I realize that a number of hierarchical models of church structure find their alleged home in Acts 15, but I personally believe that congregationalism comes to the fore when the text is carefully examined. In short, Acts 15 gives an example of two truths for congregationalism: leaders lead, and congregations decide. What follows below is more about the latter than the former.1
Both churches involved—Antioch and Jerusalem—example congregationalism in how they relate to a conflict at hand, namely, whether or not Gentile Christians were supposed to obey the Law of Moses.
- Paul, Barnabas, and others “were appointed” by their church in Antioch “to go up to Jerusalem” to settle the matter (Acts 15:2). If the identity of the party doing the appointing is not clear in Acts 15:2, it is made clear in Acts 15:3—these men were “sent on their way by the church,” that is, the church in Antioch.
- Upon resolving the matter in Jerusalem, being something for the church as a whole (since, after all, it sent representatives to inquire on the matter), Paul, Barnabas, and the representatives from Jerusalem “gathered the congregation together” clarify for them the doctrine of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:30; cf. 15:32).
- Upon the arrival of the representatives from Antioch, Jerusalem considered the matter as a church. Paul, Barnabas, and the others “were welcomed by the church,” along with its leaders, “the apostles and the elders” (Acts 15:4). After hearing a report of God’s work among the Gentiles (Acts 15:4), the church likewise was present to help resolve the conflict at hand—“all the assembly” was present (Acts 15:12).
- The leaders led, and James was at the front in giving his judgment on the matter (Acts 15:13–21). At the same time, what “seemed good” to him in resolving the matter was also good to “the apostles and the elders” and “the whole church” (Acts 15:22). They had altogether “come to one accord” as to a resolution (Acts 15:25).
- Demonstrated negatively, “some persons” teaching false doctrine and creating the conflict at hand went “out from us” (i.e., the Jerusalem church) and did so with “no instructions” from the leadership or the church (Acts 15:24; cf. 15:1). “Instructions” were apparently necessary for representing the church. The false teachers were consequently rebuked by the Jerusalem church in that its official letter was contrary to their teaching.
- Positively put, Judas and Silas were sent by the church with instructions and an official letter. The church and its leaders were “the brothers… who had sent them,” that is, Judas and Silas (Acts 15:34). Having completed their mission in Antioch, they returned to report on the matter to their sending church in Jerusalem.
In all the above, the Jerusalem Council was mostly a matter between two churches—Antioch and Jerusalem. At the same time, it involved Christians Jews and Gentiles in general, so other churches received the letter as well (cf. Acts 15:23, “Syria and Cilicia”). Representatives were sent by one church to inquire of another, and that church in turn sent its representatives back to the first church to give a clarification. After the hard work of carefully navigating the thorny issues involved, it all ended with “encouragement” and parting “in peace” (Acts 15:31, 33). May God grant to us the same as churches navigate through conflicts today.
- All quotations below are from the ESV.