Does Acts 15 discredit Peter’s authority?

Acts 15 – it could look like Peter is not the head of the Church because James actually got up and made the decision regarding circumcision.

Paul and Barnabas have returned from their first missionary journey and there is a crisis in the church of Antioch. Paul and Barnabas are going to the Jerusalem magisterium to see what the teaching really is over circumcision.

So, here’s how this council worked. The bishops met to examine the matter and debated. Then, Peter, after listening to the debate (verse 7), gave his teaching. After this, the council fell silent and the whole multitude held their peace (verse 12). Then, Paul and Barnabas were permitted to tell about their first missionary journey so as to back up Peter’s teaching with signs from the Holy Spirit. And, thereafter, James gives a ruling. And, THIS is the only thing that seems unCatholic to some.

However, whereas it does say (in verse 13) how Paul and Barnabas “fall silent,” allowing James to respond, this does not take away from the entire assembly “falling silent” after Peter’s teaching in verse 12. Why? Because we are dealing with 2 Greek words. In 13, the verb is “sigesai” (infinitive aorist: meaning that Paul and Barnabas finished talking). In verse 12, it’s “esigese” (past tense aorist usage — meaning that the assembly REMAINED SILENT after Peter’s address). And, indeed, after Peter speaks, all debate stops. The matter had been settled.

So, why does James speak? We think there are three reasons:

  1. He’s the bishop of Jerusalem. Peter was just a visitor.
  2. What he says, he …like Paul and Barnabas …ties into Peter’s declaration: “Brothers, listen to me. SYMEON has described how God…” etc.
  3. And, most importantly, because James was the leader of the Church’s “Jewish wing.” Remember, in verse 1 and 2 how Acts 15 describes: “Some who had come DOWN FROM JUDAEA were instructing the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.

 

They were coming FROM JAMES! They were HIS disciples! Therefore, he renders judgment on the matter for his Jewish party, not as a superior or equal of Peter at all. And, this is MOST clear in verse 19, where it says:  “It is my judgment, therefore, that WE ought to STOP TROUBLING THE GENTILES.”

Who was “troubling” the Gentiles? Not Paul and Barnabas. Not Peter and his disciples, who Baptised the first Gentiles without circumcision. So, who? ONLY the Jewish Christians under James. Therefore, it is NOT the whole Church, but only the “Jewish party” that James is giving a “judgment” to.

And so, at Jerusalem, we see Peter as Head of the Church, speaking for the Church, making decisions for the Church, acting unilaterally on behalf of the Church. He does not share this authority with other bishops. He does not participate in the debate. Rather, it says: “After much debate had taken place, Peter got up …” His teaching ENDS the debate. He acts as father (Pope) to all.

Contrary to the Orthodox understanding that Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem all share equal authority, basing this on episcopal authority derived from their sees and the supposed equality of their sees — It is interesting to note that, in Acts 15, Peter does not act as a bishop of a see. Rather, he is merely a visitor. Yet, his Petrine office and teaching authority are in place — even over the resident reigning bishop (James). Therefore, the idea that the Pope of Rome’s teaching authority is merely that of a bishop is not sensible. If, as the Orthodox maintain, the Pope of Rome is the successor of Peter, it therefore follows that he succeeds to Peter’s unique ministry and to a teaching office that is superior to the rest of the episcopate. Therefore, even if the Schism was a 4 to 1 split, as the Orthodox say, they would still be the ones in error. As St. John Chrysostom puts it: “And if one should say, ‘How then did James receive the throne of Jerusalem?,’ this I would answer that He appointed this man (Peter) teacher, not of that throne, but of the whole world.” (Chrysostom, In Joan Hom). That’s a Papacy.

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