Following apostolic precedent (Acts 15), Christian leaders from early times convened local councils and synods to discuss and resolve ecclesiastical problems. When Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, ecclesiastical issues became problems of state that could affect the peace of the entire empire. The Emperor Constantine convened the first ecumenical (or universal) council to address one such set of problems, and succeeding emperors would do the same to resolve other problems. The first four ecumenical councils came to have a particular authority: Nicea (A.D. 325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451).
The work of the councils was twofold. Matters of faith and doctrine were always of predominant concern, and doctrinal definitions were issued as creeds, or "symbols" of faith. But the councils also discussed issues of church discipline and organization, judgments on which were issued as canons, or "rules of conduct." Collections of these canons, such as the Roman Catholic Church's Code of Canon Law, are analogous to the LDS Church's Church Handbook of Instructions, though much larger and broader in scope. Most of the very numerous scholarly works on the first four ecumenical councils focus on their theological projects and the controversies surrounding them. This book departs from the norm by focusing instead on their canonical legislation.