It is not uncommon for Roman Catholic apologists to point to Acts 15 as to help vindicate the Papacy. For a couple examples, Dr. Robert Sungenis did so here and here. The general claim is that at the Jerusalem Council, Peter led as the supreme authority in order to definitively end a theological controversy. This then set a standard the Christian church would later use to settle other theological controversies (Nicea, Chalcedon, etc). Roman Catholicism has many ecumenical councils they believe are authoritative and binding on all people.
It should be noted that not every Roman Catholic apologist finds the arguments from Acts 15 compelling as it pertains to the Papacy. But enough do to warrant a refutation. Does Acts 15 support the Papacy? I answer in the negative against the Papists.
Acts 15: The Jerusalem Council
It would prudent to first read the text under dispute:
1 But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. 3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. 5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” 6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” 12 And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, 16 “‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, 17 that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.’ 19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. 21 For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”Acts 15:1-21 (ESV)
I) All of the Apostles Speak
The first and most obvious point is that all of the Apostles are heavily involved in this council. Even though Peter does have a powerful monologue, consistently from beginning to end it is not “the Peter show.” Peter does not speak until “after there had been much debate” which implies all the Apostles debated with all of the elders until Peter’s speech. Then, after Peter speaks, the case is still not yet closed. Paul and Barnabas help persuade the elders by telling of their testimonies of Gentile salvations. (It could even be argued that it was Paul and Barnabas who made the assembly fall silent, but a definitive answer to that would be found after consulting the Greek.) Then, after Paul and Barnabas give their testimonies, it is James who also gets a monologue, and even closes the council. There is no indication in this passage that Peter has a unique role among the council, or even offered a unique contribution to it. All of the Apostles debated and spoke. Peter was an equal among them.
II) James Has the Declarative Word
If one were to make a case that anyone has a unique or supreme authority at the council, the stronger case to make is on behalf of James. Not only does he get the final word, but he is the one who has the declarative word. He ends the debate, and it is his judgment that decides what to do next. Notice his own words in verse 19, “Therefore it is my judgment that we should…”. James is the only Apostle speaking as if he has authority.
III) Peter’s Argument, Not His Authority, Silenced the Council
What I find most compelling is how much the argumentation of the Apostles is highlighted in the chapter rather than their authority. The elders of Israel clearly do not recognize a special authority of Peter, or really any of the Apostles. Otherwise, they would never have debated in the first place! That they even challenged the Apostles shows they did not think Peter was the ruler of the world, and that the Apostles did not rely on Peter by pulling rank and resting on his authority shows they did not believe Peter had a unique authority over the council. Clearly, no one in this council threw their weight around; no one rested on mere authority. What did the Apostles do? They reasoned from the Scriptures and from experience.
Why did the council fall silent, was it because they were in the presence of the Pope? No, but because Peter proved from Scripture that circumcision doesn’t save, and because Paul proved from his ministerial testimony that the Spirit was saving Gentiles without circumcision. Peter and Paul won the day with Scripture and with reason, not with authority.
There are two additional points to make that don’t deal directly with the Papacy.
I) Ecumenical Councils Have No Apostles
The idea that Rome continues the Acts 15 conciliar authority through her ecumenical councils is false because of one key issue: there are no more Apostles. Rome cannot claim any church council possesses an equal authority, or even an equal epistemic guide for Christians today since she does not have Apostles. The Apostolic authority is what made the Jerusalem council binding on Christians everywhere. Rome cannot replicate Jerusalem’s Apostles, and therefore, she cannot replicate Jerusalem’s council.
II) Peter Teaches Sola Fide
Another interesting observation is the content of “Pope Peter’s” message. The Jerusalem council is dealing with a key issue of soteriology (salvation). The context begins with the false teaching that, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Peter is dealing with Gentile salvation: can they be saved without works of the Mosaic Law? Must they become Jewish to be saved? How can Gentiles be saved? These were the discussion questions at the Jerusalem council.
And Peter is very clear about what saves the Gentiles: faith. And since Peter emphatically declares faith as saving them, and he offers nothing else, then Peter establishes the Gentiles are saved just like the Jews are: by only faith (A.K.A. Faith Alone). Peter’s exact words are, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (emphasis mine).
Peter knows salvation comes by hearing and believing, and that this alone is consistent with being saved by grace. Works are contrary to grace, faith is not. And So Peter boldly declares that both Jew and Gentile are cleansed by faith and nothing else. To try and add works to that is to add a yoke of burden no one but Christ Jesus can bear.