The Papacy (Pope), St.  Peter, and the Jerusalem Council

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  (Matthew 16:18-19)

In my last post I reviewed the passage in Matthew 16:19 where Christ gives to St. Peter the “keys to the kingdom,” and its implications to the authority Peter (and his successors) are given in the Church.  Immediately after Christ does this, we see St. Peter acting as Christ’s representative, or “vicar” (Matthew 17:24-27). 

Many Protestants interpret the “keys to the kingdom” and the authority to “bind and loose” as simply the ability to preach the Gospel.  But that would not be consistent with the understanding of what these terms mean related to the Jewish kings.  Christ is the fulfillment of this line of kings and will forever sit on the throne of his father David (Luke 1:32).  As Catholics we understand Christ established a successive office with Peter and he is acting in the role of the royal steward (Isaiah 22:15-23, 1 Kings 4:6, 1 Kings 16:9, 1 Kings 18:3), especially in the physical absence of the king.

We now turn to the early Church, where we see St. Peter exercise the authority of the keys to resolve the first major doctrinal dispute that occurs.  This is the question of whether the Gentiles entering the Church are required to be circumcised and follow the Mosaic Law to become Christians.  The apostles and Christ were all Jews, had followed the Mosaic law their entire lives, and did not view it as something to be set aside with Christianity.  This doctrinal division threatened to cause schism within the Church, and in Acts 15 we see Paul and Barnabas travel to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles and the elders to seek resolution.

James McCarthy in his anti-Catholic book “The Gospel According to Rome” has this to say about the council of Jerusalem:

“At the Council of Jerusalem, the apostles and many elders came together to settle a controversy regarding the relationship of Judaism and Christianity (Acts 15-5).  Specifically: Did Gentile converts need to be circumcised?  There was much debate (Acts 15:7).  Peter made an important contribution but not a decisive one (Acts 15:7-11).  It was James who gave the final speech (Acts 15:13-21).  Speaking from the Old Testament, the authoritative norm of the early church, James passed judgment on the issue (Acts 15:19-21).  The council formed a consensus, and the matter was closed.  Peter neither ruled the council nor decided its outcome.”

This would be a very common view from both a Protestant and Orthodox perspective that tries to diminish the role St. Peter plays to determine the outcome of the council.  And because St. James speaks last, it is viewed he is who renders the final authoritative decision, not Peter.  And if you read only Acts Chapter 15, you may walk away with that view.

The problem from a Catholic perspective is this interpretation of the council ignores two very important pieces of background information that shed quite a different light on Acts 15.  The first of these is to realize James is the person who has been advocating the position the Gentile converts had to be circumcised, and he and his “circumcision party” have been the root of the division.

We see this in a subtle way at the beginning of Acts 15 when it tells us “But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” (Acts 15:1) James is the current bishop of Jerusalem, which is in Judea. 

Paul has been fighting this early heresy with his very being.  He has been steadfast in telling his Gentile converts they did not have to be circumcised and follow the Mosaic Law.  He addresses this controversy in almost every letter he writes.  Unfortunately, some have failed to realize when St. Paul so vehemently opposes “works” in his letters as not being necessary for salvation, he is referring to the works associated with the Mosiac law, not “good works” (Ephesians 2:10).  He very much agrees with Christ and the other apostles works of charity are indeed required.  A discussion of that was provided here and here

We see in the book of Galatians a more direct reference to the fact James and his followers in Jerusalem have been the group that have been following behind Paul and telling his converts in order to be saved they are required to be circumcised and follow the Mosaic law.  Galatians 2:11-12 records a confrontation Paul has with Peter – “But when Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.  For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.” 

Peter’s behavior during this encounter is often mentioned by those who oppose the Catholic teaching about the pope and their assertion no man can be infallible.  This fails to understand the difference between infallibility and impeccability, and will be discussed more thoroughly in an upcoming post.

Paul is so frustrated by these events we see him pen one of his more well known lines of Scripture to the Galatians – “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed.  As we have said before, so now I say again, If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8-9) The Gospel he had preached to the Galatians had been one where salvation is based on faith in Christ, not works of the Mosaic law.

To understand James is the apostle who’s been following after Paul with a different message to his Gentile converts is critical to a correct understanding of what happens at the Council of Jerusalem.  The second critical piece of background information can be understood to be the proverbial “elephant in the room” for those who wish to claim as McCarthy does that “Peter made an important contribution but not a decisive one,” orPeter neither ruled the council nor decided its outcome” about this controversy.  For this statement completely ignores the reality that prior to the Jerusalem council the decision had already been made to allow the Gentiles into the Church without circumcision, it had been made by Peter alone, and was the result of a direct action taken by the Holy Spirit to convey His will to St. Peter.

This story unfolds in Acts Chapter 10, with a Gentile man named Cornelius.  We are told he is “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God.”  (Acts 10:2) God sends an angel to Cornelius who tells him “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.”  (Acts 10:4).  He then instructs Cornelius to send men to Joppa to find Peter.

Peter meanwhile is praying and has a vision where he ”saw the heaven opened, and something descending, like a great sheet, let down by four corners upon the earth.  In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air.  And there came a voice to him, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.’ And the voice came to him again a second time, ‘What God has cleansed, you must not call common.’ This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.”  (Acts 10:11-16)

Peter initially doesn’t understand the meaning of this vision, but he has little time to reflect because the men Cornelius sent arrive, and Peter is instructed by the Holy Spirit “Rise and go down, and accompany them without hesitation; for I have sent them.”  (Acts 10:20) So he goes with the men to meet Cornelius.  On his arrival and hearing what has happened to Cornelius, he professes “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  (Acts 10:34-35).  He proceeds to preach the Gospel to these Gentiles, and is amazed when the gift of the Holy Spirit falls on them (Acts 10:45).  He then pronounces “’Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”  (Acts 10:47-48) From that moment the Gentiles have been allowed into the Church without requiring circumcision, based on the decision of St. Peter alone, guided by the Holy Spirit.

Throughout these last few posts on the apostle Peter, I have commented how he is separated out over and over again from the other apostles and this highlights his role as their leader and the sole person who’s been entrusted with the keys of Christ’s kingdom – his royal steward (Matthew 16:19).  For those who wish to deny Peter is in this role – why did God communicate His will here to Peter alone?  There were 11 other apostles along with St. Paul who could have been chosen.  You simply cannot consider Peter to be just one of the twelve when Scripture consistently separates him out, and God himself communicates to him alone divine revelation regarding truths of the faith.

Knowing this background, we can read about the council in Acts 15 with a better understanding of what occurred.  We begin with Paul and Barnabas declaring before the council all God had done with the Gentiles in their care (Acts 15:4).  But their testimony makes no difference to those who are insistent they have to be circumcised – “But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses.’” (Acts 15:5) And we are told there was much debate (Acts 15:7).

But then Peter rises to address the assembly “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.  And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith.  Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?  But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”  (Acts 15:7-11)

And the verse following Peter’s testimony is quite important – “And all the assembly kept silence” (Acts 15:12).  That’s a polite way of saying those who had been opposed to Paul shut up after Peter spoke.  Any debate on the topic was finished by the word of Peter.

We are then told Paul and Barnabas again speak to the assembly about the work they’ve done with Gentile converts, and this time they have an attentive audience who listens to their testimony (Acts 15:12).

When they are finished, we come to St. James.  Interestingly enough, he does not cite the testimony of Paul and Barnabas in his statement, but that of Peter (Acts 15:13-14).  He then cites a single Old Testament passage he finds relevant to the discussion, and concludes with “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood.  For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every sabbath in the synagogues.”  (Acts 15:19-21)

McCarthy refers to James as speaking judgment on the issue, and Peter making an important contribution but not a decisive one.  That completely ignores God directly intervened to make His will known to Peter alone, and Peter alone had already made the “decisive” contribution to the discussion.  When people try to portray James as making the actual decision, they ignore the fact that what is necessary is to bring James in line with Peter’s understanding of what God desires.  Once James speaks, of course the council is over.  There is no more dissension so no longer any need for discussion.  James is the bishop of Jerusalem and he brings the church there into alignment with the will of St. Peter, avoiding the first potential schism in the first century church.

I will mention some will advocate because St. James cites a single passage of Scripture to support his view, this proves sola-Scriptura.  McCarthy implies this when he speaks to the Old Testament as being the authoritative “norm” of the early Church. Unfortunately, sola-Scriptura advocates can sometimes tend to think to find one passage of Scripture that seems to align with their view proves the sufficiency of Scripture.  It may be important to note James ignores other passages that would have supported his original position.  For example, when God instituted circumcision as a sign of his covenant with Abraham he told him it would be an “everlasting” covenant (Genesis 17:13).  One can in general find a single passage of Scripture that will support any view. But it’s most definitely important to note that James doesn’t rely on Scripture alone to change his mind. He cites the testimony of Peter when giving his judgment, and Peter’s revelation from the Holy Spirit is the authoritative “norm” on this issue.

Context is everything to reach a correct understanding of the council in Acts 15, and leaving out important background information to try to perpetuate a specific viewpoint should be troubling.  When we understand Peter by a direct revelation from God has already made the decision to allow the Gentiles into the Church, and James is the person who has been opposed to that view, it’s not possible to hold the position of McCarthy.  The purpose of the council of Jerusalem is not to make a doctrinal decision; that has already occurred at the hands of St. Peter.  The purpose of the council is to avoid a schism in the Church and move forward in unity.  This was accomplished when St. James conceded his original position and aligned himself to the authority of Peter.

This was the first major conflict found within the early Church; it would by no means be the last.  But Scripture gives us the pattern the Church is to follow whenever conflicts arise.  That is why the Catholic Church has convened twenty-one ecumenical councils over the centuries, with representation from the entire Church, and guided under the hand of the successor of St  Peter, the pope.

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