The Manhattan Declaration
On 20 November 2009 a coalition of 150 leading representatives of Orthodox, Roman Catholic and evangelical traditions released a joint statement – the Manhattan Declaration. Amongst the evangelical signatories were several high-profile names, including Chuck Colson, Tim Keller, Albert Mohler and Joni Eareckson Tada.
The declaration is the expression of concern over the secularisation of American society. Evangelical Christians on this side of the Atlantic will readily share that sense of concern. Here is an official summary of the 4,700-word document:
‘Christians, when they have lived up to the highest ideals of their faith, have defended the weak and vulnerable and worked tirelessly to protect and strengthen vital institutions of civil society, beginning with the family.
‘We are Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical Christians who have united at this hour to reaffirm fundamental truths about justice and the common good, and to call upon our fellow citizens, believers and non-believers alike, to join us in defending them. These truths are: (1) the sanctity of human life; (2) the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife; and (3) the rights of conscience and religious liberty.
‘Inasmuch as these truths are foundational to human dignity and the well-being of society, they are inviolable and non-negotiable. Because they are increasingly under assault from powerful forces in our culture, we are compelled today to speak out forcefully in their defence, and to commit ourselves to honouring them fully no matter what pressures are brought upon us and our institutions to abandon or compromise them.
‘We make this commitment not as partisans of any political group but as followers of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.’1
The main body of the Manhattan Declaration is taken up with developing the three key points listed above – the sanctity of life, unique dignity of heterosexual marriage and freedom of religion. It cannot be doubted that these are some of the most pressing moral and social issues facing Christians today. The culture may be increasingly hostile to what we have to say on these matters, but it certainly is for us as evangelical Christians to bear witness to biblical principles in public life.
The declaration garnered a fair bit of coverage in the American media, both secular and Christian. In the UK, the Guardian somewhat predictably dismissed the document as a ‘declaration of hypocrisy’2 as it makes no mention of the Iraq war, while the Christian Concern for our Nation website asks hopefully, ‘The Manhattan Declaration: An historic call to Christian truths. Is the UK next?’3
However, not all Evangelicals have welcomed the declaration. Some well-known leaders have refused to sign up, among them Alistair Begg4, R. C. Sproul5 and John MacArthur.6
What’s the problem? Clearly all Bible believing Christians will identify themselves with the three key points at the heart of the declaration. It is good also that representatives from Orthodox, Roman Catholic and evangelical traditions can speak with one voice on life issues, marriage and religious freedom.
The problem is that the Manhattan Declaration seems to go further than that. It suggests that the three groupings proclaim the same gospel. Church-level differences are acknowledged, but it is assumed that all involved parties are ‘Christians’ and ‘fellow believers’ who share a common vision of the gospel.
The declaration includes these words: ‘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 defence 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 Saviour Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season. May God help us not to fail in that duty’.
For evangelicals, such as Chuck Colson, involved in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) movement, this approach is not at all problematic. ECT proceeds on the basis that, Evangelicals and Roman Catholics as those who ‘accept Christ as Lord and Saviour are brothers and sisters in Christ’.7
However, so long as Evangelical Protestants hold that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone in accordance with the witness of Scripture alone, we have to say that the Roman Catholic Church does not preach the biblical gospel of salvation. The same goes for Orthodoxy.
Al Mohler has written to explain that his signature on the Manhattan Declaration does not involve acceptance of the ECT position. For him the declaration is all about the three key issues mentioned above and entails no subversion of confessional integrity.8 But as already pointed out, the document seems to imply that all signatories are Christians who proclaim the same gospel.
The declaration and its fall-out raises the question of co-belligerence and gospel faithfulness. We owe the phrase ‘co-belligerence’ to Francis Schaeffer. He argued that it is right for Evangelicals to make common cause with other interested parties on matters of moral and social concern.
On that basis we may stand with Roman Catholics against abortion and in favour of heterosexual marriage without suggesting that we are in agreement on gospel essentials. Just recently, Evangelicals via the Christian Institute campaigned alongside Roman Catholics and the atheist Rowan Atkinson in the name of free speech.9
Similarly, 200 years ago, William Wilberforce assembled a broad coalition in support of the abolition of the slave trade and for other good causes. He worked with people whose beliefs were quite different from his own without compromising his evangelical convictions.
If the Manhattan Declaration had simply stated that as representatives of the Judeao-Christian tradition, leading members of Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Evangelical groupings had spoken out on some of the key moral issues of the day, there would be no problem.
Indeed the declaration is a welcome clarion call for Christians not to bend the knee to Caesar if the State should demand that we compromise our beliefs and values. Jesus Christ is Lord and it is to him we owe our ultimate allegiance. But regrettably, in the words at least of the Manhattan Declaration, co-belligerence appears to have trumped gospel faithfulness.10
7. Reaffirmed in the most recent ECT joint-statement on Mary:
10. See Co-belligerence and common grace: Can the enemy of my enemy be my friend? by Daniel Strange for some helpful theological reflections on co-belligerence gospel faithfulness: www.jubilee-centre.org/document.php?id=48#_ftn4