Pre-Ecumenical Councils

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What are they?

These are early meetings in the church history when Christians have met up to discuss/condemn either a form of teaching or individual for what they practice that does not align with the Christian Faith. Jesus Christ warned of false teaching, so the church where ready for it’s continuous abounding in their culture.

Why are they different from the Ecumenical councils?

In simple terms, they are church meetings that were not universal but local, regional or just within either the west/eastern sides of the church. The ones discussed here pre-date the Council of Nicaea and we can see what they discussed, what conclusions they came to and if they dictated a New Testament canon. 

For terminology’s sake, Some of these councils when you look into them, though I’ve avoided the confusing language, wrote “canons”, this is not the same as the New Testament Canon but tend to be a canon of say, ethical principles etc. 

Examples Old disagreement with Apostle Paul

  • How should the Lord’s supper be taken?
  • How should men and women dress and present themselves during church services?
  • What is the role of men and women in the family and in church?
  • Should we participate in the world or remove ourselves from it?
  • How are the gifts of the spirit to be practiced?
  • Who really leads the church? Do we pay them?
  • What about baptism?
  • What will the resurrection be like?
  • What about tithes and offerings?

What does scripture tell us to do?

There are several Biblical statements that would indicate the value of such a council when it comes to addressing false teaching and defending the truth and preservation of the New Testament. Here’s just a few as to why the Church councils might focus on preserving core Christian doctrine.

2 Timothy 4:1-4

  • tells us to defend the truth
  • This is motivation to make sure we understand it and defend it

Titus 1:9

  • qualifications for elders
  • To be of sound doctrine
  • To rebuke those of false teaching

2 Thessalonians 

  • Remain in the truth of the apostolic teaching
  • Don’t add to what’s been given, Jesus had to deal with the Jews doing that!

Jude 1:3-4

  • He warns that false teaching has crept into the church
  • Be on your guard against ideas that do not align with the Christian message

2 Timothy 2:23-26

  • Stand for the truth, don’t associate with those stirring up trouble
  • Have nothing to do with foolish needless controversies

Galatians 16:6-9

  • The real enemy is a false Gospel, not persecution

With this in mind, let us explore three examples of contentious issues in the church that show why church councils were so fundamental. When a Church spreads so fast, in separate locations, sometimes not linked directly (i.e. church in Lyon to the Church of Rome) different ideas can thrive if not addressed by the wider Christian body.

Three key areas of contention leading to the pre-ecumenical councils

The councils of the church following the one in Jerusalem arose due to challenging issues, as was the Gentile-Jew relationship we see described in Acts 15. The three big issues to highlight within the church were Marcionism, Montanism & Novatianism

Marcionism ~ 144AD

Marcion was the son of a bishop, lived in Rome and was later excommunicated in 144AD. Marcionism was the view that the God of the Old Testament was irreconcilably different from God of the New Testament. “The Old Testament God is unknowable, wrathful, and just New Testament God is revealed, loving and gracious” is what Marcion might say. He rejected the Old Testament in its entirety and rejected any portion of the NT writings that had an Old Testament feel.

This significance of Marcionism was triggering the church to establish a universally agreed upon New Testament Canon and read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament. Sometimes bad things bring out the best in people, and the early church realised that what those confident in the first century of the texts, needed to make sure they would make it clear for the next generations. 

Marcionism, though almost 2,000 years ago, as an idea, stalks many Christians today who do often divorce the Old Testament side of God and almost deal with it as an area they’ll “get to” one day. 

Montanism ~ 156-172AD

Montanus was an early church leader in Asia Minor who emphasised purity in the church and separation from the world and “new prophecy” which is the continued revelation of God through ecstatic manifestations of the spirit (Montanism). He claimed that non-adherents to the “new prophecy” were blasphemers. Many churches split over the issue. In 177AD he was condemned by a local synod in Asia Minor. However a synod in Gaul determined his teaching should be accepted in moderation. He was never unanimously accepted or condemned though the mainstream church avoided his teaching.

Further on from this council was the church more universally realising the value to form a widely agreed upon canon and keep Christ and the Gospel at the centre of the Christian faith. 

Novantianism — 251 – 258AD

 Novatian was a Roman theologian and Bishop and was sound theologically. The view of Novatianism was demanding a higher level of purity in the church. Ultimately he believed that the church welcome apostates back to the church, many of these turned to Roman gods during great years of persecution under pressure. He viewed that it was God alone who could grant forgiveness, not the church. The significance of this was the challenge of the Pope or Bishops authority to forgive sins, God alone forgives sins. You can see how this could be a precursor to the reformation and the papal schisms.

Bruce Shelly summarises the value of these such uprisings, for what they triggered were for Christians to not just pass down these traditions separately but bind them together, they needed to set in stone what they had been preaching.

“Heretics, in fact, served the church in an unintended way. Their pioneering attempts to state the truth forced the church to shape ‘good theology’… Every planl in the platform of orthodoxy was laid because some heresy had arisen that threatened to change the nature of Christianity and to destroy its central faith…Orthodoxy arose from the conflict of the gospel with error.”

Bruce Shelly, Church History, 4th Edition

Councils timeline

The councils are split into two general periods, 50-324AD and then 325-787AD with the great church Schism happening in 1054AD involving the split of the east and the west branches of the church. We’re only interested in pre-325AD when it comes to the origins of Christianity and the New Testament, so these will be the councils we’ll explore below.

The First council

Council of Jerusalem, 50AD

So with the gathering of some crucial Christian figures to discuss the Mosaic law in it’s application to new Gentile believers. The Apostle Paul, Barnabas, Peter and James the brother of Jesus were some of the notable figures with James appearing to overseeing and casting the final conclusion on such a meeting.

What did they conclude?

  • Gentile converts to Christianity were not obligated to keep most of the Law of Moses, including the rules concerning circumcision of males.
  • The Council did, however, retain the prohibitions on eating blood, meat containing blood, and meat of animals not properly slain, and on fornication and idolatry, sometimes referred to as the Apostolic Decree or Jerusalem Quadrilateral.

Notable pre-ecumenical councils in a nutshell

Council of Rome 155AD

What did they discuss?

  • Quartodecimanism: When should we celebrate Easter?

What were the viewpoints?

  • Eastern Church – observed easter in accordance with Passover
  • Western church – Observer Easter on ”Resurrection Sunday”

What were the results?

  • They agreed to disagree

Second Council of Rome 193AD

What did they discuss?

  • Quartodecimanism: When should we celebrate Easter?

What were the viewpoints?

  • Eastern Church – observed Easter in accordance with Passover
  • Western church – observer Easter on ”Resurrection Sunday”

What were the results?

  • Victor, Bishop of Rome in the Western Church attempted to excommunicate those holding to the eastern doctrine

Council of Ephesus 193AD

What did they discuss?

  • Quartodecimanism: When should we celebrate Easter?

What were the viewpoints?

  • Eastern Church – observed Easter in accordance with Passover
  • Western church – observer Easter on ”Resurrection Sunday”

What were the results?

  • In immediate response to Bishop Victor, Polycrates presided over his own council of Bishops, which agreed to reject victor’s overreach. Irenaeus, Bishop of Gaul, helped intercede and calm the storm between east and west 
  • There was a growing divide between the churches of the east and the west. 
  • There was a growing divide over the reach of Roman authority

Councils of Carthage 251 – 484 AD

What did they discuss?

Apostasy —  How should apostasy be disciplined by the church?

Rebaptism — ever necessary or not?

Novatianism — see earlier

Councils of Carthage after Nicaea discussed additionally

Canon — Which books should be included in scripture

Donation — Demanded moral purity  and faithfulness from clergy — this led to a major divide in the North African church for centuries

Plagiarism — Denied original sin, claimed man is capable of choosing good without divine aid

Papal Primacy —. Denied that the bishop of Rome as “pope” wielded ultimate authority over the church

Synod of 251

  • Considering treatment of Lapsi (apostates who renounced their faith under persecution and wanted to come back)
  • excommunicated Felicissimus and five other Novatian bishops, and declared that the Lapsi should be dealt with according to the degree of individual guilt.

Hefele, 2nd ed., i. pp. 111 sqq. (English translation, i. Section 5, pp. 93 sqq.); Mansi, i. pp. 863 sqq., 905 sqq.; Hardouin, i. pp. 133 sqq., 147 sqq.; Cyprian, Epp. 52, 54, 55, 68.

Synod of 256

  • Pronounced against heretical baptism
  • Bishop of Rome repudiated this action
  • Strain between Roman and African sides of the church were strained as a result
  • Additionally discussed lapsed faith 

Councils of Antioch 264 – 269AD

What did they discuss?

  • Christology and Trinity — Modalism — one god operating in three modes or forms
  • Adoptionism — Christ is not pre-existent as God, but was “adopted” into Godhood during his ministry

What were the viewpoints?

  • Paul of Samosata, the bishop of Antioch, taught non-Trinidadian doctrine called monarchism. It took three forms:
  • Modalism — one god operating in three modes or forms
  • Adoptionism — Christ is not pre-existent as God, but was “adopted” into Godhood during his ministry

What were the results?

  • These views were rejected 

Council of Elvira 306AD

Focused on issues of church discipline and morality in the Christian life (Orthopraxy) addressed issues like:

What did they discuss?

Marriage — Only “equally yoked” Christian marriages

Idolatry — Strict discipline

Baptism — Those able to be baptised and the length of time base don past sin

The Lord’s Supper —. To be withheld as an act of discipline for sin

Repentance —. Designated appropriate penance for sins

Celibacy — church leaders forced to abstain, even from marital sex

Icons — No pictures in Worship services, so as to avoid idolatry

Excommunication — 

Attendance — discipline for missing church 3 Sunday’s

What were the results?

  • added many canons (not the Biblical canon, as in, bullet points on doctrine or teaching agreed on


  • Look to the references at the bottom of the wiki for the origins of the information

Synods of Neocaesarea and Ancyra 314AD

What did they discuss?

  • christian ethics 
  • church membership requirements
  • church discipline. 

The Council of Arles 314AD

After Christianity was made legal by Constantine, ethics and the entry of politics paved the way for the ecumenical councils for church leaders from across the christian world to meet and discuss these issues.

What did they discuss?

  • Donatism 
  • Easter 
  • Fights and races 
  • Re-baptism of heretics
  • Additional matters of discipline

What were the results?

  • Donatism condemned  
  • Easter — to be observed on the same day worldwide
  • Fights and races — Christians could not participate
  • Re-baptism of heretics — disallowed


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