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

13 responses

  1. Howard


    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).



    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

  2. Robert Garza

    In the canonical texts James’ leadership is certainly implied although not directly stated but we have numerous primary sources by early Church Father’s and Apocrypha books that clearly state James as the leader of the Church in Jerusalem. Some even claim that James was appointed by Jesus to be leader. These claims cannot be easily dismissed on the grounds of their being non-canonical as they are a part of the official history of the Church. When weighing all of the available evidence it becomes quite clear that James was indeed the leader of the Church in Jerusalem.


    November 5, 2015 at 1:34 am

  3. Thanks for the comment Robert. In my blog, I give higher priority to Scripture than to other Christian writings, church history and Apocryphal books. Also, how long after the event were these written?


    November 5, 2015 at 6:55 am

  4. james

    Explain 1 john5:7-8 and why roman church admittedly added this idolatry to the koine Greek original scriptures ? Why was Mark 16:9-20 and hundreds of other passages added into the bible by roman church fathers? Maybe James was belittled since he said to.maintain all the laws as did Jesus.
    Jesus says in Mathew 15:24 and 10:5-6 his movement was for jews only…not for gentiles or Samaritans …
    Paul comes along and re invents the entire movement into “Paulianity” calling all laws of God a curse …Many people are now asking these questions .


    December 25, 2016 at 4:50 am

    • Thanks for the comment James.

      Please see my reply: Is the New Testament reliable?
      The conclusion of this post is:
      Because of linguistic studies of the numerous ancient New Testament manuscripts, the New Testament available to us today is a reliable reconstruction of the original manuscripts. This means that it’s reliable and can be trusted.
      When reading the New Testament it’s important to realize that the Christian church commenced after Christ’s death. So the books of Acts to Revelation cover Christianity, whereas the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) describe a period when the Jews were the people of God. So, the gospels record events under the old covenant and the change of covenant needs to be taken into account before we can apply their principles to the church today. When this is taken into account, and there is competent exegesis (interpretation), the messages brought by different characters and authors of the New testament are consistent and not contradictory.


      December 26, 2016 at 6:54 am

  5. Comment from Bruce:
    I found your blog when I searched for James as being the leader of the Church of Jerusalem. Very good blog. I hope to use it more.
    Bruce Hitchcock
    Pastor, Author, Educator


    August 10, 2017 at 4:37 am


    Dear brethren in Christ, our hearts is spiritually: touched with your encouragement reading from your website kindly please share more with us and help us with your teaching materials for they will help us in our fellowship here and win more souls to Christ Jesus we pray and request you kindly if you have Bibles to send to us that Lord will lead you to come and share the word of God with us we hope that God bless us to share more in his kingdom and pray for the orphans who I TAKE CARE OF AND worship with THEM happy to read from you in Jesus name. . PASTOR Orlan


    December 3, 2019 at 1:28 am

  7. Todd Perroud

    Thanks for your thoughts. I have long understood, that there was no pyramid hierarchy in Christ’s church. How do we know James was the brother of Jesus and not James the son of Alphaeus( one of the 12 )?


    October 6, 2022 at 5:25 am

    • Thanks for the comment Todd.
      James was a common name in New Testament times. Four people named James are mentioned in the New Testament:
      – James the son of Joseph and Mary (Mt. 13:55) or James the Just.
      – James the father of the apostle Judas (Thaddaeus) (Lk. 6:16; Acts 1:13).
      – James the apostle, son of Alphaeus and Mary (Mk. 3:18; 15:40). He was referred to as James the Less or James the Younger.
      – James the apostle, brother of the apostle John and son of Zebedee and Salome (Mk. 3:7) or James the Greater.

      Which one of these people is the James who was a leader (elder) in the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18)? Looking at the occurrence of the word “James” in the book of Acts.

      It probably wasn’t the father of the apostle Judas (Thaddaeus), because he is only mentioned indirectly in two verses (Lk. 6:16; Acts 1:13).

      It probably wasn’t James the brother of John, because he was martyred around AD 43 (Acts 12:2), which was before James was mentioned in a leadership role in the early church in Jerusalem.

      This leaves two contenders: James the son of Joseph and Mary and James the son of Alphaeus and Mary. They were both amongst the 120 believers after the Lord’s ascension (Acts 1:13-14).

      Because Paul mentions James (son of Joseph and Mary) in Gal 1:19 and then James (without further identification) in Gal 2:9, 12, that the latter is almost certainly the same as the former. Thus, there is circumstantial evidence that “one of the pillars of the church” (Gal 2:9) was indeed “the Lord’s brother” (Gal 1:19). It is interesting to note that the risen Christ appeared to this James before He appeared to the apostles (1 Cor. 15:7).

      Albert Barnes, John Gill, and Matthew Poole disagree. They believed that the leader (elder) in the church in Jerusalem was James the son of Alphaeus. The only reason I can see for this is that Gill claimed that this James was “sometimes called the brother of our Lord”.

      However, not much is known about the whereabouts of James the son of Alphaeus after Acts 1.


      October 12, 2022 at 5:41 am

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