Biblical Studies

James: Brother of Jesus, Leader of the Church

Who are the major players in Acts? Peter takes up the first 12 chapters, and, including chapter 9, Saul/Paul fills in the rest of the chapters from Acts 13 to the end. Who led the church, the Jesus movement, this new people in Christ? In his commentary on James, William Varner suggests that James, the brother of Jesus, didn’t play as small of a role in the church as we often think he did.

Varner, backed with evidence from Martin Hengel and Richard Bauckham, claims,

A careful reading of Luke’s account in Acts and Paul’s comments in Galatians fully supports the idea that James was not merely a significant leader in the early church and not just the leader of the Jerusalem church, but that he was the leader of the church. The implications of this fact are significant not only for the Roman Catholic attitude toward Peter, but also for the Protestant evangelical attitude toward Paul. (8)

James the Brother of Jesus

As the argument goes, after Pentecost James quickly rose to the position of the leader of the both the Jerusalem church and of the entire Jesus movement.

In 1 Cor 15.7, the Apostle Paul tell us that James, one of Jesus’ family members who would have thought Jesus was “beside himself” (a.k.a., crazy, Mk 3.21), received a special revelation from his resurrected brother. After appearing to Peter, the Twelve, and 500 brothers at one time, Jesus then “appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” This would have been extremely startling to the once skeptical brother. Yet he does believe. We see him waiting for the baptism of the Holy Spirit in Acts 1.14, “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.”

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (Gal 1.18-19). “Paul mentions that during his first visit to Jerusalem after his conversion he saw only two of the “apostles”: Peter and James . . . From his statement about James in 1 Corinthians 15:7 and Galatians 1:19, it appears that Paul at least classed James along with the apostles” (8-9).

The Big Three

Varner points out the significance of James’ role in some of the early church’s big decisions.

In Galatians 2.1-10, Paul and Barnabbas visit James, Cephas, and John who, as Schreiner explains, “recognized the validity of the gospel proclaimed by Paul” (130).

And when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised (Gal 2.9).

Varner says, “The order of these “pillars” should not be overlooked. James was first in order and his primacy is illustrated in Peter’s attitude toward James from at least this point onward” (9). The pillars remind Paul to “remember the poor”, and “Paul did what James requested that he do” (9).

Again, in Acts 12.17, Peter gives place to the authority of James, But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he [Peter] described to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, ‘Tell these things to James and to the brothers.’”

Acts 15

When it comes to the Apostolic Council in Acts 15, Varner says that it was this situation, dealing with whether the Church should require the circumcision of Gentiles, that “make[s] it obvious that James had by then risen to be the leader of the church . . . The text is clear that James rendered the final decision as the moderator of the church council, to which the apostles and brethren agreed as also being the guidance of the Holy Spirit!” (9).

Peter explains his experience in Joppa, one which caused him to think, “If then God gave the same gift [the promised Holy Spirit] to them [Gentiles] as he gave to us [Jews] when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11.17).

Varner says, “When James presents his opinion . . . he does not base his argument on experience but on how the prophets had affirmed this future Gentile conversion with citations from Amos 9:11–12 and Isaiah 45:21”.

Some Bible versions translate Acts 15.19 as having James say, “Therefore I conclude” or “Therefore in my judgment.” Yet Varner says that there is no reason to blunt the force of James’ words. Any Greek reader can read that James said, “Therefore, I decide.” Nobody voted on James’ “opinion.” James made the final decision, it stood firmly on the Scriptures, and everyone agreed with it (10). Although James is the leader, he is “serving as the ‘first among equals’” (10).

Obedience to James

Varner points out two more times where Paul obeyed James. First, after adding that Gentiles should not perform certain practices (Acts 15.29), Luke tells us that Paul “delivered to [the Gentiles] for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem.

Secondly, Paul does what James asks him to do which was to pay the expenses of four Jewish men who were under a vow. This may have been some of the offering from the Collection (which had the purpose of showing the Gentiles’ appreciation for the Jerusalem mother church by helping them with funds). As we can see, “[f]or at least the third time, Paul did what James requested that he do” (11).

The Outsiders

Is James mentioned by anyone outside of the New Testament? Varner shows that the Jewish historian Josephus “vividly described” the “martyr death of James” which occurred in 62 AD (11). And “apart from a statement about ‘the tribe of Christians’ in the controversial Testimonium Flavianum (‘Flavian Testimony’) about Jesus, the only early Christian that Josephus mentions is James!” (11-12)

Varner mentions that statements about James’ priority were made by Clement of Alexandria, Hesychius of Jerusalem, and even The Gospel of Thomas (which, though not an authentic Gospel, may give credence to sayings about James’ role).


To quote Varner again, “If James was the leader of the early church, there are some serious implications of this fact both for Roman Catholicism and also for Protestant evangelicalism. In other words, Peter was not the original primate of the church. He was in his place under James, and he even yielded to his leadership” (13).

As much as I would prefer to quote the entire two paragraphs, I’ll refrain from doing so. But I also can’t forget about the other side, Protestant evangelicalism. James gave he church one canonical letter. Paul, thirteen. Varner doesn’t seek to tear Paul down, but “to portray Paul and his role as it is actually indicated in the NT and also by his own words. We should not miss the fact that Paul himself told us something about his role when he called himself “the least of the apostles” (1 Cor 15:9)” (13).

Paul is particularly important to the church as he was the “apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom 11.13). But he was not the leader of the church, nor did he ever claim to be. From this evidence, it would seem that it was James, not Paul or Peter, who was the leader of the Church. My one question would be how this view lines up with what Jesus said to Peter in Matt 16.18-19, And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

Peter would not be “the Pope,” but there is something going on here, a wordplay. One that will have to wait until later to venture into.

So, if nothing else, maybe this can give us a better perspective of James, the brother of Jesus, the leader of the church. Perhaps we’ll think deeper the next time we want to put too much emphasis on another apostle who was not deemed the “leader” of the Church in the first century AD, and when we don’t put enough emphasis on James who was the leader. 


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