What has been the canonical status of ecumenical councils in the history of the Church? Among the Orthodox there is a widespread opinion that the ecumenical council is the highest authority in the Church, to which local councils and the first hierarchs of local Orthodox churches are subject. Some see the difference between the western and eastern churches in the fact that the Roman pontiff is considered to be the highest authority in the west, while in the east this authority rests with the ecumenical council. This understanding does not correspond to historical reality. Ecumenical councils were never seen as the supreme authority in the Orthodox Church. For the almost three centuries before the convocation of the First Ecumenical Council, the Church had no conception of such a council. And during the twelve centuries that have elapsed since the end of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the Orthodox Church has survived without one. The basic role of the ecumenical councils from the fourth to seventh centuries consisted of the refutation of particular heresies that shook the Orthodox world at a given moment. One should not think that the Christian Church in the fourth through eighth centuries lived “from council to council,” since ecumenical councils were held irregularly, with intervals of twenty, fifty, one hundred or more years. Metropolitan Hilarion, Orthodox Christianity, p.61
Orthodoxy is not defined by the councils. The councils are for the refutation of heresy. Too many converts believe that Orthodoxy is like Rome, where the Church is defined not by the Spirit and her Saints, but by documentation. THe Orthodox Church is an organic reality that is able to grow in leaps and bounds, and is not limited to what has not been pontifically reported. The result of this type of growth is not without growing pains. Heresies will arise, and when they do, we can either point to previous councils, or gather another.
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