In Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, an ecumenical council (Greek, Oikumene/Οικυμενη, "World-wide" or "General") is a meeting of the bishops of the whole church convened to discuss and settle matters of Church doctrine and practice. "The whole church" is construed by Eastern Orthodoxy as including all Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions in full communion with each other -- whereas Catholics take it to mean only those in full communion with the Pope. More local meetings are sometimes called "synods", but the distinction between a synod and a council is not hard and fast.

Council Documents

Church councils were, from the beginning, bureaucratic exercises. Written documents were circulated, speeches made and responded to, votes taken, and final documents published and distributed. A large part of what we know about the beliefs of heresies comes from the documents quoted in councils in order to be refuted, or indeed only from the deductions based on the refutations. For all councils Canons (Greek kanones/κανονες, "rules" or "rulings") were published and survive. In some cases other documentation survives as well. Study of the canons of church councils is the foundation of the development of canon law, especially the reconciling of seemingly contradictory canons or the determination of priority between them. Canons consist of doctrinal statements and disciplinary measures -- most Church councils and local synods dealt with immediate disciplinary concerns as well as major difficulties of doctrine. Eastern Orthodoxy typically views the purely doctrinal canons as dogmatic and applicable to the entire church at all times, while the disciplinary canons are the application of those dogmas in a particular time and place; these canons may or may not be applicable in other situations.

Acceptance of the Councils

Both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches recognize seven councils in the early years of the church, but Catholics also recognize fourteen councils called in later years by the Pope, whose authority the Eastern Orthodox utterly repudiate as they consider Rome to currently be in schism.

Since the seventh ecumenical council, there has been no synod or council of the same scope as any of the Ecumenical councils. Local meetings of hierarchs have been called "Pan-Orthodox", but these have invariably been of the nature of meetings of local Bishops and other representatives of whatever Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions are party to a specific local matter. There has been no fully "pan-Orthodox" council since 787CE. Unfortunately, the use of the term "Pan-Orthodox" is confusing to those not within Eastern Orthodoxy, and it leads to mistaken impressions that these are ersatz ecumenical councils rather than purely local councils to which nearby Orthodox hierarchs, regardless of jurisdiction, are invited.

Many Protestants (especially those belonging to the magisterial traditions, such as Lutheranism and Anglicanism) accept the teachings of the first seven councils, but do not ascribe to the councils themselves the same authority as Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox do.

The Oriental Orthodox only accept the teachings of some of the councils: the Assyrian Church of the East only accept the First Council of Nicaea and the First Council of Constantinople, while the Oriental Orthodox Communion only accept Nicaea I, Constantinople I and the Council of Ephesus.

The first seven councils were called by the emperor (first the Christian Roman Emperors and later the Byzantine Emperors). Most historians agree that the emperors called the councils to force the Christian bishops to resolve divisive issues and reach consensus. They hoped that maintaining unity in the Church would help maintain unity in the Empire. The relationship of the Papacy to the validity of these councils is the ground of much controversy between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Churches and to historians.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rejects the early ecumenical councils for what they see as misguided human attempts without divine assistance to decide matters of doctrine as if doctrine were handed down by democratic debate or politics rather than revelation. That such councils were even considered is evidence enough to them that the original Christian church had fallen into apostasy and was no longer directly led by divine authority. They see the calling of such councils, for example, by an unbaptized (let alone unordained) Roman Emperor as preposterous and that the emperors used the councils to exercise their influence to shape and institute Christianity to their liking.

Some Protestants especially among independent fundamentalist churches, condemn the ecumenical councils for their own reasons. Independency, or congregationalism, among Protestants, involves the rejection of any governmental structure or binding authority above local congregations and therefore conformity to the decisions of these councils is considered purely voluntary, and binding only insofar as those doctrines are derived from the Scriptures. Along with this, they reject the idea that anyone other than the authors of Scripture can directly lead other Christians by original divine authority; after the New Testament, the doors of revelation are closed. New doctrines, not derived from the sealed canon of Scripture, are impossible and unnecessary, whether proposed by church councils or by more recent prophets.

List of councils:

Councils called by Emperors and accepted by Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox Communion and Assyrian Churches as Ecumenical
Councils accepted by Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the Oriental Orthodox Communion as Ecumenical
Councils accepted by Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches as Ecumenical
Council accepted by the Eastern Orthodox Church but disputed by some Roman Catholics
  • Quinisext Council or Council in Trullo, (692); mostly an administrative council that affirmed some local canons to Ecumenical status and established principles of clerical discipline.

Councils called by the Popes and only accepted by Roman Catholics See also: Synod