Seven Roads and Seven Realities under an Ecumenical Rainbow

John George Huber

Editorial Note: John Huber recently earned a master of arts degree in ecumenical studies (2001) at Bossey, the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches near Geneva, Switzerland, where, at 70, he was known as the “Village Elder.” A graduate of Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis, he spent his ministry as a campus pastor at the University of California at La Jolla. His travels to twenty-four countries on five continents have taken him to numerous meetings of the Lutheran World Federation and the World Council of Churches and to the Parliament of the World’s Religions at Chicago. He authored the theological preamble of the Ecumenical Council of San Diego County in 1969 and chairs its Faith, Order and Witness Committee.


After completing the Master of Ecumenical Studies program at Bossey in 2001, at the tender age of 71 I have been eager to tell the story of the quest for Christian unity. As I travel to various congregations and conferences, especially in my native California but also in other parts of the United States, my wife admonishes me to remember that most people know little about the ecumenical movement and are not terribly interested. Therefore, she says, try to make it interesting and tell them why it is important.

Thus, I want to describe seven “roads” to unity that have been proposed by various Christian communions and movements while also lifting up seven New Testament realities that indicate what all Christians have in common. In another desperate effort to be creative I would like to borrow an illustration about our unity-in-diversity by suggesting that each Christian tradition could be described as a color of an “ecumenical rainbow.” But first allow me to follow the good counsel of my spouse, Judy, and make a case for the importance of all of this.

An Anecdote about a Gold Medallion

A story about the concluding session of the Second Vatican Council has been told with “tongue-in-cheek.” The Protestant observers wanted to express their appreciation for being invited to this event that is still regarded as an ecumenical milestone. They had a gold medallion struck, so the story goes, bearing the portraits of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI on one side. When the Protestant scholars presented this medallion to each bishop and cardinal as they descended the steps of St. Peter’s, the Catholic dignitaries were very pleased. But when they turned the medallions over, so the story goes, they were stunned to see a portrait of Martin Luther. To add insult to injury, they read with dismay the words in Latin encircling Luther’s head. Here is a loose translation in English: “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right.”

Of course, the veracity of the story is in doubt, but the point is very compelling. For centuries we Christians have displayed this kind of arrogance toward each other. We have claimed that we are right and our opponents are wrong. We are reminded of our need to move from arrogance to tolerance and on to convergence, consensus and communion.

We must realize and celebrate the new ecumenical climate that has exchanged polemics for irenics by replacing diatribe with dialogue.

Hans Küng and World Peace

In case the prospect of bringing together the confessional families in a more harmonious relationship does not sound too relevant in today’s world of political strife, upheaval and war, a statement by Dr. Hans Küng may provide a fresh perspective. He writes: “There will be no peace among the peoples of this world without peace among the religions. There will be no peace among the world religions without peace among the Christian Churches” (Christianity and the World Religions: Paths to Dialogue with Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, p. 443). I would like to suggest that our ecumenical efforts are a contribution to world peace.

Our Lord’s Prayerful Mandate for Mission

The Sacerdotal Prayer of our Lord in John 17 is often cited as a Biblical basis for Christian unity. What is easily overlooked is that there is a mission dimension to this prayer. Jesus prays “… that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us….” And then he reveals the purpose of this unity: “… so that the world may believe….” In an agnostic world that has been turned off by religion, our visible and audible unity in Christ is more likely to bridge the credibility gap. Hopefully, skeptics will be able to say of us once again, “Behold how they love one another,” and will be drawn into our imperfect but forgiven fellowship.

Seven Roads to Unity

A stranger drives into a town and asks how to get to the city hall. A resident attempts to give directions, becomes confused and says “You can’t get there from here!” It would seem that this is also our frustration as we try to find our way to the ecumenical goal. But it is helpful to review what various Christian traditions have proposed as a “road” to unity. I will identify seven ecumenical roads.

The Road to Rome

The road to Rome is the Roman Catholic proposal that, if there is to be unity, all churches and ecclesial communities must come to terms with the papacy. In his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint John Paul II admits that the papacy “constitutes a difficulty for most Christians” but also assures us that “the primacy … is nonetheless open to a new situation.” He proposes an agenda for “a patient and fraternal dialogue” with other Christians. Some bilateral dialogues have already indicated flexibility on this issue.

The Road to Constantinople

Ecumenical gatherings early in the 20th century reveal the road to unity for Eastern Orthodoxy. During the First World Conference on Faith and Order at Lausanne in 1927, the Second World Conference at Edinburgh in 1937 and the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches at Evanston in 1954 Orthodox delegates pointed to the first seven Ecumenical Councils as the essential prerequisite for unity. For an updated perspective, see “The Final Report of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC” (The Ecumenical Review, Vol. 55, No. 1, January 2003).

The Road to Augsburg

The churches of the Augsburg Confession (1530) identify agreement on the Gospel and the sacraments as the satis est (it is enough) for unity. While some critics accuse Lutherans of Gospel reductionism, this Lutheran writer would insist that it is Gospel centralism. To borrow the language of the Decree on Ecumenism of Vatican II, the verbal and visible Gospel is the highest in the “hierarchy of truths.” The ability of the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation to sign the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification on October 31, 1999, indicates the ecumenical potential of the road to Augsburg.

The Road to Canterbury

Anglicans have proposed an ecumenical four-point platform known as the Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888, based on the Chicago Quadrilateral of 1886, which William Reed Huntington called an “irreducible minimum around which a united Church could gather.”

In addition to Scripture, the Creeds and the dominical Sacraments, the Quadrilateral identifies “the Historic Episcopate, locally adapted …” as a requirement for unity. The willingness of the Episcopal Church in the United States to establish full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, despite the ELCA’s conviction that the Historic Episcopate is important for unity but not essential, demonstrates the possibility of accommodation on this ecclesiological challenge for the ecumenical future.

The Road to Geneva

Churches of the Reformed tradition trace part of their heritage to John Calvin, whose reforming efforts centered in Geneva. H. Richard Niebuhr identifies Calvin as an advocate of “Christ the Transformer of Culture” (Christ and Culture, pp. 217–18). I have been unable to pinpoint a specific ecumenical proposal for unity that is uniquely “Reformed,” but my Lutheran instincts sense a strong emphasis on connecting the Word with the world. There is an emphasis on prophetic ministry that produces change in society based on a moral commitment to peace and justice. This important contribution is evident in many of the controversial pronouncements of the World Council of Churches. On a more doctrinal level, the Reformed have also shown their dedication to unity by signing the Leuenberg Agreement with Lutheran and United churches in 1973. Three Reformed churches have entered into full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Geneva is a road worth exploring and traveling.

The  Road to Antioch

The followers of Jesus were first called “Christians” at Antioch (Acts 11:26). In the nineteenth century some Protestants in the United States attempted to resolve the dilemma of church division by returning to a primitive New Testament form of Christianity. Rather than calling themselves Baptists, Congregationalists, Lutherans or Methodists, they would rally around the name “Christian.” This effort led to the formation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), as well as additional denominations that remain divided. But on the positive side, it is the Disciples of Christ—under the leadership of ecumenists like Paul Crow, Robert Welsh, Michael Kinnamon and others—that continues to model a devotion to unity in its support of the Ecumenical Institute Bossey, the work of Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches and the covenanted coming together of nine mainline Protestant denominations in the United States as Churches Uniting in Christ (formerly COCU).

The Road to Amsterdam

This is a road that actually traces its origin to three other roads: (1) Edinburgh 1910, (2) Stockholm 1925 and (3) Lausanne 1927. Or, to change the imagery a bit, these three roads represent a confluence of three vital “streams”—Mission, Life and Work and Faith and Order—culminating in the formation of the World Council of Churches at Amsterdam in 1948. Subscribing to a theological basis that is christocentric, biblical, trinitarian and doxological, the WCC continues to represent the most comprehensive organizational expression of the ecumenical movement, bringing together representatives of most of the major Christian communions of the world at its assemblies that convene about every seven years. Following Amsterdam 1948, these include Evanston 1954, New Delhi 1961, Uppsala 1968, Nairobi 1975, Vancouver 1983, Canberra 1991, Harare 1998 and Porto Alegre 2006.

Seven Ecumenical Realities

While each of the seven roads identified above has led to a measure of unity among divided Christians and continues to indicate potential possibilities for realizing the emerging ecumenical goal of koinonia in the futurea passage in the New Testament points to seven ecumenical realities in the present. We are only too familiar with Ephesians 4:4–6 that affirms “one body,” “one spirit,” “one hope,” “one Lord,” “one faith,” “one baptism,” “one God and Father of all.” A fresh ecumenical interpretation of this text suggests that these seven realities can be seen as the seven things that all Christians have in common.

Even though there are many separate denominations, churches and ecclesial entities—as well as polarized groupings within each communion—there is ultimately one Body of Christ. We are the diverse members, and Christ is the head.

There are many pneumatologies and many experiences and expressions of the work of the Holy Spirit. Worship styles, for example, range “from screaming to incense” (in the unpublished words of Jaroslav Pelikan). One rapidly growing branch of Christianity is the Pentecostal movement, focusing heavily on the reality of the Holy Spirit. But all of us trace our Christian origins to that first Pentecost recorded in Acts 2 and are united in the one Spirit.

During the debates of the Evanston Assembly in 1954 there was a clash between European and North American theologians regarding eschatology. The former emphasized the “not yet” and the latter the “here and now.” But the one hope of Ephesians 4 was articulated in the received message that includes the words that I have quoted at numerous funeral services: “We do not know what is coming to us. But we know Who is coming. It is He who meets us every day and who will meet us at the end—Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore, we say to you: Rejoice in hope.”

There are many charismatic leaders among the churches. There is the debate about papal primacy and the essential role of bishops for assuring continuity in the “faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3), as opposed to the authority of the local congregation. But we are reminded in the Ephesians text that there is one Lord. It is he who shepherds the one flock, not in an authoritarian way but authoritatively and lovingly.

Although the Stockholm Life and Work conference of 1925 declared, “Doctrine divides and service unites,” it is the Faith and Order movement that has achieved a convergence on issues like Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (see the Lima text of 1982). Our divisions over dogma are transcended by one faith, a reality that is more than intellectual or cerebral. It is relational.

Someone has jokingly said that the difference between Baptists and other Christians is 250 gallons of water. It is significant that Baptists and Eastern Orthodox, who find themselves on opposite ends of the liturgical spectrum, choose to immerse their baptismal candidates, while others apply the water by sprinkling or pouring. But although the mode of baptism differs and the interpretations vary in emphasis, the ultimate reality of its meaning and the mutual recognition of this sacrament by most churches—when administered with water in the name of the Triune God—enable us to recognize our unity in one baptism.

There are many theologies among the churches and many approaches to God among the religions of the world. But as Christians of all persuasions join together in the prayer taught to us by our Lord, we are bound together by an ultimate reality: the one God and Father of all.

Under an Ecumenical Rainbow

A dramatic illustration of our catholicity as Christians has been proposed by Dr. Vernard Eller, former professor at LaVerne College in southern California. He suggested that we identify the major and minor Christian traditions by designating to them colors of the spectrum (Vernard Eller, “COCU: Self-Defeating?” The Christian Century, April 20, 1966, 488ff.). This is a paraphrased summary of Eller’s ecumenical rainbow:

  1. VIOLET: Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox
  2. INDIGO: Anglican (Episcopal)
  3. BLUE: Lutheran, Presbyterian and other churches of the Reformation
  4. GREEN: Methodist, Congregational (United Church of Christ), Disciples of Christ
  5. YELLOW: Baptist, Brethren, Mennonite
  6. ORANGE: Society of Friends (Quakers), Salvation Army [both have no sacraments]
  7. RED: Non-denominational movements that emphasize personal spiritual experience, e.g., the charismatic movement that exists within denominations and outside of them

As we contemplate this colorful ecumenical rainbow, how can we realize our unity with all of its catholic breadth and theological depth? We need to trace these seven colors to their one source. The VIOLET, INDIGO, BLUE, GREEN, YELLOW, ORANGE, AND RED of our various Christian expressions find their origin in him who is the Light of the world. This one Light has been refracted through the prism of Scripture and Tradition so that it can now be seen in all its beauty and diversity in the people of God who have been led to express their faith and to order their structures in a variety of ways, reflecting the Light of Christ in a common mission to the world.

Hopefully, this physical analogy will help us to grasp and celebrate the possibility of our oneness in Christ and our koinonia in the one Triune God. How do we get there from here? We travel down various confessional and historical roads, moving through Rome, through Constantinople, through Augsburg,through Canterbury, through Geneva, through Antioch, through Amsterdam (and let’s add through Aldersgate for a Wesleyan heart “strangely warmed”) to Jerusalem, where Christ not only prayed that we would all be one but died and rose for us in order to reconcile us and the world to God through his cross-shaped love. On our ecumenical pilgrimage, we also take seriously seven New Testament realities (the Ephesian Septilateral?), realizing what we all already have in common and discovering our unity in diversity and our unity in mission under an ecumenical rainbow.

Submitted to Mozaik, ecumenical journal of the World Student Christian Federation, May 1, 2003. Published in Mozaik 11 (Vol. VIII, 2003/1). Updated November 2, 2006, for the Daystar Journal.


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4 thoughts on “Seven Roads and Seven Realities under an Ecumenical Rainbow

  1. Good afternoon, John,
    You and I corresponded many years ago. You coordinated the 2006 essay contest organized by the North American Academy of Ecumenists. I won that essay contest. I have my award certificate on my wall upstairs in my bedroom. Thank you for the certificate and for the $850 cheque. I appreciated it. I live at Alta Vista Manor in the East end of Ottawa. In 2006, I was a passenger in a serious automobile accident. Dad had a fatal heart attack while we were on vacation in New Brunswick. Mom died of pneumonia in 2018 so I live alone now at Alta Vista Manor. Meals are all provided and the nurses bring my pills as scheduled. I’ll go upstairs for my supper in 45 minutes. My essay was published in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies in fall 2007. I have a copy on my closet shelf upstairs.

    • Rev. Dr. John G. Huber is living in Oak Park, Ill. You can find his contact information through the website of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (click on “Locators” and then on “Find a Worker”). His wife died in 2018.

      Matt Becker

    • Good morning Varyanna,

      No, Rev. Huber didn’t reply to my question. I just had a delicious breakfast down the hall. I live at Glebe Centre now. I was living at Alta Vista Manor and I moved here a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know if Rev. Huber is still living or not.


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