By Mark F. Fischer
Published as “The First Pastoral Council,” Today’s Parish (April/May 1994): 4-5, 24-25.
No meeting in the New Testament is so fraught with tension as the so-called Council of Jerusalem. Riddled by jealousy and intrigue, the “council” marked a collision of the most influential figures of the first-century Church and laid the basis for Christianity’s eventual rupture with Judaism. In the council, the most significant pastoral issue of the first century–the issue of whether one needed to be an observant Jew in order to be a Christian–was deliberated. But was it a “pastoral” council in our modern sense of the term?
This question should interest every pastoral council member who wants to know the Biblical basis for the council ministry. The Council of Jerusalem is the clearest New Testament example of a pastoral question between deliberated and settled by a group specially convened for the purpose. It sketches the practical and even managerial dimensions of conciliar decision-making. And it reveals with great psychological penetration the council’s human and spiritual dynamics. Its nature as a “pastoral” council is by no means a specialist question for scholars alone!
In this essay, we will analyze the New Testament accounts of the Council of Jerusalem with an eye toward what they reveal about the nature of today’s pastoral councils. We will see that the main characteristics of the Jerusalem Council are not quantifiable features such as how many members it had or how often they met, but rather less tangible features such as the engagement of members and the profundity of the matter they discussed. And finally, we will examine the most controversial issue which the Jerusalem council raises for today’s councils, namely, the relation of the pastor to the council.
The Jerusalem Council
The Council of Jerusalem was an epochal event, a decisive moment for all of Christian history. But it was a typical council in that its subject matter was pastoral, its members exhibited predictable human dynamics, and its criterion for decision-making was the well-being of the Church’s mission. The subject matter, whether gentiles had to be circumcised Jews for full Christian membership, was of the greatest pastoral concern. The assembled councilors, such as Paul, James, Cephas, and John, brought with them a passionate ministerial commitment. The main criterion for their decisions was the survival of the gospel and its transmission to the gentiles. These three features–a pastoral subject matter, Christian commitment, and a focus on mission–are the hallmarks of the modern “pastoral” council, just as they were of the Jerusalem Council.
We know about the Jerusalem Council from two independent New Testament sources. The first and closest to the event is the account of St. Paul in the Letter to the Galatians (2:1-10). The second and later account is by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles (15:1-22). Having two independent accounts enables the reader to see the Jerusalem council from two viewpoints, just as the proceedings of our own parish councils vary according to the council members with whom we speak.
Scholars generally agree that the two accounts refer to the same event, an event which we call the Council of Jerusalem, but the two treat it differently. St. Paul, a primary actor at the council, presents himself as taking the initiative at the council, laying out his interpretation of the gospel, overcoming spies and provocateurs, and winning the approval of all for his mission to the gentiles. The account of St. Luke, who was not a primary actor at the council (if he was at all present), differs greatly. He does not present the council as Paul’s initiative. He makes Peter (not Paul) the primary apostle to the gentiles. Peter gives the first speech, Paul’s role is minimized, and no opposition is mentioned. Luke presents the council as an historic occasion in which great decisions were amicably made. Paul writes with the passion of one for whom the battle is not yet over.
And yet Luke and Paul agree that the Council reached a fundamental decision about Christian freedom. Adherence to the Jewish Law, the council decreed, is not longer a condition for membership in the Church. Gentile Christians have received the Holy Spirit just as Jewish Christians have. Faith in God purifies the Christian, not external adherence to bathing rituals. A Spirit-filled reflection on the council members’ experience led to a decision which became normative for the entire Church. In that sense, the Council of Jerusalem is a model for today’s pastoral councils.
Defining the Pastoral Council
The Jerusalem Council fills out the rather bloodless but official description of the contemporary pastoral council which we meet in Canons 511-512 and 536 of the Code of Canon Law. Canon 536 applies the section in the Vatican II Decree on Bishops about diocesan pastoral councils (par. 27) to the parish. The Decree states that councils investigate pastoral matters, consider them, and recommend practical conclusions. There is scarcely more detail than that. Neither the Decree nor the Code tell us what “pastoral” matters are. They do not spell out how to consider them. And formulating practical conclusions about them–potentially the most controversial act of a council, for it entails making a decision–receives no attention whatsoever.
Into this anemic description the Jerusalem council pumps fresh blood. First it tells why it was convened, namely, to clarify the implications of the gospel for non-Jews. The enormous importance of this suggests that, when we speak of the “pastoral” problems which modern councils are to consider, we are not speaking of merely technical decisions such as whether or not to paint the rectory. St. Paul says that he opposed those who insisted on circumcision for the gentiles “so that the truth of the gospel might survive intact” (Galatians 2:5). “Pastoral” problems worthy of a council’s attention, Paul implies, concern the future of the gospel for the community. If today’s pastoral councils are not discussing, say, how the parish is building up the community, expressing the faith, or cultivating Christian leadership, then perhaps they are not discussing “pastoral” problems.
Next, the Jerusalem Council reveals what “considering” a pastoral matter can be. This is the second job of every pastoral council. Considering a pastoral matter does not have to be a dry recitation of facts, the receiving of reports, or the rubber-stamping of a decision which has been already made. On the contrary, the Jerusalem Council suggests that considering a pastoral matter entails passion, struggle, and new insight. Paul went from Antioch to Jerusalem, he wrote, to explain his understanding of the gospel to the apostolic leaders. He wanted to ensure that his ministry, especially the conviction that salvation comes from faith and not from external adherence to the Mosaic Law, harmonized with the belief of those who had known Jesus. Paul’s convictions had matured over fourteen years, he tells us, and he believed that demanding circumcision of gentile converts was tantamount to slavery.
Not everyone agreed. Paul writes that “certain claimants to the title of brother were smuggled in” to the council to attest that the freedom from the Mosaic Law of Paul’s converts was a kind of licentiousness. Paul and his associates, Barnabas and Titus, argued against the false brothers. Ultimately, Paul’s arguments won. The leaders officially recognized Paul’s ministry and gifts. But it must have been a strain. Paul drops hints that, although he had come to Jerusalem explicitly to seek the approval of the leaders, their very authority was problematic. His understanding of the gospel was affirmed by the prominent leaders, but Paul adds: “it makes no difference to me how prominent they were–God plays no favorites” (Gal. 2: 6). Paul wanted their approval, but he sought it pugnaciously. This struggle of wills is an almost inevitable part of “considering” a pastoral matter.
Finally, the Council of Jerusalem suggests that formulating practical conclusions about a matter–the third job of pastoral councils–involves Spirit-filled discernment and negotiation skills. The apostolic leaders, Paul says, recognized his ministry to the gentiles and his particular ministerial charism. In other words, their agreement was not just a clarification of “turf”–Paul for the Greeks, Peter for the Jews–but a discernment of gifts. The elders gained a new insight into the charism of Paul. But they also negotiated with him. The elders affirmed Paul’s gospel, yes, but they also insisted that his congregations should be solicitous about the Jerusalem poor. Paul states that he was already responding to that need. In my view, the very fact that he mentions it says that it was more an issue for the Jerusalem elders than for Paul. They wanted him to see their viewpoint, just as he wanted them to see his. And that heralds a practical conclusion. All parties feel that their interests have been respected.
In summary, the Council of Jerusalem adds depth and perspective to what Canon Law saws about the modern pastoral council. Investigating a pastoral matter means bringing a lifetime of ministerial experience and and commitment into play. Considering a pastoral matter involves a struggle to make one’s own viewpoint understood. Formulating practical conclusions requires a discernment of gifts and a will to negotiate. Paul’s combative account of the Jerusalem council suggests how gripping and stormy a council can be.
Who Is the Pastor?
But the Council of Jerusalem is not an exact model for modern pastoral councils. A fundamental obscurity prevents it from being so. One does not know, in viewing the accounts of the Jerusalem Council, who the primary pastor is. Is it Cephas known as Peter, the rock upon whom the Church is built? Is it James, the “brother of the Lord” (not the apostle James of Zebedee or James of Alphaeus), who appears in Acts to preside over the Jerusalem Council? Or is it Paul himself, appearing at the council as the pastor of churches in Syria and Cilicia?
These questions are important, for they reveal how ambiguous leadership was in the primitive Church. Today’s pastoral council appears to lack this ambiguity. The pastor has jurisdiction over the parish, and the council is consultative to him. The pastor is not legally obliged to take the advice of the council. He presides over it, consulting as he sees fit, and adopting its recommendations insofar as they serve the commonweal of the parish. No one doubts that he is the chief parish executive.
But legal jurisdiction is not the only kind of authority. Gifted individuals have an authority all their own. Pastors may not be obliged to consult them. But the wise pastor who does so acknowledges his own limits and recognizes that he needs advice. That is a form of leadership. And leadership belongs to parishioners as well. Those parishioners who seek the affirmation of pastoral leadership may have a more profound insight that the leaders themselves. Leadership and authority are broader categories than the strict hierarchy suggested by Canon Law.
The Council of Jerusalem reveals just how complex leadership and authority are. Paul comes to Jerusalem, he says, to sketch “the gospel as I present it to the Gentiles” and “to make sure that the course I was pursuing, or had pursued, was not useless” (Gal. 2: 2). He comes as a colleague of James and Cephas, yes, but also as one who seeks their approval. They are the authorities, the apostles who knew Jesus. Luke tells us that Jerusalem Christians who witnessed Paul’s Greek Christians in Antioch insisted that they must be circumcised. Paul disputed their claim. Only the Jerusalem elders could settle the matter.
But Paul makes it clear that faith gives him his own authority. It is, first of all, the authority of the gospel. What motivates him is not a selfish desire to be applauded, but to preserve the truth that faith, not circumcision or external signs, is what counts. Paul’s authority also stems from his ministry: he has led many gentiles to faith, and God gave him that ministry. It is a grace, a favor from God. That explains his pugnacity. His opponents are not simply people with whom he disagrees. They are spies and provocateurs whose ultimate goal is to shackle the Christians with the fetters of the Mosaic Law.
The Jerusalem Council suggests that, although James and Cephas enjoyed the authority of apostles who had seen Jesus, and although they were the acknowledged leaders of the Church, they were not the only authorities at the council. Paul too was an authority: a transmitter of the gospel, an inspired missionary and pastor, a charismatic individual. This has consequences for pastoral councils today. To be sure, ordained pastors convene and preside over pastoral councils. And the councils enjoy only a consultative voice–they cannot make legally binding decisions in the name of the parish. But councils may well possess all the authority which belonged to Paul: the authority of the gospel, the authority which stems from ministry, the authority which accompanies God’s gifts.
Two Types of Leadership
St. Luke’s account of the Jerusalem Council, with its veneer of amicability and its ex post facto sense of the council’s historical importance, preserves a vital truth. The council did reach clarity about the relation between Christian faith and the Mosaic Law. Even Paul would admit that it vindicated his insight into the freedom which Christ won. Of course, the battle was not over. Paul’s account of the council is followed by an account of his rebuke to Cephas, who had second thoughts about eating with “unclean” gentile Christians when he visited Antioch. But Luke’s version is true to the ultimate shape of doctrine. The Council of Jerusalem was the point where the theoretical issue was decided, even if the practice of Jewish Christians did not always accord with it.
Luke’s version also suggests the importance of preserving communion in the Church. Peter’s speech in Acts affirms the insights of Paul, and then James endorses Peter’s view. The whole Jerusalem Church sends emissaries to Antioch to proclaim what the council decided. Luke’s version may not tally with Paul’s rough and tumble account of the way things were. But it conveys the truth that common convictions make a community. Early Christianity united behind what was first a Pauline doctrine. The council was the point at which the issues were joined, clarified, and expressed authoritatively.
We should remember that, although the combative impulse of a Paul can spur others to greater insight, it may rend the community. So two types of pastoral leadership are needed. The first is the prophetic leadership of a Paul. The passion of one councilor will dispel boredom on a council, but will also disquiet it. Creating such disquiet is leadership of the Pauline type. After being disquieted, after realizing the limits of its knowledge and the need for further reflection, a council can begin the work of synthesizing a member’s prophetic insight. This is a second task of pastoral leadership. It is the task of absorbing insight and applying it to the community. It is a preeminently pastoral task.
When investigating pastoral matters, considering them, and formulating practical conclusions, pastoral councils ought to be passionate and committed. Indeed, greater doses of passion and commitment will invigorate our councils. Pastors can help this by asking their councils to consider truly pastoral matters, matters which have consequences for the gospel and the mission of the Church. This may disquiet them. But it may eventually lead to a deeper insight into the convictions which, after all, make us a people, God’s own people.