Ancient church councils (pre-ecumenical)

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Church councils are formal meetings of bishops and representatives of several churches who are brought together to regulate points of doctrine or discipline.[1][2] The meetings may be of a single ecclesiastical community or may involve an ecclesiastical province, a nation or other civil region, or the whole Church. Some of those convoked from the Church as a whole have been recognized as ecumenical councils and are considered particularly authoritative. The first ecumenical council is that of Nicaea, called by the Emperor Constantine in 325.[2][3][4][5]

Pre-ecumenical councils, those earlier than AD 325, were mostly local or provincial. Some, held in the second half of the 3rd century, involved more than one province. The sui generis Council of Jerusalem was a meeting, described in the Bible in Acts 15 and possibly in Galatians 2, of the apostles and elders of the local Church in Jerusalem.

In spite of lacking the authority of the decisions of ecumenical councils, the teachings and decrees of these pre-ecumenical councils are sometimes considered to be binding on the faithful in varying degrees, in particular certain councils held in Carthage and Elvira.[6] But even the Council of Jerusalem's decisions, known as the Apostolic Decree, in particular the obligation to abstain from eating blood or what has been strangled,[7] are not accepted by all Christian churches.

Apostolic Council of Jerusalem[edit]

The Acts of the Apostles records, without using for it the term "council" or "synod", what has been called the Council of Jerusalem: to respond to a consultation by Paul of Tarsus, the apostles and elders of the Church in Jerusalem met to address the question of observance of biblical law in the early Christian community, which included Gentile converts.[8] This is the only such meeting recorded in the New Testament, and may be referred to also in the Epistle to the Galatians.[9] This meeting of the Church in Jerusalem was not a gathering of representatives coming from all areas, like an ecumenical council. It is called the Apostolic Council, because of the participation in it of the apostles.[10] This gives it a character different from the normal pre-ecumenical church councils.[11] It took place around the year 50.[12]

Normal pre-ecumenical councils[edit]

In times of greater toleration, Christian leaders felt sufficiently secure to hold councils governing their see or metropolitan area. None of the councils of this period gathered representatives from all the Christian churches, or even from those throughout the Roman Empire. Only of a few are the written acts preserved. Most are known only from accounts in works of church historians and other writers. These include:

Such councils began to appear only in the middle of the 2nd century, at first at local level, but from 175 onward they involved several communities together, with such activity particularly marked in Italy and Asia Minor. At the end of that century, it became the practice to inform other communities of the decisions taken at such assemblies. In the 3rd century, the meetings began to be held at regular intervals, a custom that appeared first in the Roman province of Africa. In the second half of that century, councils were held at Antioch that gathered representatives of Christianity throughout the Middle East, from the Black Sea to Egypt. These were a prelude to the holding of the first assembly of all bishops, the First Council of Nicaea, the event that marked the end of the period of the ancient pre-ecumenical councils.[14]

Examples of matters discussed[edit]

The earliest known church councils were held in Asia Minor in the mid-2nd century. They condemned Montanism. One of these was held at Hierapolis, presided over by the local bishop, Apollinaris Claudius, and attended by 26 other bishops. Another council of 13 bishops was held at Anchialus under the presidency of Bishop Sotas.[15][16]

In 193, a series of councils was held in Palestine, Pontus and Osrhoene in the east, and in Rome and Gaul in the west concerning Quartodecimanism. They all condemned the practice in the Roman province of Asia (Western Anatolia), where Easter was celebrated at the Passover full moon rather than on the following Sunday. Victor, Bishop of Rome, who presided over the council in Rome, communicated its decision to Polycrates of Ephesus and the churches of the Roman province of Asia, asking Polycrates to convoke a council of the bishops of the province.[15] Accordingly, Polycrates held at Ephesus within the same year the requested synod, which rejected Victor's demand that they change their paschal tradition.[15][17]

The Synod of Elvira (southern Spain) laid down common rules to be observed by all the bishops of the area, rules almost entirely concerned with the conduct of various elements of the Christian community. Sanctions include long delays before baptism, exclusion from the Eucharist for periods of months or years, or indefinitely, sometimes with an exception for the death-bed, though this is also specifically excluded in some cases. Periods of penance, often for sexual offenses, extend to five or 10 years. Its canon 33 enjoined complete continence upon all clerics, married or not, and all who minister at the altar.[18]

The Synod of Ancyra (modern Ankara) laid down rules about the penances to be performed by Christians who had lapsed during the persecutions (canons 1–8). It allowed marriage for deacons who before ordination had declared their inability to remain unmarried (canon 9). It forbade chorepiscopi (clergy in country parts who were of lower rank than the bishops of cities) to ordain deacons or priests.


Chorepiscopi seem to have been able to participate in councils on a par with bishops: they are mentioned in relation to the Council of Neocaesarea in 314 and even in two of the earliest ecumenical councils (325 and 431), but the office was abolished before 451, when the Council of Chalcedon was held.[15]

From the mid-3rd century, mention is made of participation by others, at first in Africa, where Cyprian had at his councils in Carthage not only bishops but also priests and deacons and, in addition, laymen in good standing, as was expected of him also in the letters sent to him from Rome; but as he sometimes speaks of the bishops alone as participants, it is likely that the right to a deciding vote was restricted to them. Participation by clergy other than bishops is mentioned also in relation to councils held at Antioch in 264 or 265 and in 269, in two Councils of Arabia (246-247) and in the Council of Elvira (306). Sometimes priests as well as bishops signed the acts, but one such document (of 448) indicates that they signed without having had a voice in the council's decisions.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Council", The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford University Press, 2005, ISBN 978-0-19-280290-3
  2. ^ a b Wilhelm, Joseph (1908), "General Councils", Catholic Encyclopedia (via online reprint from, Vol. 4, New York: Robert Appleton Company, retrieved 2013-07-16
  3. ^ Timothy Francis Murphy, Religious Bodies, 1936, vol. 2, pt 1 (U.S. Government Printing Office 1941), p. 1549
  4. ^ Francis James Newman Rogers, A Practical Arrangement of Ecclesiastical Law (Saunders and Benning 1843), p. 250
  5. ^ Gerd Tellenbach The Church in Western Europe from the Tenth to the Early Twelfth Century (Cambridge University Press 1993 ISBN 978-0-52143711-0), p. 36
  6. ^ Gerald O'Collins, Living Vatican II (Paulist Press 2002 ISBN 978-0-80914290-3), p. 40
  7. ^ Acts 15:29
  8. ^ Acts 15:6-29
  9. ^ Galatians 2:1-10
  10. ^ Trent C. Butler (editor), Holman Bible Dictionary (Holman Bible Publishers 1991 ISBN 978-1-55819053-5), "Apostolic Council"
  11. ^ John C. Dwyer, Church History (Paulist Press 1998 ISBN 978-0-80913830-2), p. 39
  12. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica: "Council of Jerusalem (Christian history)"
  13. ^ Benson, Edward (1897), Cyprian: His Life, His Times, His Work, Macmillan and Company, p. 348, OCLC 2541728
  14. ^ Karl Rahner (editor), Encyclopedia of Theology (Continuum 1975 ISBN 978-0-86012006-3), p. 298
  15. ^ a b c d e von Hefele, Karl Joseph (1883) [1871], A History of the Councils of the Church: from the original documents, Volume 1: "To the close of the Council of Nicæa, A.D. 325", translated from German Conciliengeschichte by Wm.R. Clark, Prebendary of Wells (2nd, revised ed.), T. and T. Clark, pp. 17-20, OCLC 24367277, (link: download, various ebook formats)
  16. ^ Tabbernee, William (2009), Prophets and Gravestones: An Imaginative History of Montanists and Other Early Christians, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, pp. 21–23, ISBN 978-1-56563-937-9
  17. ^ Eusebius, "Chapters 23–24", Church History
  18. ^ Frazee, Charles A. (1988), "The Origins of Clerical Celibacy in the Western Church", Church History, American Society of Church History, 57 (Supplement S1): 108–126, doi:10.1017/S0009640700062971

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