Early Church Councils

An ecumenical council is a meeting of bishops and other church authorities to consider and rule on questions of Christian doctrine (for a list of early councils, see below).  The word “ecumenical” derives from Greek oikoumenikos meaning “from the whole world”.  Ecumenical councils differ from regional councils (also called “synods” from the Greek: σύνοδος meaning “assembly” or “meeting”) in that regional synods were only attended by local bishops to the region, while Ecumenical Councils called upon bishops from across the known world to attend.  Councils were often called in response to the spread of a heretical teaching in order to further clarify some aspect of the deposit of faith as left by Christ and handed down by the Apostles.  It may be of importance to note that it is not required for a pope to preside over, nor even attend, a council for it to be considered ecumenical, only that it be accepted by the universal church (which includes the pope).  The first seven ecumenical councils are recognized by both the Eastern and Western Churches that comprise Chalcedonian Christianity.  However, some councils resulted in schisms when some members disagreed with the results and would then separate themselves from the larger Christian Church.  Thus the Church of the East accepts as ecumenical only the first two councils. The Oriental Orthodox Churches accept the first three.  The first four ecumenical councils are recognized by some Lutheran Churches, Anglican Communion and Reformed Churches.  Both the Eastern Orthodox Church and Catholic Church recognize as ecumenical the first seven councils.   The Catholic Church continues to hold general councils of the bishops in full communion with the Pope, reckoning them as ecumenical. In all, the Catholic Church recognizes twenty-one councils as ecumenical.  Early Christianity held to the doctrine of infallibility of ecumenical councils, which states that solemn definitions of ecumenical councils concerning faith or morals, and to which the whole Church must adhere, are infallible. Such decrees are often labeled as ‘Canons’ and they often have an attached anathema, a penalty of excommunication, against those who refuse to believe the teaching. This doctrine does not claim that every aspect of every ecumenical council is dogmatic, but that every aspect of an ecumenical council is free of errors or impeccable.  Both the Eastern Orthodox and the Catholic Church continue to uphold versions of this doctrine.

“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.“

-The First Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians 1:10

The Early Church Councils
& their Extant Writings:

*The list of councils below is not an exhaustive list.  Smaller regional councils are referred to as “synods” while ecumenical councils are given the title of “Council.”  The first Seven Ecumenical Councils are indicated in bold.

Early Church Councils