Previous article in this series: March 1, 2021, p. 250.
The Second Ecumenical Council settled the controversy regarding the doctrine of the Trinity. It also made decisions regarding church government. Two such decisions we noted in our last article: it required bishops to labor within their own geographic jurisdictions; and it stated that the Bishop of Constantinople receives honor after the Bishop of Rome. We conclude our treatment of this Council by noting some of its other decisions, or “canons.”
Maximus never was a bishop
A certain Maximus considered himself to be a bishop, and ordained other men to church office. Some of his contemporaries allege that Maximus was a smooth flatterer who intruded into office, rather than being legitimately put into it. In its fourth canon, the Council declared that he never was a bishop, and that those whom he ordained did not in fact hold office.
Intruders generally do not admit that they are intruding, and always present themselves as having the church’s best interests in mind. However, the very fact that they entered office in an unlawful way is itself proof that these men will not promote peace and unity in the truth. The church must declare that they are not officebearers.
Article 31 of our Belgic Confession reminds all who desire church office to wait to be chosen “by a lawful election by the church,” and “not to intrude by indecent means,” in order “that he may have testimony of his calling and be certain and assured that it is of the Lord.”
Canons five, six, and seven
Scholars debate whether canons five, six, and seven were made by the Second Ecumenical Council in 381, or by a provincial council held in Constantinople in 382. The latter is probable. Yet these decisions are often included in the decisions of the Second Ecumenical Council.
The fifth canon provides a response to a letter from bishops from the West; we need spend no time with it. The seventh canon regards the manner in which the church will receive heretics back into her number. But the sixth is most relevant for the church in every age.
How to treat allegations against bishops
Many people were bringing “slanderously fabricate[d] charges,”1 against orthodox bishops. Why? The Council said that they intended “nothing else than to stain the reputation of the priests and raise up disturbances among the peaceful laity.” The sixth canon of the Council gave guidelines for how it would treat such cases.
Some cases the Council refused to hear. These included allegations that a bishop had physically harmed or materially defrauded a person. These were personal offenses; the Council would deal only with ecclesiastical offenses.
When treating allegations regarding the bishop’s work, the Council would first examine the accuser. If it found the accuser to be a heretic, the Council would not treat the allegation any further. A heretic, it said, was either one whom the church had already cast out, or one who separated himself from the lawfully ordained bishops to set up his own bishops and church organization.
The Council also would not treat the accusations of any who was excommunicated or under discipline “until they have cleared away the charge against themselves.” If one was not under discipline, but had other charges brought against him, he must clear up those matters before the Council would hear him.
The second step the Council took was to tell those who were not heretics or under discipline to bring their charge to the provincial bishops first. If the provincial bishops could not agree, the accuser could take his matter to “a greater synod.”
One who did so was also to promise in writing to submit to a penalty if the Council, in treating his matter, found that he slandered the bishop whom he had accused. One who would not follow this prescribed route would not be heard, “forasmuch as he has cast contempt upon the Canons, and brought reproach upon the order of the Church.”
Sound familiar? Our classes and synods do not treat matters that are not ecclesiastical, or matters that have not been finished in the minor assemblies. They do not treat protests or allegations from people who are not members of our churches, nor from those who are under discipline for another matter. And they insist on following a right procedure.
In general, our practice regarding what the assemblies treat and whom they will hear is an old practice. It is older than the Reformation. It was the practice of the early church. Early church fathers recognized that it was an application of biblical principles.
1 This and every subsequent quote is from “Canons” as found in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 14: The Seven Ecumenical Councils, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1988 reprint), 183.