In the Nicene Creed (the first ecumenical creed), the Council of Nicea asserted that Christ was truly God, having a divine essence. The Council also made other noteworthy decisions, expressed in twenty canons.1 This article summarizes those other decisions.
The Melitian clergy
During the reign of Emperor Diocletian (284-305), Christians were sorely persecuted, and many renounced the Christian faith. Some of these desired to rejoin the church when Emperor Constantine ended the persecution. The church had to face questions: Should these be readmitted? If so, should they be rebaptized? Might they be clergy? The bishop of Alexandria, Egypt was ready to admit these lapsed Christians to the church and priesthood. Another Egyptian bishop, Melitius, was under the authority of the bishop of Alexandria. He was critical of his superior, was deposed, and proceeded to organize a sect and ordain other clergymen.
Were the clergymen whom Melitius ordained legitimate clergymen? The Council concluded that they were, but that they must be subject to the bishop of Alexandria.
The date of Easter
We celebrate our birthdays on the same date every year, even though that date falls on a different day of the week. Similarly, the Jews celebrated Easter on the 14th of the month Nisan, the date of Jesus resurrection. Christians in Asia Minor followed the same practice. However, Christians in the West chose to celebrate Easter always on a Sunday, rather than on the date of Christ’s resurrection. But which date? The Sunday after the Jewish Passover? Or some Sunday after the spring equinox?
The Council of Nicea decided that Christian churches would always celebrate Christ’s resurrection on a Sunday, the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. This explains why our date for Easter varies annually between the latter part of March and the middle of April.
The Council made several decisions regulating who may serve as clergy and how the clergy must live. Recent converts to Christianity, and those who willfully castrated themselves were not to be ordained. Ideally, all the bishops in a province would be present to consecrate a new clergyman; but the Council determined that no fewer than three bishops must be present. Ordinations were invalid when the ordained man had not been examined or had confessed to a serious sin. Clergy were not to live in a house with any woman who was not a wife, mother, sister, or aunt. Those who renounced Christianity under persecution, or who were guilty of usury, should be deposed.
Those who had denied the Christian faith while being persecuted and had returned to the church should undergo a period of penance and be catechized for three more years. Until then, they were not to receive communion, unless they were about to die.
Of course, pray; that goes without saying. But on Sundays, pray standing, to picture Christ’s resurrection!
Historical circumstances led the Council to make these particular decisions. To appreciate the decisions fully requires one to understand these circumstances. To do that, however, is beyond the scope of this article.
These decisions are the beginning of a written church polity, an application of scriptural principles regarding church office, church worship, and discipline. The Council of Nicea, then, broke ground in two areas: in church polity, and in drawing up a creed to express positively what the church taught over against error.
The history of the church from Nicea to today is the history of the church developing in her understanding of both revealed truth and church polity. The church of Nicea’s day is a case in point. She had begun to understand significant aspects of doctrine: Christ is God. She would next face the question whether the Holy Spirit is also God. The history of the church facing that question brings us to the Second Ecumenical Council, that of Constantinople, in 381.