The ecumenical councils were official gatherings of church leaders from all over the Christian world (the word ecumenical meaning, “representing the whole of a body of churches”). The purpose of the councils was to discuss various issues of theology and church practice and make binding decisions for the church at large.
The early ecumenical councils were made up of Christians from throughout the Roman Empire. As Christianity spread, the leaders who attended the councils came from further parts abroad. The earlier councils pulled leaders from the entire church, but, as the church divided on various issues of theology and practice, the councils became less than truly ecumenical. The final council on the list below, the Second Vatican Council, drew Catholic leaders from all over the world, but other Christian denominations were understandably excluded. Thus, the ecumenical nature of the councils has changed over the years from involving the whole church to involving people from every part of the world who are part of the Roman Catholic Church.
The decisions of the ecumenical councils were meant to be binding upon the whole church. Since most Protestants do not have the same hierarchical structure as do Catholics and Orthodox Christians, and since they emphasize personal responsibility before God to make their own decisions regarding theology and practice in accordance with conscience and Scripture, Protestants don’t have ecumenical councils.
The Roman Catholic Church recognizes twenty-one ecumenical councils. Some within the Eastern Orthodox Church accept nine councils; some Protestant denominations recognize the first seven of the councils, although Protestants do not hold their decrees in the same regard as Catholics do. Below are the names, dates, and issues addressed or a summary of what was done at each council. The councils are named after the cities where they occurred:
1. FIRST COUNCIL OF NICAEA (325) – Affirmed the deity of Christ. The false doctrine of Arianism was rejected.
2. FIRST COUNCIL OF CONSTANTINOPLE (381) – Clarified the nature of the Holy Spirit.
3. COUNCIL OF EPHESUS (431) – Clarified the nature of Christ’s personhood. The false teaching of Nestorianism was repudiated.
4. COUNCIL OF CHALCEDON (451) – Clarified the teaching concerning Christ’s nature and person, including the “hypostatic union.” The false doctrine of monophysitism was rejected.
5. SECOND COUNCIL OF CONSTANTINOPLE (553) – Confirmed the conclusions of the first four councils.
6. THIRD COUNCIL OF CONSTANTINOPLE (680–681) – Clarified the nature of Christ’s will.
7. SECOND COUNCIL OF NICAEA (787) – Established guidelines for the veneration of images. (Some Protestants reject this council, while accepting the Council of Hieria of 754, which rejected the veneration of icons.)
The remainder of the councils are accepted by the Roman Catholic Church but not by Protestants:
8. FOURTH COUNCIL OF CONSTANTINOPLE (869) – Condemned a council that had not been authorized.
9. FIRST LATERAN COUNCIL (1123) – Placed limitations on the ecclesiastical rights of lay princes and made plans for a crusade to regain territory lost to Muslims.
10. SECOND LATERAN COUNCIL (1139) – Condemned the errors of Arnold of Brescia.
11. THIRD LATERAN COUNCIL (1179) – Condemned the Albigenses and Waldenses and issued numerous decrees for the reformation of morals.
12. FOURTH LATERAN COUNCIL (1215) – Added more condemnation of the Albigenses, condemned the Trinitarian errors of Abbot Joachim, and published other reformatory decrees.
13. FIRST COUNCIL OF LYONS (1245) – Excommunicated and deposed Emperor Frederick II and authorized a new crusade.
14. SECOND COUNCIL OF LYONS (1274) – Provided for a temporary reunion of the Greek Church with Rome and set rules for papal elections.
15. COUNCIL OF VIENNE (1311–1313) – Addressed crimes and errors imputed to the Knights Templar, the Fraticelli, the Beghards, and the Beguines. Also took on projects of a new crusade, the reformation of the clergy, and the teaching of Oriental languages in the universities.
16. COUNCIL OF CONSTANCE (1414–1418) – Ended the Great Schism by the election of Pope Martin V.
17. COUNCIL OF BASEL/FERRARA/FLORENCE (1431–1439) – Moved from city to city due to trouble. Resulted in temporary reunification with the Greek Church and made official the seven sacraments of Catholicism.
18. FIFTH LATERAN COUNCIL (1512–1517) – Authorized a new crusade against the Turks but was quickly overshadowed by the “trouble” caused by the Protestant Reformation.
19. COUNCIL OF TRENT (1545–1563) – Condemned the teachings of Luther and the Reformers and officially recognized the Apocrypha as canonical.
20. FIRST VATICAN COUNCIL (1869–1870) – Affirmed the infallibility of the Pope when speaking ex cathedra.
21. SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL (1962–1965) – Promoted various reforms and clarifications of church practice.
Today there is also what is known as the ecumenical movement, which attempts to unite all who claim to be Christian, regardless of doctrinal differences. Unfortunately, the doctrinal differences have to do with important doctrines such as the deity of Christ and justification by faith. The ecumenical councils were held in order to provide doctrinal clarity, whereas the ecumenical movement seeks to blur doctrinal differences.