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“James Led the Council!”

So how could Peter have been the leader of the apostles?

Do you know how to respond when Protestants point to a Bible passage and say it contradicts Catholic teaching? In this sample from his new book, Meeting the Protestant Challenge, Karlo Broussard helps you answer one such charge.

Meeting the Protestant Challenge: Acts 15:13-29 and Peter’s Primacy

How can the Catholic Church teach that Peter was the leader of the first-century Church when the Bible teaches that James was the leader of the Council of Jerusalem?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) teaches that Christ instituted Peter as “the head” of the college of the apostles (880), and therefore that the pope, Peter’s successor as the bishop of Rome, “is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the Faith” (882).

But Protestants argue that the Bible teaches otherwise. Some appeal to the proceedings of the Council of Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15.[1] The council was convened due to an early Church debate over how a person is to be saved. According to Acts 15:1, some of the Jewish converts to Christianity were teaching that circumcision was necessary for salvation. Luke (the author of Acts) tells us that Paul and Barnabas “had no small dissension and debate with them” (v.2), and that in order to settle the question they were appointed to go and meet with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem.

Some Protestants, appealing to Acts 15, argue that James the Just (aka “the Lord’s brother”) was in charge of the council, proving that Peter could not have been head of the early Church as the first “pope.” They point to James’s use of the imperative mood for “listen” (Greek, akouō) as proof for this: “Brethren, listen [akousate] to me” (v.13).[2] Moreover, they assert that James decides the results of the council when he says, “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God” (v.19).


1. The imperative mood for akouō doesn’t necessarily connote authority over the group.

Imagine that everyone is throwing around ideas in a business meeting, and you say, “Listen!” and then go on to share your ideas. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you are in charge of the meeting. You may be simply trying to get the others there to pay attention to what you have to say.

This is how the imperative of akouō is used later, in Acts 22:1, where Paul says to his Jewish brethren, “Brethren and fathers, hear [akousate] the defense which I now make before you.” Paul wasn’t exercising authority over the group; he merely was asking for their undivided attention. The following verse bears this out: “And when they heard that he addressed them in the Hebrew language, they were the more quiet” (v.2).

Given that the imperative mood of akouō doesn’t necessarily connote authority, its use in Acts 15 doesn’t establish that James had authority over the council proceedings. Context must be taken into consideration in order to determine the force of the imperative.

So what does the context tell us? Let’s move to our other ways of meeting the challenge and see.

2. Peter is the one who speaks first and settles the substance of the debate.

Luke sets up Peter’s speech by highlighting the tension among the apostles and presbyters in verse 6: “There was much debate.” And subsequent verses reveal that it is Peter’s speech that settles the debate:

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 . . . we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will (Acts 15:7-11).

This all happens before James rises and requests the assembly to listen to his words (v.13). James does direct the council proceedings after Peter’s speech, but it’s Peter who speaks first and settles the debate. And in verse 14 James even recognizes as much: “Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.” If James had just as much authority over the group as Peter (or more), he would have been the one to take the initiative and settle the substance of the debate, not Peter.

3. James’s speech is a pastoral proposal, whereas Peter’s speech is a doctrinal declaration.

The content of Peter’s speech was a matter of divine revelation. It was God who chose to reveal that the Gentiles could be saved, for he had given them the Holy Spirit just as he did the apostles, cleansing their hearts by faith and making no distinction between the circumcised and the uncircumcised (Acts 15:8-9). Based on that revelation, Peter makes a doctrinal statement that is more than mere opinion: “We believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they [the Gentiles] will” (v.11). Peter doesn’t offer this view as what he thinks should be believed. He offers it as what is believed.

James’s speech stands in stark contrast with Peter’s. First, it was for the most part pastoral in nature, intended to address the problem of how to unify Jewish and Gentile Christians (Acts 15:1-5). It’s a practical problem that only arises because of the theological issue already settled by Peter.

Gentile converts were coming into a community of Jewish Christians who were still holding fast to many of the Old Testament precepts (Acts 21:15-26). And in order to keep the Gentiles from offending Jewish sensibilities, James proposes that the Gentile converts adhere to certain precepts that Jewish converts would have considered it scandalous to violate: abstinence from “the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood” (Acts 15:19). Of these four precepts, only one is of a moral nature, namely “unchastity” (Greek, porneia), which may refer to invalid marital unions that the Gentiles contracted before becoming Christian.

James’s speech also stands in contrast to Peter’s because unlike Peter, who stated what is the case, James offers his ideas for consideration: “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them” (Acts 15:19-20). In fact, the Greek word translated “judgment” in verse 19 (krinō) means “to hold a view or have an opinion with regard to something—‘to hold a view, to have an opinion, to consider, to regard.’”[3]


Does your church believe that someone has authority to settle a theological controversy in a definitive way? If not, why not?


The first century Christians believed that the Holy Spirit guides the Church through judgments made by the body of authoritative officials, not apart from them. For example, concerning the decisions of the council, the council fathers state in Acts 15:28: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things.” This is a far cry from the belief that all we need is the Holy Spirit to guide us, which is common among those who promote the doctrine of sola scriptura.

[1] See Norman L. Geisler and Ralph E. MacKenzie, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1995), 208–209, 284–285; Normal L. Geisler and Joshua M. Betancourt, Is Rome the True Church? A Consideration of the Roman Catholic Claim (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), 79; Kenneth J. Colins and Jerry L. Walls, Roman But Not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 214, footnote: 68.

[2] See James White, The Roman Catholic Controversy (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1996), 112.

[3] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, 2nd ed., Vol. 1 (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 364. Electronic edition, 31.1.


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