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The Councils

As the Church pro­gressed through his­to­ry it was faced with many dif­fi­cult deci­sions. The Church always set­tled dif­fi­cul­ties and made deci­sions by reach­ing a con­sen­sus of opin­ion among all the believ­ers inspired by God who were led by their appoint­ed lead­ers, first the apos­tles and then the bishops.

The first church coun­cil in his­to­ry was held in the apos­tolic church to decide the con­di­tions under which the gen­tiles, that is, the non-Jews, could enter the Chris­t­ian Church (see Acts 15). From that time on, all through his­to­ry coun­cils were held on every lev­el of church life to make impor­tant deci­sions. Bish­ops met reg­u­lar­ly with their priests, also called pres­byters or elders, and peo­ple. It became the prac­tice, and even the law, very ear­ly in church his­to­ry that bish­ops in giv­en regions should meet in coun­cils held on a reg­u­lar basis.

At times in church his­to­ry coun­cils of all of the bish­ops in the church were called. All the bish­ops were not able to attend these coun­cils, of course, and not all such coun­cils were auto­mat­i­cal­ly approved and accept­ed by the Church in its Holy Tra­di­tion. In the Ortho­dox Church only sev­en such coun­cils, some of which were actu­al­ly quite small in terms of the num­ber of bish­ops attend­ing, have received the uni­ver­sal approval of the entire Church in all times and places. These coun­cils have been termed the Sev­en Ecu­meni­cal Coun­cils(see table below).

The dog­mat­ic def­i­n­i­tions (dog­ma means offi­cial teach­ing) and the canon laws of the ecu­meni­cal coun­cils are under­stood to be inspired by God and to be expres­sive of His will for men. Thus, they are essen­tial sources of Ortho­dox Chris­t­ian doctrine.

Besides the sev­en ecu­meni­cal coun­cils, there are oth­er local church coun­cils whose deci­sions have also received the approval of all Ortho­dox Church­es in the world, and so are con­sid­ered to be gen­uine expres­sions of the Ortho­dox faith and life. The deci­sions of these coun­cils are most­ly of a moral or struc­tur­al char­ac­ter. Nev­er­the­less, they too reveal the teach­ing of the Ortho­dox Church.

The Sev­en Ecu­meni­cal Councils
Nicea 1 325 325Formulated the First Part of the Creed, defin­ing the divin­i­ty of the Son of God
Con­stan­tino­ple I 381 For­mu­lat­ed the Sec­ond Part of the Creed, defin­ing the divin­i­ty of the Holy Spirit
Eph­esus 431 Defined Christ as the Incar­nate Word of God and Mary as Theotokos
Chal­cedon 451 Defined Christ as Per­fect God and Per­fect Man in One Person
Con­stan­tino­ple II 553 Recon­firmed the Doc­trines of the Trin­i­ty and of Christ
Con­stan­tino­ple III 680 Affirmed the True Human­i­ty of Jesus by insist­ing upon the real­i­ty of His human will and action
Nicea II 787 Affirmed the pro­pri­ety of icons as gen­uine expres­sions of the Chris­t­ian Faith