The 7th Council: The Place of Councils in the Church

Fr. Basil Zebrun

     On Sunday, October 16, Orthodox Christians will commemorate the Fathers of the 7th and last Ecumenical Council as recognized by the Orthodox Church.  Convened in 787 AD, Nicea II addressed the issue of icons, upholding the traditional practice of icon veneration as an expression of faith in the Incarnate Lord.  St. John of Damascus (675-749 AD) was a main defender of icon use during the 1st period of the iconoclastic controversy.  In his writings he expressed in advance the mind of the Nicean Council, the basic and essential connection between icons and God’s incarnation in the Person of Christ:

     “In former times God, who is without form or body could never be depicted.  But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with me, I make an image of the God whom I see.  I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter.  Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation…” (First Apology On Divine Images, 16. Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1980. p. 23).

     As with the case of icons, councils are an important part of Church life, an expression of the Faith.  Their significance is rooted in a Christian understanding of God, as well as in an appreciation for the natural bond that exists between people possessing a common humanity, and most especially for the unity that exists between members of the Body of Christ.  The Bible (Acts 15) records a gathering of the Apostles in Jerusalem, the Church's first council.  It was convened to address the question, “were Christians required to keep the Law of Moses and receive circumcision as a sign of faith?”  From that time forward – especially from the 2nd and 3rd centuries on – Christian leaders have utilized councils repeatedly as venues through which the Body is governed and the Faith articulated.  Historically the Orthodox Church has been called, “The Church of the Seven Councils” a title which refers to the great Ecumenical gatherings of the 4th through 8th centuries.

     Councils have been, and are convened at all levels of Church organization:  from that of the local parish to gatherings of bishops representing Autocephalous Orthodox Churches globally.  In the Orthodox Church in America (O.C.A.) we are accustomed to:  diocesan assemblies, diocesan councils, get-togethers of deanery clergy, parish and parish council meetings, not to mention gatherings of special Church committees and ministry groups.  Every three years the O.C.A. also convenes an All American Council.  Ecumenical Councils however, such as Nicea II, are recognized as the highest legislative bodies of the entire Church, made up of bishops and Church leaders throughout the world.  Ecumenical Councils are concerned generally with teachings, practices, disciplines and ecclesial order affecting the Church universal.

     With these things in mind we may address in more detail the question: “Why is such an importance placed on councils in Orthodoxy?”  The answer is multi-level.  Theologically it stems from an understanding of the Church as an icon (image) of the Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit.  The Trinity Itself is Council (if you will), a Community of Divine Persons whose “deliberations” are indicated at the beginning of Scripture: “Let us make man in our own Image, after our Likeness, and let them have dominion…” (Gen. 1:26).  Councils are not simply something that the Church has, the Church is council. Councils are an expression of the Church’s Trinitarian nature” (Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1978. pp. 244-245).  To remain true to itself the Church is obliged to convene councils so that its many diverse members may become one community, may express their unity as one people for the glory of God, manifesting the conciliar nature of the Church.

     In addition, the Church – as mentioned earlier – acts through councils because of the natural bond between people, the common humanity shared by all.  Our mutual connectedness leads to the actions of each person affecting everyone else in some measure.  A 17th century poet famously wrote, “no man is an island," words often quoted not only by lovers of literature and poetry, but by theologians as well.  In his work John Donne was essentially expressing a profound Christian belief articulated by St. Paul, that, "we are members of one another" (Eph. 4:25, Rom. 12:3-8, 1 Cor. 12).  As Christians we therefore seek to serve and to love one another as fellow human beings, as fellow members of the Body, brothers and sisters in Christ through Whom we are intimately united to God and to the neighbor.  Thus, it is only proper and in keeping with who we are – both as human beings and as Christians – that the faithful meet in council to discern the work of the Church.

     As it relates more to Church governance the question of councils is not answered simply in terms of representation. Councils do not exist merely so each person has a voice, or a say in “what goes on.”  As someone once said, “Councils are not merely a religious expression of democracy.”  On each level of Church organization, councils are made up ideally of those gathered in all sincerity to discern the Will of God.  Participants do not seek their own will; nor do they meet in order to secure the will of the people. Typically, the Books of the Gospel are placed at the center of these gatherings reflecting the standards by which councils are governed.  Prayers are offered at the start of each council and the Holy Spirit is invoked as the Guide through Whom Christ is made present and wisdom discerned, so that any decisions will effectively express God’s Will for the Church.  American dioceses and parishes even have general requirements printed in their by-laws for those who may officially participate in assemblies and councils.  The requirements exist because the Church desires that “people of good will” make decisions affecting its life, members who strive to place Jesus Christ as the first priority in their personal lives, and who carry that conviction into the Church’s council chambers.

     Taking all of the above into account, the commemoration on October 16 of the 7th Council held in Nicea gives us much to think about with regard to the place of councils in the Church.  The feast is an important reminder as well of who we are:  i.e. the people of God, bound to one another in Christ, possessing a common humanity, called to live according to the God’s Will, to seek and discern that Will, but to do so not in personal isolation, but within a living context of love and community.  We can recall here, what is chanted at each Liturgy just prior to the Creed.  These words indicate that love is the essential condition for expressing the common Christian Faith:   The priest exclaims: "Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess,” and the faithful respond:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, One in essence, and undivided.”