In the Orthodox Church, we emphasize that decision-making by councils is the historic method begun by the Apostles themselves in Jerusalem and we honor the seven Ecumenical Councils for the decisions regarding the theological truths of our faith which were made in those meetings. Even though we are amused by the stories of St. Nicholas socking Athanasius in the jaw at the Council of Nicea, we usually tend to ignore the “untidy” nature of this kind of decision-making and the difficulties that have occurred in so many councils. The Devil is always at work in the affairs of men – especially those men who seek to steer the course of the Church.
When the priest Flavian, who was the chief sacristan of the cathedral church in Constantinople, became Patriarch on the death of Patriarch Proclus, he was immediately confronted with a difficulty. The eunuch Chrysaphius, chamberlain to the Emperor Theodosius the Younger, approached the new archbishop and asked for a gift for the emperor in return for his appointment. Bishop Flavian gave him some holy bread (antidoron) to take to the Emperor. Chrysaphius angrily replied that what he had in mind was a gift of gold. The Patriarch refused, saying that this would be an inappropriate use of the Church’s treasure. Thus a battle had begun.
Another problem soon presented itself to the new Patriarch. The archimandrite Eutyches, abbot of a nearby monastery, had been so vehement in his condemnation of Nestorius and his belief that Christ was somehow a combination of two persons – one human, one divine – that he went too far in the other direction and claimed that Christ had only one nature, a heresy called monophysitism. Patriarch Flavian decided to call a local council (in November of 448) to address this problem. He urged moderation and prayed that Eutyches would see his error and proclaim the Orthodox understanding of Christ, but the bishops and priests at this council voted to excommunicate the monk. A report of the decision of this council was sent to Pope Leo I, Patriarch of Rome, who replied, concurring with the decision.
Eutyches was a relative of Chrysaphius and his condemnation furthered angered the eunuch. He enlisted the help of the Empress Eudocia, whose motivation for opposing the Patriarch was that he was favored by the Emperor’s sister, Pulcheria, and there was jealousy between the two. Eutyches’ machinations went even further: he took advantage of the anger of Dioscurus, Bishop of Alexandria, toward the see of Constantinople which had been declared second to Rome in the Diptychs????. Together, they convinced the Emperor to call an ecumenical council to solve the dispute, hoping to reverse the decision already made.
So a council was called to be held in Ephesus, in August of 449 under the presidency of Patriarch Dioscorus. Dioscorus controlled the invitations and many who had attended the local council were not invited this time. Pope Leo was notified late, but was able to send several delegates, among them the deacon Hilary, who later became pope. When Eutyches was absolved of heresy and Patriarch Flavian was condemned by Dioscorus, many bishops cried out against this and Chrysaphius appeared with imperial soldiers. In the chaos which ensued, St. Flavian was beaten, kicked, and bruised. He was sent into exile but died several days later from his injuries.
This was a false council and this was a battle which the Devil had won. But the powers of darkness had only a short time of triumph. Pope Leo continued his opposition to the decisions made, calling this council a “robber council”, a name which has continued to be used since then, and he wrote to the Emperor and to the whole church in Constantinople with his objections. In 450, Theodosius died and his sister, Pulcheria, succeeded him after one last-ditch effort on the part of Chrysaphius to seize power for himself. She had the relics of St. Flavian brought to Constantinople where they were given great honor and reverence. His feast day is kept on February 18, the day of the translation of his relics. Then in 451, at the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, the earlier “council” decisions were declared invalid and Flavian was named a martyr for the faith, a saint of the Church.
We can be grateful that the major Christological disputes of the Church were resolved in those first Seven Ecumenical Councils and that future councils need only be concerned with matters of practice and discipline. If the proposed Great and Holy Council is able to meet this summer, we pray that it will be free from power struggles, from greed and jealousy, from all the works of the Devil. And we ask St. Flavian, Bishop and Martyr, to intercede for the Council participants and for the Church. Holy Flavian, pray for us.
Sources: Prologue from Ochrid by St. Nikolai Velimirovic; Orthodox Saints by George Poulos and articles from the websites of Eternal Word Television Network; New Advent; Orthodox Church in America, and Wikipedia.