Church Councils


Click below for more information

Home Page - Index
Authorities Assessed
Old Testament
New Testament
Apostolic Traditions
Church Fathers
General Church Councils
Early Christian History
What Jesus Believed
Who Founded Christianity?
Creation of Doctrine
Origin of Ideas & Practices
The Concept of Orthodoxy
Origin of the Priesthood
Maintaining Deceptions
Suppress Facts
Selecting Sources
Fabricating Records
Retrospective Prophesy
Ambiguous Authorities
Ignore Injunctions
Invent, Amend and Discard
Manipulate Language
Case Studies
Re-branding a Sky-God
Making One God out of Many
How Mary keeps her Virginity
Fabricating the Nativity Story
Managing Inconvenient Texts
Christianity & Science
Traditional Battlegrounds
Modern Battlegrounds
Rational Explanations
Religion in General
Christianity in Particular
Divine Human Beings
Ease of Creating Religions
Arguments for and Against
Popular Arguments
Philosophical Arguments
Moral Arguments
Supernatural Arguments
  • Miracles
  • Revelation
  • Faith
  • Practical Arguments
    Record of Christianity
    Social Issues
  • Slavery
  • Racism
  • Capital Punishment
  • Penal Reform
  • Physical Abuse
  • Treatment of Women
  • Contraception
  • Abortion
  • Divorce
  • Family Values
  • Children
  • Romanies
  • The Physically Ill
  • The Mentally Ill
  • The Poor
  • Animals
  • Ecology
  • Persecution
  • Persecutions of Christians
  • Persecutions by Christians
  • Church & State
  • Symbiosis
  • Meddling in Governance
  • Interference in Politics
  • Abuse of Power
  • Church Law and Justice
  • Exemption from the Law
  • Unofficial Exemption
  • Financial Privileges
  • Control Over Education
  • Human Rights
  • Freedom of Belief
  • Religious Toleration
  • Freedom of Expression
  • Freedom of Enjoyment
  • Attitudes to Sex
  • Celibacy
  • Sex Within Marriage
  • Sex Outside Marriage
  • Incest
  • Rape
  • Homosexuality
  • Transvestism
  • Prostitution
  • Pederasty
  • Bestiality
  • Sadomasochism
  • Necrophilia
  • Consequences
  • Science & Medicine

  • Ancient Times
  • Dark and Middle Ages
  • Sixteenth Century
  • Seventeenth Century
  • Eighteenth Century
  • Nineteenth Century
  • 20th and 21st Centuries
  • Medical Records Compared
  • Violence & Warfare
  • Crusades
  • God's Wars
  • Churches' Wars
  • Christian Atrocities
  • Cultural Vandalism
  • The Classical World
  • Europe
  • The Wider Modern World
  • Possible Explanations
    Summing up
    Marketing Religion
    Marketing Christianity
    Continuing Damage
    Religious Discrimination
    Christian Discrimination
    Moral Dangers
    Abuse of Power
    A Final Summing Up
    Search site
    Bad News Blog
    Religious Quotations
    Christianity & Human Rights
    Christian Prooftexts
    Social Media



    But why, it will be asked, have so many councils contradicted each other? …Roman Catholics now believe only in councils approved by the Vatican; and the Greek Catholics believe only in those approved in Constantinople. Protestants deride them both.
    Voltaire (1694-1778), Philosophical Dictionary


    Mainstream Churches hold that ecumenical councils embody the true doctrine of the whole Church. Unfortunately they do not agree about which councils are ecumenical and therefore infallible. The Anglican Church usually recognises six :

    1. Nicæa (AD 325)
    2. Constantinople I (AD 381)
    3. Ephesus (AD 431)
    4. Chalcedon (AD 451)
    5. Constantinople II (AD 553)
    6. Constantinople III (AD 680-1)

    The Eastern Churches recognise in addition a second Council of Nicæa held in 787. The Roman Church accepts these seven councils along with 14 of its own.

    As with other sources of authority, there are big problems in determining validity. How can we know which councils were truly ecumenical and therefore infallible as all mainstream Churches believe? It cannot be a question of who calls the council, for it is not even clear who has the right to convoke a valid council. They have been convoked by all sorts of people. The most important one ever, Nicæa, was called by a Roman emperor. He sent out the invitations. Participants travelled under his orders, to his council, held at a place and time of his choosing. Later, at least in theory, it was the patriarchs* who acted together to convoke councils. This is rather an embarrassment to the Roman Church, which now claims that only the Pope may convoke such councils.

    It cannot be a question of who attends. Valid councils have been held without the representation of all the patriarchs. The bishops of Rome played a small part in the councils listed above. In fact the First Ecumenical Council of Constantinople was convoked solely from the East. The Pope (Damasus I) was not even invited. No bishop of the Western Church was present at its meetings, even as an observer. Despite this, the Roman Church now holds that its own college of bishops may form an infallible ecumenical council (code of canon law 749.2).

    The Second Council of Nicaea, 787, from a 9th century Greek Testament miniature.
    A number of iconoclast bishops were required to grovel for forgiveness of their heresy.

    It cannot be a question of whether or not the council was convened as an ecumenical council. The councils of Ariminum and Seleucia held in 359 were convoked as ecumenical councils, but their rulings on the deity of Christ failed to find universal acceptance. For this reason they ceased to be regarded as ecumenical. Often, grounds are found for disregarding inconvenient councils, and their rulings can then be ignored on the grounds that they were not ecumenical after all. This happened to a council held at Ephesus in 449. The Fourth Ecumenical Council ( Chalcedon) in 451 reversed almost all of the decisions made by the council at Ephesus. Now the council held at Ephesus is dismissed as an illegal sham and is called the Robber Council because of the level of intimidation, violence, duress and bribery used to secure its outcome. Yet in truth it was unremarkable compared with other councils in its level of intimidation, violence, duress and bribery. The previous council held in Ephesus in 431, for example, was at least as bad, yet it is still regarded as ecumenical. As so often, the forces that determined which councils prevailed were political. There is little doubt amongst historians that if the Emperor, Theodosius II, had not died in 450 then the Fourth Ecumenical Council, of Chalcedon, the following year would never have taken place, and the council held in Ephesus in 449 would have continued to be regarded as ecumenical.

    It cannot be a question of universal acceptance. As we have seen the Protestant, Roman and Eastern Churches all disagree about which councils should be counted as ecumenical. And there are further difficulties with each of the six that they do all accept. Each of them was rejected by sizable groups of Christians at the time it was held, in each case causing a schism.

    Sometimes, infallible ecumenical councils contradicted previous infallible ecumenical councils in an attempt to heal a schism. For example the decrees of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, at Chalcedon (451), were amended by the Fifth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople (553), with the hope of reuniting the warring schismatic factions. Specifically, a document known as the Three Chapters was accepted in 451 but condemned in 553.

    In summary there is no clear external criterion by which a council may be judged to be ecumenical or not. This fact is now accepted by at least some orthodox theologians1. As so often the practice is the opposite of the theory. Instead of doctrine being determined by valid councils, the validity of a council is determined by the subsequent popularity of its rulings. The assignment of authority is thus circular, and flexible, allowing each Church to make its own selection.

    There is a further problem with the councils that are accepted as ecumenical and thus infallible. This is that their solemn statements and requirements are routinely ignored when they cease to suit changing fashions. Thus for example the Ecumenical Council of Nicæa prohibited kneeling on Sundays (canon 20). Other infallible councils prohibited the practice of bishops translating from one See to another, and dozens of other such practices that are now accepted without demur.

    Incidentally, many Christians imagine that councils successfully settled disputes and fixed doctrine. In fact, they often exacerbated matters. To take an example, the most important decision of any council was the wording of the Nicene Creed used in all mainstream Churches. The words used today were not agreed at the Council of Nicea - they were agreed centuries later after several major schisms. All the Council of Nicea did was stir up controversy. This is what Hilary, the Bishop of Poictiers, in a well-known passage written after the Nicene Council, says:

    It is a thing equally deplorable and dangerous that there are, as many creeds as opinions among men, as many doctrines as inclinations, and as many sources of blasphemy as there are faults among us, because we make creeds arbitrarily and explain them as arbitrarily. And as there is but one faith … We renounce this one faith, when we make so many different creeds; and that diversity is the reason why we have no true faith among us. We cannot be ignorant, that since the Council of Nicea; we have done nothing but make creeds. And while we fight against words, litigate about new questions, dispute about equivocal terms, complain of authors, that every one may make his own party triumph; while we cannot agree, while we anathematise one another, there is hardly one that adheres to Jesus Christ. ... Every year, nay, every moon, we make new creeds to describe invisible mysteries; we repent of what we have done; we defend those who repent; we anathematize those whom we defend; we condemn either the doctrines of others in ourselves, or our own in that of others; and, reciprocally tearing each other to pieces, we have been the cause of each other's ruin.2

    Hilary was talking specifically about the Creed agreed at Nicea, but his words would be equally applicable to a dozen decisions taken by Church Councils over centuries to come.


    Buy the Book from



    Buy the Book from
    Beyond Belief: Two Thousand (2000) Years of Bad Faith in the Christian Church
    More Books







    * The patriarchs were the highest-ranking bishops in the Church, such as the bishops of Alexandria and Antioch.

    1. Ware, The Orthodox Church, p 257.

    2. As famously translated by Gibbon.


    •     ©    •     Further Resources     •    Link to Us    •         •    Contact     •