Councils are formal assemblies of cardinals, bishops, theologians, and heads of religious orders, as well as other Church representatives that discuss matters of doctrine, discipline, or other religious matters. The Council of Jerusalem was convened because there was much dissension and disagreement among the early Christians concerning the conditions on which Gentiles should be received as members of the Church. Jewish Christians insisted that the Gentiles obey all of Jewish Law. This faction was led by Saint James. Saint Paul and Barnabas took a stand against Saint James and the opposing side. Saint Peter, the first pope and arbiter, moderated the dispute in Jerusalem. After much discussion a declaration was drawn up, which was binding in the Church everywhere. Paul’s position was accepted: Jewish regulations were no longer to be enforced.
The Council of Jerusalem is important for many reasons. First, it shows the development and organization of the Church. Christ’s crucifixion, when blood and water flowed from his side, is considered the birthday of the Church. The Church later received its mission when the Holy Spirit descended upon it in tongues of fire. The pope and bishops are successors of Peter and the apostles. This first Council expressed how the Church would govern itself. In a definitive way, Peter made the binding decision after reflections from both sides and from the different apostles and disciples.
The Council’s decision was the definitive mark in which the Church broke from its Jewish origins and began its mission to the Gentiles. Without the many manmade legal restrictions of the Jewish faith, the Church could expand and begin appealing to a broad band of people. In this way it becomes universal instead of provincial, with the Church as a vehicle of salvation for all people, at all times, until the end of the world. The Church becomes the primordial sacrament of Christ on earth.
With the foundations laid at the First Councils, other councils in different generations have dealt with problems, made clarifications, and modified practices in a similar way. There have been twenty-one councils since Jerusalem. The last great council of the Church was in 1962, the Second Vatican Council.