(February/March 2010 – Volume 16, Issue 1)
The Christian village is all abuzz these days about The Manhattan Declaration, yet another brainchild of Charles Colson (along with Timothy George and Robert George) in his ever vigilant attempts at societal improvement and ecumenical unity. In his earlier efforts, in particular the Evangelicals and Catholics Together documents, Colson and Roman Catholic priest John Neuhaus attempted, with some apparent success, to convince Christendom that their two separate traditions held far more in common than it realized and it was time for both sides to lay down their arms and unite against liberal Christianity and secular ideology for the good of society. While admitting that strong differences still remained, Colson, Neuhaus and their supporters tried to maintain that the two communities were preaching essentially the same gospel message and therefore it was time to join forces against their greater enemies. The Manhattan Declaration addresses a similar theme but focuses more on remedying morally corrupting influences in America than on the nature of the gospel. While there are a great number of social evils that need attention this document zeros in on what the authors would consider the big three: abortion, homosexual marriage and religious liberties. These are important matters bout which all true Christians, and many others, are concerned.
Therefore it should not surprise us that over four hundred thousand individuals have signed the Declaration as of the date of this writing. Whether it is the better part of wisdom to sign this document, and the original drafters encourage everyone to do so, is further complicated by a strong difference of opinion among highly respected evangelical leaders who are recognized for their discernment. We are not startled to find the signatures of those known for softer sentiments toward ecumenism and leanings toward outward shows of unity such as Ravi Zacharias, Ron Sider, J. I. Packer, Leith Anderson, Ken Boa, James Dobson, Jerry Jenkins, Tim Keller, Joseph Stowell, Kay Arthur, Jonathan Falwell, Wayne Grudem, Josh McDowell and anyone connected with Christianity Today. A bit more surprising are Mark Bailey, Randy Alcorn, Bryan Chapell, Joni Eareckson Tada, Michael Easley, Michael Youssef, and in particular Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Joining this roster of evangelicals are numerous Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox priests and bishops. Vocal opponents include R. C. Sproul, John MacArthur, Michael Horton and Alistair Begg.
In order to determine what our reaction to The Manhattan Declaration should be, we will take a brief look at some of the highlights of the manifesto, examine some written responses, pro and con, and then subject the document to the scrutiny of Scripture.
The Manhattan Declaration
The statement itself is about 4700 words in length and was drafted by Colson and the two Georges in Manhattan, hence its name. It was publicly announced on November 20, 2009, and was originally signed by 140 leaders representing virtually every branch of American Christianity. As this article goes to press 400,000 more have signed the document largely via the internet. The Declaration is a strong protest against the moral drift of America and the laws that have been passed or are pending that reflect that drift. It is a call to arms by those within the Christian framework against such laws which have an impact on the issues of sanctity of life, the definition and institution of marriage, and freedom of religion. Perhaps more than a protest it is a line drawn in the sand telling the American governmental system that Christians will retreat no further. We (Christians) are declaring that we are happy to allow others the right to believe what they will, but we will not compromise on basic moral issues that we deem nonnegotiable. The three issues addressed in the Declaration are the ones the authors see as most important at this moment.
While I and all of my readers are concerned about these issues, many of us are disturbed by statements within the document which seamlessly link Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy with evangelicalism. For example in the third paragraph we are reminded that Papal edicts in the 16th and 17th centuries (when the Reformation battles were at their height) decried the practice of slavery even as evangelicals such as John Wesley and William Wilberforce did in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is apparently an attempt to demonstrate that Catholics and evangelicals have linked arms before in the battle against social evils, but it should be carefully noted that, while both recognized and fought the sin of slavery, evangelicals in neither time period officially joined Catholics in resistance to slavery, nor did evangelicals pretend that Rome taught the same gospel as they did.
The first line under the subheading of “Declaration” makes clear the authors’ ecumenical position: “We, as Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians, have gathered…” While recognizing distinctions within the three major communities each acknowledges the others as “Christians.” The last paragraph in this section begins, “We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences…” Later we read, “We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers…” There is little question that this declaration is being published by those who see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ despite the fact that the signatories vary widely on their understanding of the gospel. It is assumed as the next to last paragraph on the document attests, that evangelicals are united with the Orthodox and Catholics on the gospel: “Going back to the earliest days of the church, Christians have refused to compromise on the proclamation of the gospel.” Which gospel does the manifesto have in mind? The gospel of faith alone, as found in the New Testament, or the gospel of Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism which makes the sacraments and other works necessary for salvation? It would be difficult to skirt the appearance that evangelicals signing this manifesto are in agreement with the other two traditions in their understanding of salvation.
It is also instructive to note the “Christians” actually quoted in the document: Pope Paul II, the epistle written by Diognetus (a second century apologist), and Martin Luther King Jr. This is an interesting trio at best. Pope Paul II represents the Roman Catholic Church in its purest form. That is, while certain Catholics may actually be saved, it would be because they have rejected Rome’s heretical understanding of the gospel and are trusting in Christ alone; the Pope can make no such claim. As the leader of the Roman Catholic Church he would believe and represent everything Rome pronounces including its sacramental understanding of salvation. Therefore by biblical definition the Pope cannot be a Christian. Martin Luther King Jr., while rightly given credit for his stand on civil rights, was not an evangelical by any definition and not known for his personal moral behavior. Yet these are the kinds of “Christians” that we are asked to join in our stand against the moral crises of our day.
As has already been mentioned, a large number of prominent evangelicals have signed The Manhattan Declaration; others have been vocal in their opposition. Before we take a look at reasons some have given for their resistance, let’s first check out the rationale Al Mohler gives for signing it. Mohler has unquestioned credentials as a conservative evangelical. While not all would be in agreement with his Reformed theology, all would agree that Mohler is a deep thinker with a solid stand on the sufficiency of the Word of God. He is not one, by his own admission, to sign such statements because he is not impressed with their effectiveness and he is concerned with how they might be construed by others. But he signed this one because “I believe we are facing an inevitable and culture-determining decision on the three issues centrally identified in this statement. I also believe that we will experience a significant loss of Christian churches, denominations, and institutions in this process.” Mohler is concerned that our religious liberties are at stake and therefore courageous steps, such as this one, must be taken to avoid losing these liberties altogether.
His concerns are real and he is not alone in pondering what appropriate actions should be taken. The issue that must be considered is, can a conservative believer such as Mohler sign The Manhattan Declaration without compromise? Mohler believes he can. He writes,
I signed The Manhattan Declaration because it is a limited statement of Christian conviction on these three crucial issues, and not a wide-ranging theological document that subverts confessional integrity. I cannot and do not sign documents such as Evangelicals and Catholics Together that attempt to establish common ground on vast theological terrain. I could not sign a statement that purports, for example, to bridge the divide between Roman Catholics and evangelicals on the doctrine of justification… My beliefs concerning the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches have not changed. The Roman Catholic Church teaches doctrines that I find both unbiblical and abhorrent – and these doctrines define nothing less than the Gospel of Jesus. But The Manhattan Declaration does not attempt to establish common ground on these doctrines. We remain who we are, and concede no doctrinal ground.
But is Mohler correct that no doctrinal ground is being conceded? Others are not so sure. For example R. C. Sproul writes,
The drafters of the document… used deliberate language that is on par with the ecumenical language of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ETC) movement that began in the 1990s. The Manhattan Declaration states, “Christians are heirs of a 2000-year tradition of proclaiming God’s Word,” and it identifies “Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelicals” as “Christians.” The document calls Christians to unite in “the Gospel,” “the Gospel of costly grace,” and “the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness.” Moreover, the document says, “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.”
While Sproul claims he would march with the Pope to resist the slaughter of innocents in the womb, we would “never ground that cobelligerency on the assumption that we share a common faith and a unified understanding of the gospel.” “Let me be unambiguous”, Sproul writes, “without a clear understanding of sola fide and the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, you do not have the gospel or gospel unity (1 Cor 1:17; 2 Cor 5:21).”
John MacArthur takes a similar stance stating that The Declaration “assumes from the start that all signatories are fellow Christians whose only differences have to do with the fact that they represent distinct ‘communities.’” Further, “The implicit assumption… is that Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant Evangelicals and others all share a common faith in and a common commitment to the gospel’s essential claims.” Yet, as MacArthur recognizes, a definition for the gospel is never found in the document and in fact would have been an impossibility “because of the contradictory views held by the broad range of signatories regarding what the gospel teaches and what it means to be a Christian.” And MacArthur rightly picks up on another issue of vital importance – the resolution to the moral problems that face our society (problems which we all recognize) is not found in manifestos and legislation, but in the gospel. He writes, “The document falls far short of identifying the one true and ultimate remedy for all of humanity’s moral ills: the gospel.”
Sproul and MacArthur believe the weakness of the manifesto is twofold: it attempts to fix spiritual problems with human instruments, while at the same time distorting God’s remedy (the gospel) by attempting to broaden its meaning so that all branches of “Christianity” can lay claims to it.
A Biblical Critique
It must first of all be recognized that Satan is more than willing to give ground on moral and secondary matters if by doing so he can compromise or cripple the gospel message or its proclamation. I believe The Manhattan Declaration does this in a number of ways:
It confuses the gospel. Although no clear definition for the gospel is found within the document, we are repeatedly assured that the signatories all believe and preach the same gospel message. This is reinforced by the clear indication throughout that evangelicals, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are all “Christians” and thus members of Christ’s body. This is a subtle but serious dilution of the understanding of the Christian faith.
It confuses the Christian mandate. While we all lament the loss of certain freedoms and the moral decay that is increasingly evident in our culture we should remind ourselves of our calling. What our Savior commissioned us to do is clearly stated in Matthew 28:19-20 and Acts 1:8. We are called to make disciples of all nations, teaching them what the Lord has taught us and baptizing them in the name of the Triune God. If we draw our marching orders from the New Testament Scriptures we find:
- The church is not called to change society by legislative action, lobbyist activity, or moral declarations. One searches in vain for New Testament example or instruction for the church to involve itself in creating culture or attempting to conform it to Christianized standards. While some may deem this an argument from silence, it should be recognized that the New Testament epistles were given to God’s people to teach them how to live for the glory of God in a fallen world during the church age. What God considered important and necessary for us to know would surely be found within its pages. This is not to ignore the rest of the Bible for “all Scripture is profitable” but God’s people are no longer under Israel ’s theocracy. New paradigms, directions and teachings have been given and should be taken to heart.
- Rather than attempting to force fallen men and societies to outwardly live up to biblical standards our Lord tells us it is the gospel that is the power of God to change lives (Rom 1:16-17; 1 Cor 6:9-11). Governments have an important role to play in God’s plan for this world, including maintaining law and order and resistance to evil people who would harm others (Rom 13:1-7). But it is the true church of Christ which is the pillar and support of the truth (1 Tim 3:15). Only the people of God can offer the good news that sins can be forgiven and lives transformed through Jesus Christ. The church, as the church, is not called to change or create culture except through the gospel. Those who disagree with this assessment either do so on the basis of New Testament silence or a distortion of the Old Covenant and Israel’s theocratic society in their attempt to superimpose it onto the church. It is when the New Testament is thus ignored that God’s people find themselves attempting to solve the world’s problems through the world’s means. And in the process we find ourselves distracted from our true calling as mandated by Christ Himself.
- On occasion, throughout history, our Lord has graciously allowed various cultures to be permeated by the gospel message because of the faithful teaching and living of God’s people. America , at least to a degree, has been one of those blessed cultures, for which we are most grateful. It is with great sadness that we witness the moral deterioration of our country resulting from our society as a whole rejecting Christ and His ways (Rom 1:18). The role the church has played in this deterioration can be directly traced, in my opinion, to the liberal theology and the Social Gospel of the 18th century and its subsequent offspring. Much like today, the church had lost confidence in the truth and sufficiency of the Scriptures to change men’s lives and began to replace the Great Commission with solving society’s temporal problems. As the church became more distracted with feeding the hungry, temperance movements, political action and the like (all good things in themselves), she in turn systematically abandoned the proclamation of the gospel and biblical truth. Many societal changes resulted, most of them beneficial, but the foundation was slowing eroding. The church was losing its voice in society because it was saying the same thing that society said instead of proclaiming the Word of God. When secular society eventually usurped the church by taking the lead in societal change the church became redundant and largely lost its voice for decades. We now come face to face with the consequences of our past actions and choices and are beginning to panic. Solutions being offered, such as The Manhattan Declaration, are a page right out of the old Social Gospel’s play book. Gone, apparently, are the days when we called sinners to repentance and held forth the gospel of righteousness. Now we unite around political and moral pronouncements in the hope that if we get enough signatures Congress and the courts will listen to our concerns. Even on a pragmatic level I believe this to be a pipedream. We already have a mechanism for changing laws. It is called the vote. Politicians know that if “Christians” were serious about moral decay and religious freedoms they would elect people to office who reflect their views – but they do not. A non-binding declaration such as this one will not influence the government in the least. What would influence them would be to actually vote our moral convictions instead of our wallet.
- In the meanwhile, as we (“Christians”) gear up to attempt to put political pressure on our government, we are again being sidetracked from our true calling as mandated by our Lord. As followers of Christ we are called to be salt and light in the world (Matt 5:13-16), obey our government, pray for our leaders, be model citizens (Rom 13:1-7; I Pet 2:13-17) and, most importantly, proclaim the excellencies of Christ (I Pet 2:9) so that mankind will see its true need and turn to Him. Nothing in Scripture prohibits the individual believers from being involved in politics and government and making every use of their rights as citizens to bring about the best government possible in order that we might live a quiet and tranquil life (1 Tim 2:2). But ultimately our Lord is far more concerned with the radical transformation of lives within society than He is in society itself. The church is not a political lobbying organization but the divinely anointed body sent forth by God to declare that mankind is alienated from God, lost in sin and in need of reconciliation. Only Christ can solve these problems that the church is uniquely equipped to address.
It would appear that we in America are witnessing the overwhelming price of rebellion as outlined in Romans 1:18-32. We watch as God steadily gives our country over to the very sins it has long demanded and with this comes all the consequences identified in that text. As some of these consequences become evident and unbearable to Christians, such as loss of religious freedoms, abortion and same-sex marriages, we become terrified. We then put pressure on Congress, form organizations (remember the Moral Majority?) or write declarations. These measures historically accomplish limited, if any, societal good and what is accomplished is temporary at best because they fail to address the true problem – the heart of man. Man’s fundamental problem is not immoral actions, such as The Manhattan Declaration identify, but his fallen nature resulting from the fact that he is spiritually dead in sin. It is only the Lord’s common grace which keeps each individual and society from sinking to the depths of the depravity that already lives within us. When the Lord grows tired of our rejection of Him and our constant resistance to His will, He takes His restraining hand off us and allows us to live out the fullness of our depravity. When this happens to a society it is a fearsome thing to behold for the masses will unashamedly murder children, deny basic human rights and approve homosexual lifestyles, among other things. The root of the matter is not bad laws, hence it cannot be solved politically; it is not simply bad behavior, hence it cannot be solved through moral declarations; it is not intellectual, hence it cannot be solved philosophically. The root problem is spiritual and can only be dealt with through the gospel.
This of course brings us back to our original concern with The Manhattan Declaration – it has a faulty gospel. The Declaration is a political, moral, intellectual document attempting to do battle with a spiritual problem. Not only is the document ill-equipped to do battle with what really ails our world (sort of like bringing a knife to a gunfight), the one thing it does do is further muddy the waters on the definition of the gospel. If there is one true gospel, as Paul affirms (Gal 1:6-9), and if those of the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and evangelical communities are all proclaiming it, then all three communities must be in agreement. But that is simply not true. At the Council of Trent Rome pronounced anathemas upon any who believed in sola fide, the very heart of the Reformation. Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches adhere to a sacramental system that combines work with faith leaving the eternal destiny of souls in the hands of their respective churches. Yet the Scriptures declare that the means of salvation is a gift directly from God, based solely on His grace and received solely by faith (Eph 2:8-9).
These kinds of documents do little to change culture but do much to change the nature of the gospel in the minds of believers and non-believers alike. If The Manhattan Declaration was a purely political document produced by morally outraged individuals, whether Christian or not, I would have little problem signing it, although I have limited faith in its effectiveness as a political or moral statement. I doubt seriously if it will cause one politician to change his/her vote, one court justice to reevaluate his/her decisions and few in secular society to examine their worldviews or sin-enslaved hearts. Still I would not be opposed to signing such a document in hopes that I was wrong and the moral deterioration of our country would at least be delayed. But when the gospel itself is compromised in the process the price for anticipated gain is far too high.
Instead of drawing moral/political lines in the sand, courageously and even defiantly declaring that we will retreat no further, maybe this would be an excellent opportunity to evaluate whether we have already retreated concerning the gospel. That ground may have been given because of ecumenical expediency, pluralistic pressures, biblical illiteracy or faith in statements such as The Manhattan Declaration which minimize the uniqueness and narrowness of the gospel message in an attempt to change society. Rather than giving ground maybe this would be a good time to take a fresh look at the gospel. Maybe we should define it more carefully, guard it more tenaciously, proclaim it more boldly, and believe in its power more profoundly. For, after all, Paul tells us it is the power of God unto salvation. And, after all, it is what Christ has commissioned us to do.