The Church Councils of the Emperor

The high drama of the first council of Nicaea has sadly been much neglected by playwrights. Not only is this event called "one of the most important in the history of Christianity" by Encyclopedia Britannica,1 but its powerful images cry out for the Shakespeares of the world to imprint them on the human imagination. Here is the regal emperor, casually retaining his leadership of the Roman state pagan religion, even its title pontifex maximus , as he coolly calls one major gathering of Christian bishops after another.2 He first exercised his power to gather the bishops to do his bidding because of a controversy in the Church, as though the emperor should have anything to do with it.

Here they come, walking through lines of imperial Roman soldiers who only twenty years before had presided over the latest round of the death and torture of Christian martyrs. They'd done it with the same cruel efficiency with which they had put the Savior to death three centuries prior.

Imagine the inner thoughts of one of those distinguished bishops as wonder fills his heart that perhaps after all the Kingdom of God has come to earth:

It is called the First Ecumenical, or universal, Council because it included bishops from the East and from the West. To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of his reign, Constantine invited the assembled bishops to dine with him. When those who had survived the great persecution filed between ranks of Roman soldiers to sit down with the emperor, one of their number wondered whether the Kingdom of God had come, or whether he dreamed.3

This was no ordinary gathering of clerics. Constantine didn't simply command them to come; he paid their expenses and even provided their means of getting there. In his famous Life of Constantine, the bishop and church historian Eusebius wrote of the gathering:

Nor was this merely the issuing of a bare command but the emperor's good will contributed much to its being carried into effect: for he allowed some the use of the public means of conveyance, while he afforded to others an ample supply of horses for their transport. The place, too, selected for the synod, the city Nicaea in Bithynia (named from "Victory"), was appropriate to the occasion. As soon then as the imperial injunction was generally made known...4

This "imperial injunction" was the compelling force that brought about the Council of Nicaea. Was the very setting of the councils their message? If so, then their statements of faith are insignificant in the history of Christianity in comparison to their setting. The bishops gathering at imperial expense, presided over by the emperor himself, whose decrees were upheld by his power, then becomes the essential message of the council. Almost every historian says the church married the state under Constantine, but maybe it did far more than that. Maybe it actually merged with the world.

These councils and the creeds that came forth from them are held in the highest regard in Christianity. They form the basis of identifying what is and what is not Christian faith, practice, and doctrine ever since. From then on, they have formed the foundation for all orthodox Christian "faith and practice."

The counsel that came forth at imperial command was argued in the most bitter, even violent terms, which resulted in exile or death for the losers, their books being burnt, their churches confiscated. All of these evils were manifested at the first of the Ecumenical Church Councils. The participants, in the obvious belief they were setting a pattern worthy of imitation, recorded them without any sense of shame. And as even a very limited knowledge of Church history shows, this pattern was followed.

The first of the ecumenical councils, that of Nicaea in 325, became a model for many that followed. It was ecumenical in the sense that bishops were summoned from the whole inhabited world. It was ecumenical in the more technical sense that its decisions were meant to be binding on all Christians, and not merely on those of this or that diocese or patriarchate. It was called in the face of the special crisis arising from the spread of the Arian heresy. It was conducted by means of free debate; but when the decisions were reached (e.g., to define Jesus Christ as "True God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the father"), the Bishops who were recalcitrant were subject to ecclesiastical excommunication and political exile. Although the emperor convoked the council, paid the expenses, was present at some of the sessions and punished the recalcitrants, it seems to have been understood that he had acted with the consent of the bishops and particularly, of Pope Sylvester.5

The seven ecumenical councils, which form the universal foundation for both the western and eastern branches of Christianity, followed this pattern. Like the first, they were called to do the bidding of the emperor. Six of those seven ecumenical councils either occurred in or near Constantinople, another reflection of their total domination by the secular power of the Eastern emperor.

The Curses of the Councils

The bishops called down curses on those who disagreed with them concerning the creeds. They were called anathemas in their creeds and in their dogmas, after the Greek word the apostle Paul used:

If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed. O Lord, come! (1 Corinthians 16:22)

The bishops at their councils called down anathemas on those with incorrect doctrine, while Paul had used it for something else entirely. He said those who didn't love the Savior were accursed, for their disobedience to His commands was destroying the very fabric of the church. In the gospels, He had very clearly defined loving Him as obeying Him:

If you love Me, keep My commandments... He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him... Jesus answered and said to him, "If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. (John 14:15,21,23)

The early church obeyed His commandments, which is why abundant grace was upon them all.6 They were able to forgive their enemies and live quiet, godly lives.7

Paul's use of the word anathema was based upon the Savior's words of instruction about those who would not listen to their brothers, but persisted on in sin:

Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that "by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established." And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)

That Paul understood excommunication to mean exclusion from the church alone is evident by these words, "not to keep company" with the immoral:

I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people... But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner -- not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore "put away from yourselves the evil person." (1 Corinthians 5:9,11-13)

A serious problem arose when there ceased to be an inside and outside in regards to the church and society. When the church encompassed society, and the emperor stood as head of both state and church, excommunication took on an entirely new terror. When the councils spoke of anathemas from the time of Constantine on, it was the state that would impose the full range of penalties of those under the curse of the church.

With the beginning of the Christian empire under Constantine and his successors in the fourth century, Christian authorities gained the opportunity to persecute their Jewish rivals and every other non-Christian group. From the time of Constantine to our own twentieth century, Christians have made frequent use of this opportunity.8

Coming under an anathema (a curse) could mean one, more, or all of the following: losing your priesthood or other office (even of government), having your possessions confiscated, having your writings burned, being exiled, being tortured, and ultimately, being executed. Such a curse could befall you for a mere turn of phrase. The Nicene Creed of AD 325 ends with the words:

But, those who say, Once He was not, or He was not before His generation, or He came to be out of nothing, or who assert that He, the Son of God, is of a different hypostasis or ousia, or that He is a creature, or changeable, or mutable, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.

The Second Council of Constantinople ends with the following words. The theology is abstruse, but the curses are very readily understood:

...If anyone does not confess that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are one nature or essence (reality), one power or authority, worshipped as a trinity of the same essence (reality), one deity in three hypostases of persons, let him be anathema. For there is one God and Father, of whom are all things, and one Lord Jesus Christ, to whom are all things, and one Holy Spirit, in whom are all things.

Subsequent councils also ended with anathemas , not only against errant Christians, but even against the Muslims, calling forth the Crusades.9 Do you suppose that the Second Vatican Council in 1963 would have been held in such esteem by the world's press if the assembled cardinals and bishops had called upon the nations of the European Union to punish dissenting churchmen and heretics as past rulers had? Of course not! They would have cried in horror, "Intolerance! Murder! Bigotry! Persecution! God is not in your midst!" And so did many in the past, just before they were silenced, exiled, or burned at the stake. Why is it always those with "good doctrine" who persecute and kill those with "bad doctrine"?

You will know a Tree by its Fruit

So, is this intimate cooperation and compromise with worldly power, which is all the Seven Ecumenical Councils can be called, a good tree from which to pick fruit? Can the obvious conclusion be avoided that such collusion undermines the integrity of the councils to judge spiritual matters? Or to put it another way, were they only natural men, devoid of the Spirit?

Agreement with the historic creeds is considered one of the foundational proofs of orthodoxy in the Christian religion. But the Son of God said that genuineness is known by the fruit it produces.10 He said His disciples would be known by their love.11

A "watchdog" of modern heresies and advocate of the historic creeds once wrote, "Biblical love is the hallmark of a truly vibrant Christian witness, however, love is always the handmaiden of sound doctrine and not the other way around."

Therefore, if the ecumenical councils indeed formulated sound doctrine, the councils themselves and the fruit which came from them would be as undeniable a witness and testimony of love as the creeds are true to what the Bible teaches. Sound doctrine would not be without her handmaiden, love.

Some of the earliest participants - as early as the fourth century - saw so much personal animosity and selfish ambition at the councils they sought to avoid attending them whenever they could:

"Venerable bishops," said Gregory of Nazianzus ironically, "who put their personal squabbles before questions of faith... For my part, to speak the truth, I prefer to avoid all councils of bishops. I have never seen a council which ended well or cured evils - on the contrary."12

Was the handmaiden granted a leave of absence during the councils? Some would say Christian history proves she's been granted a nineteen-hundred-year leave of absence.

  • 1. "The 5th century historian Socrates declared that the Nicene fathers could not depart from the truth because they were enlightened by the grace of the Holy Spirit. The Councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451) declared that the decisions of the Council of Nicaea were unalterable." Encyclopedia Britannica , Vol. 6, p. 633 (1971).
  • 2. "The rise of the Donatist schism of North Africa was the occasion for introducing the secular element of imperial authority into the conciliar system. The Emperor Constantine, not yet baptized, and, therefore, without any rights in the Christian society of the church, convoked a council in Rome in 313, to settle the rival claims of Caecilian and Majorinus, the Donatist, to the see of Carthage. Though the decision of the council was made under the presidency of Pope Melchiades, the right of the emperor to convoke the synod passed unchallenged . It was Constantine who convoked the larger council of Arles in 314, to which Bishops from distant Britain were summoned." ( Encyclopedia Britannica , Vol. VI, pp. 587-588, 1957)
  • 3. Roland H. Bainton, Christianity (American Heritage Library, 1964), p. 9
  • 4. Eusebius, Vita Constantini, Book III, ch. 6ff.
  • 5. Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. VI, pages 587-588 (1957)
  • 6. Acts 4:32-34
  • 7. Acts 7:59-60 and 1 Timothy 2:1-2
  • 8. Marc Edwards in Luther's Last Battles, Politics and Polemics, 1532-1546 , page 117.
  • 9. The Ninth (1123), Eleventh (1179), Thirteenth (1245), and Eighteenth (1512-1517) all called for crusades of one kind or another.
  • 10. Matthew 7:16-20
  • 11. John 13:34-35
  • 12. Encyclopedia Britannica , Vol. 6, p. 634 (1971).

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