Brothers and sisters in Christ,
Today our church commemorates the Holy Fathers of the first six Ecumenical Councils, so it would be beneficial to consider why they are considered so important. On the great day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit fell upon the timid apostles, who then went forth throughout the whole known world preaching the Gospel boldly. Although uneducated, being mostly fishermen, it was the Holy Spirit who overshadowed and prompted them and gave them the eloquence to spread salvation across many lands. St. Paul warned us though that there will be wolves in sheep's clothing, who will pervert and twist Christ's true teaching. In every generation there have arisen both false pastors and people with ears itching for different and novel doctrines.
So that Christians everywhere would always be taught the same thing and believe the whole truth without picking and choosing what they like or adding faddist interpretations the councils were called as a protection and confirmation of what the Church had always held and believed. Arius, Nestorius, Eutyches and a host of others taught new and different things, much of which was a reflection of their own egotistical reasonings. The councils were called to clarify in succinct terminology what we have always held and to point out contemporary deviations and having done that to condemn false doctrine and anathematize their perpetrators. As an example, Nestorius taught that Mary was the mother of Christ and rejected that she was the mother of God. Out of this council the term Theotokos, birthgiver of God was coined to describe the exact role of Mary. It may sound like a subtle distinction, but if Nestorius' teaching would be accepted then some might question is Jesus truly God and man at the same time. Who is Christ and who is the Holy Spirit are some of the things that the church had to delineate and define so that there would be no confusion. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed which we solemnly chant in church is a short catalogue of what we hold which was devised so that all Christians would affirm the selfsame list of beliefs.
Do not think that the holy fathers, gathered from throughout the worlds churches for such a council, were going to vote solely considering their own whims and reasonings. True they had different thoughts and approaches, but in voting they depended on the Holy Spirit to so influence and overshadow them that the true teaching would become manifest. This was not some human debating society that is making it up as they go along and can change belief again when the next council is called. Some of our Protestant denominations change beliefs and morals back and forth at their Synods radically from year to year, The Orthodox church is not that sort of democracy and certainly we do not hold with the concept of development of doctrine, which both Catholics and Protestants most certainly do. Suffice it to say, that over the early centuries when heresies and challenges arose seeking to divide the church and its faithful members, that the councils were called to address the issues and protect the church from grievous assault. The result of these actions is that the Orthodox Church teaches the selfsame doctrine everywhere and is not going to change from generation to generation. Just look at our Protestant friends by comparison. Often, even within a single denomination, belief and practice will differ from one congregation to another and I contend what that church held to in 1800 or 1920 differs from what it holds today. One can then truly ask, are they making it up as they go along and are these beliefs and practices solely man made and concocted?
Led by the Holy Spirit, the fathers at the six ecumenical councils sought not their own human reasoning when considering clarification of teaching. Prayerfully, seeking the Holy Spirits guidance, they considered first what had always been taught and in every place using the scripture and the tradition coming down from the apostles as a guide. They did not seek their own will or to devise anything totally new. Being Orthodox, you have the assurance that what you are being taught is what the apostles taught down through all the ages and that what you believe here is the same as taught and held in Ukraine, Japan, Greece, Bosnia, Brazil or anywhere where the Orthodox Church exists.
As an adjunct to this, out of these ecumenical councils also arose the basis of our Orthodox Canon law. Do not think that these fell from heaven and are a monument to the positive outreach of the Gospel. In truth, regulatory canons and laws arose because the holy fathers had to deal with nasty practices and misdemeanors of bishops, priests, monks and laymen who should already know better. In New Testament times the 600 some Old Testament regulations and even the enumeration of the ten commandments should not be on our mind. Why? If we are truly ruled by the law of love then we never will sin or break commandments. If I truly love you, I will not cheat or harm you, or steal from you and so forth.
The holy fathers had to attack and advise upon ingrown problems that were out of control in the church The church had to identify and rectify problems and deal strongly with perpetrators. For example, abortion was revealed simply as murder and those guilty were those not only who had it done on them, but those who did it or gave herbs or whatever to perform it. A grave social problem had to be identified and its seriousness underlined. Bishops encroaching on others territory, ordaining clergy wrongfully and every sort of ecclesiastical corruption had to be dealt with decisively. Again canon law arose because many hierarchs and lay people alike chose to go against the New Testament law of love and do their own sinful thing. Canon law then is a monument to the failure of many in the church to live up to its high calling.
In summation this celebrating of the holy fathers at the six ecumenical councils is a tribute that the Holy Spirit continues to overshadow and dwell in our church. The fathers gathered together did not seek or serve their own will, but it is the Holy Spirit that guides and protects our church. Amen.
Fr. John Harvey of blessed memory