The first ecumenical council of the Christian church was held in A.D. 325 in Nicea, a city that today is known as Iznik, Turkey. A council is a meeting of church leaders from various congregations in different localities, at which the leaders address problems that are common to the churches.
As the early Christian church expanded, the need for councils became obvious: in a council the church would agree on matters of doctrine and practice, and respond with one voice to men who taught error or promoted evil. Regional councils, attended by representatives of churches in a geographic region, had been held already in the late 100s. But the Council of Nicea was the first to which representatives came from every area where Christian churches had been established. So it was called “ecumenical,” which comes from a Greek word referring to the whole inhabited earth. In fact, the eastern branch of the Christian church (centered in Constantinople) was more prominent than the western branch (centered in Rome) at this and other ecumenical councils.
Christians generally acknowledge the first seven ecumenical councils to have been important for all Christianity. These seven were the Councils of Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople (553), Constantinople (680), and Nicea (787).
To these seven, Rome adds fourteen more. She considers the Council of Trent (1545–1563), which defended Rome’s theology and practices over against the teachings of the Reformers, to be the nineteenth ecumenical council. The twenty-first is the Second Vatican Council, which met from 1962–1965.
The Reformers and Reformed churches generally agree that the first six ecumenical councils played important roles in the positive development of the Christian faith. The Reformed view the seventh ecumenical council less favorably because it approved the use of images in worship.
Future articles in this rubric will examine why these councils were held, what they decided, and why they were significant for the true faith.