The Bible presents a solid front on the example of plurality of elders (pastors) in New Testament churches. Presented with such information, proponents of the single pastor or senior pastor model of church polity are on the prowl for counter-examples. One that is often provided is that James was the senior elder/pastor/bishop of the church at Jerusalem.
Brief excerpts of the position
“James, the 'brother of the Lord,' though not one of the Twelve, was a chief man now in the Jerusalem church, and is often spoken of by historians as its pastor, or bishop.” -- The People's New Testament: the Common and Revised Versions with References and Colored Maps, with Explanatory Notes, Barton Warren Johnson, St. Louis, MO: Christian Board of Publication, 1891, p. 482
In his Commentary on Acts 15:1-35, J. W. Carter writes, "The scriptural description of the church from the time that Peter was imprisoned by Herod seems to lean towards James as the pastor. This segment of scripture would do the same."
"...James eventually became the pre-eminent leader of the Jerusalem church. To borrow a contemporary term, he was its senior pastor." -- James - The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, John F MacArthur, Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1998, p. 11
"The brother of Jesus, who became the leader of the Jerusalem church (see on Gal. 1:19; 2:9, 12, Acts 15:3; 21:18) and was later considered its first bishop." The People's New Testament Commentary, M. Eugene Boring, Fred B. Craddock, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, p. 408
This James is the James who is the half-brother of Jesus. He is mentioned ny name in Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3; Acts 12:17; Acts 15:13; Acts 21:18; Galatians 1:19; Galatians 2:9, 12; James 1:1 and Jude 1:1. The scriptures cited by Boring and Craddock are those most frequently cited in defense of James as THE pastor of the church at Jerusalem, as well as Acts 12:17.
A. Acts 12:17 Peter tells those who opened to tell James and the brethren of his release. That he specifically adjures them to tell James indicates James held a prominent position in the church, i.e. he was the pastor.
This incident does suggest that James was a significant individual in the church, but it no more proves that James is the pastor of the Jerusalem church than the angel telling the women to tell Peter and the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee proves Peter is the pastor of the church at Jerusalem. It is reading too much into the text without considering all the options.
B. Acts 15:19ff. James makes the final decision at the "Jerusalem council".
It is true that James offered the final counsel in Acts 15 before the church made its decision and sent out their letter. Notice three things about this council. 1. The issue was brought to “the apostles and elders” at Jerusalem (Acts 15:3) and therefore not to James any more than the rest. 2. The resulting letter was written on behalf of “the apostles and elders and brethren” and not from James any more than the rest (Acts 15:23). 3. James' restatement of this portrays this as a decision of the church, not an act in which James had more influence that everyone else -- “As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded...” (Acts 21:25). The fact that a single individual in a church sums up a problem and gives his counsel which the church follows does not suggest that individual is the pastor. I have seen such counsel (and results) not a few times from men of wisdom who were not pastors.
In Acts 15:4 those welcoming of Paul and Barnabas are described as “the church and...the apostles and elders.” So we know that James was an apostle or an elder, or both. His office is noted by Paul in Galatians. In Galatians 1:19, James is called an apostle. He was one among many apostles, which does not make him the pastor of the Jerusalem church.
A mention of a single name does not a pastor make. Others are mentioned singularly more often than James.
C. Acts 21:18 Paul went to see James after he arrived in Jerusalem.
James certainly was a prominent leader. He may also have been the only apostle present at the time. Regardless, as in other places that mention one single individual in a group of individuals, this does not rise to the level of proving that James was the single pastor of the church at Jerusalem. "...and all the elders were present" suggests that James may not have been considered an elder. He is considered an apostle in Galatians chapter 1. Paul once went up to see Peter and dwelt with him (Gal. 1:18). By the same reasoning that makes James pastor of the church in Acts 21, we would prove Peter was pastor of the church at Jerusalem in Galatians 1.
D. Gal. 1:18 Paul went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and also saw James while he was there. James is referred as an apostle, not as pastor of the Jerusalem. He, Peter and John, are also referred to as pillars (Gal. 2:9). That statement puts James on an equal plane with Peter and John. The totality of Paul's comments in Galatians indicate that he did not view James as the singular leader of the Jerusalem church.
There are a few passages in which James the half-brother of Jesus is mentioned in a singular or prominent way. I have no wish to denigrate his importance in the church at Jerusalem. But to my way of thinking, folks first believe in a "head pastor", "lead pastor", "senior pastor" or something like that before these passages begin to look like one. The great example of a pre-eminent leader at any church mentioned is Diotrephes mentioned in 3 John 9-11. He desired to have the “preeminence” and was described as doing evil.
Follow-up: 3 links related to single pastor/plural pastor
Plurality of Pastors
The Wisdom of God in the Plurality of Pastors