Manhattan Declaration: A Response – Part I

(An article combining this post and the previous one on the Manhattan Declaration is available in downloadable and printable PDF, 2-column article format: Click here to download)

National Press Conference

National Press Conference


A week ago today, the Manhattan Declaration was released by Chuck Colson and almost 150 other signers at the National Press Conference. Since then there have been countless blogs and articles written about the 4700-word document and the response has been quite mixed.

Predictably, it has been denounced by liberals of all stripes who support the LGBT agenda and who advocate “a woman’s right to choose.” But neither has it been received well by those who would consider themselves to be evangelicals, but who also challenge the historical view that the Bible condemns homosexual behavior.

In contrast, a significant number of Christians have enthusiastically embraced the Manhattan Declaration. with the number of signers via the internet now at 184,780 and counting. They have joined the original signatories in voicing their concern that as America continues its turn to the left, led by the present administration, they are prepared to take a stand to protect life, marriage and religious liberty.

Yet, another view has been expressed by some Christians who have not signed the Manhattan Declaration. In this view, the Manhattan Declaration is itself a cause for concern, being seen as a misguided ecumenical cooperative effort that conservative evangelicals would do well to avoid. John MacArthur has written a cogent blog from this perspective.

To make matters more confusing for the average evangelical believer, it must be noted that there are good, solid, conservative theologians on both sides of the issue. This would tend to indicate that whatever our personal opinion might be, the “correct” response is probably not as obvious nor as certain as we might hope or desire. So, after a week of reading, talking, thinking and praying, I’m going to take my own stab at evaluating the Manhattan Declaration and developing a framework of principles for responding to this document, as well as the overall situation that precipitated it.

First, I would say that overall the Manhattan Declaration is a carefully crafted, well-worded document. It was obviously written out of both passion and conviction. It would be difficult to fault the drafters in their intentions or desire to make a difference in the “culture wars.”

Manhattan 02

Manhattan Declaration

Second, I think all who truly believe in the authority of Scripture should agree with the framers of the Manhattan Declaration concerning the three specific issues it addresses, namely, life, marriage and religious liberty. It affirms that life begins at conception and should be allowed to continue until natural death (Exodus 20:13; Job 1:21; Psalm 139:12, 16; Jeremiah 1:14). It affirms that marriage was instituted by God to be solely between a man and a woman and that sexual relations are to be only within that relationship (Genesis 2:21-24; Matthew 19:5,6; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9). And it affirms the principle of religious liberty which seems to be legitimately rooted in the truth of  Matthew 22:21 (“Render unto Caesar…and to God…”) and Acts 5:29 (“We ought to obey God rather than men.”)

And third, I believe that as American citizens we have a legal right and a moral responsibility to participate in the democratic process in upholding and preserving the rights we have as guaranteed by the Constitution, as well as the ideals upon which this country was founded.

It could be argued that the Moral Majority, founded by Jerry Falwell in 1979, provides an historic backdrop and precedent for the Manhattan Declaration. The Moral Majority became the politically active extension of the Christian Right, which was riding the wave of the resurging political conservatism that swept Ronald Reagan into office in 1980. The Moral Majority sought to gain an influence in governmental policies and legislation, such that they would reflect or at least not contradict Christian morality – and thereby broadly shape, influence and guide the direction of American society as a whole.

A demographic map of the United States shows that geographically the entire country continues to be overwhelmingly conservative – both politically and socially. And this conservatism is certainly not limited to evangelical Christians. Therefore, it was considered expedient and prudent to be as broadly inclusive as possible to maximize the potential political influence of the movement. This meant that the Moral Majority consisted of not only conservative evangelicals, but virtually all types of conservative Protestants, Catholics, Jews and even Mormons who joined forces for the purpose of advocating common moral values with a unified voice.

Probably the most common argument in favor of evangelicals joining together with those from Catholic and Orthodox traditions in signing the Manhattan Declaration follows that used to defend the Moral Majority in the face of similar criticism. In this view, it is argued that because we share a common moral heritage with other theological traditions within Christendom, we can and should join together as allies in the culture wars against the common enemy of those morals. Therefore, the Manhattan Declaration is hailed as an opportunity for those who name the name of Christ to fulfill a long-neglected obligation to engage and even confront a society and an administration that is increasingly liberal, secular and humanist – and even anti-Christian in its bias. Looking at it this way, it is understandable why, as I noted earlier, many concerned Americans have already signed the document and I would assume that many have been conservative evangelicals.

However, I have not yet signed it myself because I have some questions and concerns about both the nature and the value of the Manhattan Declaration. At the risk of being dismissed, ridiculed or criticized as being too picky, too narrow-minded, divisive or just overly critical, I am going to present what I believe are some significant reasons why a born-again believer should consider not endorsing or signing the Manhattan Declaration.

The Manhattan Declaration begins with these words:

Christians are heirs of a 2,000year tradition of proclaiming God’s word

This is a statement of exclusivity, identifying the framers of the document as “Christians” as opposed to adherents of any of the other world religions. It is also intended to reflect Christian values and morals. As such, it must necessarily be viewed as an inherently Christian document. Consider the following quotes from the Manhattan Declaration:

we claim the heritage of those Christians Christian monasteries preserved not only the Bible but also the literature and art of Western culture It was Christians who combated the evil of slavery Christians today are called to proclaim the Gospel of costly grace, to protect the intrinsic dignity of the human person and to stand for the common good We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences to affirm our right—and, more importantly, to embrace our obligation—to speak and act in defense of these truths

Therefore, the writers of the Manhattan Declaration present it as a document by Christians on behalf of Christians. And as a Christian document, it discusses the issues of life and marriage within a framework of Christian morality. It derives its authority to speak about these moral issues from the Bible. The Manhattan Declaration reflects a very specific worldview which is informed by very specific theology. Therefore, not only is it a Christian document, it is first and foremost an inherently theological document – or at least theologically-driven. This point is extremely important to the discussion because for some, the defense of cooperation with Catholic and Orthodox writers and signers depends largely upon the validity of the argument that the Manhattan Declaration isn’t a theological document. If true, then it could be argued that theological differences are irrelevant to the task at hand and cooperation is not an example of unbiblical ecumenism. But, again, it is a Christian document and is therefore a theological document by nature. And being a theological document, not only does theology under-gird the moral argument set forth in the Manhattan Declaration, theology also forms the basis for what the writers consider to be their essential unity as a group. This is clearly reflected in the first paragraph under the Declaration section:

We, as Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians, have gathered, beginning in New York on September 28, 2009, to make the  following declaration, which we sign as individuals, not on behalf of our organizations, but speaking to and from our communities. We act together in obedience to the one true God, the triune God of holiness and love, who has laid total claim on our lives and by that claim calls us with believers in all ages and all nations to seek and defend the good of all who bear his image.

It is important to not miss the significance of this statement. When one discusses Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism for example, these are treated as world religions. And, of course, Christianity can be spoken of as a world religion, as well. But there is an important and fundamental distinction that must be remembered: A Christian in the biblical sense of the term does not merely mean someone who is an adherent of Christianity as a world religion. For someone to become a true Muslim, a person must simply make a decision to follow the teachings of Islam and live accordingly. However, the same is not true for biblical Christianity. For someone to become a true Christian, they must explicitly place their faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ and thereby be born-again of the Spirit of God. Someone does not become a Christian by merely adopting Christian traditions or by beginning to live a Christian lifestyle – or even by faithfully following the teachings of Christ. In 1994, Chuck Colson was involved with drafting the first Evangelicals and Catholics Together document. That document blurs and actually eliminates the distinction between Christians in the world-religion sense and Christians in the biblical sense, such that it seems clear that Mr. Colson considers the two as not only intersecting, but as synonymous as indicated by the next three quotes from the first ECT document:

As we near the Third Millennium, there are approximately 1.7 billion Christians in the world. About a billion of these are Catholics and more than 300 million are Evangelical Protestants.

We are Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics who have been led through prayer, study, and discussion to common convictions about Christian faith and mission.

All who accept Christ as Lord and Savior are brothers and sisters in Christ. Evangelicals and Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ.

Some may argue, however, that the two documents are fundamentally different in scope and purpose and therefore should not be compared or evaluated in this way. Yet, the essential philosophical /theological similarities between the two documents cannot be ignored because they reflect the broader philosophy out of which they were formulated:

Manhattan Declaration: We, as Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians, have gathered, beginning in New York on September 28, 2009, to make the following declaration, which we sign as individuals, not on behalf of our organizations, but speaking to and from our communities. First ECT document: We are Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics who have been led through prayer, study, and discussion to common convictions about Christian faith and mission. This statement cannot speak officially for our communities. It does intend to speak responsibly from our communities and to our communities.

Manhattan Declaration: We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences to affirm our right—and, more importantly, to embrace our obligation—to speak and act in defense of these truths. We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence. It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season. May God help us not to fail in that duty. First ECT document: There is a necessary connection between the visible unity of Christians and the mission of the one Christ. We together pray for the fulfillment of the prayer of Our Lord: “May they all be one; as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, so also may they be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17) We together, Evangelicals and Catholics, confess our sins against the unity that Christ intends for all his disciples. The one Christ and one mission includes many other Christians, notably the Eastern Orthodox and those Protestants not commonly identified as Evangelical. All Christians are encompassed in the prayer, “May they all be one.”

It seems appropriate to suggest that some  important linkage does exist between the Manhattan Declaration and the ECT document and that this linkage is intentional and by design. This shouldn’t be surprising given Mr. Colson’s key role in the formation of both documents.  Given that the purpose of the ECT document is inherently ecumenical, it seems reasonable to more carefully explore the potential ecumenical issues raised directly by the Manhattan Declaration. Likewise it seems reasonable to at least examine whether or not those issues might be sufficient to give legitimate reasons for withholding support and participation in the  Manhattan Declaration. I will conclude my response to the Manhattan Declaration, in a couple of days and try to make a case for why Christians should or should not be involved with this initiative or others like it. It doesn’t seem that there is a one-size-fits-all answer, but I can discuss general principles related to the role of Christians in government and political activism. Can and should Christians engage and confront the culture and government in their social context – and what kind of ecumenical alliances can be formed to accomplish this? Ecumenical alliances and civil disobedience. Just what should we think and do? And what, if any, is the potential historical significance of the Manhattan Declaration?

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