At Catholic Answers, we often get the question: “If St. Peter was made the visible head of the Church, why don’t we see it in the book of Acts? Is not St. James (or perhaps St. Paul) the real leader of the early Church?”
How do we reply?
Actually, St. Peter is quite obviously the visible head of the Church in Acts. When you consider the inspired author of Acts was St. Luke, a companion of St. Paul, it is quite telling that for the first 15 of 28 chapters, Peter is the center of attention rather than Paul. Why this focus on Peter?
Let’s take a look.
1. Acts 1:15-26: It is St. Peter who is clearly in charge in choosing and ordaining a new apostle to replace Judas when he gives an authoritative interpretation of Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8. And I might add that these texts do not have an obvious interpretation. Psalm 69:25, for example, speaks of the messiah’s persecutors (plural) who “give him gall for (his) food and sour wine to drink” – in 69:21. Then in verse 25 it says “May their (plural) camp be a desolation, let no one dwell in their tents.”
There is never a question from the rest of the apostles, “Hey, Peter, that’s a pretty shaky interpretation of those two texts. What hermeneutical principles are you using, anyway?”
2. Acts 2:14-41: It is St. Peter who is in charge at Pentecost and preaches the first sermon whereby 3,000 are baptized.
3. Acts 3:1-4:4: It is St. Peter who performs the first miracle in Acts, healing the man with withered feet and ankles. He then preaches again and, this time, 5,000 are converted in chapter 4:4.
4. Acts 4:3-12: When St. Peter and St. John are arrested and called before the Sanhedrin, it is St. Peter, in verse 8, who speaks for both and preaches boldly of Christ and the name of Jesus.
5. Acts 5:1-29: It is St. Peter who is in charge of the Church in collecting funds for world evangelism and pronounces God’s judgment on Ananias and Sapphira. It is then, in verse, 15, the people desire St. Peter’s shadow to pass over them that they may be healed. Then, in verse 29, after the apostles were arrested and miraculously set free by the angel of the Lord, they are before the Sanhedrin for the second time. St. Luke records:
Peter and the apostles said in reply, “We must obey God rather than men.”
St. Peter is set apart. It’s “Peter and the apostles.”
6. Acts 8:14-24: We see St. Peter leading (listed first) when he and St. John confirm new converts in Samaria after the evangelistic efforts of St. Phillip. And it is St. Peter who pronounces judgment on Simon the sorcerer who wanted to buy the power to convey the Holy Spirit.
7. Acts 9:32,40-43: Here we have an interesting little passage most pass over too quickly.
As Peter was passing through every region, he went down to the holy ones living in Lydda (NAB).
Here we have St. Peter making his pastoral rounds. To what part of the Church? All of it! He then proceeds to do another first. He raises Tabitha from the dead in Joppa.
8. Acts 10-11:18: It is St. Peter to whom God gives a vision to lead the Church in allowing the gentiles to be baptized and enjoy full membership in the Church. This was a radical move! If you think we have a problem with racism in the 21st century, we have nothing on first century opinion of the gentiles! Notice, after the other apostles and other disciples heard Peter declare what God had done, they say, in 11:18:
When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.”
They heard St. Peter speak and the question was settled.
9. Acts 12:1-17: St. Peter is arrested again. Notice that the entire Church then goes to “earnest prayer” (vs. 5) and into the night (vs. 6, 12) until he is released miraculously. This is not recorded to have been the case when St. James or any others were arrested.
10. Acts 15-16:4: We read of an enormous problem in the early Church, the heresy of the Judaizers. They taught believers in Christ must not only believe and obey the New Testament law as given by Christ and the apostles, but they must keep the Old Testament law given by Moses as well, especially circumcision.
Notice, St. Paul and Barnabas could not quell the upheaval.
Even more importantly, however, is the manner in which the problem is dealt with. Do they get out their Bibles and start arguing passages? No! They respond decisively, but not in the way a “Bible Christian” would today. They respond to the difficulty in obedience to the command of our Lord in Matthew 18:15-18. Jesus gives us authoritative instructions on what to do in the case of a disagreement over doctrine or discipline in the Church. First, go to your brother. Second, if he won’t hear you, take two or three witnesses with you. If he won’t hear them, the final arbiter of the situation will be the Church.
The Christians in Antioch, no doubt, tried to handle the problem on a local level first. That is what the text indicates. But they couldn’t take care of the dispute. Then they brought in the big guns—Paul and Barnabas—a pretty formidable “one or two” to employ!
It did not work!
This problem was so enormous, St. Paul could not even settle it. Where do they go then? Just as our Lord said, they “take it to the Church.” The church at Antioch obeys our Lord and takes it to the Church in Jerusalem. Whence cometh the first Church Council.
Do you notice how sola scriptura is nowhere to be found here?
Peter or James?
But now we need to answer another question. Some Bible Christians will say, “Was not James the true leader of the early Church and not Peter?”
If you examine the text of Acts 15 carefully, you will see this is not the case. In verses six and seven, we see all of the apostles and elders gathered together and doing what? Disputing!
Notice, it is Peter who speaks first, in verses 7-11. After so much disputing in Antioch that St. Paul and Barnabas could not settle the difficulty:
And afterthere had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them… “But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” And all the assembly kept silence…
“After much debate” here at the Council, Peter declares the truth and then—“the whole assembly fell silent” in verse 12. The issue was settled.
This speaks volumes.
And notice as well: Peter uses the first person personal prounoun in the plural. “We believe…” Peter does not speak just for himself. He speaks for all.
However, there was still a pastoral issue. How are we going to bring about unity, in a pastoral sense, between the Jews and Gentiles? The Jewish Christians were worshipping in a Jewish manner which involved many Old Testament practices. St. Paul himself acknowledged the validity of this manner of worship, and participated in it himself in Acts 21:15-26. Many of these Jews wanted to make their rules the universal norm for everyone and even believed it necessary for salvation. The question: How do we unify the Gentile and Jewish Rites without compromising the truth? The Church could not say Gentiles had to keep what were peculiarly Old Testament practices in order to be saved, but the Church also wanted to respect some of the ancient practices of the Jews.
St. James stands up in Acts 15:13-23, and gives his pastoral opinion on the matter:
My brothers, listen to me. Symeon has [declared] how God first concerned himself with acquiring from among the Gentiles a people for his name… It is my judgment, therefore, that we ought to stop troubling the Gentiles who turn to God, but tell them by letter avoid  the pollution from idols,  unlawful marriage,  the meat of strangled animals, and  blood. Then the apostles and presbyters, in agreement with the whole church, decided to choose representatives and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas… This is the letter delivered by them: “The apostles and the presbyters, you brothers, to the brothers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia of Gentile origin: greetings…”
Two Key Points:
1. When James stands up to speak, the first thing he says after getting the attention of the Council is, “Symeon has related…” In other words, Peter has spoken… He repeats what Peter has already said definitively. Then, rather than speaking for all, St. James says, “It is my judgment…”
A little over 400 years after this proclamation by St. James, the fathers of the Council of Chalcedon would similarly declare, “Peter has spoken through Leo, the question is settled” after hearing a written declaration of St. Peter’s successor, Pope St. Leo the Great, read at that great Ecumenical Council. In AD 451, the issue was concerning the monophysite heresy and the nature of the God-man Jesus Christ. But both times, the same Principle was in effect. God spoke definitively through the authority He established on this earth to Shepherd his people.
2. When St. James gives his pastoral judgment, in verse 19, his judgment was that the Church ought to bind the Gentiles to four laws:
… abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood.
But notice what happens immediately thereafter, in verses 22-28:
Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas… with the following letter: “The brethren, both the apostles and the elders, to the brethren who are of the gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greeting. Since we have heard that some persons from us have troubled you with words, unsettling to your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us in assembly to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul… We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things…”
1. When Peter speaks in Acts 15:7-11, just as we saw in Acts 10-11:18, the question was settled. St. Peter’s authority is unique. He has the keys of the kingdom and as such speaks for Christ with or without the consent of the others (Matthew 16:15-19).
2. When James gives his pastoral judgment concerning how to deal with an extremely difficult situation, the apostles, elders and the whole church had to agree before an epistle could be written to be sent out to the troubled churches. Why? Because the other apostles’ authority is depicted in a collegial manner. Jesus gave Peter and all the apostles the authority to “bind and loose” in Matthew 18:15-18. Notice, it was all the apostles with Peter that acted in sending out the decree to the troubled churches. James and the apostles authority was exercised as a college. Only St. Peter was given the keys of the Kingdom. Only St. Peter acted alone in the context of all of the apostles at the Council.
3. Notice the nature of the letter sent out by the Church. When the Council of Jerusalem sends out the decree, the Church declares:
It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell. (Acts 15:28, NAB)
As St. Paul and Silas traveled about delivering the decree of the Church, the Scripture records:
As they traveled from city to city, they handed on to the people for observance the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem.
Catholic trivia point:
The Greek word for decisions there is “dogmata” in Greek.
One Final Note:
When St. Paul and Barnabas went to Antioch (this was where the trouble started according to Acts 14:26-15:2) immediately after the Council and delivered the teachings, the people “were delighted with the exhortation” (see Acts 15:30-31). The dispute was settled. However, not everyone was obedient. Judging from the letters of St. Paul to the Galatians and Romans, and the letter to the Hebrews, we can clearly see that there were rebels then just as there are now who will not listen to the Church.
St Irenaeus gives us some interesting insight as to one problem person who would not obey the Church. He was the seventh deacon who is listed among the first deacons ordained in Acts 6:5. You’ll notice that among the seven, he is listed last. According to St. Irenaeus, in Against Heresies, Bk. 1, ch. 26, para. 3, he was one of the leaders of the rebellion against the Council. Scripture records Nicolas the deacon was a “convert from Antioch.” Antioch is where all the trouble started.
The final point I want to make here is that Jesus himself has very strong words for these Nicolaitanes! These were basically anti-nomians who thought they did not have to obey the laws of the Church. When Jesus gives a personal message to St. John in the beginning of the Book of Revelation, he has a special message for those who would disobey the Church.
Remember then from what you [the church in Ephesus] have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have, you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate (Rev. 2:5-6).
I have a few things against you [the church in Pergamum]: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice immorality. So you also have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth (Rev. 2:14-16).
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be on the side of folks whose deeds are “hated” by the Lord. I will remain on the side of the Church!
If you want to remain on the side of the Church, you must remain with the Vicar of Christ, St. Peter, and his successors the Popes.
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