Following its participation in the first three Ecumenical Councils (Nicaea, Constantinople, and Ephesus) between 325 and 431, the Armenian Church would convene many national councils, where the clergy would gather to take decisions over the internal order and structure of the Church, and internal issues, and to give a response to various other questions. Throughout history, these councils have functioned as the mouthpiece of the Church, giving her official viewpoints on various matters.
After three councils in the city of Ashtishat (352, 354, 435), a council was convened by Catholicos Hovsep I in the township of Shahapivan (province of Ayrarat) in 444, soon after the deaths of Catholicos Sahak and Mesrop Mashtots (439-440). It was attended by forty bishops, monks, priests, deacons, high-ranking and low-ranking noblemen, and peasants, “who were zealous of laws and sainthood.” Among the latter were Governor Vasak Siuni and General Commander Vartan Mamikonian. The purpose of the council was to put an end to activities endangering the newly-established Church.
The preface to the canons of the council notes that it was called to complete and to confirm the apostolic and Nicaean canons, which many ecclesiastics had violated, to re-establish the internal order and moral norms of the Armenian Church, and to respond to sects and various offenders.
Despite its canonical nature, the resolutions of the council of Shahapivan were the only ones in the history of the Armenian Church that established punishment for offenses and went beyond the canons to become a legal codification. Only one of the twenty canons was of advisory nature. Six of them in their entirety, and four of them partially referred to ecclesiastics, establishing canonical and criminal punishments for canonical violations and offenses. The remaining thirteen (nine entirely and four partially) were also of similar nature, but addressed the breaches caused by princes and peasants. The latter were made distinctions in the type of punishment: princes were sentenced to advice, fine, and penitence, while peasants received corporal punishment (beating). However, there were differences in the amounts of fines for princes and peasants, with the latter paying half or less than half. The fines were destined to churches, asylums, and other places, and in certain cases they were partially distributed among the poor. The canons recognized the equality of men and women before the law.
Strict canons were established against the heretical sect of the Messalians, whose teachings established that prayer was the only way to attain perfection, excluding the Church and the sacraments. In the case of families that followed the sect, the adults were confined to leper colonies, and the children were delivered to the Church, which took care of their religious education.
The council of Shahapivan was an important milestone in the consolidation of the Armenian Church and the formation of juridical thought in Armenia. Its canons became part of the codification of religious law.