Between the 4th and 15th centuries, while the West underwent in its Dark and Middle Ages, much took place in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire (known also as the Byzantine Empire). Most importantly for this forum, the Church during this time established the principles of its governance, namely, through councils.
The principles of a Church council derive from the New Testament. The Acts of the Apostles, relates how the early Church faced the question as to whether or not gentile Christians should also be circumcised as Jews. After engaging in “no small dissension and debate” (Acts 15:2) with these “Judaizers,” the Apostles Paul and Barnabas went up to Jerusalem, where “the apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.” (Acts 15:6) After much debate, the council accepted that baptism alone was sufficient to make the gentiles acceptable before God. A letter was then delivered to the gentile Christians in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia, who received the decision with joy. (Acts 15:31)
Three centuries later, another controversy arose. Arius, a presbyter from Alexandria, began teaching that Jesus was not really the same as God, but rather a quasi-divine being who had been created some time before the beginning of human history. Like the teachings of the Judaizers, Arius’ teaching raised no small dissension and debate, which threatened to tear apart the Church even as it emerged into its age of peace.
The new Christian Emperor Constantine, perhaps sensing that political instability would result from this theological division, insisted that the Church leaders meet to resolve their differences in the traditional New Testament manner. So it was that in 325 A.D., a Church council was held in the city of Nicaea. Constantine, though present and involved, did not actively govern the council, leaving that job to the bishops and presbyters under the leadership of a Spanish bishop, Hosias of Cordoba.
The ancient Church historian Eusebius, writing a few years after the council, recounts the events: “Some began to accuse their neighbours, who defended themselves, and recriminated in their turn. In this manner numberless assertions were put forth by each party, and a violent controversy arose at the very commencement.” After much debate, Arius’ teaching was condemned and the council reached “one mind and judgment respecting every disputed question.” Eusebius adds: “Those points also which were sanctioned by the resolution of the whole body were committed to writing, and received the signature of each several member.”
Of course, the issue did not end with the conclusion of the council. The decisions of the bishops and presbyters needed to be presented to Christians throughout the Empire for their approval. This resulted in almost 60 years of further discussion and debate among the general Christian populace, before the decisions of Nicaea were finally accepted as ecumenical: universal and binding for all Christians who claimed to follow the faith of the Apostles.
In the centuries that followed, numerous theological divisions resulted in Church councils throughout the Byzantine Empire. Of the many councils held, the Eastern Orthodox Church accepts seven as ecumenical: Nicaea I (325 A.D.), Constantinople I (381 A.D.), Ephesus (431 A.D.), Chalcedon (451 A.D.), Constantinople II and III (553 A.D. and 680 A.D. respectively) and Nicaea II (787 A.D.).
These and other councils followed the general pattern laid down in Acts 15. 1) Dissension arose over particular matters. 2) Church elders and leaders assembled. 3) Debate and discussion ensued. 4) Consensus was finally reached and a decision made. 4) The decision was offered to the faithful for their acceptance. In time, the assembly of the Church either accepted or rejected the councils’ decisions, as the Holy Spirit guided them.
In the Eastern Orthodox understanding, Church councils are neither theological commissions that hand down their decisions like laws from on high, nor are they democratic free-for-alls in which a mere 51% majority is accepted as “the will of the people.” They are neither the tyranny of men nor the “rule by numbers.”
Rather, councils operate on the assumption that individual Christians (both lay and clerical) have, by virtue of their baptism, received “all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19). Through debate and discussion, the people of God strive to articulate the one truth of God that lies within them. And as they move towards this consensus, like spokes moving towards the centre of a wheel, they are united in “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Eph. 4:5-6)
Church history clearly demonstrates that finding such God-inspired consensus (known as conciliarity) is always a messy and protracted process. But it is necessarily so. For only when God’s people take the time required to internalize and articulate the one truth in diverse and unique voices, can they fully reveal the life of the Trinity itself, where one God is made known in three Persons: unity in diversity, and diversity in unity.