A precedent for bringing difficult cases to a wider circle of elders is found in the Lord’s provision for Israel’s peace and justice after the exodus from Egypt. When the Israelites’ interpersonal disputes overwhelmed Moses’ stamina to arbitrate, seventy elders were endowed with God’s Spirit to function as an intermediate court of appeal between tribal elders and Moses (Num. 11:16–30). When Israel entered the Promised Land, city elders, priests, and judges were to oversee the peace and purity of the covenant community (Deut. 19:15–21; 21:1–9, 18–21; 31:9–13).
Presbyterians sometimes say, partially tongue-in-cheek, that Acts 15 records the church’s first “general assembly.” In some ways, however, this council was unlike later church councils and later denominations’ annual (or regular) synods and assemblies. First, this council did not have representative elders from the churches that had been established by that point—in Judea, Samaria, Galilee, Syria, Cyprus, Pisidia, Ethiopia, and elsewhere. Instead, the council was composed exclusively of elders of the Jerusalem church. This reflected the Jerusalem church’s maturity and its role in planting the congregations of Antioch (and, through Antioch, elsewhere), as well as the presence of the Apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1, 14; 11:1).
Second, unlike our regular/annual denominational assemblies but like ecumenical councils in the following centuries (Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon, etc.), the Jerusalem Council was convened to address a specific, major theological issue.
Third, unlike those patristic councils and their successors in Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant communions, the Jerusalem Council included Apostles, Jesus’ hand-chosen, Spirit-inspired witnesses, whose testimony laid the foundation of the church’s faith (Acts 1:1–8; Eph. 2:20–22; 3:4–5). The Westminster Confession of Faith implies this feature of the Jerusalem Council when it states: “All synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice; but to be used as a help in both” (31.3). Decisions of later councils, whether international or regional, are useful but not infallible guides.