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§ 64. The Council at Jerusalem.

(Comp. § 34, pp. 835 sqq. and 346 sq.)

The most complete outward representation of the apostolic church as a teaching and legislative body was the council convened at Jerusalem in the year 50, to decide as to the authority of the law of Moses, and adjust the difference between Jewish and Gentile Christianity.743743    Acts 15, and Galatians 2.

We notice it here simply in its connection with the organization of the church.

It consisted not of the apostles alone, but of apostles, elders, and brethren. We know that Peter, Paul, John, Barnabas, and Titus were present, perhaps all the other apostles. James—not one of the Twelve—presided as the local bishop, and proposed the compromise which was adopted. The transactions were public, before the congregation; the brethren took part in the deliberations; there was a sharp discussion, but the spirit of love prevailed over the pride of opinion; the apostles passed and framed the decree not without, but with the elders and with the whole church and sent the circular letter not in their own name only, but also in the name of "the brother elders" or "elder brethren" to "the brethren" of the congregations disturbed by the question of circumcision.744744    Acts 15:6, 12, 22, 23. See Notes.

All of which plainly proves the right of Christian people to take part in some way in the government of the church, as they do in the acts of worship. The spirit and practice of the apostles favored a certain kind of popular self-government, and the harmonious, fraternal co-operation of the different elements of the church. It countenanced no abstract distinction of clergy and laity. All believers are called to the prophetic, priestly, and kingly offices in Christ. The bearers of authority and discipline should therefore never forget that their great work is to train the governed to freedom and independence, and by the various spiritual offices to build them up unto the unity of faith and knowledge, and to the perfect manhood of Christ.

The Greek and Roman churches gradually departed from the apostolic polity and excluded not only the laity, but also the lower clergy from all participation in the legislative councils.

The conference of Jerusalem, though not a binding precedent, is a significant example, giving the apostolic sanction to the synodical form of government, in which all classes of the Christian community are represented in the management of public affairs and in settling controversies respecting faith and discipline. The decree which it passed and the pastoral letter which it sent, are the first in the long line of decrees and canons and encyclicals which issued from ecclesiastical authorities. But it is significant that this first decree, though adopted undoubtedly under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and wisely adapted to the times and circumstances of the mixed churches of Jewish and Gentile converts, was after all merely "a temporary expedient for a temporary emergency," and cannot be quoted as a precedent for infallible decrees of permanent force. The spirit of fraternal concession and harmony which dictated the Jerusalem compromise, is more important than the letter of the decree itself. The kingdom of Christ is not a dispensation of law, but of spirit and of life.


I. There is an interesting difference of reading in Acts 15:23 (see the critical editions), but it does not affect the composition of the conference, at least as far as the elders are concerned. The textus receptus reads: οἱ ἀπόστολοι, καὶ οι–ϊ̔ –ͅϊπρεσβύτεροι, καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοί(א’, H, L, P, Syr., etc.), "The apostles, and the elders, and the brethren send greeting unto the brethren," etc. So the E. V., except that it omits the article twice. The Revised V., following the better attested reading: οἱ ἀπόστολοι, καὶ οί πρεσβύτεροι ἀδελφοί, renders in the text: "The apostles, and the elders, brethren," and in the margin: "The apostles and the elder brethren" (omitting the comma). But it may also be translated: "The apostles, and brother-elders," considering that Peter addresses the elders as συμπρεσβύτερος,or "fellow-elder" (1 Pet. 5:1). The textus rec. agrees better with Acts 15:22, and the omission of καὶ οἱmay possibly have arisen from a desire to conform the text to the later practice which excluded the laity from synods, but it is strongly supported by אBellarmin and other Roman Catholic and certain Episcopal divines get over the fact of the participation of the elders and brethren in a legislative council by allowing the elders and brethren simply a silent consent. So Becker (as quoted by Bishop Jacobson, in Speaker’s Commentary on Acts 15:22):, "The apostles join the elders and brethren with themselves ... not to allow them equal authority, but merely to express their concurrence." Very different is the view of Dr. Plumptre on Acts 15:22: "The latter words [’with the whole church’] are important as showing the position occupied by the laity. If they concurred in the latter, it must have been submitted to their approval, and the right to approve involves the power to reject and probably to modify." Bishop Cotterill (Genesis of the Church, p. 379) expresses the same view. "It was manifestly," he says, "a free council, and not a mere private meeting of some office-bearers. It was in fact much what the Agora was in archaic times, as described in Homer: in which the council of the nobles governed the decisions, but the people were present and freely expressed their opinion. And it must be remembered that the power of free speech in the councils of the church is the true test of the character of these assemblies. Free discussion, and arbitrary government, either by one person or by a privileged class, have been found, in all ages and under all polities, to be incompatible with each other. Again, not only were the multitude present, but we are expressly told that the whole church concurred in the decision and in the action taken upon it."

II. The authority of the Jerusalem conference as a precedent for regular legislative councils and synods has been often overrated. On the other hand, Canon Farrar (Life and Work of St. Paul, I. 431) greatly underrates it when he says: "It is only by an unwarrantable extension of terms that the meeting of the church of Jerusalem can be called a ’council,’ and the word connotes a totally different order of conceptions to those that were prevalent at that early time. The so-called Council of Jerusalem in no way resembled the General Councils of the Church, either in its history, its constitution, or its object. It was not a convention of ordained delegates, but a meeting of the entire church of Jerusalem to receive a deputation from the church of Antioch. Even Paul and Barnabas seem to have had no vote in the decision, though the votes of a promiscuous body could certainly not be more enlightened than theirs, nor was their allegiance due in any way to James. The church of Jerusalem might out of respect be consulted, but it had no claim to superiority, no abstract prerogative to bind its decisions on the free church of God. The ’decree’ of the ’council’ was little more than the wise recommendation of a single synod, addressed to a particular district, and possessing only a temporary validity. It was, in fact, a local concordat. Little or no attention has been paid by the universal church to two of its restrictions; a third, not many years after, was twice discussed and settled by Paul, on the same general principles, but with a by no means identical conclusion. The concession which it made to the Gentiles, in not insisting on the necessity of circumcision, was equally treated as a dead letter by the Judaizing party, and cost Paul the severest battle of his lifetime to maintain. If this circular letter is to be regarded as a binding and final decree, and if the meeting of a single church, not by delegates, but in the person of all its members, is to be regarded as a council, never was the decision of a council less appealed to, and never was a decree regarded as so entire inoperative alike by those who repudiated the validity of its concessions, and by those who discussed, as though they were still an open question, no less than three of its four restrictions."

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