Acts 15 and the Council

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The Joyful Curmudgeon
Staff member
A friend of mine has this article on his web sight. I am reading the book that this is from. It seems a little extreme but I would like to have some input from you all concerning this article. It is about the Jerusalem Council. Tell me what you think. I have been in favor of the Presbyterian church Government for almost all of my walk with God. I would like to hear some refutation. Thanks. I am not feeling very good and I am trying to read something that challenges me enough to want to think. Maybe it is not a good time to do such a thing but I am feeling quite dead inside. It is probably because I am sick. Be Encouraged.

For Christ Crown and Covenant, Randy

What Council of Jerusalem? (Acts 15)

The purpose of the two articles on this page is to illustrate why Reformed Baptists are not Presbyterian in their church government. It is often necessary to explain how we can be both "œReformed" and "œBaptist". The best response is that we see ourselves as more fully reformed than our Presbyterian brethren when it comes to matters of church organisation and government. Establishing Presbyterianism from scripture is most often attempted by citing Acts 15. I hope to indicate with the following articles how weak this argument is.

Article #1

What Council of Jerusalem?

Suppose the visit of Paul, Barnabas and the others from the church at Antioch to the church at Jerusalem was not a Council. Suppose rather it was a representation and complaint from one local church to another whose members were behaving erroneously and opposing Christian doctrine through mistaken zeal (for superseded Jewish tradition). The account in Acts 15 can be read perfectly logically with no inference of authority, delegation or council. To read in the idea of appeal to the "œauthority" of the Jerusalem church is bad exegesis.

First we have the cause for complaint from Antioch.

Acts 15.1,2 "œAnd certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.

Then the appropriate** response from the Antioch church to the Jerusalem church.

15:2 When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question."

Suppose the Apostle Paul made the journey to Jerusalem to inform James (the Pastor of the Jerusalem Church "“ not James the Apostle) and have the problem dealt with at source. The Apostle Paul (and witnesses) took the problem to the responsible Pastor. **This, of course, is precisely how the Lord Jesus Christ teaches us to deal with brethren (fellow believers) when we have issues with them (in Matthew 18: 15-17.)

18:15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.

18:16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more,

that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.

18:17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.

The meeting of the church at Jerusalem.

There were still Apostles in the Jerusalem church (including Peter) -Acts 8:14; 15:4 et sec.

And there were erring members -with the same Judaising attitudes as caused the problem in Antioch. -Acts 15:5 "œBut there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses" "“and there was the Pastor, James.

Now read the account of the elders´ meeting (one church, remember) in which the elders and Paul´s came together to consider this matter and to reason. The verb translated "œdisputation" is suzhthsis, from suzhtev; mutual questioning, i.e. discussion: disputation, reasoning.

15:6 And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter

Note the Apostle Peter´s contribution vv 7-11.

15:7 And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.

15:8 And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us;

15:9 And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.

15:10 Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?

15:11 But we believe that through the grace of the LORD Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.

Next read Barnabas and the Apostle Paul´s contribution.

Acts 15:12 Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them.

Finally the Pastor´s resolution.

When all had said there piece (note the absence of debate or "œdispute" in the negative sense), the Pastor makes his response TO HIS OWN CHURCH, where he is the governmental authority under Christ, even though Apostles are present. His ruling on this issue is:

15:19 "œWherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: 15:20 But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. 15:21 For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day."

The Apostles endorse the decision of the church leadership and send men and encouraging letters to Antioch. The tone is apologetic and the Jerusalem church acts on the resolution to put right the wrong done in Antioch.

15:22 Then pleased it the apostles and elders with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas and Silas, chief men among the brethren:

15:23 And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia.

15:24 Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment:

15:25 It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,

15:26 Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

15:27 We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth.

15:28 For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things;

15:29 That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.

15:30 So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch: and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle:

The reaction of the Antioch Church

15:31 Which when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation.

A longer presentation of this argument follows:

Article #2, (from "œThe Battle For the Church 1577-1644" by David Gay, pub. Barchus. )

"œAs for the Presbyterian's second claim "‘ that churches should be organised into groups, and ruled by a series of ecclesiastical courts "‘"‘ they offer but one attempted scriptural proof "‘ namely Acts 15, which they call a record of the Council of Jerusalem. They say that several churches sent delegates to a Council in Jerusalern to debate a doctrinal issue and formulate binding decrees for all the churches which were represented, and this is the standing pattern for all churches for all time.

But this is wrong. Acts 15 does not speak of a synod or Council. What happened is this. Some teachers, who were members of the church in Jerusalem, came to the church in Antioch, where they began to teach error. The church at Antioch was troubled and disturbed, to the extent that some believers were even made to stumble by these false teachers (Acts 15:24). After Paul and Barnabas had disputed with the men concerned, the Anti­och church decided to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem 'about this question' (Acts 152). What if these teachers from Jerusalem, or their friends, went to other churches "‘ Lystra, Derbe, Iconium and the rest? What harm might they do? Would there be men of the calibre of Paul and Barnabas in those churches, men who could silence the false teachers? This would be essential (Tit. 1: 5"‘11). And what about Jerusalem itself? Did they realise what their members were teaching, and the damage they were doing? Should they not be told, and thus be able to discipline their mem­bers? Consequently the saints at Antioch decided to send Paul and Barna­bas to Jerusalem to put the matter before the Jerusalem church. The Anti­och believers 'determined' to take this step (Acts 15:2) "‘ it was entirely voluntary on their part, there was no structure or organisation of superior courts in place which made it compulsory. Jerusalem was not the head church. There was no idea of a Council. Paul and Barnabas had already sorted the question out at Antioch. The man of Galatians 1: 12 and 11"‘21 did not need to be helped by the counsel of others on the subject! If Paul was prepared to resist Peter, confront him face to face and put the matter right, it is foolish to think that he needed Peter's guidance over the very same issue. Paul and Barnabas did not go to Jerusalem to get a ruling on the question itself. It was the practical responsibility of the Jerusalem church which had to be sorted out. And Jerusalem had to do something to stop the trouble reaching other churches in the Gentile world. There were no 'delegates', not even from Antioch, let alone any other church.

When Paul and Barnabas reached Jerusalem, it was the church they tackled (Acts 15:4); the apostles and elders considered the matter (Acts 15:6). Quite right. Some teachers had gone from the Jerusalem church over which they were responsible and were causing trouble elsewhere by their false doctrine. Paul and Barnabas were taking the issue back to where it belonged "‘ the church at Jerusalem. It was necessary for the elders at Jeru­salem to sort out their local problem, whilst the apostles had to deal with the world"‘wide aspects of it. The elders took care of the church members who were under their discipline; the apostles defined the true doctrine. Discussion took place within the church "‘ not at a Council "‘ and a decision was duly arrived at. The false teachers were simply wrong. A letter was composed by the church in Jerusalem, and sent to all the other churches so that no other church would he molested by these false teachers and their arguments (Acts 15:23). The tone of the letter was rightly apologetic (Acts 15:24). It was then delivered with apostolic authority to the churches (Acts 16:4).

Not a Council

There was no gathering of representatives from various churches at Jerusalem, no Council called to decide a common policy. To say there was is unwarranted. It was simply a case of one church holding brotherly contact with another over an issue which affected them both. Jerusalem needed to put its house in order, and that is what the church at Antioch helped it to do. There was no 'appeal' to the Jerusalem church. Far from being a synod or Council, Acts 15 records the transactions at a church meeting "‘ the church in Jerusalem.

As for the letter which conveyed the decision, it must be remembered that the apostles were still alive and resident in Jerusalem (Acts 15:2,4,6,22,23). In order that the infection of false teaching which had come out of Jerusalem should go no further, the apostles joined with the elders at Jerusalem to send out this letter to all the churches. But none of this supports the Presbyterian idea of separate congregations forming one church, following which the churches in a region submit to Councils, Synods and General Assemblies. In Acts 15 no disciplinary action by a legislative Council was threatened against 'dependent' churches. There were no dependent churches. No one church was dominant over another. There was no higher"‘court mentality. Interestingly, in passages such as Romans 14 and 15, and 1 Corinthians 8, there is no appeal to this letter. Why not, if the Presbyterians are right? To read into Acts 15 the concept of a law"‘making Council with powers over churches through their dele­gates, is a travesty of exposition.

Of course, Acts 15 shows that whilst churches are independent, they are not isolated or insular. On the particular issue of the day, Antioch was right and Jerusalem needed to reform itself. But the church at Antioch, in brotherly love, took the necessary steps to inform Jerusalem of the prob­lem in order to give it the opportunity to do that very thing. The issue concerned both churches. And both churches concerned themselves over each other's welfare. They also thought of other churches. Therefore, even though Acts 15 gives no support to the idea of Councils, it does teach the need for brotherly cooperation between churches wherever possible and whenever it is needed.

Despite this clear teaching in Acts 15, Bannerman, however, asserted that besides the churches of Antioch and Jerusalem, 'there were also repre­sentatives from the churches of Syria and Cilicia, commissioned to go up to Jerusalem on the same errand'. Where did he find any evidence for that statement? What other churches? What commissioned representatives? A few sentences later Bannerman drew back somewhat. Instead of being certain that these representatives were present lie wrote, 'We have deputies ... it would seem, from Syria and Cilicia'. Ah! It would seem! Even so - despite the inference and speculation method once again "‘ Bannerman was prepared to argue, 'Now, in this narrative we have all the elements necessary to make up the idea of a supreme ecclesiastical court, with authority over not only the members and office bearers within the local bounds of the congregations represented, but also the presbyteries or inferior church courts included in the same limits'. With respect, I submit the Presbyterian case is far from being ratified!

In any case Bannerman proved too much by his speculations. If he was right, and the churches he mentioned were represented at Jerusalem, they did not come merely from a district or locality. They came from different countries. And the letter was sent to all churches, even those which had no "˜representative' at Jerusalem. In the light of this, are Presbyterians pre­pared to assert the need, the scriptural warrant, for world"‘wide Councils with binding authority over all the churches? If so, they are getting very close to the Papist system, developed from the Fathers.

Berkhof, once again, was much more restrained, and rightly so. He said, 'Scripture does not contain an explicit command to the effect that the local churches of a district must form an organic union. Neither does it furnish us with an example of such a union. In fact, it represents the local churches as individual entities without any external bond of union'. Exact­ly so. Why could the case not rest there? But even Berkhof could not resist the temptation to go on to speculate. He said that it 'would seem ... it is but natural that this inner unity should express itself in some visible man­iier, and should even, as much as possible ... seek expression in some corresponding external organisation ... Every one of these terms points to a visible unity ... Certain passages of Scripture which seem to indicate ... Moreover, there are reasons for thinking that the church at Jerusalem and at Antioch consisted of several separate groups, which together formed a sort of unity'. Pretty vague stuff this! But, even though there is no scriptural example nor any scriptural command for these courts, Pres­byterians think they are the standing order for church life!

On Acts 15, Berkhof frankly and honestly admitted, 'This ... did not constitute a proper example and pattern of a classis or synod in the mod­ern sense of the word'. Why go on with it, in that case? But he did. He then developed the 'modern sense of the word' in three paragraphs. He spoke of the representative nature of synods, the way they should be organised, wliat they deal with, their power and authority, and similar matters. What biblical texts did he supply to support his case? None whatsoever! Not one! Even so "‘ and without a shred of scriptural warrant "‘ Berkhof was pre­pared to conclude that the highest ecclesiastical courts have authority over all the churches, they carry great weight and must not be set aside except on the rnost telling of grounds. 'They are binding on the churches as the sound interpretation and application of the law,' he said. What a stagger­ing claim!

This is not a theoretical debate. The outcome of setting up nonscriptural bodies and organisations to govern the churches is always diabolical. Presbyterians of the 16th and 17th centuries believed that the decisions of ecclesiastical courts were binding on all the churches, their members and their officers. The consequences would be far"‘reaching as we shall see. There are Presbyterians who continue to believe the same today.

Those who hold to this notion of federations and a system of formal connections between churches argue that separate, independent churches are weak. Nothing could be further from the truth. In time of persecution or apostasy, the enemy "‘ Satan "‘ needs only to attack the central authority, the central theological seminary, or the highest ecclesiastical court of the federated Church, and he has captured the entire set"‘up. He only needs to poison the central spring, and all the waters will be lethal. At any rate that is what has happened down the centuries. History is littered with the ruins of apostate federations. In a barrel, one rotten apple will corrupt the lot by contact! However, if the adversary has to try to grapple with a host of scattered, unknown, unlinked churches, he has a real fight on his hands. He has got to find them all first! Of course, independent churches can be guilty of apostasy, but at least they have the power in their own hands to resist, they have not delegated it to a higher court. And if other churches should fall, that has no automatic effect on the next. But whatever else is said about it, the separation of the churches is the scriptural way. And that should be the end of the matter.

In this connection, a highly significant and relevant passage is Revelation 2 and 3, concerning 'the seven churches' (Rev. 1:20). By this late stage of the canon of Scripture, the New Testament system of church order was well established. What do we find? Whilst it is always dangerous to argue from silence "‘ though Presbyterians are fond of it, as we shall see "‘ certain points stand out. The seven churches were located close together in one region, yet they are called seven churches, not seven congregations which form one church. Furthermore, there is no hint whatsoever of any organisation linking them together. There is not a vestige of support for the idea of one common government over the seven, separate churches. There is no association spoken of. On the contrary, each church is commended for any good within it, each church is responsible for its own faults, accountable for its own failures, and responsible to reform itself under Christ "‘ all without any outside interference whatsoever. What is more, each church is autonomous. It has the full powers necessary to reform itself.

Reader, you will see that the attempted scriptural defence of the Presbyterian system in these matters is largely drawn from the early chapters of Acts. These chapters, as noted earlier, deal with extraordinary apostolic circumstances which had an overwhelming effect on church organisation and government in those days. But the ordinary New Testament church order is made very clear in the later books. There (he proper administration of the Lord's supper, the recognition of elders and deacons, and all other church matters, are dealt with in plain instructions. Why is it not possible for the Presbyterians to establish their system from the letters to Timothy and Titus? Why are there no plain passages dealing with synods, church courts, congregations and all the rest of it? We are not left to establish the principles of eldership by inference, are we? Therefore why should we have to do it in the case of synods? The truth is, whilst there is a large amount of New Testament material dealing with the rule, order and practice of local, separate, independent churches "‘ there is nothing whatsoever which deals with the government of several churches that are combined into one church. What is more, though Bannerman might speak of the 'simplicity' of the Presbyterian system, it is evident that it is extremely complicated, and largely speculative. Oh! for the simplicity of the New Testament.

Is there any significance in the unforced admission by Berkhof, 'It seems rather peculiar that practically all the outstanding Presbyterian dogmaticians of our country, such as the two Hodges, H.B. Smith, Shedd, and Dabney, have no separate locus on the church in their dogmatical works and, in fact, devote very little attention to it'? Presbyterians ought to think about that!

To sum up: The introduction of Presbyterianism, whilst it was a huge improvement upon the Papal system did not get as close to the New Testament as mainstream Anabaptism did."

From David Gay "œBattle For the Church 1577-1644" pp54-59.

Published in the UK by Brachus, ISBN-0 9529982 0 3.

Further Reading:

Edward T Hiscox "œPrinciples and Practices for Baptist Churches." Pub Kregel

Poh Boon Sing "œThe Keys of the Kingdom"

John Owen, "œNonconformity Vindicated" in Works Vol 13 "œMinistry and Fellowship". pub Banner of Truth

[Edited on 3-18-2005 by puritancovenanter]

Philip A

Puritan Board Sophomore
At first glance this seems somewhat over-reactionary to me. One need not go that far, i.e. deny either the existence or the authority of the Jerusalem Council, in order to argue the Reformed Baptist case.


Puritan Board Senior
How can you reconcile a 'Jerusalem COuncil' sending out binding decrees to 'independent local churches' with Reformed Baptist Church government?

I deny the so called 'jerusalem council' and adhere to RB church government. I don't think it is extreme or an abuse of the text. Robert Reymond, a Presbyterian prof, also denies the Jerusalem 'Council'. Whilst the 'JC' isn't the be-all-and-end-all proof text for Presbyterian church government, I don't see how acceptance of the existence of the 'JC' can be reconciled with RB church government.



Puritan Board Junior
:banghead: Jerusalem was definiately a council

Mistake 1: Representatives were sent from many Presbyterial Churches. Paul and Barnabas were sent by the Presbytery of Antioch with others (v2). They did not come of there own volition acting authoratatively as Apostles but as ordinary delegates from Antioch. The Presbytery of Jerusalem was also represented as the agitators were from their church- apostles and elders (v6). Syria and Cilicia with Antioch were also troubled with the question and the epistle was sent to them, therefore it is reasonable to conclude they also sent delegates.

Mistake 2: Jerusalem more than just brotherly advice but several authoritative juridicial acts of power were exercised. Dogmatical power was asserted in the council by declaring justification by faith alone (7-23); and censuring power was asserted by branding the false teachers with marks of infamy v24. And their descisions were binding and authorative. They are called dogma (16:4) or decrees or Law, as the decrees of Caesar (Act 17:7; Lk 2:1) and Moses (Col 2:14; Eph 2:15).

Mistake 3: v19 James delivers his opinion of the matter much the same way Peter does, however, his word is not the authoratative decree but we read v22 "Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church..."

Philip A

Puritan Board Sophomore
Originally posted by JonathanHunt
How can you reconcile a 'Jerusalem COuncil' sending out binding decrees to 'independent local churches' with Reformed Baptist Church government?

Do you believe that there are apostles today?


Puritan Board Senior
Originally posted by Philip A
Originally posted by JonathanHunt
How can you reconcile a 'Jerusalem COuncil' sending out binding decrees to 'independent local churches' with Reformed Baptist Church government?

Do you believe that there are apostles today?

Yes, of course.


No. Point taken.

So, Phillip, how then (from your perspective) can we take the Jerusalem council (as you seem to accept it to be) as a one-off, and not as a normative pattern for the NT church? Because we know that apostles were for those times only, and apostles were involved, and can't be involved today? (ramble ramble)

And a wider question:

Why would apostles need to meet and discuss doctrine? This seems nonsensical. They were recipients of direct revelation from God, no ifs, no buts. The whole episode looks far more like a matter of church discipline and damage limitation.



Puritan Board Junior

I think it is hard to look at modern day authors on this score, because everyone now has a presupposition. An RB looks back on this text with an independent look. A Presbyterian looks back on the text with a presbyterial look.

But the point of their meeting is missed if we cannot see what they were trying to accomplish. I think they wanted everyone to get the gospel right, and I think they wanted their decision to impact both immediately and globally. In a way, they were dealing with their first heresy.

Now I think it is clear that the councils which came after them operated the same way. Delegates would go to a central place and decide things for the church. This is nothing more than a Synod or General Assembly.

Later, many look back to the Acts assembly and the tradition of the early church to see that it is a good thing to get men together and decide things like this. This is accountability and there is nothing wrong with it.

To hang one's hat so precariously on this is not really warranted. What's the big deal if it was a council? If council's aren't biblical we have other problems.

But, if we're merely trying to prove Presbyterian's wrong just for the sake of it, this is shaky ground, indeed.

In Christ,



Puritan Board Junior
Why would apostles need to meet and discuss doctrine? This seems nonsensical. They were recipients of direct revelation from God, no ifs, no buts. The whole episode looks far more like a matter of church discipline and damage limitation.

Exactly. Sort of. God could just as easily delivered direct revelation to the apostles directing them how to resolve matters of discipline. But the good thing you pointed out is that the apostles did not act in their extraordinary office of apostleship but the ordinary office of prophet and teacher ACT 13:1-2. Otherwise there would have been no disputing or discussion, they would have just stated "thus saith the Lord" and concluded the matter.


Puritan Board Graduate
The apostles had inherent authority to resolve doctrinal disagreements by virtue of the authority Christ invested in the apostolic office. They did not need a council to bolster their authority. They did not need to seek the advice of ordinary elders either (which was supplied in the council). Indeed, the doctrinal teaching and authority of those elders would have been received directly or indirectly from the apostles. The fact that the apostles participated in a council along with elders indicates that the procedure was to be a lasting model. It is also noteworthy that apostles were also elders (dual roles), as were the other participants in the council. 1 Peter 5:1; 2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1.

It is also very clear that local congregations were required to obey the decree of the council. Acts 16:4. If local congregations are required to obey the decisions of external bodies, then the local congregations cannot be independent in every way.


Puritan Board Graduate
" am not feeling very good and I am trying to read something that challenges me enough to want to think. Maybe it is not a good time to do such a thing but I am feeling quite dead inside."

Randy: I am sorry to hear this. If that is the case, I would recommend reading the Bible or devotional literature and avoiding issues like church government. John Piper's little book The Passion of Christ provides short meditations on the Lord's suffering. That would be appropriate for this season. BTW, the book is not related to the movie.
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