Ecumenical council

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In the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy, an ecumenical council (Greek, Oikumene, "World-wide" or "General") is a meeting of the bishops of the whole church convened to discuss and settle matters of Church doctrine and practice. "The whole church" is construed by Eastern Orthodoxy as including the bishops of both the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches -- no such meeting has happened since the 8th century -- whereas Catholics take it to mean only those in full communion with the Pope. More local meetings are sometimes called "synods", but the distinction between a synod and a council is not hard and fast.

The term might also be used to refer to similar councils in other religions.

Council Documents

Church councils were, from the beginning, bureaucratic exercises. Written documents were circulated, speeches made and responded to, votes taken, and final documents published and distributed. A large part of what we know about the beliefs of heresies comes from the documents quoted in councils in order to be refuted, or indeed only from the deductions based on the refutations. For all councils Canons (Greek kanon, "rule" or "ruling") were published and survive. In some cases other documentation survives as well. Study of the canons of church councils is the foundation of the development of canon law, especially the reconciling of seemingly contradictory canons or the determination of priority between them. Canons consist of doctrinal statements and disciplinary measures -- most Church councils and local synods dealt with immediate disciplinary concerns as well as major difficulties of doctrine. Eastern Orthodoxy typically views the purely doctrinal canons as dogmatic and applicable to the entire church at all times, while the disciplinary canons are the application of those dogmas in a particular time and place; these canons may or may not be applicable in other situations.

Acceptance of the Councils

Both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches recognize seven councils in the early years of the church, but Catholics also recognize fourteen councils called in later years by the Pope, whose authority the Eastern Orthodox regard as extending only over Christians in some Western countries, rather than over all Christians. Since the seventh ecumenical council, the Eastern Orthodox have had what they call Pan-Orthodox councils with representatives of all Eastern Orthodox churches, but they have not claimed that these councils were ecumenical. That would require including the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church does not recognize the Pan-Orthodox councils either.

Many Protestants (especially those belonging to the magisterial traditions, such as Lutheranism and Anglicanism) accept the teachings of the first seven councils, but do not ascribe to the councils themselves the same authority as Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox do.

The Oriental Orthodox only accept the teachings of some of the councils: the Nestorians only accept the First Council of Nicaea and the First Council of Constantinople, while the Monophysites only accept Nicaea I, Constantinople I and the Council of Ephesus. Their differences in understanding of the nature and relationship of the Son and the Spirit to the Trinity were worked out and defined at those councils, and so they broke away from union with the larger body.

The first seven councils were called by the emperor (first the Christian Roman Emperors and later the Byzantine Emperors). Most historians agree that the emperors called the councils to force the Christian bishops to resolve divisive issues and reach consensus. They hoped that maintaining unity in the Church would help maintain unity in the Empire. The relationship of the Papacy to the validity of these councils is the ground of much controversy between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Churches and to historians.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rejects the early ecumenical councils for what they see as misguided human attempts without divine assistance to decide matters of doctrine as if doctrine were handed down by democratic debate or politics rather than revelation. That such councils were even considered is evidence enough to them that the original Christian church had fallen into apostasy and was no longer directly led by divine authority. They see the calling of such councils, for example, by an unbaptized (let alone unordained) Roman Emperor as preposterous and that the emperors used the councils to exercise their influence to shape and institute Christianity to their liking.

Some Protestants especially among independent fundamentalist churches, condemn the ecumenical councils for their own reasons. Independency, or congregationalism, among Protestants, involves the rejection of any governmental structure or binding authority above local congregations and therefore conformity to the decisions of these councils is considered purely voluntary, and binding only insofar as those doctrines are derived from the Scriptures. Along with this, they reject the idea that anyone other than the authors of Scripture can directly lead other Christians by original divine authority; after the New Testament, the doors of revelation are closed. New doctrines, not derived from the sealed canon of Scripture, are impossible and unnecessary, whether proposed by church councils or by more recent prophets.

List of councils:

The Seven Councils called by Emperors and accepted by Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches as Ecumenical

Councils called by the Popes, rejected by the Eastern Orthodox Churches as Ecumenical

Other religions

Similar councils in other religions might also be called ecumenical, though it is not clear that this actually happens significantly.


Theravada Buddhism now generally recognizes six councils, though there was formerly disagreement between countries:[1]

  1. Rajagaha (Rajgir, India; probably c. 400 BC if historical; traditionally c. 544 BC)
  2. Vesali (Besarh, India; probably late 4th century BC; traditionally c. 444 BC)
  3. Pataliputta (Patna; c. 250BC; traditionally c. 308 BC)
  4. Ceylon (last century BC; traditionally Alokavihara (Aluvihara) c. 94 BC; it has recently been argued that the tradition of this council is a conflation of two, the earlier in India: [1])
  5. Mandalay (1871)
  6. Rangoon (1954-6)

Mahayana would in principle recognize the first two and possibly the third, but in practice ascribes no significance to them.


One council is widely recognized among Sunnis:

  • Cairo (1926)


Jewish tradition refers to a council, though its historicity is doubtful:

  • Jamnia (Jabneh c. 90 AD)

See also: Synod


  1. Kate Crosby, Theravada Buddhism, Wiley-Blackwell, 2014, page 81; Heinz Bechert, Buddhismus, Staat und Gesellschaft in den Ländern des Theravāda-Buddhismus, volume I, Alfred Metzner Verlag, Frankfurt/Berlin, 1966, page 105, note 362