Armenian Church Councils

In the early days of the Universal Church there arose a need to convene the hierarchy of the Church in a formal setting. The purpose was to make decisions regarding dogmatic issues facing the Church and to address the dissenters and sect movements.

The first three meetings convened by the Universal Church are called Ecumenical Councils. During her history the Armenian Church participated in and accepted the decisions of these three Ecumenical Councils - the first council was the Nicaean Council held in 325 AD, the second was the Constantinople Council in 381 AD and the third the Ephesus Ecumenical Council in 431 AD. All are recognized on our church calendar.

Councils which were local in nature whose decisions didn’t affect the Universal Church but were ratified only by one or several churches belonging to the Universal Church are called local or particular councils. Some local councils which are recognized together with their canons by the Armenian Church are the following: the Councils of Ankiuria (314), Neocaesarea (approx. 319), Gangra (approx. 340), Assyrian (or of Assyria) Antioch (341), Laodicean of Phrygia (343-381 (360)), Sardica (a. 343).

Besides attending the Ecumenical and Local Councils the Armenian Church convened many National Church Councils, where high-ranking church clergy gathered to make decisions over the inner order and structure of the Church, internal issues facing the church, and to answer various other questions. After the first three Ecumenical Councils it is through these National Church Councils that the Armenian Church expressed her official viewpoint on the theological, rite, canonical, administrative-organizational and other issues of the church.

Listed below is brief information about the Armenian Church’s most significant councils.

Councils of Ashtishat (352, 354, 435)

Convened by Nerses the Great in the city of Ashtishat, the Council was assembled to discuss several issues concerning the church and to review general aspects of Christian doctrine. The second part of the meeting was held In 374 to continue with the discussion of the same items. For the purpose of general regulation the councils at first accepted the canons called apostolic canons and then established definite canons for local needs. Here is a review of some that are significant:

  1. To open orphanages and homes for the poor in suitable places.
  2. To open inns in villages and provinces, so that the guests and foreigners wouldn’t be left without a place to dwell.
  3. To open hospitals and leprosariums. For these benevolent institutions the council set up taxes from crops, cattle, etc., supervisors were appointed for the trust work.
  4. To prohibit the burial of the dead with heathen traditions; the tearing of clothes, roaring loudly, but to believe in Resurrection and in the life after death.
  5. To be faithful to each other in married life, to avoid marriages between the relatives.
  6. To stay away from alcoholism, prostitution, killing, etc.
  7. To establish monasteries and convents. 

The 3rd council meeting was called in 435 by the efforts of Catholicos Sahag I and Mesrob Mashtots to discuss the decisions of the 3rd Universal Council of Ephesus and accept their decisions.

Shahapivan Council (444)

It was convened by Catholicos Saint Hovsep I. 20 bishops, many eminent clergymen, as well as the Govenor Vahan (Marzpan), Commander Vahan, Vardan Mamikonian, and numerous other noblemen in the Middle Ages in Armenia (nakharars) were in attendance.

The Council is known in history for the strictness of its decisions, especially towards the members of the Mtsghni sect who became very active after the death of Saints Mashtots and Sahag. The Council accepted 20 canons the greater part of which concern the clergy; Bishops, Reverend Fathers and Deacons. It regulated their inner life and established severe punishments in cases of violation. The acceptable degrees of marriage were established (after 4 generations, canon Number 13). It strictly prohibited both laymen and clergy from turning to witches and sorcerers. The canons concerning the members of Mtsghni sect were also strict. (Canon Numbers 19 -20).

The severity of this council was supposed to bring an end to the activities and events which were dangerous for the newly established church.

The Shahapivan council initiated the political rights of the Armenian Church and as such can be considered the first code of law in the Armenian nation.

Artashat Council (449)

The Council of Artashat was convened as an answer to Hazkert’s letter. With the help of the Armenians and the Armenian Church, the nation prepared for the battle of Vardan and his Companions. The content of that letter is represented in Eghishe’s History in detail.

The First Council of Dvin (506)

The synod of the Armenian, Georgian, and Caspian-Albanian bishops assembled at Dvin during the reign of Catholicos Babken I. The participation of the Catholicoi of Georgia and Albania were set to make clear the position of the churches concerning the Chalcedonic Council. The "Book of Epestles" mentions that 20 bishops, 14 laymen, and many nakharars participated in the council. The involvement in the council discussion of different level of lay persons seemed to be a general rule in Armenia.

The Second Council of Dvin (551)

The second Council of Dvin was ordered by Catholicos Nerses II of Bagrevand where definite rules and regulations were established and the Armenian Church Calendar was set.

18 bishops and nakharars took part in the council. The Chalcedonic Council decisions were officially denied during this Council and thus the ties with the Chalcedonic Churches were severed. The observance of the feast of Holy Nativity and Theophany was reinstated for January 6. The handwritten document, "The Vow of the Unanimity of the Armenian Land" was accepted. Nestorianism, and the Messelians and the Paulicians were all refuted and strict decrees were issued against them. The previously accepted 37 canons were established in the "Regulation of Armenia" as the canons of "Catholicos Nerses and Bishop Nershapouh of Mamikonians". Here are few of them: the 16th canon prohibits women to stand beside the priest and conduct services. According to the 19th canon in cases where the priest reveals the confession of someone, he is to renounce his holy orders. The 29th canon bans giving lodging and shelter to the members of any sect.

The Third Council of Dvin (609-610)

The 3rd Council of Dvin was convened during the reign of Catholicos Abraham I of Aghbatank and Prince Smbat Bagratooni, with clergymen and laymen participating. The Georgian Church was split from the Armenian Church and the Catholicos had repeatedly tried to turn to Catholicos Kurion of the Georgian Church. The council was convened to clarify the relationship of the Armenian Church towards the Georgian Church. After the Council, Catholicos Abraham wrote an encyclical letter addressed to the people where he blamed Kurion and his adherents for the split. The Council never set up canons; it only deprived Georgians from taking communion in the Armenian Church.

The Council of Karin (633)

Emperor Heraclius and Catholicos Yezr I met to discuss Armenian Byzantine church relations. The dogma of the one nature of Christ was accepted in the council as a bridge between Chalcedony and those who didn’t accept it. But later this dogma was renounced in the 6th Ecumenical Council. It also found no dogmatic ground in Armenia. The letter which had been signed by Catholicos Yezr was more a political obligation than a religious conviction.

The Fourth Council of Dvin (645)

It was convened during the Pontificate of Nerses III of Tayk. Seventeen bishops and many nakharars took part in it. Twelve canons were accepted (in the decree known as "The Canon of the Holy Council of Dvin"). The decree contained canons regulating the inner life of the church; and it established rights for the leaders of the church.

The Fifth Council of Dvin (648)

It was convened during the reign of Nerses III of Tayk. All the bishops and nakharars took part in the Council. The Council was summoned to give an answer to the Byzantine Emperor’s letter concerning the adoption of Chalcedony. The Council also planned to prepare a manual of faith for the faithful so that they would be ready to respond to those who followed the beliefs of Chalcedon. The Council also established twelve canons which regulated the rights and responsibilities of Bishops and the issue of financial provisions to the priests. In the sphere of marital rights it was stated to approve second marriages in cases where one of the spouses remained in oblivion and isolation for more than 7 years.

The First Council of Partav (709)

It was convened to discuss the matter of the Catholicos of Aghvank, Nerses Bakour, who was following the teachings of Chalcedon. Through the efforts of Catholicos Yeghia I, a confession message was created where the unanimity of the Armenian and Albanian churches concerning all the confession questions was established.

The Sixth Council of Dvin (719-720)

It was convened during the Pontificate of Hovhannes III of Odzoon. The council put the scattered canon decisions in the correct order and organized the "Regulations". 32 canons were established. Here the order of the services was regulated, some ritual canons were reestablished (Unlike the Greeks the observance of the Holy Nativity and Theophany and Epiphany was on the same day, on the 6th of January). Canons were set up against the sect movements of the Paulicians and Docetism. It was also ordered to revere the anointed cross and Savior images and to stay away from the members of sects (29th -30th canons).

The Council of Manazkert (719)

At this council some dogmatic questions were discussed which had been raised in the Assyrian Church, and led to divergence. The famous Armenian Theologian Translator Khosrovik took part in this Council. The goal of this council was to amend the divergences that had occurred between the two churches concerning the purity of the Savior’s body. The Assyrians accused the Armenians of following the teaching of Julian of Halicarnassus and the Armenians in their turn accused the Assyrians of following the teachings of Severus of Antioch.

The Council established 10 anathemas which refuted the teachings of Julian of Halicarnas and Severus of Antioch and their followers and reestablished the orthodox teaching of the Holy Trinity. As a result an alliance was created between the Armenian and Assyrian churches.

The Second Council of Partev (771)

It was convened by Sion I of Bavonk. The representatives of the Aghvank church also took part in the Council as Partav is the Headquarters of the Albanian Catholicosate. The council adopted 24 canons which concerned the church order and the rights and responsibilities of the clergymen. For example the 11th canon prohibited marriages with pagans, the 13th Canon - prohibits the second marriage, the 16th canon prohibits the marriage between relatives up to the 4th generation. The 24th canon established the canon of the Old Testament.

The Council of Shirakavan

The primary reason for convening the Council of Shirak was a letter to the Armenians received from Patriarch Photius of Constantinople concerning the adoption of chalcedony. Patriarch Photius had repeatedly tried to convert the Armenians living in his territory to Chalcedony and had unleashed persecution against Armenians. Catholicos Zachariah I of Dzak wrote a letter to Patriarch Photius stating that the Armenian faith was in agreement with the decisions of the first three Ecumenical Councils. In his reply letter Patriarch Photius tried to prove the orthodox character of Chalcedony and once again suggested that the Armenians should adopt Chalcedony. The Council of Shirak renounced Patriarch Photius’ suggestion and after stating the faith of the Armenian Church in 15 anathema, sent the reply to Patriarch Photius.

The First and Second Councils of Hark (1002, 1051)

These two councils refuted the Tondrakian movement. The first Council anathematized Bishop Hakob of Hark after accusing him of being adherent to the Tondrakian movement. The actions of these councils were of strategic significance in stopping the further spread of sect movement in Armenia.

The Council of Black Mountain (1114)

This council was to solve the disputes which arose regarding the Patriarchal See. The election and authority of Catholicos’ Grigor Pahlavouni was called into question by Bishop David Artsrouni of Aghtamar, because of the Catholicos young age. Bishop David was ordained Catholicos of the opposite See by several bishops who were in agreement with Bishop David. The council gathered the attention and participation of 2,500 clergymen, princes, nakharars and laymen. The council officially recognized Catholicos Grigor I Pahlavouni as the legal Catholicos. Bishop David could not agree with the decision of the Council and established the Catholicosate of Aghtamar. The action of this Council was to require that the election of the Armenian Catholicos could be considered valid only upon the agreement or ratification of the four Episcopal Sees of Armenia (Bjni, Haghpat, Artaz, Datev).

The Council of Rhomkla (1179)

The Council of Rhomkla was convened during the Pontificate of Catholicos Grigor IV Tgha to discuss the issue of unity between the Armenian and Greek churches. The relations between the two churches were strained, and the Greek Church demanded the adoption of a Chalcedonic Resolution and the additional Ecumenical Councils, which were not recognized or accepted by the Armenian Church. The Armenians were against accepting such a condition. 33 clergymen from Great Hayk and Cilicia were present at the Council. The Catholicos of Aghvank and the representatives of the Assyrian Patriarchate were also in attendance. The Bishop of Tarson Nerses of Lambron, the protector of peace and concord was present at the Council. On the one hand this Council condemned Monophysitism on the other hand it renounced also Diophysitism, the teaching that preached two wills, two influences, remaining faithful to the traditional belief of the Armenian Church.

The Council of Tarson (1196)

The Council of Tarson was convened during the Pontificate of Grigor VI Apirat, to continue the discussions on the problems between the Greek and Armenian Churches. The Council members adopted several suggestions offered by the Roman Catholic Church. Nerses of Lambron was the primary supporter of these actions, who at that time saw their acceptance as the only way path to reconciliation. But some points that were suggested by the Armenians to the Roman Catholic Church were never adopted. Also noteworthy is that no Archimandrites from Greater Armenia took part in the Council.

The Church Councils of Sis

The Church Councils of Sis were convened during the XIII-XIV centuries in the city Sis, which was then the capital city of the Armenian Kingdom in Cilicia.

The First Council of Sis (1204)

The First Council of Sis was convened upon the initiative of Catholicos Hovhannes VI of Sis, during which questions regarding the rituals were discussed and eight canons were adopted. The Armenian brother Princes Ivane and Zachariah were among the most influential figures of the time and Ivane’s conversion to the Greek faith posed a serious threat for the independence of the Armenian Church both in the Church and political spheres. With this in mind, Catholicos Hovhannes VI agreed to discuss the suggestions of Zachariah at the Council. The Council adopted eight canons, which allowed the following:

  • Canon A – To allow for the Divine Liturgy to be celebrated in the open air, under a tent as in the Georgian Church.
  • Canon B - To observe the feasts of Annunciation of the Holy Virgin Mary on the 6th of April, the Assumption of the Holy Mother of God on the 15th of August, and the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on the 14th of September as in the Georgian Church.
  • Canon C - To adopt the tradition of paying tribute to icons.
  • Canon D - To offer the Divine Liturgy not only for those who rest in eternal sleep, but also for those who are alive, as in the Georgian, Greek and Assyrian Churches.
  • Canon E - To prohibit Armenian clergymen from eating meat in response to accusations the GeorgianChurch.
  • Canon F - To order the Armenian clergymen to live in cloisters and have no property.

These canons were adopted to guarantee the independence of the Armenian Church and to avoid further conflicts with the other Churches. But most of the Oriental Archimandrites refused to even hear the decisions of the Council, and the protest caused the clergy to divide broke into two factions.

In order to resolve the differences, Prince Zachariah called a Council in Ani with the participation of Oriental Archimandrites (among them Mkhitar Gosh). The Council renounced the decisions taken by Sis, and considered it an adoption of Chalcedony. However, Prince Zachariah continued to abide by the canons of the Council, implementing them for the Armenians serving in the Georgian army.

The Second Council of Sis (1243)

The Second Council of Sis was called to discuss questionable conduct which was being reflected in the actions of laymen and clergy. The Council adopted 24 canons in order to improve on the morals and principles of the people. Particularly the number of generation separation allowed for marriage between relatives was changed to 6 (the prior level had been 4). The bridegroom was to be a minimum of fourteen years of age, and the bride a minimum of twelve years of age. Prostitution and adultery were denounced.

The Third Council of Sis (1251)

The Third Council of Sis was devoted to the discussion of the teaching of the theological formula of Filioque, which had been presented by the Pope of Rome who requested that the theory be accepted. The Council did not come to a final answer and the Pope’s suggestion was addressed to the Oriental Archimandrites for discussion. The Oriental Archimandrites finally renounced and never adopted the formula.

The Fourth Council of Sis (1289)

The Fourth Council of Sis addressed a political problem rather than a church one. Catholicos Constantine II of Katouk resisted and opposed the suggestion of Pope Nicolas IV of Rome the adoption of the Roman faith by the Armenians. His rejection of the suggestion caused King Hethum and Bishop Grigor of Anavarz to convene the council and proclaim the Catholicos dethroned.

The Fifth Council of Sis (1307)

The Fifth Council of Sis discussed the suggestions of Pope Crиmes IV of Rome, the adoption of the Roman faith in exchange for rendering military assistance to Armenia. Under the pressure of King Levon IV and the newly elected Catholicos Constantine III of Caesarea, the Council adopted the Roman faith and, agreed to join the Roman Church. The oriental Archimandrites opposed the decision of the Council and did not obey. A period of rebellion began which was followed by the sixth Council of Sis and the Council of Adana.

The Sixth Council of Sis (1309)

The Sixth Council of Sis has held to specifically renounce the decisions of the 5th Council of Sis, whereby the Armenian Church was to join the Roman Catholic Church. The original decisions were never adopted by the Oriental Archimandrites and the decision was only enacted on paper.

The Seventh Council of Sis (1345)

The Seventh Council of Sis was convened by Mekhitar I of Grner. In expectation of receiving military assistance from the West it formally accepted the motion of the Pope of Rome to join the Catholic Church. When the assistance was not received, the opposition was strengthened and the decisions of the Council remained unfulfilled.

The Eighth Council of Sis

The Eight Council of Sis was summoned by King Constantine IV and Catholicos Mesrob I of Artaz. It abolished the decisions of the 6th Council of Sis and the Council of Adana and all the related changes. It re-established the message of remaining faithful to the beliefs of the Armenian Church.

The National Church Council of Etchmiadzin (1441)

This council was called to consider the transfer of the Patriarchal See from Sis to the original location of Vagharshapat, the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin. This put an end to the displacement of the Patriarchal See. It was returned to the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, where it remains the headquarters of the worldwide Armenian Church and the location of the Catholicos of All Armenians up to the present day.

For further information on the National Councils of the Armenian Church, we suggest consulting the following works of literature:

Archbishop Malachia Ormanian, "Azkapatoom", Holy Etchmiadzin, vol. 1-4, 2001
Archbishop Malachia Ormanian, "The Church of Armenia", Yerevan, 1993
Michael Chamchiants, "The History of Armenia", vol. 1-3, Yerevan, 1985
Meliq Tankian, "The Armenian Church Rights", Shoushi, 1903
Archimandrite Yeznik Petrossian, "The History of the Armenian Church", part A, Holy Etchmiadzin, 1996
"Book of Epistles", Tbilisi, 1901
Book of Canons of Armenia, vol. 1-2, Yerevan, 1971
Christian Armenia, Encyclopedia, Yerevan, 2002