relationships within the council of twelve Apostles, or elders, or church councils.

  24. Brian: I suggest you read the Church Fathers, the Didache, and other ancient Christian sources. Justin’s apology would be a good one also.

    The Spirit in the christian is able to keep them from error. Since you want to quote ‘sola scriptura’ where is that principle found in the bible? Don’t tell me that Scripture is useful, etc. But the Bible doesn’t say it is the only source. Your own arguments seem to deny what you are trying to say. If the spirit in the Christian is able to keep them from error, why then are there over 3,000 Christian denominations. The proof is in the pudding. Either the spirit isn’t doing its work or the principle is invalid.


  25. Nicholas Anton says

    Brian Pendell

    Your point is well stated. Another verse that suggests individual responsibility in judging Truth is (1Co 14:29); Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other(s) (King James is singular while the Greek and most other translations are plural) judge.

    The contemporary “elder rule” group, including among many Alexander Strauch make much of a required plurality of elders in any given church. I believe there is a better interpretation of that observation than they put forward.

    The group of elders is a general body of people into which some mature, and from which some exit by death. In essence, because of the patriarchal functionings of that society (Jewish society was traditionally patriarchal), the elders would be the natural older people of the group who were, according to first century Jewish protocol, also considered to be the natural leaders and edifices of wisdom and respect in that society.” The consistent use of the term in the plural does not indicate a requirement, but rather a natural, normal condition. The church, as a city or country, is normally made up of a plurality of people. Among the indefinite number of people are indefinite numbers of men (plural), women (plural) and children (plural), as well as older/elder (plural) and younger (plural). The significance of the plural designation neither promotes nor denies a single pastor nor a multiple of them. The deciding factor is what exists naturally. It has nothing to do with requiring there to be more than one elder at any given time in any given church. As the term is relative to age (it designates the older of the group), it likewise is relative to number and therefore is listed in the plural.

  26. Brian P: As I stated in my comment, I didn’t expect to actually answer your question. I point out that the Orthodox Church agrees with the Roman Church on the fact that Peter was in Rome, etc., simply because the Orthodox Church does not accept the Papacy’s claims to universal authority. Mainly, “you don’t have to accept the Pope’s ‘authority’ just because you accept his Petrine office.”

    As to evidence for James’ place as Bishop of Jerusalem, I don’t have any evidence on hand right now beyond the fact that this is what the Church teaches about him. I don’t really see why this would be in any way controversial, however (beyond “it’s not in Scripture,” which I don’t really consider to be a valid argument, but that’s a discussion for another day).

  27. bookdragon says


    There is, I’m sure you realize, a problem with the claim that ‘the Spirit that dwells within Christians is sufficient to keep them from error’. Even in the NT churches it is quite clear that Christians fell into error and confusion all the time – hence Paul having to write long letters filled with arguments and admonitions.

    The difficultly isn’t that we don’t read and rely on the bible. There are afterall several thousand different Protestant denominations who all claim sola scriptura, but who have different doctrines wrt baptism, communion, etc., because they interpret scripture differently. That was the problem in Paul’s time too: the various factions he contends against were all believers and all teaching according to their own interpretation/understanding of scripture. Without some sort of acknowledged authority for deciding between these competing claims, the early church would have degenerated into chaos very quickly (even as it was there were more than enough different sects with radically different beliefs by the 4th century).

    Now consider that from the standpoint of sola scriptura, the Judiazers probably had a much better support for their position than Paul’s faction! So why did Paul’s position win the day and the Judaizers fade into obscurity? Ans: Because Paul got the support of the apostles and elders at Jerusalem who clearly formed the closest thing to an ecumencial council in the first century. And why did they decide in Paul’s favor? Ans: Partly because of the strength of Paul’s conviction and his case (but I’ve heard the modern equivalent of the Jewish side presented from scripture and it’s pretty compelling. He couldn’t have won on an argument solely from scripture against anyone with rabbinic training), but mostly because of Peter’s support and especially because of Peter’s vision. (Of course, there was the leading of the Spirit too but every church body making doctrinal decisions in every church since then has also claimed to be lead by the Spirit).

    So where does this leave us? Some sort of body of apostles/bishops/elders was necessary for making decisions on questions of doctrine for a large, growing, and diverse collection of churches. This was initially located in Jerusalem and seems to have comprised James and the elders and Peter and the apostles. Following the destruction of Jerusalem and the death of James, nearly all sources and tradition point to Peter as the head of the new body. In some manner this body continued to survive the persecutions and when the church could re-emerge from the catacombs there were bishops, including a bishop of Rome, who were believed to be descended from the apostles in the sense of a direct chain of ordination.

    Now whether the primacy granted Rome was due to Peter or due to its place as the capital of the Roman Empire is certainly up for debate. Also up for debate is whether this system was meant to be The System for all time or whether it was only necessary for the first centuries of the church. we have plenty of evidence from the OT afterall that God may change such arrangements – Israel went from being lead by a prophet and group of elders in the desert, to a series of judges called as needed, to kings, and then to something closer to a loose confederation of theocratically governed communities while in Exile (pattern followed at least twice). I think it entirely possible that such a thing may be at play in the history of Christianity too.

  28. Nicholas Anton says

    As a response to bookdragon’s last paragraph;

    After the birth of the first children to Adam and Eve, natural elders (seniors) or patriarchs served both as physical superintendents, caregivers and priests. Please note, God did not have to “ordain” or even recognize Adam and Eve to be parents. They “were” parents in lieu of having birthed children. After Moses, elders/seniors (this included the Sanhedrin which in all likelihood was composed of 70 elders plus 1), together with the God ordained Levitical priesthood, functioned as both the physical and spiritual leaders of Israel. When society became corrupted, to supplement the patriarchal elder/senior led system, God would raise up prophets and judges, to correct and re-direct. This even included a few wise women. These leaders, though very influential, had no recognized, official, ecclesiastical nor political status and authority. Their authority lay in what they spoke, and their leading was based on mutual consent or dissent of those who followed or refused to follow them. One could accept what they taught as from God, or one could reject it. The consequences of rejection were not backed up by any human policing agency, authority or army. This form of leadership in it’s many variants, continued until Samuel, who was one of those title-less priest-shepherd-judges. When Samuel was old, because of the corruption of his sons, the elders demanded a king to rule over them “like the nations around them” (It seems that they were not willing to exercise their own God given responsibility). (Though the churches in general have also opted for kings to rule them, this type of government has never been promoted by God) From that point onward, against the wishes of God, the natural elders or seniors played a secondary role to the king, who ruled rather than led, who’s authority was tied in with the office and enforced by human agents, rather than by God, His Word and His people.

  29. I’m gonna have to issue a retraction here. I just listened to Clark Carlton’s podcast, and this week’s episode was on the recent statement by the RCC regarding the Orthodox Church and the Protestants. According to Carlton,

    1) Linus, not Peter, was the first Bishop of Rome,
    2) all Bishops sit in the “Chair of Peter” because,
    3) Bishops do not, individually, have Apostolic Succession; Churches have Apostolic Succession.

    In addition, based on his description of the structure of Orthodox ecclesiology, it would seem that Rome had primacy (of honor) due to its being the capital of the Empire. His description would also fit with the idea that James had the final word at the Council of Jerusalem because he was the Bishop of Jerusalem, therefore, he presided over the council.

    Not to extend any arguments, but when I realize I’ve said something wrong, if I can, I like to correct myself.

  30. I just stumbled on this blog site while doing a search for early church government and have enjoyed reading the comments. Some great thoughts and insights that have helped me in my search to learn more about the early church. I feel there is something important here in this debate about church government. However, my recent focus has been on understanding the meaning of Jesus being the head of the body as it relates to church government. We are a body, not a corporation or business. I have been in a lot of churches in my life time but not sure I have ever been in one where Jesus was truly functioning as the head, not sure I would recognize this dynamic if I saw it. My feeling at this time, until something changes my mind, is that we develop strong church governments to take the place of Jesus as the head. 1 Cor 12 describes the gifts and functioning of the body empowered by the Spirit. Too often our human organizational efforts choke out the life of the Spirit.

    The scripture in Acts, used for this blog conversation, does seem to illustrate a structure with authority but one gets the feeling the Spirit is involved in this debate and God speaks in the final directive. Somehow, this group of early church leaders figured out how to let Jesus be the head of His body through them. They seemed to keep their role in perspective to His role.

    Maybe the type of church government is not as important as: Does the government allow Jesus to sit at the head of the table?

  31. Little J says


    Your final question is superb and brings us all back to our relationship with the Head of every community that claims to belong to Christ.

    Thank you for reminding us of this central truth