The Progress of Christian Unity

The Rev. John George Huber, D. Min.,

John Huber is a member of the Board of Directors of the North American Academy of Ecumenists, a member of the Faith and Order Commission, Southern California Ecumenical Council, and the founding pastor of University Lutheran Church, La Jolla, at UCSD. He served there between 1963 and 1994.

Introduction: Why is the quest for Christian unity so important?

Let me share a tongue-in-cheek story of our disunity. I cannot guarantee that this story is true. At the conclusion of the opening session of Vatican II, the non-Catholic observers and guests wanted to express their appreciation for being invited to this event that continues to be regarded as an ecumenical milestone. They had a medallion struck, and presented one to each of the cardinals and bishops. At first, these hierarchs were delighted to see a portrait of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI. But then, when they turned the medallion over, so the story goes, they were shocked to see a portrait of Martin Luther. To add insult to injury, they read with dismay the words in Latin encircling the head of the great Reformer. Here is the English translation: “In your heart you know he’s right.” The lesson of the story: 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. Today’s quest for Christian unity reminds us that we need to move from arrogance to tolerance, and on to convergence, then to consensus and finally, to communion. We must realize and celebrate the new ecumenical climate that has exchanged polemics for irenics by replacing our diatribe with dialogue.

An insight of Dr. Hans Kűng is another way of affirming the importance of Christian unity. He says: “There will be no peace among the people of this world without peace among the world religions. There will be no peace among the world religions without peace among the Christian churches” (a quote from Christianity and the World Religions: Paths to Dialogue with Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism [New York: Doubleday, 1986]). Thus, the Ecumenical Movement can be seen as a peace movement.

I. Here are some significant ecumenical developments in the 20th and 21st Centuries

A. The World Council of Churches

The WCC came into being at Amsterdam in 1948 as the confluence of three vital streams:

1. Mission—Edinburgh 1910
2. Life and Work—Stockholm 1925 [“Doctrine divides, service unites”], and
3. Faith and Order—Lausanne 1927

The WCC has a theological basis that is Christocentric, Biblical, doxological, and Trinitarian:

The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior according to the scriptures and therefore seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

B. The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) met from 1962 to 1965.

1. Why was the announcement of this Council by Pope John XXIII such a surprise to Catholics and Protestants?

a. During Vatican I in 1870, the concept of papal infallibility was declared to be a dogma. This implied no further need of a Council.

b. Pope Pius XII in 1950 put into practice the dogma of papal infallibility by speaking ex cathedra (literally, from the chair). He declared the popular opinion that the Virgin Mary had been assumed into heaven body and soul was now a dogma to be believed by all the faithful. It seemed that cardinals and bishops coming together in a Council were no longer needed to make
these kinds of doctrinal decisions. Pope John XXIII lighted an ecumenical torch by inviting Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant representatives to attend the Council and to share their perspective.

2. Some results of Vatican II:

a. The “Decree on Ecumenism” (1964) expresses a commitment to the Church’s quest for Christian unity. Non-Catholics were no longer referred to as heretics, but as separated brethren. Prior to the Council, Catholic lay people and clergy had been forbidden to attend or participate in ecumenical events (the encyclical Mortalium Animos, 1928), but the Decree on Ecumenism mandates their participation.

b. After Pope John XXIII died while the Council was still in session, the ecumenical torch that he lighted was then carried by Pope Paul VI. In 1964, this new pope flew to Jerusalem. On the Mount of Olives he embraced Patriarch Athenagoras I (head of the Eastern Orthodox Communion). The mutual excommunications of the Great East-West Schism in 1054 were then rescinded.

c. Succeeding Popes have affirmed the ecumenical commitment of Vatican II: John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. They support the work of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

d. Vatican II enabled the possibility of bilateral dialogues with the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian communities.

C. Fifty years of Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogues in the US included the participation of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

1. Significant agreements were reached on the following topics:

(1) The Status of the Nicene Creed as Dogma of the Church, 1965;
(2) One Baptism for the Remission of Sins, 1966;
(3) The Eucharist as Sacrifice, 1967;
(4) Eucharist and Ministry, 1970;
(5) Papal Primacy and the Universal Church, 1974;
(6) Teaching Authority and Infallibility in the Church, 1978;
(7) Justification by Faith, 1985;
(8) The One Mediator, the Saints and Mary,1992;
(9) Scripture and Tradition, 1995;
(10) The Church as Koinonia of Salvation—Its Structures and Ministries, (2004);
(11) The Hope of Eternal Life, (2011)

2. The Missouri Synod Lutherans are no longer taking part in the dialogues.

3. Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogues are also taking place on an international level. One of the most important bilateral studies culminated in the signing of The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by representatives of the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation.
The date: Sunday, October 31, 1999 (“Reformation Day”). The historic place: Augsburg, Germany, where the Augsburg Confession was presented to Emperor Charles V on June 25, 1530. This is the statement of faith held by all Lutherans.

4. A key quotation from The Joint Declaration:

Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.” This is an example of the ecumenical principle of “reception,” incorporating bilateral agreements into the life of the church. In 2006, the World Methodist Council and its member churches affirmed their fundamental doctrinal agreement with the teaching expressed in the Joint Declaration. . . .

II. Other significant ecumenical steps are evident in the following documents and developments:

A. Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (BEM) is a convergence statement (not yet a consensus) of the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches, finalized at Lima, Peru, in 1982, following a 50-year process of study, consultation, and multilateral dialogues. Participants represented virtually all of the major church traditions: Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, Methodist, United, Disciples, Baptist, Adventist, and Pentecostal.

BEM affirms that “the eucharistic meal is the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, the sacrament of his real presence. . . .The Church confesses Christ’s real, living, and active presence in the eucharist.” The “Lima Liturgy” based on this document has enabled many Christians to celebrate the eucharist together, e.g., at the WCC Assembly in Vancouver, 1983, with the Archbishop of Canterbury presiding. By way of contrast, recall the theological impasse regarding the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper realized by Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli during the Marburg Colloquy in 1529.

B.“Koinonia,” the Greek word for “fellowship” and “communion,” is an emerging definition of unity (see Acts 2:42, 1 John 1). This concept was affirmed during the assembly of the WCC at Canberra in 1991 and the Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order at Santiago de Compostela, Spain, in 1993.

C. Ut Unum Sint, an encyclical of Pope John Paul II in 1995, declares his
commitment to Christian unity. He speaks of “the real but imperfect communion existing between us,” admits that the papacy “constitutes a difficulty for most Christians,” but also says that “the primacy. . .is nonetheless open to a new situation.” In this document, the now sainted
John Paul II invites “Church leaders and their theologians to engage. . .in a patient and fraternal dialogue” regarding the papacy as an “office of unity” and proposes the following six-point agenda (listed here in summary form):

1. Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition
2. The Eucharist as the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ
3. Ordination as a Sacrament of the threefold ministry
4. The Magisterium of the Church
5. The Virgin Mary
6. The ministry of unity of the Bishop of Rome

All six of these topics have been addressed in the U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogues, resulting in a surprising amount of agreement.

D. Full Communion has been achieved between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and six other denominations: Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church in America, United Church of Christ, the Moravian Church, the Episcopal Church, and the United Methodist Church. As if to affirm the key to Christian unity that is articulated in Article VII of the Augsburg Confession, the ELCA states: “This church is bold to reach out in
several directions simultaneously to all those with whom it may find agreement in the Gospel” (Ecumenism: The Vision of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). The more conservative Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod insists on a greater amount of agreement as a requirement for “altar and pulpit fellowship” in order to avoid compromising “unionism.”

E. Nine mainline Protestant “COCU” (Consultation on Church Union)
denominations became “Churches Uniting in Christ” at Memphis on January 20, 2002: (1) African Methodist Episcopal Church, (2) African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, (3) Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), (4) Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, (5) Episcopal Church, (6) International Council of Community Churches, (7) Presbyterian Church (USA), (8) United Church of Christ, (9) United Methodist Church, and (10) the Moravian Church Northern Province. This is not an organic merger like that of the Church of South India in 1947, but is a covenanted relationship. The ELCA is a partner in mission and dialogue. The Roman Catholic Church participates as an observer.

F. Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A. was inaugurated February 7, 2007, in Pasadena, California. This coalition of five “families”—(1) Historic Protestant, (2) Evangelical/Pentecostal, (3) Catholic, (4) Eastern Orthodox, and (5) African-American—includes 36 churches and national Christian groups. Another 18 churches and national Christian organizations are involved or are present as observers in the CCT decision-making process. This is an effort to “broaden the ecumenical table” and “invite more people into ecumenical conversation” (The Lutheran [March 2007], 48).

G. The Church: Towards a Common Vision, a convergence statement on ecclesiology—one of the most challenging ecumenical topics—was produced by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches in 2013, and is available online or by ordering from This document is being studied by various ecumenical agencies, including the North American Academy of Ecumenists. The next annual conference of the Academy is set for September 25-27, 2015, at Mt. Carmel Spiritual Centre, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. Feedback will be given to the World Council of Churches. For more information about the Academy and registering for the conference, visit

III. Some Personal Reflections

My ecumenical “Tower Experience” was attending the North American Faith and Order Conference at Oberlin, Ohio, in 1957 while en route to my final year at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. I discovered that other Christians also affirm Christ’s presence at the “Table of the Lord.” A more recent memorable event was completing a year-long Master of Ecumenical Studies program at the Bossey Ecumenical Institute in Switzerland in 2001 at the tender age of 71, where I was known as the “Village Elder.” This was followed by a three-week seminar in Rome offering a Roman Catholic perspective on ecumenism. I continue to be eager to tell the exciting story of the global and local quest for Christian unity. Because this topic is not a high priority for many Christians, I have made a desperate attempt to share my ecumenthusiasm in creative ways. Here are three samples of how I have portrayed the ecumenical task:

A. Consider the separate denominations as part of an ecumenical rainbow.
(Adapted from an article by Dr. Vernard Eller, The Christian Century, April 20, 1966)

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) and Salvation Army

7. Red—Non-denominational movements that emphasize personal                          spiritual experience.

These seven colors of various Christian traditions find their origin in Christ who is the Light of the world. This one Light has been refracted through the prism of Scripture and Tradition so that it can 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 various ways, reflecting the Light of Christ in a common mission to the world.

B. Each Christian communion represents a road to unity, pointing to a key ecumenical insight or gift:

1. The Road to Rome (Roman Catholic): the possibility of a universal bishop.

2. Constantinople (Eastern Orthodox): the first seven ecumenical councils.

3. Canterbury (Anglican/Episcopal): the four-plank platform of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral that includes Scripture, Creeds, the dominical Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, and the historic episcopate.

4. Geneva (the “Reformed” tradition initiated by John Calvin and others): a dedication to “transforming culture” [see Christ and Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr].

5. Antioch [Acts 11:26] (the Christian Church—Disciples of Christ): a return to the primitive church of the New Testament.

6. Augsburg (Lutheran): a confessional consensus in the Gospel and the Sacraments (“satis est—it is enough”). Some critics of this Lutheran emphasis on the verbal and visible Gospel as the basis for unity call it “Gospel reductionism.” My response: It is Gospel centralism. It is pointing to the highest in the “hierarchy of truths,” namely, the redemptive death and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. As we come closer to Christ, we come closer to one another.

C. What all Christians have in common. Ephesians 4:4-6 points to seven ecumenical realities that we all share:

1. One Body—Even though there are many separate denominations, churches and ecclesial entities, there is ultimately one body of Christ. We are the diverse members, and Christ is the head.

2. One Spirit—Despite the many experiences and expressions of the work of the Holy Spirit, all of us trace our Christian origins to that first Pentecost.

3. One Hope—Our “hope chest” is empty: the empty tomb of Christ.

4. One Lord—There are many charismatic church leaders and debates about episcopacy and papal primacy, but the one Lord of us all shepherds the one flock.

5. One Faith—Our divisions over doctrine and dogma are transcended by our common Trinitarian faith, a reality that is not just intellectual or cerebral, but relational.

6. One Baptism—Although the mode of baptism differs and the interpretations vary in emphasis, we recognize all baptized Christians as disciples in what could be called “font fellowship.”

7. One God and Father of all—There are many theologies among the churches and many approaches to God by the religions of the world, but we Christians join together in prayer taught to us by our Lord that points to an ultimate reality that unites us all: Our Father. We could call this the “Ephesian Septilateral.”

IV. Conclusion

A. Question: In light of the doctrinal agreements that have been reached across denominational lines, as well as remaining disagreements, for example, the inability of some churches to share the Eucharist and the clash of convictions over human sexuality, are we living in an “ecumenical winter” or in an “ecumenical spring”?

The Ecumenical Movement attempts to bring us to a reality of unity for all seasons. It points to the possibility of celebrating our oneness in Christ and our koinonia in the one Triune God. How do we get there from here? We travel down the various confessional roads, moving not to, but through Rome, through Constantinople, through Canterbury, through Geneva, through Antioch, through Augsburg, (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.

B. Research by John Huber that continues to contribute to presentations on ecumenical themes:

“Areas of Agreement in the Three World Conferences on Faith and Order,” B.D. thesis (later designated an M.Div. thesis), Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri, 1958.

“The Principle of Comprehension as an Ecumenical Context for Christian Unity within Diversity,” Th.M. thesis, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, California, 1972.

“Developing an Ecumenically Covenanted Community at the Parish Level (Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Episcopal),” D.Min. thesis, 1984, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, California.

“The Real but Imperfect Communion”: Significant Agreements and Some Remaining Challenges in Four Recent Interconfessional Initiatives Involving Lutheran Participation,” Master of Ecumenical Studies thesis, Bossey Ecumenical Institute, accredited by the Protestant Faculty of the University of Geneva, Switzerland, 2001.

Ecumenical Collection of John George Huber: A Resource in the Quest for Christian Unity, Fuller Theological Seminary (David Allan Hubbard Library), Pasadena, 2013.

The Rev. John George Huber, D.Min. 858-459-8855

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3 thoughts on “The Progress of Christian Unity

  1. As we anticipate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I think it is important for Lutherans to remember that the Reformation we commemorate was only a beginning. The Reformation will not be complete until the organized church coincides with the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church. It is unlikely that the Reformation will be complete on this side of eternity. Yet, we cannot bear true witness to forgiveness and salvation in Christ’s name while we also promote division within the Una Sancta.

    A recent publication, “One Hope: Re-Membering the Body of Christ” is a good resource for conversation about ecumenism.

    • Rev. Dr. John G. Huber is still living. He lives 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”).
      Matt Becker

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