Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Was James the Senior Pastor of the church at Jerusalem?

Before the resurrection, James, the brother of Jesus, didn’t believe that Christ was divine, but he believed afterwards (Mt. 13:55; Jn. 7:5; Acts 1:14). The fact that the resurrected Lord appeared to James may have been instrumental in his conversion (1 Cor. 15:7). Some study Bibles and Bible dictionaries state that James became the head of the Jewish Christian church at Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 15:13-21; 21:18; Gal. 2:9-12). Let’s look at what the bible says.

When Peter escaped from prison he went to Mary’s house, where some were praying for his release. He told them how the Lord had brought him out of prison. Then he requested that they give the news to James and other believers (Acts 12:16-17). When Paul visited Jerusalem after his conversion, the only apostles he saw were Peter and James (Gal. 1:18-19). During a later visit to Jerusalem, a meeting was arranged with James and all the elders (Acts 21:18). Paul referred to James, Peter and John as pillars of the church at Jerusalem (Gal. 2:9). Paul also said that when he was in Antioch, Peter stopped eating with Gentiles after some people came from James in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:12). But their claim to represent James was not true (Acts 15:24).

The topic of whether the Gentiles must be circumcised to be saved was discussed among the apostles and elders of the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:12-21). After much discussion, Peter made a statement and afterwards James summed up the situation and supported it with a quotation from Amos 9:11-12. The church agreed with James and implemented his recommendation. Also, it has been pointed put that on this occasion the issue was brought to “the apostles and elders” and not to James and the resultant letter was written on behalf of “the apostles and elders” and not James (Acts 15:2, 23) (comment by Mike Hosey, August 2013).

Clearly, James was prominent among the elders of the church at Jerusalem, as was Peter prominent among the apostles. It is important to distinguish between “offices” and “gifts.” The two main offices in New Testament churches were those of “elders” and “deacons” (1 Tim. 3:1-13). All elders must be able to teach and shepherd the flock as pastors, but each will have spiritual gifts to varying degrees (1 Tim. 3:2; 1 Pet. 5:2-3). Prominent elders, whose work in preaching and teaching precludes employment to support their families, are worthy of “double honor” or financial support (1 Tim. 5:17-18).

However, there is no evidence that James had any rank or title above the other elders. They were not his subordinates. They were not his staff or his assistants. He wasn’t the church’s “senior” pastor. There is no biblical evidence that proves that James was the head of the church at Jerusalem.

This finding is consistent with the pattern of shared leadership in New Testament churches. It seems as though the believers at Jerusalem were led first by the apostles, and then elders were added to the leadership team (Acts 6:2; 11:30; 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23; 16:4). In fact, Peter and John referred to themselves as elders (1 Pet. 5:1; 2 Jn. 1; 3 Jn. 1). Judas (Barsabbas) and Silas were other elders in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:22).

I am not aware of any example of a prominent leader at any church mentioned in the New Testament, except for Diotrephes who wanted “preeminence” and was described as doing evil (3 Jn. 9-11). For example, there were five prophets and teachers, which would have comprised the eldership team, at Antioch – Barnabas, Simeon (called Niger), Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen and Saul (Acts 13:1). Teams of elders also led the churches in Lystra, Iconium, Pisidian Antioch, Perga, Ephesus, Philippi and Crete (Acts 14:21-24; 20:17; Phil. 1:1; Tit. 1:5).

Other instances of shared leadership in the New Testament include the fact that Jesus trained 12 apostles to establish the Church, and seven men (the precursors of deacons) were appointed to care for the needs of the Jewish widows (Acts 6:1-6). In fact, there is no evidence in Scripture of a hierarchy of authority among the apostles, the church elders or the church deacons. There is no evidence in Scripture of senior pastors of churches. Instead the New Testament pattern is always shared leadership.

Published, April 2011

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5 responses

  1. Howard

    Hello,

    In Galatians 2:8 Paul says, “For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles”.

    Therefore, one could induct that James was both the superior of Peter and Paul by deduction. After all, Solomon gathered all the elders together for the induction of the ark, Nehemiah, for the dedication of the second temple (if memory is correct). It also appears that James may have been in charge. The Scripture quantifies James as a separate particular from the elders: “And the [day] following Paul went in with us unto James; and all the elders were present” (Acts 21:18KJV).

    Howard

    November 27, 2011 at 11:15 pm

    • The context of Galatians 2:8 is Paul’s defense of his message and ministry. In this passage the apostles agreed that Paul’s gospel was divine and that his message was mainly directed to Gentiles, whereas Peter’s was mainly to Jews. As James is not mentioned in Galatians 2:8, I can’t see how this verse can be used to deduce that “James was both the superior of Peter and Paul”. However, James is mentioned in the next verse, but so is Peter and John and they are all said to have a ministry to the Jews.

      Jewish elders rebuilt the temple under the instructions of Cyrus, king of Persia and the supervision of the governor (Ezra 5:14; 6:7-8). Jewish elders also transported the ark to the temple under the instructions of Solomon, king of Israel (2 Chron. 5:2-3). However, in Scripture James is given no role or title apart from “elder”.

      The other verse quoted was Acts 21:18:
      “The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present” (NIV)
      And the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present” (NKJV).
      The possible interpretations of this verse are:
      • James had a superior position to the other elders who were subordinates; he was the senior elder of the church at Jerusalem.
      • James was prominent among the elders of the church at Jerusalem, but he was not the leader of the church at Jerusalem.
      • James arranged this meeting and/or it was held at his house and he was not the leader of the elders of the church at Jerusalem.
      Are these possibilities consistent or inconsistent with the rest of the Scriptures that describe the early church? The second and third interpretations are more robust as they are supported by other Scriptures, whereas the first can only remain an inference based on a single verse. As there is no evidence elsewhere in Scripture of a hierarchy amongst the elders of a New Testament church, it is most likely that James would describe himself as a “fellow elder” like Peter (1 Pet. 5:1).

      November 30, 2011 at 9:15 am

      • It’s interesting to note that when Paul and Barnabas brought the Antioch issue to Jerusalem they did not bring it to James, but to the Apostles and Elders (Acts 15:2). It’s also interesting to note that when the decrees/orders went out to settle the dispute that they didn’t come from James either, rather they came from the apostles and elders (Acts 15:23-28). Oh, and yes they do go into see James, but notice that all of the personal pronouns from verse 20 down are plural. It is not James who speaks, but the elders who speak. And their speaking is authoritative. They tell Paul what to do in order to lessen the tension that existed in their early church. So it is safe to assume from these passages that James was NOT a senior pastor with higher authority than anyone else.

        August 22, 2013 at 12:23 pm

    • Brother, do you have more input on this subject?

      January 27, 2013 at 11:01 pm

      • Thanks for the question. Here is a link to a website on Biblical eldership, which confirms that according to Scripture:
        – Local churches should be led by a plurality of elders, and
        – There was no hierarchy amongst the elders of any New Testament church

        January 28, 2013 at 5:11 am

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