Peter, James and the Council of Jerusalem
Many non-Catholics claim that Peter could not have been the head of the earthly Church or “pope” because they believe that it was James, not Peter, who gave the final decision concerning circumcision of the Gentiles at the Council of Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15. This position indicates a complete misunderstanding of the dynamics of the council. Mark Bonocore, a noted Catholic apologist, addressed this misunderstanding in his debate with Jason Engwer in 1999.
Regarding the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, I pointed out in my [opening statement] how Peter gives the definitive teachings and how, after he speaks, all debate comes to an end. However, Engwer rejects this, citing the amendments given by James, and says how James is the only one to render “judgment.” Well, first of all, it must be noted that James bases his remarks on Peter’s teaching:
[indent]“Brothers, listen to me. Symeon (i.e., Peter) has described how …” (Acts 15:13-14).
Secondly, look at what James actually says in relation to his “judgment”:
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we ought to stop troubling the Gentiles” (Acts 15:19).
Well, who is this “we”? Who was “troubling the Gentiles”? Certainly not Peter (Acts 10:44-49, 11:1-18, 15:7-10). Certainly not Paul or Barnabas. So, who? Acts 15:1 tells us:
“Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised …, you cannot be saved.”
It was the Jewish faction under James (bishop of Jerusalem) that was troubling the Gentiles (Acts 15:5, Gal 2:12).
Thus, James is speaking for them, not for the whole council. Indeed, that’s why his remarks are recorded at all—to show that the leader of the Jewish faction subscribed to the decisions of the council, and so silence the Judaizers who Paul will encounter later (Titus 1:10-11).*
*Taken from: Mark Bonocore v. Jason Engwer: Was the Papacy Established by Christ? (bringyou.to/apologetics/debate13.htm)[/indent]
In addition to Bonocore’s comments, I would point out that as leader of the church in Jerusalem, James was the head of a congregation which counted among its members many priests and Pharisees who still held to their Jewish roots and believed that Gentiles must become Jews through circumcision in order to become Christians. I refer you to the following:
36Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), 37sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.
7So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
Some from among this group had gone to Galatia and upset the Gentile believers there.
11When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. 12Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.
From this, we can see that the Council of Jerusalem was divided into two camps: those who believed the Gentile converts should be circumcised and those who did not. Peter addresses the former with these words:
“Now then, why do you [Judaizers] try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are." (Acts 15:10-11)
James addresses them, also:
“Brothers, listen to me. 14Simon (note that James even used Peter’s Hebrew name when speaking to the Judaizers) has described to us (James must be speaking here to the believers from Jerusalem since those from Galatia would already have been familiar with God’s work in that province!) how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself…19"It is my judgment, therefore, that we (the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem) should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20Instead we should write to them…” (Acts 15:13-20)
Thus, after hearing Peter’s doctrinal pronouncement, James rose to speak and addressed those from his own flock whom he knew would have the hardest time accepting Peter’s decision. James accepted Peter’s teaching and added his own pastoral comments for the benefit of the pro-circumcision group present and for those who might be tempted to doubt that the leader of the “Judaizers” really had accepted the decision of the full ecumenical council that circumcision was unnecessary for Gentiles.
“James was invested with the chief rule [in Acts 15], and think it no hardship. So clean was their soul from love of glory. ‘And after that they had held their peace, James answered,’ etc. (v. 13.) Peter indeed spoke more strongly, but James here more mildly: for thus it behooves one in high authority, to leave what is unpleasant for others to say, while he himself appears in the milder part.” (Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, 33)
“And should any one say, ‘Why then did James receive the throne of Jerusalem?’: this is my answer: that He [Jesus] appointed this man (Peter) not teacher of that throne, but of the habitable globe.” (John Chrysostom, A.D. 387, Ib. Hom. lxxxviii. n. 6, p. 600, in Joseph Berrington, John Kirk, eds., and James Waterworth, rev. The Faith of Catholics, vol. 2 (New York: Pustet & Co., 1884), 34.)
James was the head of the church in Jerusalem. Peter was the head of the Church on earth.