The ancient church, like the modern church, was not without its tensions and differences. Those tensions existed even among the apostles, and how they were addressed gives us direction and guidance.
But of these who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man’s person:) for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me: But contrariwise, when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter; (For he that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles:) And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision. Only they would that we should remember the poor; the same which I also was forward to do
St. Paul has no difficulty with apostolic authority at all. He claims it for himself, and he is particularly zealous to honor the work of another man’s foundation. At the same time, he does have difficulty with those who render honor to those in true authority, but who do so in a wrong way. Paul is here describing some tense negotiations at the time of the famine relief visit. We have already seen that false brothers had insinuated themselves into the councils of the leaders at Jerusalem, just described, and certain “men from James” had caused an earlier fracas at Antioch (Gal. 2:12).This famine relief “summit” did not solve this problem either, for later on, the controversy at Antioch was created by certain “men from Judea” (Acts 15:1). The council itself shows that they exceeded their authority; the controversy itself shows that the circle of James was infiltrated by false brothers.
So keep in mind what Paul said in the first chapter—”if we or an angel from heaven . . .” This is the context in which he slights the human authority of the leaders at Jerusalem. This is the meaning of those “who seemed to be somewhat,” and who “seemed to be pillars.” The gospel outranks each apostle individually, and all of them collectively. This was important to emphasize for there were many at Jerusalem who looked to James for all the wrong reasons.
Paul testifies that the result of this secret summit was successful. These leaders at Jerusalem saw and acknowledged that Paul was entrusted with the gospel to the Gentiles, in just the same way that gospel to the Jews had been entrusted to Peter (v. 7). Not only so, but God had worked powerfully in each of them in their respective realms of ministry (v. 8). When all these men—James, Cephas, and John—saw the grace that had been bestowed upon Paul, they extended to him the right hand of fellowship. They were not working at odds with one another, although it must still be emphasized that some of their followers were working at odds with one another.
I am not accustomed to quote John Dewey favorably, but he once said something well worth noting. He said, “Lord, deliver me from my disciples!” The followers of Paul have often not represented him well, and have veered off toward antinomianism. The followers of James have often not represented him well either, and have veered off toward legalism. What does this do to Romans and James? Nothing—they are both the inspired Word of God. Paul and James shook hands with one another, while some of their ostensible followers cannot do so.
One result of the summit was that the Jerusalem leaders asked that Paul would continue to remember the poor. But of course, this was during the famine relief visit of Acts 11, so that was exactly why Paul had come with Barnabas to Jerusalem in the first place. This reveals something to us about the nature of conflict or tension. Frequently, we find just this problem—what someone is doing, or even excelling at doing, is ignored and overlooked, and they are solemnly urged to correct the deficiency, or to guard against it. Fish are urged to remain wet, and birds are exhorted to remember the importance of flying. Paul is apparently just a tad exasperated.
The Bible requires us to honor and obey those who are in spiritual leadership over us (Heb. 13:7, 17). At the same time, it requires us also to remember that they partake of our common sinful maladies, and they are quite capable of disgracing their ministries and themselves. But this does not require an attitude of suspicion, but rather of humble prayer, the right kind of obedience, the right kind of honor—not like that which was rendered to James by the false brothers.