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Jesus Christ promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide the Church "into all truth" (John 16:13). According to the Orthodox, this promise finds its most complete fulfillment in the ecumenical councils.

At ecumenical (from the Greek word for "worldwide") councils, bishops and clergy from across the church gathered to produce two types of rulings. Canons deal with administrative matters and can be changed by later councils. Horoi, doctrinal formulations, cannot; they permanently express authentic Orthodox teaching.

Through the centuries, Orthodox leaders have gathered in dozens of councils to discuss doctrine and practice. But the Orthodox believe there have been only seven truly ecumenical councils. Here are the main theological teachings and some sample canons passed by each council.

1. Nicea (325)


  • 318 bishops
  • Opposed the teaching of Arius by affirming that Jesus Christ is fully divine.
  • Issued the first version of the Nicene Creed.
  • Passed 85 canons: Rome is the first see of Christendom; various restrictions are to be placed on Christians who denied the faith under persecution; prayer should be offered standing.

2. Constantinople (381)


  • 150 bishops
  • Affirmed the divinity of the Holy Spirit, thus formulating the doctrine of the Holy Trinity: One God in three persons (hypostases), Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  • Completed final version of Nicene Creed (also called the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed).
  • Passed seven canons: bishops should not interfere in matters of other dioceses; the bishop of Constantinople is second only to Rome.

3. Ephesus (431)


  • 200 bishops
  • Rejected the teaching of Nestorius, affirming that Jesus Christ was one person with two natures.
  • Declared Mary the Theotokos, "Birthgiver of God."
  • Passed eight canons: bishops deposed by Nestorian bishops are to be reinstated; it is forbidden to alter the Nicene Creed.
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