Previous article in this series: January 15, 2021, p. 130.
The main doctrinal issue that the Council of Constantinople addressed was that of the Trinity, including the question as to how Christ is truly God and man, and whether the Holy Spirit is truly God. In our last article we noted the decisions of the Council regarding this issue, and the creed that the Council produced.
Most ecclesiastical assemblies that treat doctrinal issues also deal with other matters that pertain to the welfare of the churches. The Second Ecumenical Council was no exception. In this article we note two other decisions that the Council made. Our next article will conclude our treatment of the Council of Constantinople by examining some of the other decisions.
Bishops, mind your own affairs!
The Council’s second notable decision was to prohibit bishops from leaving their geographic area of authority to minister in churches in other regions. Part of that decision reads: “Let not bishops go beyond their dioceses for ordination or any other ecclesiastical ministrations, unless they be invited.”1 The decision applied the prohibition in specific detail, stating that the authority of the bishop of Alexandria was limited to Egypt, the bishop of Asia to Asia, of Pontus to Pontus, and of Thracia to Thracia. This decision also said that the synod of each province was to administer the affairs of its own province.
The general principle here expressed is that each bishop was to know the area of his authority and respect the authority of bishops in other areas.
Why did the Council make this rule? One specific reason is that the Bishop of Antioch (Meletius) had just come to Constantinople to ordain a bishop (Gregory) there. The wording of the rule suggests, however, that the problem was more widespread.
It is sound advice today and always: each of us must know the area in which God has called us to work. “Area” can refer to a geographic area, or to the specific congregation in which we labor, or to the kind of work to which we are called. Devoting ourselves to our work, we must leave others to work in the areas to which God has called them. Several articles of our Church Order apply this principle to officebearers in Reformed churches. Article 7 states that the minister is to be stationed in a particular place; by implication, he is to stay in his place and work in the congregation that called him. Article 15 forbids one to preach indiscriminately but, more to the point, the article forbids anyone to preach or administer sacraments “without the consent of the consistory of that church.” One who preaches in a church that has not called him must not intrude but be permitted to preach. And Article 84 reminds ministers, as well as churches and elders and deacons, that they are not to lord it over other churches, ministers, elders, or deacons; that is, the authority of all officebearers is equal, none greater, and none less.
The Bishop of Constantinople is number two
The third canon (decision) of the Council reads: “The Bishop of Constantinople, however, shall have the prerogative of honor after the Bishop of Rome; because Constantinople is New Rome.”2
In the third and fourth centuries, five cities had risen to such prominence that the bishops of those cities were viewed as more prominent than the bishops of other cities. The five most prominent cities were Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. These were called patriarchs.
This third canon indicates that by 381 an order of priority was emerging even among these five cities. The bishop of Rome was coming to be considered the highest of the five! The first bishop of Rome to assert himself forcefully as the highest of the bishops (Innocent I) would not become pope for twenty more years, but the idea that the bishop of Rome was the highest was already popularly accepted.
In which order, then, did the bishops of the other four patriarchs stand after the bishop of Rome? This decision spoke to that question: the bishop of Constantinople was number two. The reason was that Constantinople is “New Rome.” Constantine had moved the capital of the empire from Rome to Constantinople about fifty years earlier. By virtue of being the capital city, the bishop of that city is the second highest bishop. This decision reflected the close relationship between the church and the empire.