Early Church Councils and the Negation of Vatican ll

The Church was at the beginning a rag tag bunch of disciples who constantly misunderstood Jesus and His mission when He was walking beside them during His earthly ministry. After the death and resurrection of Jesus great things began to happen upon the descent of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus, Jesus told the Apostles that the Holy Spirit, (also called the Paraclete), could not come to them unless Jesus returned to Heaven and sent the Spirit to them. The Holy Spirit is the true founder of the Church and it is the actions and tender loving care of the Holy Spirit that has caused the Church to grow, to thrive and indeed to survive through very difficult times throughout history.

Early Christianity was troubled with heresies ( a heresy is an idea that is proven to be a false teaching), such as Gnosticism, Marcionism and Montanism. The Early Christians were often persecuted and sometimes martyred by being thrown to the lions, stoned to death or crucified. We know that Stephen was martyred by stoning as Paul tells us in scripture that he was watching the coats of Stephen’s murderers. Sometimes people call St. Stephen the first martyr of the church but I strongly dispute that and say that Jesus was and is the first martyr of the church, Stephen was and is the second.

In Acts 15 we learn about a council that was held by the apostles, which is probably where the idea of Ecumenical Councils began this council was held in Jerusalem and it centered on resolving the problem of having new converts circumcised.

After this first council of apostles and wise members of the brethren the early church continued to hold Ecumenical Councils to help resolve issues that caused division between members.

The first five councils were:

¨  Council of Nicaea 325 A.D. Affirms two natures of Christ (Divinity and Humanity) Establishes Nicene Creed

¨  Council of Constantinople 381 A.D. Affirms Nicene Creed. Establishes concept of Trinity.

¨  Council of Ephesus 431 A.D. Clarified the nature of Jesus. Fully man and fully God.

¨  Council of Chalcedon 451 A.D. Affirmed the full humanity, full divinity of Jesus named Him the second person of the Trinity, the first being God, the third being the Holy Spirit.

–  Council of Nicaea 11 787 A.D. Restored the veneration of icons.

There is no real record of when the Papacy began and came to have the power and control that it had over all of Christendom, the Papacy held onto this power until the split with Constantine in 1054. This became known as the Great Schism, between the Western Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Eastern Church refused to recognize the Pope as the Supreme Head of all of the Church. This split in the Church is ongoing today.

In the beginning of the Papacy, the Pope’s were accorded honour due to their being chosen as the successors of Peter, but they had no real authority. It is believed that the authority came when in the year 756, Pepin the Short, the Franken king donated a great deal of land to the Papacy and this was used for the foundation of the Papal States. After this the popes became powerful land owners as well as rulers in the ecclesiastical sense.

The Schism known as the Western Schism which lasted from 1378 until 1417 was within the Roman Catholic Church and was because there were popes who resided in Avignon and popes who resided in Rome. Catherine of Sienna (who has since been named a Doctor of the Church,) wrote to the pope and told him that it was not right for any pope to be residing outside of Rome and this is believed to be a contributing factor to the papacy returning to Rome.

Through the centuries there was much corruption in the leadership of the church alternating between those popes who tried to rid the church of corruption, and those who participated willingly in immorality. No pope was able to successfully deal with the corruption because so many bishops, cardinals and those known as princes of the church were heavily involved in leading immoral lifestyles.

In 1517 the Protestant Reformation began when Martin Luther posted his 96 treatises on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther was very angry about the sale of indulgences to poor people and the money being used to line the pockets of rich clergymen. It was not Luther’s original intention to cause a split in the church but that is what happened when the Church excommunicated him at the same time saying that there would be no penalty to anyone who would kill him. (The corruption in the Church was so great at that time that even condoning murder was acceptable to those in power.) Luther’s theology challenged the authority of the papacy by holding that the Bible is the only infallible source of religious authority and that all baptized Christians under Jesus are a universal priesthood.

The Protestant Reformation made it very plain for all to see that a Counter Reformation was required by the Church. The Council of Trent was held from December 13th, 1545 and ended on December 4th, 1563. Several condemnations were issued against “Protestant heresies’ and many Church teachings were clearly outlined and defined in areas of Scripture, Tradition, Original Sin, Justification, Sacraments, the Eucharist in the Holy Mass and veneration of saints. Many reform decrees were issued. By responding and defining Catholic doctrinal teachings on salvation, sacraments and the Biblical canon, the Council of Trent was responding to Protestant complaints and arguments against Catholic doctrine.

Vatican 1 was held from 1869 to 1870 it lasted only ten months and it ended abruptly due to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war and was never officially closed or ended. One of the most controversial teachings to come from this council was the declaration of the Pope as being infallible and this caused another schism in the church this time the split was between Roman Catholics and the Old Catholic church.

Vatican ll was the most recent of the Councils it was called by Pope John 23rd a very beloved and simple man filled with love and wisdom. The council lasted from 1962 – 1965 and caused much excitement among ordinary Catholic people who became known as the ‘People of God’ and were thus meant to have a greater voice in the Church. This Council changed many things about the Church for example the Mass was now spoken in the vernacular (language) of the local people. The priest no longer had his back to the congregation. Many beautiful documents came out of Vatican 11 but many of them have not been implemented. The Church was thrown into turmoil as Vatican 11 became part of the consciousness of ordinary people. People at that time in the 1960’s were rebelling against all forms of authority. It was a time where people espoused statements like ‘make love not war’ and ‘if it feels good do it’ there was a hunger to be free of restraint and authority.

   100,000 priests and an estimated 800,000 nuns have left the Church since the conclusion of Vatican ll because they expected changes to the clergy such as the Church allowing clergy to marry, unfortunately this did not happen. [6] Many were upset at the Church restrictions against Birth Control, such as refusing to allow women to use the Contraceptive Pill, and if women did use the Pill they were in danger of being excommunicated, (expelled from the Church). This was seen as an attack against women who have always borne the brunt of raising children.

Also there was an expectation from the Council that change would allow women to enter the Roman Catholic priesthood. The Council did not tackle these very important issues and as a result in the last fifty years has lost at least one million members of its clergy worldwide. There are no figures to account for how many lay Catholics left the Church at that time. Recently a prominent Canadian Arch-Bishop stated that the membership in the Roman Catholic church has fallen by 50% since Vatican ll. This could be a direct result of the Church’s recalcitrance in the implementation of many of the recommendations that came about as a result of this modern day council.

This mass exodus of clergy and lay people, would appear to be a sign that the Church hierarchy is not listening to its’ clergy or to the ‘people of God’ or the voice of the Holy Spirit who speaks through clergy and ordinary members of the Church as well as the hierarchy. The great apostasy, (falling away of members), that the Roman Catholic church is currently experiencing is partly due to Church leadership trying to hold on to the old ways of doing things and holding on to their power base, instead of truly listening to the voices of the ‘people of God’ and the constant urgings of the Holy Spirit who is their teacher and inspiration. If we truly remember Jesus’ words when speaking of His kingdom we would know that whatever is diminishing our Church membership and negatively affecting our faith is not from God. Jesus told us that He does not want to lose even one of His sheep.

   He (Jesus) told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.” Matthew 13: 31-32[7]. Our church has stopped growing and this is an obvious sign that something is seriously wrong and must be addressed.

The Roman Catholic Church throughout history has survived much corruption, scandal, sins, schisms, heresies, blasphemies, calumnies, persecutions and several attempts to completely destroy her from without and within. Yet the Church survives. The Holy Spirit leads the Church forward. It is time for the Church leadership to truly repent of the arrogance it has shown down through the centuries towards its’ members particularly its’ women members, to its’ own clergy, to other faiths and of course to the Holy Spirit for all the times it has chosen to listen to the voices of power and control and not the voices of submission and obedience that God calls all of us to hear.

The Church in history is a tale of great good being accomplished through its’ teaching monasteries and schools. Amazing Theology coming from great thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas, Gregory the Great, St. Augustine of Hippo. St. Clement of Alexandria etc., their Theology is still being applied and taught to students of Theology worldwide and to members of all Christian and non-Christian denominations today. We call them Fathers of the Church.

The Ecumenical Councils brought excellent teachings and explanations of the complexities of our faith, defining such undefinables as the Trinity, inasmuch as that is humanly possible. Great good has come from Martin Luther protesting against Church corruption. It helped bring about the Counter Reformation. This proved that the Roman Catholic Church is in need of correction at times. Martin Luther and his printing press helped bring the Bible to millions of people in their own languages and that was and is an amazing gift. So I believe that God can and does bring great good even from divisiveness.

Jesus:  “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am,to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them.’John 17:20-26 [8] These Scriptures teach us that the true longing of Jesus’ heart is unity among His followers.

Church history has taught me that no matter what the consequences it is always better to speak the truth than be silent. It is better to offend the Church hierarchy than to ignore ones’ own conscience and risk offending God. There is a time to be obedient and there is a time to be strident in proclaiming the true Gospel of Christ. If history is written by the victors perhaps going deeper into the real stories of history would bring more clarity to the past and more insight to the present day Church and allow one to have a more authentic experience of Church as it was revealed by Christ in the Gospels, which would be a Church which welcomed the poor, women, outcasts, lepers, and sinners who found redemption through the compassion and forgiveness offered by Christ.

   Studying Church history has brought me to the awareness that sometimes the course the Church has embarked upon has to be corrected for the good of all members. We must all walk humbly before our God and accept correction when it is offered. All members of the Church have a voice and must use their voice for the good of the whole Church in whatever way God calls them to use that voice. Jesus Himself said, “Let them be one as you and I are One.” One in all things save sin. Listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit is the only true way forward.



[1]  “The Papacy.” Questia Encyclopedia. Available from http://www.questia.com/library/encyclopedia/papacy.jsp. Internet; accessed11 December 2008.



  1. Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says, 3 vols., (St. Louis: CPH, 1959), 88, no. 269; M. Reu, Luther and the Scriptures, Columbus, Ohio: Wartburg Press, 1944), 23.
  2. Luther, Martin. Concerning the Ministry (1523), tr. Conrad Bergendoff, in Bergendoff, Conrad (ed.) Luther’s Works. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1958, 40:18 ff.


[4] Trenkle, Franz Sales (2003-03-03). “Council of Trent“. Retrieved on 11 December 2008

[5] Norman P. Tanner.” Decrees of the First Vatican Council.http://www.piar.hu/councils/ecum20.htm. Internet; accessed11 December 2008.

[6] Batchelor, Suzanne. “Women leave church to answer call to priesthood.” Women’s News. Available from http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/1156/context/archive. Internet; accessed11 December 2008.

[7] Good News Bible, GNT, Canadian Bible Society,Toronto, 1994

[8] The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.


Church History – the Good, the Bad and the Desperate Need for Constant Reformation