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.
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