Christian Councils | 1. Early Church


1. Councils: Christian Councils

Since the beginning of Christian history, designated leaders of Christian communities have from time to time gathered to make authoritative decisions on common teaching and practice:

Such gatherings are usually called Councils or Synods (from the Greek sunodos, “a coming together”).

Although these 2 terms are sometimes used synonymously, especially in Greek-Christian literature,

Synod normally designates the gathering of representatives from a local church or a single denomination,

as distinct from Council, which usually means a meeting at which representation is intended to be universal.

Although only 7 such meetings, all held in Greek cities in Asia Minor between the 4-8 centuries, are recognized by most Christian Churches today

- as worldwide, or “ecumenical,” Councils (from the Greek oikoumene, “the inhabited world”) and as classically authoritative in their articulation of Christian faith and Church order,

- the conciliar pattern of decision making has remained a constant feature in the life of most churches.

The Roman Catholic Church, in fact, has traditionally regarded 14 later Councils, most of them Western gatherings held under papal auspices, as also ecumenical and normative.

Christian Councils have varied greatly in size, procedure, composition, and the way in which they have been convoked and ratified.

The only criterion for determining their authority and importance is the practical norm of “reception”: that a Council’s decisions are subsequently accepted by a church or a group of churches as valid and binding.

Councils in the Early Church

Precedents for early Christian conciliar practice lay

- in the Jewish Sanhedrin, or National Council of priests and elders, which regulated the religious affairs, as well as some secular matters, of post-exilic Israel until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE,

- and in the collegial bodies of priests and leading citizens that ruled most local cults in the Hellenistic and Roman world.

The first recorded gathering of Christian leaders to rule in a doctrinal and disciplinary dispute was the “Council” of apostles and elders held in 48 or 49 CE and described in Acts of the Apostles 15:6-29:

That Council decided not to require full observance of the Mosaic Law from Gentile converts.

As the Christian church established itself in other regions of the Greco-Roman world,

special meetings of the bishops in a particular province or region were occasionally called to deal with disputed issues, such as

- the prophetic Montanist movement (Asia Minor, c. 170),
- the date of the celebration of Easter (Asia Minor, Palestine, Gaul, and Rome, c. 190),

- the readmission to Christian communion of those who had “lapsed” in persecution (Rome, c. 230-250; Carthage, c. 240-250),

- or the scandalous behaviour of Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch (Antioch, 260-268).

During the late 2nd and 3rd centuries, Episcopal Synods probably met regularly in most regions, although the evidence is fragmentary.

As the end of the illegal status of the Christian Churches drew near, however, their leaders became bolder in organizing such meetings:

A synod of Spanish bishops held in Elvira, near Granada, some time in the first decade of the 4th century enacted 81 canons on church discipline that remained widely influential, particularly on the indissolubility of marriage and clerical celibacy.

Another local synod, at Arles in southern Gaul (August 314), called to consider the response of Catholics to the schismatic Donatist Church in Africa, ruled against re-baptizing Donatists who wished to enter the Catholic Church.