The Manhattan Declaration – Should You Sign It?

Last November 20, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., the Manhattan Declaration was announced and released to the press, what Charles Colson called “one of the most important documents produced by the American Church.”

Drafted by two Baptists and a Roman Catholic; Colson, Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School, and Robert George of Princeton University; and originally signed by 140 Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Evangelical Christians, the Manhattan Declaration addresses three of the most pressing moral and social justice issues of our day; the sanctity of life, the sanctity of marriage, and religious liberty (including the rights of conscience). 

Timothy George declared in the Washington Post, “…we have issued this declaration of conscience calling on our fellow citizens, believers and non-believers alike, to join us in the defense of human life, marriage, and religious freedom.”  , with a goal of one million signatures.  One of those signatures is mine.  Did I err? Should I remove my name?  Should I urge you to sign it? …or Not sign it?

Prominent Evangelicals who signed the document include Randy Alcorn, Kay Arthur, Mark Bailey (Dallas Seminary), Gary Bauer, Bryan Chapel (Covenant Seminary), James Dobson, Dinesh D’Souza, J. Ligon Duncan,   Michael Easley, Jonathan Falwell, Wayne Grudem, Tim Keller, Richard Land, Duane Litfin (Wheaton College), James McDonald, Josh McDowell, Albert Mohler (Southern Baptist Seminary), Marvin Olasky, J.I. Packer, Dennis Rainey, Joseph Stowell, Chuck Swindoll, Joni Eareckson Tada, Don Wildmon, Craig Williford (Trinity International University), John Woodbridge (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), and Ravi Zacharias. 

Notable omissions from this impressive list include R.C. Sproul, John Mac Arthur  and Alistair Begg.

Many would base their decision on a “Groupie” mentality, such that they will simply decide to agree with their favorite writer or preacher.  “If MacArthur is against it, I’m against it” or “If Mohler is for it, I’m for it.” If you take that lemmings approach, you may have a problem because you see names you respect on both sides of this issue.

What is the controversy?  Can’t we evangelicals all agree on the fundamental issues of life, marriage and religious liberty? My interest was stirred as diverse opinions were expressed in an email exchange within the local church that I pastor.  As the debate unfolded, I agreed to blog on it, and found the waters much muddier than I anticipated.

At the risk of over simplifying the issue, the objection that Sproul and others raise is that the Manhattan Declaration compromises the Gospel.  Sproul writes on the Ligonier Ministries blog, “While I would march with the bishop of Rome and an Orthodox prelate to resist the slaughter of innocents in the womb, I could never ground that co-belligerency on the assumption that we share a common faith and a unified understanding of the gospel.”

Sproul and others believe the Manhattan Declaration goes too far in implying or declaring that Catholics, Orthodox and Evangelicals have a common understanding of what true Christianity is. They rightly point out that there are major differences on the most important issues, that is, the very basis of salvation, as shown by the solas of the Protestant Reformation.  Are we saved on the basis of grace alone by faith alone in the crucified and risen Christ?  Do we believe in Justification by Faith alone, that the Righteousness of Christ is imputed to us by faith? That is the heart of the Gospel.

I respect Sproul’s argument and agree that Colson sometimes implies more than I am comfortable with in his statements of agreement with non-evangelicals.  Thus, I respect Sproul and Mac Arthur and Begg in their decision not to sign the document.

However, as we debate the fine tuned language and what goes too far, we must guard against any leap of illogic that assumes those who signed the statement are somehow embracing an ecumenical unity with all others who signed. That is simply not the case.

The Manhattan Declaration website tries to diffuse the controversy in their FAQs: “By signing…am I somehow endorsing the theology of other faith traditions or compromising my understanding of the Gospel?”

Their answer: “There are serious differences between the Catholic, Protestant evangelical and Orthodox traditions on many theological issues and devotional practices.  However, none of those differences are alluded to in any way in the Manhattan Declaration, nor do any of the original signers believe they were compromising their respective positions by signing it.  The drafting committee was careful to achieve complete harmony of all three traditions—Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant evangelical—on the critical issues addressed in the declaration, and on those issues only.  This was accomplished by making sure every assertion in the declaration is rooted in the Holy Scriptures they share in common.  In the final analysis, the Manhattan Declaration is simply a declaration of the signers’ common stand on life, marriage, and liberty.  To read anything more into it would be contrary to the intention of the drafters and the nearly 150 leaders who signed it originally.” (underlining is my addition for emphasis)

Anytime we join forces with those of significantly different theological views, there are risks. I might wish for greater care in the document to avoid any implication of  theological unity where it does not exist. However, I do not believe that I compromise my unshakeable biblical convictions, reflected in the theology of the Reformation, when I affix my signature to this documents that affirms biblical views on life, marriage and liberty, critically important issues for the future of our country.

I urge you to read the Manhattan Declaration.  Read the arguments pro and con if you wish. I particularly appreciated the statements of Mohler and Duncan among those who signed it, offering a different perspective from their very close and respected friend, Sproul. Wherever you land, to sign or not to sign, please give honor and respect to your fellow Evangelicals on both sides of this in house debate.

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