Definitions and Classifications

Orthodox - 7

A Church Council is an official gathering of representatives to settle Church business. Such Councils are called rarely and are not the same as the regular gatherings of church leaders (synods, etc). The seven General Councils of the Christian Church before the major schisms are known as the Ecumenical Councils. They cover the period between 325-757 AD and their decisions are at the foundation of Christian doctrine accepted by both the Eastern and Western segments of the Christian Church.

  • Nicea (325)
  • Constantinople (381)
  • Ephesus (431)
  • Chalcedon (451)
  • Constantinople II (553)
  • Constantinople III (680)
  • Nicea II (787)

Only these seven councils are recognized by the Orthodox Church. Further ecumenical councils were rendered impossible by the widening split between Eastern (Orthodox, Greek-speaking) and Western (Catholic, Latin-speaking) Churches, a split that became official in 1054.

Catholic - 21

In addition to these universally-acknowledged councils, the Catholic Church recognizes a further fourteen ecumenical councils: Constantinople IV (869-70), Lateran I (1123), Lateran II (1139), Lateran III (1179), Lateran IV (1215), Lyons I (1245), Lyons II (1274), Vienne (1311-12), Constance (1414-18), Florence (1438-45), Lateran V (1512-17), Trent (1545-63), Vatican I (1869-70), Vatican II (1965). But these were councils of only the Catholic Church, and are not recognized by the Orthodox or Protestant Churches.

Catholic definition

Source: New Advent

Councils are legally convened assemblies of ecclesiastical dignitaries and theological experts for the purpose of discussing and regulating matters of church doctrine and discipline. The terms council and synod are synonymous, although in the oldest Christian literature the ordinary meetings for worship are also called synods, and diocesan synods are not properly councils because they are only convened for deliberation. Councils unlawfully assembled are termed conciliabula, conventicula, and even latrocinia, i.e. "robber synods". The constituent elements of an ecclesiastical council are the following:

  • A legally convened meeting
  • of members of the hierarchy,
  • for the purpose of carrying out their judicial and doctrinal functions,
  • by means of deliberation in common
  • resulting in regulations and decrees invested with the authority of the whole assembly.

All these elements result from an analysis of the fact that councils are a concentration of the ruling powers of the Church for decisive action. The first condition is that such concentration conform to the constitution of the Church: it must be started by the head of the forces that are to move and to act, e.g. by the metropolitan if the action is limited to one province. The actors themselves are necessarily the leaders of the Church in their double capacity of judges and teachers, for the proper object of conciliar activity is the settling of questions of faith and discipline. When they assemble for other purposes, either at regular times or in extraordinary circumstances, in order to deliberate on current questions of administration or on concerted action in emergencies, their meetings are not called councils but simply meetings, or assemblies, of bishops. Deliberation, with free discussion and ventilation of private views, is another essential note in the notion of councils. They are the mind of the Church in action, the sensus ecclesiae taking form and shape in the mould of dogmatic definition and authoritative decrees. The contrast of conflicting opinions, their actual clash necessarily precedes the final triumph of faith. Lastly, in a council's decisions we see the highest expression of authority of which its members are capable within the sphere of their jurisdiction, with the added strength and weight resulting from the combined action of the whole body.

Catholic classification

Councils are, then, from their nature, a common effort of the Church, or part of the Church, for self-preservation and self-defence. They appear at her very origin, in the time of the Apostles at Jerusalem, and throughout her whole history whenever faith or morals or discipline are seriously threatened. Although their object is always the same, the circumstances under which they meet impart to them a great variety, which renders a classification necessary. Taking territorial extension for a basis, seven kinds of synods are distinguished.

  1. Ecumenical Councils are those to which the bishops, and others entitled to vote, are convoked from the whole world (oikoumene) under the presidency of the pope or his legates, and the decrees of which, having received papal confirmation, bind all Christians. A council, Ecumenical in its convocation, may fail to secure the approbation of the whole Church or of the pope, and thus not rank in authority with Ecumenical councils. Such was the case with the Robber Synod of 449 (Latrocinium Ephesinum), the Synod of Pisa in 1409, and in part with the Councils of Constance and Basle.
  2. The second rank is held by the general synods of the East or of the West, composed of but one-half of the episcopate. The Synod Of Constantinople (381) was originally only an Eastern general synod, at which were present the four patriarchs of the East (viz. of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem), with many metropolitans and bishops. It ranks as Ecumenical because its decrees were ultimately received in the West also.
  3. Patriarchal, national, and primatial councils represent a whole patriarchate, a whole nation, or the several provinces subject to a primate. Of such councils we have frequent examples in Latin Africa, where the metropolitan and ordinary bishops used to meet under the Primate of Carthage, in Spain, under the Primate of Toledo, and in earlier times in Syria, under the Metropolitan -- later Patriarch -- of Antioch.
  4. Provincial councils bring together the suffragan bishops of the metropolitan of an ecclesiastical province and other dignitaries entitled to participate.
  5. Diocesan synods consist of the clergy of the diocese and are presided over by the bishop or the vicar-general.
  6. A peculiar kind of council used to be held at Constantinople, it consisted of bishops from any part of the world who happened to be at the time in that imperial city. Hence the name synodoi enoemousai "visitors' synods".
  7. Lastly there have been mixed synods, in which both civil and ecclesiastical dignitaries met to settle secular as well as ecclesiastical matters. They were frequent at the beginning of the Middle Ages in France, Germany, Spain, and Italy. In England even abbesses were occasionally present at such mixed councils. Sometimes, not always, the clergy and laity voted in separate chambers.

Although it is in the nature of councils to represent either the whole or part of the Church organism yet we find many councils simply consisting of a number of bishops brought together from different countries for some special purpose, regardless of any territorial or hierarchical connection. They were most frequent in the fourth century, when the metropolitan and patriarchal circumscriptions were still imperfect, and questions of faith and discipline manifold. Not a few of them, summoned by emperors or bishops in opposition to the lawful authorities (such as that of Antioch in 341), were positively irregular, and acted for evil rather than good. Councils of this kind may be compared to the meetings of bishops of our own times; decrees passed in them had no binding power on any but the subjects of the bishops present, they were important manifestations of the sensus ecclesiae (mind of the Church) rather than judicial or legislative bodies. But precisely as expressing the mind of the Church they often acquired a far-reaching influence due, either to their internal soundness, or to the authority of their framers, or to both.

It should be noted that the terms concilia plenaria, universalia, OR generalia are, or used to be, applied indiscriminately to all synods not confined to a single province; in the Middle Ages, even provincial synods, as compared to diocesan, received these names. Down to the late Middle Ages all papal synods to which a certain number of bishops from different countries had been summoned were regularly styled plenary, general, or universal synods. In earlier times, before the separation of East and West, councils to which several distant patriarchates or exarchates sent representatives, were described absolutely as "plenary councils of the universal church". These terms are applied by St. Augustine to the Council of Arles (314), at which only Western bishops were present. In the same way the council of Constantinople (382), in a letter to Pope Damasus, calls the council held in the same town the year before (381) "an Ecumenical synod" i.e. a synod representing the oikoumene, the whole inhabited world as known to the Greeks and Romans, because all the Eastern patriarchates, though no Western, took part in it. The synod of 381 could not, at that time, be termed Ecumenical in the strict sense now in use, because it still lacked the formal confirmation of the Apostolic See. As a matter of fact, the Greeks themselves did not put this council on a par with those of Nicaea and Ephesus until its confirmation at the Synod of Chalcedon, and the Latins acknowledged its authority only in the sixth century.

Ecumenical Church Councils

Definition and Classification

1. Council of Nicaea (325)
2. First Council of Constantinople (381)
3. Council of Ephesus (431)
4. Council of Chalcedon (451)
5. Second Council of Constantinople (553)
6. Third Council of Constantinople (680-681)
7. Second Council of Nicaea (787)
8. Fourth Council of Constantinople (869)
9. First Lateran Council (1123)
10. Second Lateran Council (1139)
11. Third Lateran Council (1179)
12. Fourth Lateran Council (1215)
13. First Council of Lyons (1245)
14. Second Council of Lyons (1274)
15. Council of Vienne in France (1311-1313)
16. Council of Constance (1414-1418)
17. Council of Basel (1431)
18. Fifth Lateran Council, 1512 to 1517
19. Council of Trent, (1545-1563)
20. First Vatican Council, 1869-70
21. Second Vatican Council, 1962-65

Ecumenical Patriarchate