Are Religious Councils Approved by God?
THE word “council” brings to mind a well-known feature of local government. Terms such as “city council” or “town council” are readily understood. Less familiar, however, may be the term “religious council” or “church council.” Such an ecclesiastical council has been defined as “a representative church assembly with deliberative and often legislative authority in questions of faith, morals, and church discipline.”
Of the many religious councils held through the centuries, the Roman Catholic Church regards 21 as being ecumenical, and these range from the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E. to the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65. According to The Encyclopedia Americana, “ecumenical councils are called by the pope, who presides, determines the agenda, closes the council, and promulgates its decrees. . . . Together with the pope the ecumenical council is the collegiate organ of the church, and in union with him represents the infallible teaching authority of the church in matters of faith and morals.”—Volume 8, page 85.
In Search of Their Origin
Many ecclesiastical leaders believe that the religious councils of Christendom are comparable to the first-century meeting of the apostles and older men in Jerusalem. Thus, the later church councils are said to have similar authority to decide matters of faith and morals. (Acts 15:2, 6, 22) But have such religious councils been authorized by God? Has he approved of them?
Interestingly, at Mark 3:6 the expression “holding council” comes from a Greek word meaning ‘a meeting of people who express their opinions and counsel.’ In that verse, we read that the Pharisees ‘held council’ with Herod’s party followers in order to destroy Jesus. Surely God did not approve of that council! And Jesus warned his disciples against trusting such men. (Mark 8:15) Is similar distrust warranted in the case of Christendom’s religious councils?
Jesus also said: “By their fruits you will recognize those men.” (Matthew 7:20) Therefore, let us examine the fruits of various church councils.
Dominated by What?
According to The Encyclopedia Americana, regional councils instrumental in organizing Catholic churches in Spain, Britain, and elsewhere were “often called and dominated by the secular power.” General councils of religious leaders from the whole Roman empire “were unknown before the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.),” called by Emperor Constantine. British historian H. G. Wells suggested that Constantine brought politics and autocracy into an already deeply divided Christendom. Wells wrote: “Not only was the council of Nicæa assembled by Constantine the Great, but all the great councils, the two at Constantinople (381 and 553), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451) were called together by the imperial power.” But how could God approve of that, since true Christians do not try to mix their religion with politics but, rather, maintain strict neutrality?—John 17:16; James 1:27.
“Later general councils were frequently overshadowed by imperial church politics and the rivalry of the major patriarchal sees [areas controlled by a bishop or an archbishop],” adds The Encyclopedia Americana. Since such church councils were marked by ecclesiastical politics and rivalries, they bore no fruits of God’s spirit such as love and peace. Rather, they were marred by fleshly works that included “hostilities, bickering, jealousy, . . . selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions.” With reference to works of the flesh, the apostle Paul warned: “Those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God!” (Galatians 5:19-23, the Catholic New American Bible) Therefore, how can it be said that Christendom’s church councils have been approved by God?
H. G. Wells held that the spirit of Constantine dominated church affairs, and he observed: “The idea of stamping out all controversy and division, stamping out all thought, by imposing one dogmatic creed upon all believers, . . . is the idea of the single-handed man who feels that to work at all he must be free from opposition and criticism. The history of the Church under [Constantine’s] influence becomes now therefore a history of the violent struggles that were bound to follow upon his sudden and rough summons to unanimity. From him the Church acquired the disposition to be authoritative and unquestioned, to develop a centralized organization and run parallel to the empire.”
Charges of heresy proved to be a ruthless scheme to eliminate opponents who dared to defy Christendom’s church councils. Any who expressed differing opinions or even attempted to present Scriptural proof refuting the dogmas and canons (church laws) of the councils were branded as heretics.
The determination to stamp out opposition led to dreadful atrocities. Most of those pronounced guilty of heresy against the popular dogma of the council were burned at the stake, suffering the agony of a slow death as a public spectacle—supposedly in the name of Christ!
For instance, the Council of Constance (1414-18) was called to end bickering over who was the legitimate pope and to deal with the heresies of Wycliffe and Hus. Thirty thousand horses are said to have carried people to Constance for this great event. During the council, John Hus was tried and condemned, then turned over to secular authorities and burned at the stake.
What About Doctrine?
It is true that all genuine Christians “speak in agreement.” But this is not due to unyielding ecclesiastical pressure. Rather, it is because their beliefs and practices are soundly based on God’s inspired Word. (1 Corinthians 1:10; Acts 17:10, 11; 2 Timothy 3:16, 17) Yet, how do church councils fare when we consider their doctrinal decisions?
Although church councils may be whitewashed as milestones of theology, in the minds of many they have been gravestones marking blows destroying pure Christian teachings. To illustrate: In 325 C.E. the Council of Nicaea introduced the doctrine of the Incarnate Christ, or God-man. This denial that Jesus was in fact a man became one of the most misleading doctrines of Christendom. (Compare 2 John 7.) Why, it has turned millions away from Jehovah God to a confusing Trinity! None of the councils held thereafter made any attempt to rectify this error. Yet the Trinity doctrine is clearly unscriptural, for Jesus said: “The Father is greater than I am.” (John 14:28) Could God possibly approve of any council that obscured the truth about his identity and that of his Son?
A dogma established by one council might be overturned by another. For example, as indicated on the accompanying chart, the use of images in worship was rejected during a council at Constantinople in 730 C.E. But their use was reintroduced by later council action. Of course, the Bible shows that making and using religious images is idolatrous and unchristian.—Exodus 20:4-6; 1 John 5:21.
As also noted in the chart, among the doctrines endorsed at Christendom’s church councils were baptism of infants, imposed and required celibacy, purgatory, and hellfire. However, the Scriptures do not support infant baptism, such celibacy, and a fiery hell, nor do they make any reference to purgatory. (Matthew 28:19, 20; 1 Timothy 4:1-3; Job 14:13) Since those desiring Jehovah’s favor must worship him “with spirit and truth,” how could he approve of councils fostering false doctrine?—John 4:23, 24.
The Jerusalem Gathering
Concerning religious councils, Otto Karrer wrote: “Except for the so-called Apostolic Council [of about 49 C.E.], whose decision is part of the tradition of the divine, apostolic proclamation, all councils are products of the post-apostolic church. They do not belong to the period of the foundation of the church.”—The Councils of the Church.
Unquestionably, all the church councils of Christendom have differed greatly from the first-century gathering of the apostles and elders at Jerusalem. No power-hungry clerics were then present to place heavy yokes upon the necks of others or to fuel the flames of execution stakes. Rather, the fruitage of God’s spirit was manifested. The deliberations were spirit directed and in harmony with God’s Word. And that pattern for resolving Scriptural questions is followed by the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses today.
The letter that the apostles and elders of Jerusalem sent to fellow believers said in part: “The holy spirit and we ourselves have favored adding no further burden to you, except these necessary things, to keep abstaining from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication.” (Acts 15:22-29) These were not laws of mere human origin but were requirements based on earlier decrees of the great Statute-Giver.—Genesis 9:3, 4; Deuteronomy 5:8-10, 18; Isaiah 33:22.
That first-century meeting of the apostles and elders at Jerusalem had Jehovah God’s approval, for its decisions had his blessing, and it furthered the Kingdom-preaching work that brought many Gentiles into the Christian congregation. However, the facts of history give clear evidence that the church councils of Christendom have never been approved by God.
[Chart on page 26]
DOCTRINE APPROVED COUNCIL DATE
Baptism of Infants Carthage 253 C.E.
Celibacy Trent 1545 C.E.
Divorce for Adultery* Arles 314 C.E.
Divorce Forbidden Trent 1545 C.E.
Hellfire Lyons 1274 C.E.
Florence 1573 C.E.
Images Rejected* Constantinople 730 C.E.
Images Reintroduced Constantinople 842 C.E.
Nicaea 787 C.E.
Immaculate Conception Avignon 1457 C.E.
Incarnation of Christ Nicaea 325 C.E.
Chalcedon 451 C.E.
No Pulpit Preaching
by Laity Constantinople 681 C.E.
Purgatory Florence 1573 C.E.
Trent 1545 C.E.
Trinity Nicaea 325 C.E.
Only these doctrines harmonize with the Bible
Only these doctrines harmonize with the Bible