Orthodoxy and council government

I’ve been curious about what it would take for Orthodoxy to reach a decision on an issue , say a heresy gripping the church. I’ve heard it been said that all Bishops must agree in a council for it to have any authority and its findings be implemented.

But how does this relate to the early church where never was there a council , that I’m aware of, where ALL the bishops present agreed.

Shouldn’t it be more accurate to say the traditional position is that majority opinion of a council rules?

From what I gathered, the Orthodox Church is unable to address new heresies that had not been covered in the seven Ecumenical Councils that are recognized by them, the last one being the Second Council of Nicaea (787). This is because they cannot have any new Ecumenical Council because of the schism, if the particular heresy needs an Ecumenical Council to resolve. They have new ‘in-house’ councils which are not ecumenical but merely explaining the Ecumenical Councils mentioned.

However the Orthodox bishops can make certain rulings by their authority ‘to bind and to loose’ and implement them as laws for their church.

Some practices in Orthodox Church may not be covered in the Ecumenical Councils but taken from teachings/rulings of early saints, for example, their practice of divorce and remarrying in certain marriage cases are taken from the rules set by St Basil the Great of the fourth century. These are not to be found in the councils, even in the internal Council of Trullo which rejects this practice. Thus the decision on this issue is depending on the authority of the Orthodox bishop ‘to bind and to loose’.

Councils in the Church seek to reach neither “compromise” or “majority rules” but rather they seek to reach consensus. That is, they seek to humbly and prayerfully find the most true and correct expression on an issue from among the various viewpoints of it’s members. In this the councils (large and small) from the very beginning in Acts 15 have sought to express what “seems good to the Holy Spirit” (Acts 15:28), and not just what the “majority” believe.

Of course as you say there has never been a council where all the Bishops agreed…but we can say that there have been councils where all of the Bishops submitted fully to the will of the Holy Spirit in speaking through the Church.


Whether an Council is ecumenical in the Orthodox Church is somewhat open to debate to a degree. As Reuben J stated, most Orthodox recognize the first seven Council up to Second Nicea. However, many Orthodox recognize an Eight Ecumenical Council, the Fourth Council of Constantinople. Wait, you say. Wasn’t that a Catholic Ecumenical Council? No, the Catholic one, from 869-870, deposed Patriarch Photios. The Orthodox one, from 879-880, reinstated Patriarch Photios as well as condemned the Filioque as heresy. The Eighth status was later confirmed by the Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs, which again called the Filioque heretical.

Also, as Reuben J stated, the Orthodox Church does refer to the Ecumenical Councils, Early Church Fathers and the Saints to correct heresy. This was the case when the Lutherans corresponded with Patriarch of Constantinople Jeremias II in three letters. A slightly more direct approach can be taken if a bishop or even Patriarch is seen as having taken heretical views. This was the case in the Synod of Jerusalem, where the Orthodox Church used a forged book supposedly written by the Patriarch of Constantinople Cyril Lucaris to refute Calvinism.

Not quite right. Canon 2 of Trullo approved the canons of St. Basil, making them officially part of canon law. Arguably, they were probably already part of canon law by Canon 1 of Chalcedon (that is to say, canon 2 of Trullo likely confirms and expands canon 1 of Chalcedon, rather than adding a bunch of things to canon law which were not already part of it), but since canon 1 does not make explicit which canons of the fathers it is referring to, unlike canon 2 of Trullo, it is impossible to know.

While canon II of the Council of Trullo does mention about ‘certain adulterous matter’, it was ambiguous about divorce and does not mention it at all. The Orthodox Church needs to refer to St Basil’s canon ( as claimed by the Orthodox).

**Canon II Council of Trullo**

But formerly through the agency of those who erred from the faith certain adulterous matter was introduced, clean contrary to piety, for the polluting of the Church, which obscures the elegance and beauty of the divine decrees in their present form. We therefore reject these Constitutions so as the better to make sure of the edification and security of the most Christian flock; by no means admitting the offspring of heretical error, and cleaving to the pure and perfect doctrine of the Apostles.

Canon XCIII of Trullo, the only time it is more specific about divorce seems to contradict this practice. So it is left to the discretion of the Orthodox bishop to grant it by his authority ‘to bind and to loose’.

For a bystander this is rather confusing. If Trullo confirms the canons of the early Saint, it seems to certainly oppose some of them. So probably it does not agree to the entire of the earlier canon thus putting the decision on the bishop to make his discretion if he wants to implement it (the earlier canon of the saint).

This again is incorrect, canon II of Trullo accepts the canons of Basil without exception, and forbids anybody from transgressing or disregarding them.

But we set our seal likewise upon all the other holy canons set forth by our holy and blessed Fathers, that is, by the 318 holy God-bearing Fathers assembled at Nice, and those at Ancyra, further those at Neocæsarea and likewise those at Gangra, and besides, those at Antioch in Syria: those too at Laodicea in Phrygia: and likewise the 150 who assembled in this heaven-protected royal city: and the 200 who assembled the first time in the metropolis of the Ephesians, and the 630 holy and blessed Fathers at Chalcedon. In like manner those of Sardica, and those of Carthage: those also who again assembled in this heaven-protected royal city under its bishop Nectarius and Theophilus Archbishop of Alexandria. Likewise too the Canons * of Dionysius, formerly Archbishop of the great city of Alexandria; and of Peter, Archbishop of Alexandria and Martyr; of Gregory the Wonder-worker, Bishop of Neocæsarea; of Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria; of Basil, Archbishop of Cæsarea in Cappadocia; of Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa; of Gregory Theologus; of Amphilochius of Iconium; of Timothy, Archbishop of Alexandria; of Theophilus, Archbishop of the same great city of Alexandria; of Cyril, Archbishop of the same Alexandria; of Gennadius, Patriarch of this heaven-protected royal city. Moreover the Canon set forth by Cyprian, Archbishop of the country of the Africans and Martyr, and by the Synod under him, which has been kept only in the country of the aforesaid Bishops, according to the custom delivered down to them. And that no one be allowed to transgress or disregard the aforesaid canons…

The canons do not contradict each other, rather, they provide guidelines towards achieving the same end of saving one’s flock, which sometimes necessitates different approaches.*

We would approach things the same way those early councils did. Not everyone has to agree, they just have to, as someone already pointed out, reach consensus on the matter. If everyone had to agree, you’d never have anything declared heresy.

It would be up to the Bishops in the individual church to deal with that heresy. if that fails, appeal to the patriarch of Constantinople.

If the heresy is more prevalent and widespread that affect more than one individual churches, then as the respective Bishops will deal with it individually and come out with individual canon/solution. Won’t that be different canons for the same heresy? Granted if they consult each other and do it together but what about if they don’t, due to the nature of the heresy and the distance between the individual churches? Then the individual churches have to come out with their own respective canon. That may inevitably result in many different canons for the same heresy.

This response may seem a little bit simplistic but I think it’s an idea worth considering. The Orthodox Church has never been one for strict procedural laws responding to every single “what if” situation. The primary focus of the Ecumenical Councils was to address questions central to the faith, to provide a basic outline for what it meant to be Christian. In the past 1000 yrs, the Orthodox Church, evidently, has not faced a heresy crisis which required the summoning of an Ecumenical Council. The Church’s “ability” to summon such a council, however, if the need arose seems a little bit of a silly question - I think economy would win out on legalism if worst came to worst :smiley:

What would be the question central to the faith in the Orthodox Church? It is a fact that the Orthodox Church is not in communion with other churches notably the Catholic Church and even refuse to allow communion to Catholics. There is reasonable difference between the two Churches that result in that, at least from the Orthodox perspective.

So an Ecumenical Council is needed to address only heresy within the Orthodox Church. But isn’t it that the Orthodox Church is unable to call for such council since the Catholic Church with all her 23 rites are not in communion with the Orthodox? Does the Orthodox Church still consider that the Western Churches are still required to attend in order that the council to be Ecumenical or not?

Would not granting economy by the local bishops would amount to them being ‘popes’ in their own churches and how far they can grant economy? Some issues seems to be greater than what a local bishop should decide in his personal capacity.

Why would we need Catholics to call a Council?

If you are no longer part of the Church you no longer have voice in dealing with heresy.

It would be like saying Protestants should have a voice at Vatican I.

A lot of people, upon examining the ‘hows’ of Orthodoxy, seem very frustrated that they cannot pin down the reason why something that is obviously working, works.

Orthodox know Orthodoxy. “How far can a bishop extend eikonomia?” Well, we wouldn’t ask that. We know in certain situations if eikonomia can be extended, and in other situations it’s obvious to us that it cannot. It just comes from being Orthodox, from living in the medium of Orthodoxy. It is how the Holy Spirit works in His Church, how He gives her life and operates. :shrug: Explaining this to non-Orthodox is just very difficult to put into words.

Thank you. That would have answered my question. I hope that speaks for the Orthodox Church on this issue and not just your personal opinion.

One more question while we are at this. What is the definition of an Ecumenical Council? Say, if the Orthodox Church decides to convene one today, I mean hypothetically since I understand that she must have a reason for convening one and now she does not, who should attend or which church should be represented, for the council to be called ecumenical?

Can the Orthodox Church call herself the true Church and defends her doctrine if she does not address heresy committed outside the confine of her Church?


So it is difficult to explain. Okay I accept that. It just happens because it is Orthodoxy, no explanation needed. It is how the Holy Spirit works. So that’s how the Holy Spirit works in the Orthodox Church and nobody can question it. Of course there are claims by others that the Holy Spirit is at work in their churches but that besides the point.

I get it.

You sound offended or upset.

At any rate I never said nobody can question it, I’m trying to say why many people have a hard time understanding it and explaining it. I’m trying to say that there may sometimes be not a very easy to explain or understand or even logical reason why we would draw lines where we draw them. I’m not saying that non-Orthodox are stupid or unable to understand, I’m saying that rational thinking and logical reasoning only get one so far in Orthodoxy. I’m trying to explain, in as rational a way as I can (rational to a fellow Christian at least) that we will sometimes “just know” something, and that we believe that’s the Holy Spirit guiding us.

And of course there are claims by others that the Holy Spirit is at work in their churches - because He probably is. I don’t know where and I don’t know how and I can’t know those things. What I do know is how He works in Orthodoxy, and so I was telling you.

Dear brother Reuben,

I don’t think the comment highlighted above is fair. The fact is, the Catholic Churches MOST of the time works exactly the same way as the Orthodox Churches. The Pope’s primacy is only exercised in rather rare circumstances.

I believe a more interesting question is “If the papacy has worked for the Catholic Church since the inception of the Church, why would it not work for the Orthodox today?”

I think to the more intellectually-minded, the answer lies in the perception of the orthodoxy of the teachings of the Catholic Church, which the Pope represents. A papacy CAN work for the Orthodox, but only if the papacy is orthodox. Of course, that is where the whole issue lies. Catholics believe the teachings of the Catholic Church are orthodox, whereas many Orthodox don’t (notwithstanding the Absolutist Petrine misunderstanding of Catholic ecclesiology, which is unfortunately rather popular, even among Catholics).


My goodness, my friend, I am not offended or upset at all. :confused:I am questioning your religion, why should I be offended or upset? In fact I am so afraid with all my questioning or talking about the Orthodox that I may offend you all. I remember you walked out of the conversation in the other thread as I discussed issues of Orthodoxy.

here you couldn’t explain your belief and says it is the Holy Spirit at work to dismiss the question. I am amazed actually that you converted to a religion simply out of ‘instinct’ and could not articulate some of the important issues therein.

If you are open to this conversation, there is more that I can ask but some of the orthodox posters, TBH, are quite touchy on this subject, I have to tread it carefully. I don’t mean no harm. I am only interested to know about the Orthodox Church out of curiosity. I have been quite long in this Forum but have not participated in Orthodox threads because of lack of knowledge about it.

I have hard time to understand because I feel the Orthodox have little or wrong basis on some of her laws. You believe in ekonomia of divorce, remarriage and adultery. This has no basis in Christianity or one of misunderstanding to take the easy way out. I have said my reasons in saying so.

The Holy Spirit cannot work in many churches that do completely different and contradictory practices. Either they are right or they are wrong. So it is just claim, merely claim of having the Holy Spirit to justify their laws and practices.

I feel that all law and practices must pass the test of hard scrutiny but I can understand if you don’t want to go through that.

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