An exposition of Acts 15

An exposition of Acts 15

Bill Burkett

A study of great concern for all who believe in following the Biblical pattern of church government and knowing what Scripture and church history teaches on the subject.

(1) And certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.

(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.

(4) And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them.

(5) But 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.

(6) And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter.

(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: 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:
(25) It seemed good unto us . . .

Another very important verse in our study of Biblical church government; Paul came with Barnabas to Antioch and remained with Barnabas there for one year teaching “many people.” And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch. Acts 11:26. Stephan was the evangelist but Barnabas and Paul were the pastor teachers, or bishops, of the church in Antioch for one year until it was established in the Word of God. (Ephesians 4:11)

Explanation By Verse

Verse 1; Jewish teachers converted to Christ were teaching that converts to Christ should be circumcised according to the Mosaic ceremonial law.

Verse 2; Paul and Barnabas withstood the teaching of the Judaizers in the church at Antioch and decided with the brethren of the church that both Paul and Barnabas and certain other brethren from the church in Antioch should go up to Jerusalem to consult with the apostles and elders who were abiding there.

It must be taken into account that the apostles or elders at Jerusalem were not elected leaders with any authority over the other churches including Antioch but the went of their own accord to Jerusalem to consult with the brethren there who were leading the church at Jerusalem and had walked with Jesus and witnessed the resurrection. It was not required of them by anyone, nor was it a meeting called by the apostles at Jerusalem. The apostles at Jerusalem did not come down to Antioch and usurp authority over the pastors at Antioch, but rather, the pastors at Antioch came up to Jerusalem to seek counsel and advice from the bishop/pastor at Jerusalem where the church was first established by Jesus Himself. The Antioch church went up to Jerusalem to seek their advice concerning the teaching of the Judaizers.

The pastor of a smaller or fledgling church should consult the pastor of a larger church nearby when it in making decisions regarding doctrinal issues. Especially if the pastor in the smaller church is young and inexperienced it would be wise on his part to consult his elder brethren about any inordinate conditions in his church. If any small church is actually a satellite of a mother church, then that new church and the pastor should remain subject to the mother church until the new work becomes established with a membership that can support its pastor and that pastor proves his calling and is ordained to the ministry. Though Paul possessed a proven ministry he still went up to Jerusalem to consult those men who were more experienced and authoritative in the gospel than he was in many ways as we have mentioned above.

This story of the problem with Judaizers in Antioch does not tell us that the church at Jerusalem was in any way dictating to Paul and Barnabas that they had to come and meet with them, but rather that Paul and Barnabas was showing the right kind of submissive spirit toward their elders by willingly going up to Jerusalem. The point is clear – we need each other, and especially do the new and the young need the older and more experienced as counselors. Not that the pastor and his people are required to do what the elder brethren say, but he wants to hear the wisdom of the elder pastor before making his decision.

At no time did either the apostles or the elders of the churches who came together assume any authority over the other pastors or elders present. They did dispute the matter as verse 3 tells us but each of them acted independently of the others. There is nothing but a mutual relationship existing throughout this entire matter.

Another very important fact to be considered is that this was not a council of all of the churches but a meeting between the elders of the new church in Antioch and the elders and apostles at Jerusalem – only. It is often written in Bible commentaries and church history books that this was a “council of churches.” It was not at all a council of churches. It was meeting between Antioch and Jerusalem – two churches only. Jerusalem did not call Antioch up to dictate to them what their doctrine should be. Paul and Barnabas initiated the discussion themselves to get the advice of the apostles and elders of the church there. At this time in the early church there were scores of churches already existing but only two churches met in Acts 15.

The letter that was sent out from the apostles was addressed to churches then existing in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia. (Acts 15:23). Secondly; there was the very new church at Antioch. These were the only two churches coming together to discuss the matter of whether Gentiles were going to have to come under this yoke of the ceremonial law or not.

The matter they were discussing concerned all of the churches. Paul and the elders at Antioch could have decided at Antioch what they wanted Antioch to abide by, but their thinking was that it would be better for the church to act in unity with the elders of Jerusalem. Another sign that Paul did not see himself as having any authority to make decrees for the church to obey even though he declared himself to be an apostle.

There is no central figure of authority in the entire record of this meeting in Jerusalem as it is described in detail in Acts chapters 15. The authority of the first church was the Holy Spirit. Each man had an equal authority when they came together. When they spoke in this meeting, they spoke to all of the others and not to any named authority.

All of the churches were being effected by this subversive teaching of the Judaizers. All other matters which involve a local church were apparently handled by each bishop (pastor) and the elders of each church and its elders. There is no place in New Testament records where there is any one man holding an office of authority over any pastor of another church beyond or outside of his own church. The office of the bishop was that title given to the senior pastor of a given local church or group of churches within a city or region that were actually branches of started by ministries from the mother church.

Notice how the letter that was finally drafted and sent out to the other churches that were not present at the meeting of these two churches, started, “It seemed good unto us.” (Acts 15:25)

Verse 3; The apostles visited other churches between Antioch and Jerusalem testifying of God’s salvation extended so graciously to the gentiles (non-Jews), adding them to the church.

Verse 4; Paul and Barnabas and elders of the Antioch church arrive at Jerusalem and declare to the apostles and elders there what God was doing through them as they preached the gospel to the gentiles. Note that the apostles and elders were at the Jerusalem church in that early beginning of the church. The apostles represent those men who walked with Jesus and had His teaching engraved on their minds who were in the upper room when the Holy Spirit was poured out proving that He had ascended to the Father and was there to intercede for them. The presence of the apostles represents perhaps the highest authority at the Antioch meeting and yet not one of these men attempted to dominate or take authority over the discussion.

Verse 5; There was also a group of Pharisees who had been converted to Christ in the church at Jerusalem that heard Paul and the elders from Antioch and immediately rose up commanding that those converted to Christ be circumcised according to the law of Moses.

Verse 6; And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. This council of two churches was not being called by any ruling bishop, nor was the meeting presided over by any ruling figure or one supreme authority over them. The teaching of Christ was the only authority and God the Holy Spirit was clearly the only one in charge.

The key word is “consider” (eido), to be sure something is thoroughly understood through the gaining of knowledge on the subject. There is no presence of a bishop over a bishop or any one man, or any several men usurping authority over the others.

The Bishop Of The Local Church – The Highest Authority in the local Church In this text in Acts 15 we have no basis to teach a doctrine of special authority where a “high” bishop rules over other bishops (pastors). Bishops are pastors of churches in a given city. When the church in a large area sends out evangels from that church and other churches come into existence under that mother church, then the pastor of the new church becomes self supporting no longer needing assistance from the mother church, then that church becomes a sovereign church and the pastor is the bishop of that church which he pastors once he is ordained. His ordination constitutes the approval of his doctrine and his calling to the ministry by Christ.

No man should be called pastor or bishop who has not been ordained and approved by his elder brethren. Once he is ordained into the ministry by the bishop and elders of his church he is entitled to be esteemed as a bishop over the church he is pastoring (shepherding). Until that ordination and that new work becomes self sustaining then let that pastor and church remain under the authority of the mother church to insure its pure doctrine and support. But the purpose of the mother church should be to help any new work to become self sustaining as soon as possible.

According to the pattern we have in Acts 15, those churches and pastors that have gone out from a mother church will consult his elders around him when he needs advice or direction. If he fails to do this and falls into error or serious moral problems not consulting his brethren, then it is the duty of all of the brethren to come together in that brother’s region and discuss his problem by calling him into the meeting with them. If he does not attend the meeting then let the matter be discussed, witnesses be heard and proper discipline be administered. In that meeting two or more brethren should be designated to go and visit the brother and pray with him, advise him of the decision of the brethren and seek his repentance, his reconciliation and especially his restoration to the faith.

According to the historical records there was no such thing as a bishop having authority over a bishop among the early church Fathers. In the First Epistle of Clement to Corinth, Clement makes it clear in his writings that the words pastor, episcopate, presbyter and bishop have the same meaning and are interchangeable. God knows that men cannot remain spiritual and also be ambitious to attain and keep their political positions of power. There is further early writings to confirm the fact that bishops, or pastors, were never ruling over other churches than their own.

Who Was James And What Was He

The role of James should be considered. It is apparent by the voice he had in the discussion that he was indeed the bishop of the Jerusalem church. Church historians also declare this to be so. We can only assume this as it is not clearly stated in the record given of the meeting. But James made the concluding remarks after hearing the testimony and arguments of the other apostles and brethren and dictated the letter that was sent out to the other churches.

Following The Pattern Today

In any large city or populated area where many churches exist together in mutual fellowship, then one pastor will be respected as the senior bishop among the pastors belonging to his church fellowship. This does not mean that he rules with authority over other pastors but that he is respected as the symbol of authority and advice and resides over any councils called by the pastors of that city or region to discuss matters that concern the unity of the whole fellowship of churches.

In Scripture a bishop is never a ruler over other bishops but may preside as an advisor when called upon by another bishop. The senior pastor in each city simply presides over the order of any meetings of the church pastors gathering usually on a monthly or annual schedule to discuss spiritual matters of mutual interest. This is, in fact, the form of church government of the Swedish Pentecostals, The Portuguese Pentecostals, the Brazilian Assemblies of God and many other Pentecostal national churches. Sometimes churches of a nation who follow this Biblical form of church government hold an annual or semi-annual council to discuss their ordinations, disciplines and doctrines. In this case they elect a brother to be the chairman of the next meeting. He has no authority and he is certainly not elected to some position of authority over other bishops for life. The idea of a lifetime bishopric is taken from the Catholic church power structure form of church government. This practice follows the papal form of government but is nowhere practiced in the Word of God.

It must be made clear that there is a difference between a church office and a church ministry. It is sometimes necessary to create offices within the church fellowship to handle special ministries such as the distribution of food or literature distribution. These offices can serve the church well, but when that person assumes authority and control over other pastors it becomes an unscriptural power structure which is not taught in Scripture.

Many church fellowships have blindly allowed the papal type church government to develop using Acts 15 to justify a teaching that bishops rule over bishops. But as we read this Scripture we see clearly that there is no bishop ruling over another bishop in Acts 15 or in any other passage of Scripture in the New Testament.

Once these errors become established in the church it is very difficult to correct them. Men gain power by these human governments and do not want to relinquish it. Something can become so deep seated in the church that even Scripture will not be heeded or tolerated by those who find themselves in seats of power. If we want to see a fresh anointing of the Holy Spirit upon our ministries and the church, let us do exactly as God instructs us; If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7:14

Copying Papal Authority

The Catholic church government based on the ultimate authority of the papacy or a supreme and infallible ruler has been a great influence on the Bible believing churches and pastors even though we do not sometimes realize it. If the historical churches want to believe in liturgy and that tradition is equal to the authority of Scripture, then that is their business and their right to teach to their people. But those Christians within the Pentecostal church who want to remain faithful to the simple form of church government as it is revealed in the Bible have the same right. In this study we are only addressing our own Pentecostal brethren and churches who do indeed keep the desire to preserve the simplistic Bible form of government.

Through six centuries the Catholic church has adopted decrees in their counsels that place the authority tradition as declared to tradition by the Pope on an equal status with Holy Scriptures. As the doctrine of the Pope was established he became the sole authority to decide matters of dogma. The final step taken in establishing the authority of the Pope was the subordination of both faith and morals. That is, he became the infallible ruler of the church with powers never given to man by God.

Imitating Papal Rome Government

In recent years the Pentecostals in both the Western part of the world and in the East have started molding their church government after the democratic form of government or the episcopal form of government popular in the traditional churches. Again we want to make it perfectly clear that the form of government used by church bodies outside of our Pentecostal churches is none of our business, but for those of us who want to preserve the apostolic church government, it must be noted how we have departed from Biblical government and adopted a political form of church government that creates offices of power in the church that equal the power of the pope. These men often wield their power to carry out their wishes without the consensus of the bishops. That is unscriptural papal throne rule.

“Since the Council of Trent every appeal of Scripture is rendered null and void by the conception of the tradition which completes – and eventually, in point of fact, eliminates – Scripture. Since the Vatican Council every appeal to real tradition also is made inefficacious through the theory that the Pope alone has authoritative knowledge of tradition. The Pope has not only the right but also the sacred canonical duty of repudiating and disallowing every critical further inquiry based upon an appeal to Scripture or tradition and of excommunicating anyone who persists in such an attitude.” (The Misunderstanding Of The Church, By Emil Brunner.)

“In the fourth century the church began to model its organization more consciously on that of the empire, and this development was encouraged by the emperors, who preferred to have power concentrated in fewer hands and thus more easily controlled. In this (fourth) century “Metropolitan” bishops appeared (later called “archbishops”). They were the bishops of the capitol city of each Roman province. They preside over synodical councils, which were held now with some regularity, and which included all bishops within the province; they also exercised administrative authority over clergy and laity in their areas. In this century appear also “patriarch,” The bishops of the four most important sees (official seats of residence of the bishops) in the empire, those of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch. Jerusalem also was regarded as a patriarchal see, because of its religious associations, but the bishops of this see never exercised the political and spiritual authority that was wielded by the other four. The bishop of Rome, to take an example, was diocesan bishop of Rome and its environs, metropolitan bishop of Southern Italy, and patriarchal bishop of the West, with undefined authority over all bishops in this area; and so with the other patriarchal bishops. The power struggle that ensued between these rival claimants of spiritual (and political) power offers an ugly picture, and determined the course of many of the controversies that arose in this period.” (Through the Ages, A History Of The Christian Church; (page 51) by Ernest Trice Thompson)

What Historical Examples Teach Us

It was not until 200 years after the crucifixion of Jesus that the effects of human politics influenced the church to depart from the Scriptural government of the sovereignty of each local bishop. That is clearly the Bible pattern. As the world moves further away from its original and pure forms of government the church follows in its shadow imitating the political forces around it and peculiar to its culture. The result of any departure from singular pastoral authority in each city has been disastrous.

Any ordained pastor whether pastoring a new church or an older established church is the highest authority in the church according to the Scriptures and the historical record of the church. A younger pastor will submit himself to his elders and wisely consult them on special matters in his church, but no other pastor has a right or the authority to come in and overrule another pastor in another church.

If there is a doctrinal error or moral misconduct involved then usually the believers in that church will call a meeting and discharge that pastor if that becomes necessary.

One other exception may be in the case where a new church is under the direct sponsorhip of a mother church and is a branch of the larger church. In that case the young pastor is under obligation to follow the advice of the senior pastor, or bishop of the Mother Church until the new church becomes established and autonomous – that is, self governed no longer needing any assistance from the Mother Church.

In John’s third letter he wrote about a pastor named Diotrephes. It should be noted that John called Diotrephes by name and then accused him of prating (maliciously speaking against a good person) and then accuses him of casting out the brethren from the church. In verse 11 John speaks of Diotrephes as being evil. But the point of interest here is that in verse 9 John said that Diotrephes did not receive him (John) into his church and other churches in that region. John never calls Diotrephes a pastor or bishop but infers he was an official in the church of that area. He certainly was exercising the authority of a church bishop, and wrongly so. It is apparent that John did not have authority of this evil church leader, wielding influence over the churches in that region, to have him removed. But in verse 10 John promised that when he came the next time to the church of Diotrephes that he would “remember” his deeds. This word “remember” is the Greek word hupomimnesko, meaning to suggest or quietly remind, to cause someone to remember. John the apostle, the beloved of the Lord, does not even overrule the authority of a wicked bishop. Bishops are under the control of God and will be severely judged if they abuse their office. It is only a matter of time until God’s patience will run out with evil men who assume power in the church and then abuse it. John recognized this authority and God’s handling of this wicked bishop, but he himself did not attempt to replace him, or excommunicate him, or control him politically. There was no politics in the early church, nor do we see it in all of the dealings of the apostles in the Acts of the Holy Spirit.

The Abuse Of Authority

When the authority of the church is held in the hands of one or a few men it often alters their personalities. Once godly men with humble spirits become angry demagogues cutting down anyone who dares to differ with them or who simply wants to follow Jesus without becoming entangled in a politico-religious power structure. God’s Word never gave authority to any man, any office or ministry to rule over others churches. The bishop (pastor) rules over his own church but not over other churches which are not his.

Until a man is ordained into the ministry he should remain under and be faithful to his senior minister as Timothy and Mark were to Paul and Barnabas.

Theologians Agree To Biblical Government

“During the first centuries all bishops were apostolically and canonically equal: all were successors of the apostles with the same rights. The church Fathers were unanimous on this point. (Canon I. de Doellinger, Les Origines de la Papaute p. 14)

All church governments which practice the idea of bishops ruling over other bishops comes to us from the doctrines and teachings of the Roman Catholic church known as papacy rule. It was finally established in the Roman church as the official stance in the fifth century having its beginning with bishops ruling over bishops four centuries previously. Even Catholic scholars of recent times declare the sovereignty of the local church in early church history. “One finds nothing in this early period which can serve as a foundation for the papal claims.” (Cardinal Newman, USA) “No document exists during the first three centuries which implies that a community has the right to excommunicate another local community or independent church.” (Dr. Zenov, quoted by Moreton, p.167)

Cyprian Contends For Sovereignty Of The Bishop

“Cyprian defended this equality of all the bishops with special vigor before the claims of Pope Stephan. In his letter (A.D. 72) [he wrote] ‘To my brother Stephan, Bishop of Rome, we do not claim to constrain or compel anyone, each bishop being free to act as he deems advisable in the governing of his church and having to give account only to God.’ At the seventh council of Carthage he rises up in rebellion against ‘those who try to set themselves up to be bishop of the bishops and claim that their colleagues should obey them by virtue of a tyrannical privilege.’

Papal government is any church government that practices the idea that a certain man or group of men have power and authority to rule in the affairs of other churches other than their own.

The New Testament writings of the apostles as recorded in the writings of Paul and Luke, especially, sets in order the fact that a bishop is a pastor of a church. That is the first qualification. There is no such thing as a “bishop” not having a church over which he is the shepherd. Secondly, that every pastor is the bishop of his own church only. Thirdly, any church government that teaches that bishops rule over other bishops (pastors) is patterned after the Catholic papal system of church government and not Scripture.

If a church organization wants to have such a government, this is perfectly a matter of choice and necessity according to the consensus of the people who make up that body of believers, but if we say that we are patterning our church government after the New Testament and then create the office of a bishop who rules over other bishops, we have a church government that is patterned after the Catholic church and not the New Testament teaching of the apostles.

They Carry The Spiritual Decree To Others

There is one more verse in Acts 16:4 that is connected to the decision of the Jerusalem council and the letter which James sent out in his name as the bishop of the mother church in Jerusalem.

And as they went through the cities, they delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem. Acts 16:4

Once the decision was made by the council of apostles and elders at Jerusalem from these two churches, it was carried by Paul (and probably by other brethren besides Judas and Silas [verse 27] who were at Jerusalem) and delivered the decree to other churches wherever they traveled. The purpose of the decree was to stop the false teaching of the Judaizers. The decree contained the decision reached by all of the bishops and apostles who met in Jerusalem to discuss the matter of the teaching of the Judaizers. The decree listed four things Christian Jews should abstain from when accepting the gospel. It was directed to the universal church but directed especially to the Jews accepting Christ – which was the whole contention of the Judaizers. There is a key word found here that must be considered. It is the word “decrees” (Greek; dogma). It means a law that is established as an ordinance of the church by the elders of the church or by the local church bishop. And so it was decided by the decree of this Jerusalem council consisting of two churches that Christians were not under obligation to observe the ceremonial laws of contained in the law of Moses that conflicted with complete work of Christ. But that decree did list certain obligations that should be observed that was in the law of Moses and should continue to be observed by all Christians; 1. Christians should abstain from the defilements of idols and anything offered to idols; 2. from fornication (sexual promiscuity); 3. from things strangled and 4. from eating blood.

Notice that these four teachings were spiritual and moral in nature and had nothing to do with actually having any governing authority over another church whatsoever. Note again that these were all commandments which Moses gave that the brethren felt strongly to require of all Christians.

When this decision was made there was great unanimity in the church. There was no division in deciding this matter in the early church because the decisions made were not by one man or an inner circle of a few men, ordering everyone to obey their dictates, abusing authority and smashing their opponents. No, this council was under the precious influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit – there was no man in controland no bishop with authority over other bishops.

According to Scripture the authority of the bishop is over the church he is pastoring and never extends beyond his local church or the new churches being mothered by his church. If we feel strongly that our church government should patterned after the New Testament, then there is no such thing as a bishop over a bishop, or the authority of one bishop (pastor) having any authority over another bishop (pastor).

According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise master builder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. BUT LET EVERY MAN TAKE HEED HOW HE BUILDETH THEREUPON. 1 Corinthians 3:10

Some Pentecostal Church leaders have interpreted the Bible to justify the way they have conformed to civil and church governments around them. They think that church government as presented in Scripture is not an important matter. But when the mutual and loving attitude between pastors each governing his own flock sovereignly, is replaced with a power structure church government, all manner of spiritual and moral disorder enters the church.

The character of the church is derived from its leaders. This is precisely why the apostles placed supreme importance on the character of the leaders; they knew that the character of the bishops (pastors) becomes the character of the church.

When men come into power which God has not ordained it will always end with confusion and disorder; in oppression and domination of their brothers in the name “church government.” And it may be “church government,” but it is not SCRIPTURAL church government. These will be worthy of the judgment of God. We have seen many good men, godly men, become devils holding Bibles after they receive this authority. Instead of being men of wisdom and love they become irrational tyrants treating their brothers with contempt as inferiors. This is not the Spirit of our Lord Jesus, nor is it what Biblical church government produces.

James said, “It seemed good unto us …” when he started the letter to be read to the churches. He did not write, It seemed good unto ME, but unto US. It was the conclusion of all of the brethren present from the two churches, not just James! It was clearly not a dogma being handed down by a ruling pope, but a spiritual conclusion reached after hearing the contributions of all of the brethren, including the arguments of the Judaizers, and then subjecting those conclusions to the authority of the Holy Spirit and Scripture.

May these words comfort certain brethren who have been victims of unscriptural church government. Brethren, be comforted! Luke 6:22-23. Let each brother rule his own church under the direct influence of the Holy Spirit with much prayer and be guided by what the Word of God clearly teaches about His church.

(Historical references: I Will Build My Church by Alfred F. Kuen, Moody Press.) Coptright þ 1995 Bill Burkett


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