The Apostolic Council of Jerusalem: The Decisive Paradigm for the Church's Synodical Mode of Existence: A Timely Reminder for Today

The Apostolic Council of Jerusalem:

The Decisive Paradigm for the Church's Synodical Mode of Existence: A Timely Reminder for Today


by Philip Kariatlis


Introductory Remarks

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the bishop of each local Church[1] is the authoritative organ charged with the responsibility to maintain the Church's identity and continuity with that of the apostolic Church. Accordingly, the bishop is not only the authorized teacher but also the guarantor and witness to the apostolic faith held by all within the worshipping community. Indeed, by virtue of that special gift of the Holy Spirit – specifically known as the charisma veritatis [the gift of truth][2] – bestowed upon him at his ordination, the bishop acts as the discernible link to the authentic faith of the apostles thereby safeguarding the continuity of the entire Church's life with that of the apostolic Ekklesia.

Now, if throughout the history of the Church, communion with the bishop has been considered to be that concrete reality which manifests the intimate koinonia of each local Church today with that of the apostolic one – since the bishop is the direct connection between the apostles and the local Church over which he presides – then the communion across all the different local Churches in a particular point in time has been preserved by all bishops coming together to meet in synod or council. Before examining the biblical evidence for such a synodical mode of existence in the New Testament Church – especially as it is most clearly seen in the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem – a few remarks on synodality in general are fitting.

The Synodical Structure of the Church – The Means Par Excellence for Upholding the Koinonia of All Local Churches

Historically, synodality in the Church concretely emerged as an extension of the koinonia within the local worshipping gathering so that there could be a means for eucharistic hospitality between faithful of different local Churches. In this way, communion across these different ecclesial gatherings could be safeguarded since faithful members of one local Church travelling to another in a different city could indeed partake of Holy Communion whilst on their journeys away from home. Together with this, a further task for the synodical gathering of bishops, which emerged very quickly in the early Church, was their coming together to reach and express a 'common mind' in matters of faith. Indeed, the decisions of such conciliar gatherings were considered to have been taken under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Both these functions not only manifested the communal dimension of all bishops' authority but also the profound koinonia between the local Churches. Expressed simply, it was the synodical structure, which gave each local Church – genuinely apostolic and 'catholic' [namely integral] in itself, yet not self-sufficient – a visible means, by which it could be truly united with all other local Churches throughout the world. Accordingly, in the exercise of what St Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258AD) called the 'harmonious multiplicity [concors numerositas]' of the college of bishops united together, the koinonia of all the faithful within the different local Churches was also expressed, since the bishops did not act in isolation but met in synod precisely to bear witness to and voice the faith of their respective communities.

Now, it also has to be said that insofar as the Church of God lived fully and integrally in each local eucharistic gathering – since it was the one Eucharist presided over by the one bishop in communion with the faithful that safeguarded the catholicity, namely the integrity of each local Church – this communion of Churches, expressed in the synodical gathering of bishops, did not stand above or have authority over the local Church. Nor was each local Church to be thought as merely constituting a part of one world-wide Church governed by one universal head. However, it has to be remembered that the catholicity of a local Church could not be conceived apart from its communion with other local Churches. For this reason, bishops coming together in council expressed not only their 'mystical identity' but also their equality and "the coincidence of the local Churches with each other in the same place, i.e. 'in the gnome of Jesus Christ'."[3] It follows, therefore, that the significance of the synodical structure of the ekklesia lay in its ability – as a result of the Holy Spirit's presence in it as we shall see – to guarantee an identity with the phronema [mind-set] of the apostolic Church, which therefore expressed the 'mind of Christ'.

Beyond its significance for visibly expressing the harmonious communion of the Ekklesia, synodality was indeed a 'sign' of the communal being of God, thus serving, as the theological basis for the early Church's conciliar or synodical structures. According to Metropolitan Maximus (Aghiorgoussis) of Pittsburgh: 

The Holy Trinity is a 'council', a unity of three divine persons who are in communion with each other. Thus conciliarity is inherent in the Church, since the Church is also a council, an image and reflection of the 'council' of the Holy Trinity.[4]

For this reason, ecclesial synodality remains a hallmark of Orthodox ecclesiology since it sees in this structure the most authoritative expression of God's presence and koinonia with his Church. Affirming the indispensability of the synodical reality of the ekklesia, Archbishop Stylianos (Harkianakis) of Australia wrote quite emphatically: "if at any time the Church were to reject from its life even for a moment the idea of the synodical system, it would cease automatically to be a Church."[5] It is precisely for this reason that one of the most significant issues that must seriously be considered in contemporary Orthodox ecclesiology is to what extent the synodical structure is properly functioning in the Church today. Consequently, our attention is turned towards identifying the precedent for ecclesial synodality in the New Testament to see what can be learnt, and if things should be carried out differently from what they actually are today in the current Church.

Apostolic Council in Jerusalem

            The synodical mode of the Church's existence is already evident in the New Testament, specifically in the book of Acts which depicts the coming together of the apostles, elders and indeed all the faithful members of the Church to discuss a certain issue that had arisen in the New Testament Church. The Apostolic Council of Jerusalem (ca 49 AD) as it came to be known, depicted in Acts 15,[6] constituted a highly significant paradigm for all subsequent councils in that it defined the essential criteria for reaching common decisions within the different local Churches.[7] Now, the Council came together when "no small dissension and debate" (Acts 15:2) arose so that the will of God could be discerned to the gathering as a whole and not to any one isolated apostle of the Church. The Jerusalem Council reveals that in the face of the growing dispute of how to receive converts into the Christian communities, the Church sought to resolve this matter by meeting together in council. On this point, Fr Sergius Bulgakov succinctly remarked: "notwithstanding all the plenitude of their power… the apostles decided all essential questions in union with the people."[8]

Now, the central issue for consideration, in brief, was the question of whether or not the practice of circumcision was a necessary public expression and presupposition for fellowship within the Christian Church. In the book of Acts we read the following:

They determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question… And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the Church and the apostles and the elders; and they reported all things that God had done with them. (Acts 15:2 and 4).

In examining the Lukan account of the Council, we see firstly that the entire Church participated in the decision making process of the Church. Of significance is the fact that, in wanting to deal with this question, it was the entire Church which came together to receive Paul and Barnabas – who had come from Antioch – and to hear their report (cf. Acts 15:4). It was this reality, which maintained the relational or communal dynamic within the New Testament faith community. Before the apostles and elders met to consider the matter (cf. Acts 15:6), the entire Church had come together to hear Paul and Barnabas' report of their work in Galatia (cf. Acts 15:4). In this way, the importance of bringing together the diversity of charisms of all baptised faithful in order to decide upon an issue was seen as a fundamental prerequisite in the exercise of synodality within the Church.

Continuing our reading of the Lukan account of the Apostolic Council, we discover that this plenary gathering was followed by extensive discussion specifically by the apostles and elders (cf. Acts 15:6) whose role it was to discern the mind of the whole body of the Church so that all could be "of one accord [ὁμοθυμαδόν]" (Acts 15:25). Applied to our current situation, we can conclude unequivocally that all major issues affecting the Church as a whole today must be dealt with synodically in which all the bishops of all local Churches are present giving witness to the respective faith of the communities. That is, from the above it becomes clear that the guiding principle by which issues must be dealt with within the Church today is by all bishops meeting together in council with an equal voice and vote, together with the possible participation of presbyters and knowledgeable lay persons to contribute, yet without a vote of course. This would be in line with what took place at the Council of Jerusalem where the entire Church came together to contribute towards a solution to the issue of circumcision that had arisen for those wishing to become Christians, followed by an extensive discussion by the apostles and elders. It is this relational reality that can uphold the Church's communal mode of existence in its exercise of authority today.

Furthermore, we learn that the apostolic meeting was drawn to a close with the promulgation of a decision – to send a delegation and letter to Antioch. Commenting further on this horizontal dimension of koinonia in relation to the Church's authority, it must be noted that a favourable reception of the decision taken at Jerusalem was also necessary in Antioch. Namely, it was not enough for the mother Church in Jerusalem to make decisions for other local Churches without the involvement of the latter. Rather, all had to "rejoice at the consolation", especially those towards whom the decisions were addressed. For this reason, Luke's account of the Jerusalem Council tells us that emissaries were sent back to Antioch "in peace" so that the decision could be deemed as truly having been reached.[9] Clearly, it was inconceivable for the mother Church in Jerusalem to take decisions for another local Church without the consent of that Church since this would destroy the communal relations of the two Churches. And so, in order to uphold the genuine communal relations between the two Churches, it was decided to send certain delegates along with a letter to the Church of Antioch in order to convey the decisions of the Council, and in this way to educe that Church's concordance. Consequently in all this, the communal being of the Churches was safeguarded and maintained.

Most importantly, the koinonia maintained between the Churches of Jerusalem and Antioch did not come about simply as the result of a consensus reached between the leaders of those Churches – or indeed the assent of the two Churches – but more importantly was the result of the Spirit's intervention and presence. Accordingly, this highlighted the extent to which the Spirit was actively involved in the pronouncement of conciliar decisions acting as the ultimate 'author-ity' of these decisions, and thereby preserving the Church's true fellowship with the apostolic witness.[10] The phrase uttered by James, "and with this [decision] the words of the prophets agree" (Acts 15:15) – rather than what one might have expected, namely, "this decision agrees with the prophets" – would lack meaning, and even betray an impious audacity on the part of James in that it would imply that he was setting himself above the word of God, if it were not for the Spirit's action in the pronouncement of the Church's decrees. And so, this seemingly 'peculiar' phrase could only be explained by the reality of God's continued presence in the Church – by the Holy Spirit – who would continue to bestow the gift of discernment and new insight for understanding the Scriptures.[11] Indeed, this phrase in Acts 15:15 signified that the Gentile mission was not only a divine gift initiated by God at the time of the Council, but was one which God had foretold "from of old" (Acts 15:15) and now had been brought to pass.[12] From this it becomes clear that the Spirit's abiding presence in the Church guiding it to all truth is seen when the Church came together in council. It is for this reason that the synodical mode of the Church's existence is of tremendous significance for the way the Church governs itself.

Concluding Remarks

In all this, the all-important point that must be remembered is that it was to the gathering as a whole that the truth of God's teaching was given. And it is precisely for this reason that the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem has constituted the decisive paradigm for the government of the Church throughout history – this is seen in the emergence of Episcopal synods in the first centuries of the Church's existence after Christ – and must therefore continue to guide the Church today. Indeed, it was this development of the synodical structures within the life of the Church that came to highlight not only the bishop's koinonia with the faithful of his local community, but also the koinonia and interdependence of different local Churches across a larger geographical region. On a local level, it was the bishop who preserved the unity of the local Church since his ministry came to be identified with that of headship, yet one intimately connected with all the faithful within the Church and never over of apart from them. For this reason, the Clergy-Laity Congresses held every four years in the Church here in Australia show how all the faithful – the ordained and the laity – must organically be united together in upholding the apostolic truths of faith. And, following what we saw at the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem, it is the Episcopal synods today, in which all bishops of the respective dioceses/eparchies of a particular Patriarchate necessarily participate, that must become once again the decisive means for expressing the identity of faith and the unanimous 'oneness' of the 'many'.


[1] If one takes Australia as an example, then the local Church, for those Orthodox faithful of Greek descent but not exclusively so, is the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, with His Eminence Archbishop Stylianos of Australia as its presiding bishop. 

[2] Cf. St Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202AD) in his work, Adv. Haer. 4, 26, 2.

[3] (Metropolitan) John Zizioulas, Eucharist Bishop Church, trans. Elizabeth Theokritoff (Brookline Massachusetts: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2001), 154.

[4] (Metropolitan) Maximos Aghiorgoussis, 'Theological and Historical Aspects of Conciliarity: Some Propositions for Discussion', The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 24.1(1979): 5.

[5] (Archbishop) Stylianos Harkianakis, Infallibility of the Church, trans. Philip Kariatlis (Sydney: St Andrew's Press, 2008),  129. In his 2008 keynote address at the 10th Clergy-Laity Congress of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, His Eminence wrote: "if the institution of the synod is not respected with fear of God, both in terms of its structure (precisely as established by the teachings of the apostles and fathers with specific sacred canons during the first common Christian millennium) then the whole teaching concerning the church becomes falsified in its fundamental principles, in which case we no longer have pure Orthodox ecclesiology, nor of course a Christian more of living." Address published in To Vema Tis Ekklesias Feb(2008): 4.

[6] The Jerusalem Council is also referred to in Gal 2:1-4. Indeed, the factual divergences in these two narratives have led biblical scholars to question the reliability of the version as related by Luke in Acts. As we shall see, however, the fundamental convergence – i.e., that of God's desire for the incorporation of Gentiles in the Church – shows a Church willed by God for the entire world, where diversity and koinonia would reign, as opposed to blind uniformity.

[7] Cf. Jaroslav Pelikan, Acts (London: SCM Press, 2006), 175. With regards to the importance of the Council itself, if Breck's analysis of the literary constructions of the New Testament writings is correct, then according to his chiastic principle, which he identified operating throughout the New Testament corpus, the climax of the narrative occurs in the middle of a text – in the case of the book of Acts, this would be the narration of the Jerusalem Council. Such a conjecture is not without substance especially if one takes into consideration the fact that before this, Acts depicted the movement of all the apostles, particularly their mission towards the Jews, whilst after this, Luke's attention turned invariably to Paul's missionary journeys to the Gentiles. Cf. John Breck, The Shape of Biblical Language: Chiasmus in the Scriptures and Beyond (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1994).

[8] Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1988), 46-47.

[9] Cf. L. Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, 279.

[10] Just as God broke the silence by sending his Word into the world, so too, would he now send the Spirit to continue to illumine the Church guiding it to all truth.

[11] Cf. the notes on Acts 15:15 found in The Orthodox Study Bible (Nashville, Tennesse: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997), 306: "Agree here translates sumphoneo, the Greek word from which we get 'symphony.' In essence James is saying, 'This is in symphony with what God said through the prophets. Therefore it is the work of God.'"

[12] Cf F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 294.