As believers multiplied in the first Christian generation, sharp controversy soon followed. The new Church had expanded beyond the borders of the Jewish community, taking in Gentiles (non-Jews) as well. Some of the Jewish Christians who were Pharisees insisted that their new Gentile brothers in Christ could not be saved unless they submitted themselves first to circumcision (see Acts 15:1, 5).
Not surprisingly, “no little dissension and debate” resulted. Not only was this a costly demand, but leaders such as Sts. Paul and Barnabas were convinced that the theological reasoning behind it was flawed and even dangerous. St. Paul thundered that “in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything” (Gal 5:6). Christians, even Jewish Christians, he insisted, were no longer bound by the law of Moses (see Gal 3:23-27). But his opponents appealed to the ancient tradition of their people, in which God had required circumcision of Abraham and his descendants as a sign of their covenant with him (see Gn 17:1-14).
So how did the Church settle this doctrinal dispute? Did each Christian study the Scriptures individually and then come up with his own conclusion? Was each believer his own final interpreter and judge in the matter?
No. That would have led to the total fragmentation of the community. Instead, “the apostles and the presbyters [priests] met together to see about this matter” (Acts 15:6). Debate ensued, then St. Peter stood to sum up the case for no longer observing the law of Moses. St. Paul and Barnabas added their own testimony to his (see Acts 15:7-12).
Finally, the apostles James, bishop of Jerusalem (where the council was held), issued a concurring judgment. With that “the apostles and presbyters, in agreement with the whole church, decided to choose representatives” (Acts 15:22) to deliver their judgment to the believers in Antioch, where the debate was raging (see Acts 15:13-29). This judgment they referred to, not as a mere recommendation, but rather as a divinely authoritative “decision of the holy Spirit and of us” (Acts 15:28).
Why, then, do popes and councils resolve doctrinal and disciplinary disputes, rather than allow individual Catholics to decide these matters for themselves? Because this is the biblical way, the way St. Peter and the other apostles handled disagreements. Christ himself gave them and their successors - popes and bishops - the authority to speak for him: “Whoever listens to you,” he told them, “listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me” (Lk 10:16).
RELATED SCRIPTURE — Texts cited: Gn 17:1-14; Lk 10:16; Acts 15:1, 5-29; Gal 3:23-27; 5:6. General: Mt 18:15-18; Jn 14:26; 16:13; Gal 2:1-10; 1 Tm 3:15. CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH — 77; 85-88; 100; 888-896; 935-939; 2032-2040; 2049-2051.