“…you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.”
English speaking people often don’t realize that names in other languages are words, they have meanings. Peter means rock so, in essence, Jesus was saying, “You are a rock, and upon this rock I will create my church.” Peter’s statement ahead of this was that Jesus was “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.“ This was a powerful statement, and Christianity is based on that statement. If Jesus were anyone but the Son of God then the entire religion would fall apart. Jesus raised others from the dead, but no one raised Jesus, he did it under his own power and authority as the Son of God. His forgiveness of our sins would not have been possible without the authority God granted him as His Son. This didn’t make Peter the secular head of the church, but it did give him the authority to speak for/as Christ within the church. Peter never sought to be the sole leader of the church, he was busy taking over for Jesus by preaching his message, the secular leadership was given to others.
From what we see in Acts the church in Jerusalem was run by a council composed of Jewish members, led by James the “brother1” of Jesus. The council, when it gathered, was composed of the Apostles and seven elders of the church, constructed similar to the leadership of the Jewish. This setup was required because of a dispute between Jewish and Greek members over the care of widows.
Acts 6:1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty.
The church of the time is a commune, where everyone gives their belongings to the church, from that food and other goods are purchased and distributed. No tithing, a complete shedding of worldly goods for the benefit of all.
Acts 4:32 Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.
The next major issue before the church was the circumcision of Gentile converts, this is where James’ position in the church becomes clear. Peter, Barnabas, and Paul presented their case, the council debated the point to no end when James makes his declaration: Acts 15:19 “my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God” After this the council drafts a letter and sends it onto the rest of the church.
Here we notice two things: first, James is the undisputed secular head of the church at this time; second, the entire church is run by a council in Jerusalem, not by a single person in Rome. James settles disputes when necessary, but otherwise is just part of the council. Similar to the CEO in a corporate Board of Directors. Neither Peter nor Paul is seen as the head of the church, not by the council nor by Peter and Paul themselves. Peter and Paul see themselves as missionaries to the Gentiles who, at this time, look to Jerusalem as the center of The Way: Acts 15:7 Peter rose and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.
1. James, the brother of Jesus is of great controversy in the church. The Greek word used as brother is ἀδελφός, which is not a word of definitive relationship but can be used to denote any male relation at a similar level of parentage, especially if they are all living in the same home (multi-generational homes were not unusual in Israel):
Gn 4,2.8 (bis).9 (bis) brother Gn 4,2; brother (metaph.) Jb 30,29; kinsman Gn 13,8; other, fellow man Lv 19,17; (metaph.) Jb 41,9; neighbour, friend Gn 43,33; son in law (as term of affection in family relations) Tob 10,13; ἀδελφοί brothers (term of address) Jdt 7,30