In the Acts of the Apostles, one of the earliest issues the Church had to confront was the admission of Gentile converts into the Christian faith (cf. Acts 15). There were differing views regarding whether converts needed to abide by the law of Moses and be circumcised first in order to become a Christian.
The first bishops of the Church met in Jerusalem to discuss the matter. A final decision was made after much debate and as a result, Gentile converts were no longer required to be circumcised or follow various aspects of the law of Moses.
This meeting of bishops has since been called the “Council of Jerusalem” and was seen as a prototype for all gatherings of bishops where decisions had to be made for the benefit of the Church. The latest of these “councils” was the Second Vatican Council, held in the 1960s.
But over the centuries there have developed two distinct types of these gatherings of Church leaders, one called a council and another called a synod.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Councils are legally convened assemblies of ecclesiastical dignitaries and theological experts for the purpose of discussing and regulating matters of church doctrine and discipline.”
There have been roughly 21 ecumenical councils in the history of the Church. These councils are not held regularly and are only convoked when there is a major need.
An example is the First Council of Nicaea (325), where the Nicene Creed was first adopted, clarifying the Church’s belief regarding the nature of Jesus Christ. The Nicene Creed is the one we still pray each Sunday at Mass.
Most recently the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) was convened to address the modern world and the many new challenges that the Church had to face.
The results of such meetings are binding and are far-reaching, solving issues that benefit the universal Church.
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