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Apostolic Council of Jerusalem

Apostolic Council of Jerusalem
by Timothy Kenney, PhD

Orthodoxy has always attached great importance to the place of councils in the life of the church. It believes that the council is the chief organ whereby God has chosen to guide His people, and it regards the Catholic(universal)Church as essentially a conciliar Church. In the Church there is neither dictatorship, nor individualism, but harmony and unanimity; its members remain free but not isolated, for they are united in love, in faith, and in sacramental communion. In a council, this idea of harmony is and free unanimity can be seen worked out in practice. In a true council no single member arbitrarily imposes his will upon the rest, but each consults with the others, and in this way they all freely achieve a 'common mind'. A council is a living embodiment of the essential nature of the Church.

The Apostolic Council of Jerusalem was the first council in the Church’s history and is described in the Acts of the Apostles. It took place around the year 50 or 51 AD in Jerusalem. The council was attended by the Apostles to decide how far Gentile converts should be subject to the Law of Moses. The Council of Jerusalem was an exceptional gathering of leaders of the entire Church for which there was no parallel until the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea, in 325.

At the Council, after everyone listened quietly as Barnabas and Paul tell about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles, and advice offered by the Apostle Peter (Acts 15:7–11), James, the leader of the Jerusalem Church, gave his decision (later known as the "Apostolic Decree"):

“Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and fornication, and things strangled, and blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath day. (Acts 15:19–21) In a letter sent to the Church of Antioch, it can be seen how the council was confident the they spoke for the Holy Spirit: For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these few requirements: You must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. If you do this, you will do well. Farewell. (Acts 15:28–29).”

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The Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Cross website provides the following timeline of events surrounding the Apostolic Synod of Jerusalem:

30 - 33 AD:

  • Ministry of Christ
  • Death on the Cross
  • Christ's Resurrection after three days on the Cross
  • Ascension, forty days after the Resurrection
  • Pentecost, fifty days after the Resurrection

33 or 34 AD:

  • The First Convention : The Apostles meets to discuss who should take the place of Judas. Mathias was selected. Acts chapter 1.

34 - 56 AD:

  • The Second Convention : The Apostles meet to discuss believers who would sell their possession s and give the moneys to the Apostles for the ministries. (Acts 4:31-37).
  • The Third Convention : The Apostles meet to discuss which deacons should be selected to serve at the table. (Acts 6:2).
  • The Fourth Convention : The Apostles meet after Peter had baptized the heathen Cornelius and his family. (Acts 11:2-3).
  • * The Fifth Convention : This is considered to be the first general council of the Church, around 50 or 51 AD. Acts 15 explains that the Apostles met to discuss the matter as to what extent gentile converts should be subject to the law of Moses (i.e., circumcision,). The apostles and the elders of the Church met and decided after much prayer and debate that these are the necessary things for gentiles : "that [they] abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from the blood of what is strangled and from un-chastity." (Acts 15:29).

56 or 58 AD:

  • The sixth convention met "when all of the elders were present." (Acts 21:18).

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We would be remiss in our discussion to not include the 85 Canons of the Apostles promulgated during this discussion time period. These first canons of the Church focus upon the maintenance of the worshipping community. Specifically, they provide detail as to the way clergy and laity are to conduct themselves and what books of the faith they ought to read. The Canons of the Apostles are confirmed by c.II of the 6th Ecumenical Council and c.I of the 7th Ecumenical Council. They are listed below:

  • Canon I - A Bishop must be ordained by two or three other Bishops.
  • Canon IX - All those faithful who enter and listen to the Scriptures, but do not stay for prayer and Holy Communion must be excommunicated, on the ground that they are causing the Church a breach of order.
  • Canon XXXIX - Let Presbyters and Deacons do nothing without the consent of the Bishop. For he is the one entrusted with the Lord's people, and it is from him that an accounting will be demanded with respect to their souls.
  • Canon XLIX - If any Bishop or Presbyter baptizes anyone not into the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit in accordance with the Lord's ordinance, but into three beginning-less beings or into three sons or into three comforters, let him be deposed.
  • Canon L - If any Bishop or Presbyter does not perform three immersions (literally, "three baptisms") in making one baptism (literally, "one initiation"), but only a single immersion (literally, "a single baptism"), that given into the death of the Lord, let him be deposed from office. For the Lord did not say, "Baptize me into my death," but, "Go ye and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28:19).

These preceding events now provide us the context with which to now discuss the First Ecumenical Council, called into formation by the Emperor St. Constantine in the year 325 AD, the Council of Nicea. Let us now turn, then, to our next article.

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