Apostolic Succession as Seen in the Jerusalem Council

Here is a compelling biblical argument for an infallible Church, and against sola Scriptura.

Saint Matthias, from ‘Christ and the Apostles’, Friedrich Herlin, 1499
Saint Matthias, from ‘Christ and the Apostles’, Friedrich Herlin, 1499 (photo: Register Files)

The standard Catholic apologetics argument from the Bible for apostolic succession is the selection of Matthias to succeed Judas (Acts 1:16-26). That includes taking note that the word for “office” in 1:20 is episkopos: the word for “bishop.” Thus, we have some sort of equation of apostles and bishops, which is necessary, for we believe that bishops are indeed the successors of (but not identical to) the apostles.

This very day, in dialogue with a Protestant on Facebook, I stumbled upon a “new” argument for succession from Scripture that had never occurred to me before in my 26 years of doing Catholic apologetics (I love when that happens!). I put “new” in quotes because I'm sure someone else has thought of this (“nothing new under the sun”), but for me it's new, and I did come up with it on my own, even if others have taught it in the past. Dialogue and its intellectual challenge has a way of bringing about such wonderful discoveries.

The argument stems from how the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:1-32; 16:4) is presented in Holy Scripture. It's been one of my favorite arguments against sola Scriptura (i.e., Scripture as the only infallible authority), and as a rationale for Catholic ecumenical councils, to note the high authority of the Jerusalem council, guided by the Holy Spirit Himself (15:28) to make a proclamation binding upon all the Christian faithful everywhere. We know that, since Scripture reports that it was “delivered” and received at Antioch (15:30-31) and in various cities in Asia Minor (16:4); hence, the analogy to ecumenical councils, which are much more than mere local authoritative proclamations.

I have loved presenting the fact that the Apostle Paul “delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem” (16:4; RSV, as throughout).  This is the very opposite of sola Scriptura modes of thought. The Jerusalem council doesn't even seem (from what we know) to have been primarily concerned with biblical arguments and justifications. But however the decision was arrived at, regarding abstaining “from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity” (15:28), and the non-necessity of circumcision (15:5), it was authoritative and binding. As such, it is a compelling biblical argument for an infallible Church and against sola Scriptura, which precisely denies this.

Now I will be using it as an argument for apostolic succession, too. Here is how it works: the Jerusalem council presents “apostles” and “elders” in conjunction six times:

Acts 15:2 . . .  Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.

Acts 15:4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, . . .

Acts 15:6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.

Acts 15:22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church,  . . .

Acts 15:23. . . “The brethren, both the apostles and the elders, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cili'cia, . . .

Acts 16:4 . . . they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem.

“Elders” here is the Greek presbuteros, which referred to a leader of a local congregation, so that Protestants think of it primarily as a “pastor”, whereas Catholics, Orthodox, and some Anglicans regard it as the equivalent of “priest.” In any event, all agree that it is a lower office in the scheme of things than an apostle: even arguably lower than a bishop (which is mentioned several times in the New Testament).

What is striking, then, is that the two offices in the Jerusalem council are presented as if there is little or no distinction between them, at least in terms of their practical authority. It's not an airtight argument, I concede. We could, for example, say that “bishops and the pope gathered together at the Second Vatican Council.” We know that the pope had a higher authority. It may be that apostles here had greater authority.

But we don't know that with certainty, from Bible passages that mention them. They seem to be presented as having in effect, “one man one vote.” They “consider” the issue “together” (15:6). It's the same for the “decisions which had been reached” (16:4).

Therefore, if such a momentous, binding decision was arrived at by apostles and elders, it sure seems to suggest what Catholics believe: that bishops are successors of the apostles. We already see the two offices working together in Jerusalem and making a joint decision. It's a concrete example of precisely what the Catholic Church claims about apostolic succession and the sublime authority conveyed therein. There are three additional sub-arguments that I submit for consideration:

1) The council, by joint authority of apostles and elders, sent off Judas and Silas as its messengers, even though they “were themselves prophets” (15:32).  Prophets were the highest authorities in the old covenant (with direct messages from God), and here mere “elders” are commissioning them.

2) St. Paul himself is duty-bound to the council's decree (16:4), which was decided in part by mere elders. So this implies apostolic succession (and conciliarism), if elders can participate in such high authority that even apostles must obey it.

3) Paul previously “had no small dissension and debate” with the  circumcision party (15:1-2), but was unable to resolve the conflict by his own profound apostolic authority. Instead, he had to go to the council, where apostles and elders decided the question. All he is reported as doing there is reporting about “signs and wonders” in his ministry (15:12). He's not the leader or even a key figure. This is not what the Protestant “Paulinist” view would have predicted.