Ecumenical Church Councils

The First Council of Jewish Christian church leaders met in Jerusalem in 49/50AD to decide the church’s policy towards Gentile believers in Jesus Christ. In particular, they decided that Gentile Christians should not be obliged to keep Jewish religious traditions such as circumcision and the strict food laws (see Acts 15:3-21 and the feature on The Council of Jerusalem in Section 9).

 

Jerusalem

Jerusalem was the site of the Council of Jerusalem in 49/50 AD

 

It was nearly three hundred years before another church council was convened.

The First ‘Ecumenical’ (Greek, meaning ‘worldwide’) Council of Christian bishops met in Nicaea (modern-day Iznik in Turkey) in 325AD. The church leaders were called together by the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine I, in order to agree the church’s teaching on the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ.

In particular, the bishops met to consider ‘Arianism’, the views of Arius, the Bishop of Alexandria, who taught that Jesus was created by God and was not of the same substance as God himself. The resulting statement of belief, known as the Nicene Creed, still forms the basis of faith of all the worldwide mainstream Christian churches: ‘We believe in one God… and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God…begotten of the Father…who was made man… He suffered, and the third day he rose again…and in the Holy Ghost (the Holy Spirit).’

The Second Ecumenical Council met in Constantinople (Istanbul in Turkey) in 381AD. It again repudiated Arianism, added some additional wording to the original beliefs set out in the Nicene Creed and agreed additional wording relating to the Holy Spirit, ‘We believe in the Holy Ghost (the Holy Spirit)… who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified…’

 

Hagia Maria church, Ephesus

The church of Hagia Maria in Ephesus was the site of the 3rd Ecumenical Council

 

The Third Ecumenical Council, meeting in Ephesus in 431AD, re-affirmed the Nicene Creed, and repudiated ‘Nestorianism’ (the idea that Jesus was two different persons, rather than one person with two natures) and ‘Pelagianism’ (the belief that people are intrinsically ‘good’ rather than tainted by ‘original sin’ and prone to evil).  It also deemed the Virgin Mary to be the ‘Theotokos’ (Greek, the ‘Mother of God’).

Later Ecumenical Councils met in Ephesus (449AD), Chalcedon (451AD), Constantinople (553 & 680AD) and Nicaea (787AD), but none of these councils, nor any of the subsequent church councils, has been accepted as ‘ecumenical’ by all the worldwide Christian churches.

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