Reflections on the Manhattan Declaration

The Manhattan Declaration

It seems that in these days Christians of all traditions feel an increasing need to clarify and articulate core beliefs. A slew of books have been published within the last ten years in an effort to do that very thing. Just a few are Chuck Colson's, The Faith; Luke Timothy Johnson's, The Creed; and J.I. Packer and Thomas C. Oden, eds., One Faith: the Evangelical Consensus. Some leaders from within Churches of Christ even took a swing at a statement with a more limited scope, see, "a Christian Affirmation," printed fairly recently in the Christian Chronicle.

The latest effort to do such is the Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience, released on November 20, 2009. The drafting committee of the document was Timothy George (Beeson Divinity School), Chuck Colson, and Robert George (Princeton University). The list of religious leader signatories is impressive. Among them–Tim Keller, J.I. Packer, Cornelius Plantinga, Peter Kreeft, Thomas Oden, Richard Mouw, and a host of other church leaders and scholars. One striking characteristic of  the Declaration is that it's inclusive of Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical Christians.

Doctrinal statements of faith have a long and rich history. I see no problem with them, though I personally don't find them particularly helpful—as they tend to state simply the most mainstream ideas of a movement or belief system. Thus I find myself reading creedal statements and thinking, "and?" I also object to binding human-created creeds to people. 

Having said that, I welcome the Manhattan Declaration. It addresses three primary issues: Life, Marriage, and Religious Liberty.

I'll offer some thoughts on the document's substance in tomorrow's post. Hear are some things I appreciate about the Manhattan Declaration:

  • It is signed by both scholars and practicioners. Many doctrinal statements of this kind have relied solely on the academy or clergy for both composition and endorsement. This document was drafted and signed by a mixture of "clergy" and scholars. This is a positive trend.
  • The authors state, "…we sign as individuals, not on behalf of our organizations, but speaking to and from our communities." They do not presume to speak for everyone.
  • The document is well-worded and stays focused on a few large ethical concerns, rather than offering us 99 things we must believe in. To use Robert Wuthnow's language, the drafters of the Manhattan Declaration stay "thick," rather than "thin" in their ideology. For the objective they are seeking, this is good. It shouldn't be thought that all who sign the document or agree with the personal doctrinal convictions of each signer. This is also good.
  • The content of the arguments themselves is compelling.
  • The section on life is marvelous. 
  • The section on religious liberty is also outstanding. 
  • It's actually a notice of intent to engage in civil disobedience, if necessary. It's been a long time since Christians were willing to go there for good reasons. The authors end the document with, "We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar's. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God's."

I hear no call for Christian morality to become law of the United States. In fact, the authors seem to go out of their way to make that point. The intent of the Manhattan Declaration seems to be somewhat the opposite. As the author's see it, the Manhattan Declaration is a call for government to cease coercing/forcing Christian participation in things they find morally objectionable.

Tomorrow, the comments on the substance of the document.

Have you read the Manhattan Declaration? If so, what'd you think?

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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6 thoughts on “Reflections on the Manhattan Declaration

  1. I’ve read this and frankly, it comes off as more of a political rant than a spiritual dissertation. Instead of titling the first section “Life”, it should be called “Abortion”, because that is its primary topic. There is a bit of discussion about how we are created in God’s image and are all deserving of our rights unless, of course, you’re gay, in which case, suck it, you don’t deserve to be married. Also, “assisted suicide” is not the same as “murder”. Don’t let’s pretend there isn’t a difference, please. Finally, regarding the statement that the “truly Christian answer to problem pregnancies is for all of us to love and care for mother and child alike”: Can I get a show of hands from True Christians who will be providing groceries, a car seat, money for medical expenses, day care, supplies, and counseling to this mother and her unwanted child? If the mother shows herself unfit, will these same Christians offer to take the child in as their own? Are there enough people willing to do this so as so offset the number of abortions currently occurring in America EACH YEAR?
    Sadly, homosexuality seems to be one of those issues that is addressed a couple times in the Bible and has been chosen as Something We Need To Freak Out About. I am a divorced woman who is remarried. Should I be publicly stoned? Why not? Oh, right, we don’t DO that anymore because its place is in the first century BC, kind of like telling other people how to live their lives. “God blesses marriage and holds it in the highest esteem” but you could divorce your wife merely by saying “I divorce you” three times? The Catholic Church saw fit to annul my parents’ marriage of 15 years because it hadn’t been performed by the Catholic Church. So, gay marriage aside, the Catholic Church doesn’t respect YOUR marriage since you’re not Catholic. Highest esteem, whatever. Gay-marriage-haters want you to believe that all heterosexual marriages are the BEST DANG THING that ever happened to a man and a woman. I have vast experience with heterosexual marriages that didn’t bless anyone. My stepfather was an alcoholic. My life SUCKED until my mom divorced him. Yeah, that was WAY better than a stable, happy homosexual marriage, not.
    The paragraph about how gay marriage is going to ruin my marriage fails to say how gay marriage will ruin my marriage. If my friend Katherine marries her partner Lori, it REALLY ISN’T going to screw up my marriage. Really.
    On a side note, should we not allow infertile couples to marry? If marriage is about procreation, well, they don’t qualify, right?
    Cripes, I’m tired of this document. I do support religious liberty, though. And when I say, “religious liberty” I don’t mean, “Christians have the liberty to impose their beliefs on the American people by rule of law.”
    Your sister in Christ,

  2. Alright, I was finally able to read the document. Two issues worth questioning:
    1. Will the list of signatures serve to mark those whose names are absent from the list of signature? That is why I don’t like these things. I did not like it with the CoC’s “Christian Affirmation” and web-declaration regarding a capella music, and I don’t like the idea of having signatures on this either.
    2. While I am pro-life and believe marriage is between one man and one woman, why is the overall tone of this document about these two issues? Are they the only two moral/ethical issues facing both the church and secular society today? And why reduce the definition of “pro-life” to its verbage in contemporary political dialouge, why not allow a biblical definition of life? Then, there would not just be the rightful criticism of the current U.S. President but also at least its most recent former President who waged a preemtive war (something well outside the historical criterion for just-war in Christian thought) that has taken both the physical lives of many as well as jeopordize many other qualities necessary to truly live the life God created us to live – actions that cleary ARE NOT pro-life.
    Grace and peace,

  3. Tim, thanks for your comments. You knew I would have to respond 🙂 Of course, I already made clear on my site where I disagree with the declaration — and I’m joined in that same disagreement by Brian McClaren, John Stackhouse and Jim Wallis (not to name drop but there are good evangelicals who disagree).
    I wish that my first blog entry had been on the positive traits of the declaration. There is much to applaud. I especially appreciate the focus on life and the dignity of the human person throughout. I especially appreciated that these evangelical leaders affirmed in one paragraph what many evangelicals until Rick Warren have neglected:
    “Our concern is not confined to our own nation. Around the globe, we are witnessing cases of genocide and “ethnic cleansing,” the failure to assist those who are suffering as innocent victims of war, the neglect and abuse of children, the exploitation of vulnerable laborers, the sexual trafficking of girls and young women, the abandonment of the aged, racial oppression and discrimination, the persecution of believers of all faiths, and the failure to take steps necessary to halt the spread of preventable diseases like AIDS. We see these travesties as flowing from the same loss of the sense of the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life that drives the abortion industry and the movements for assisted suicide, euthanasia, and human cloning for biomedical research. And so ours is, as it must be, a truly consistent ethic of love and life for all humans in all circumstances.”
    I am in agreement on all of these. I simply don’t understand why some of these were not chosen as the three priority issues, especially since they concern life and death issues, and why they chose the agenda of the Christian Right as three priorities — is gay marriage REALLY as much a threat as AIDS in Africa, or the sexual abuse of girls in Asian countries? I simply cannot prioritize an issue that does not deal with life and death issues over those that do. Furthermore, there was no mention of creation care or the environment in this list at all. There was no mention of concern that 50 million people in America are without health care insurance. What about the homeless? What about the working poor who can’t survive in our economy? Does the destruction of the earth not rank higher than marriage or religious liberty? It seems to me that the Declaration serves some political ends rather than embracing the full scope of “life” issues in a nonpartisan way. You are correct that it hopes to be non-partisan, but simply by the selection of the issues and the prioritization of them, it appears partisan to me. I just can’t help but think that some of the drafters would have hated to have said anything that sounded like they agreed with Obama or Al Gore on anything, despite hundreds of years of Christian tradition on the care of the earth, the provision of health care and the poor.
    Though I have points of disagreement with the substance — which I know you are discussing tomorrow — my primary concern is with the fact that it does insinuate and recommend that the laws be changed to reflect these ideals. I wrote extensively on my blog and quoted from Stackhouse about this as well. You state that the Declaration does not recommend that these moral statements be enshrined in law. But it seems to me that this objective looms over the whole document. The whole objective of civil disobedience is to change the law. But especially in the section on marriage, the document is clear that it seeks legal, cultural and religious changes — and the whole argument about marriage is a legal one in the first place.
    Most importantly, my concern is that Christianity has become so equated with a political agenda, and these kind of efforts that again speak to legal changes begin at the wrong place if the gospel is to be heard clearly in our culture (see the book UnChristian). Had this document spoken out on a range of issues that have to do with the dignity of life and human beings, it would not appear so connected with a religious right and evangelical agenda. I believe that there was a way to affirm a common commitment to life, to the dignity of the human being and to liberty without defining these as legal or political issues, which the Declaration clearly does. I guess bottonmline, I am not convinced that the three issues they chose are the issues I would prioritize as a Christian. It’s not to say they are not important — but as a progressive believer who also affirms life and loves Jesus Christ, I wish that I felt that this Declaration was more comprehensive of the issues that I feel are of equal significance to those claiming to follow Christ.
    With all of that said, there is much to celebrate here, and I particularly appreciate the spirit of the document as well as the focus on religious freedom, with which I have no disagreement at all.

  4. I am glad to hear that the statement/book will not be trying to force Christian piety on the state law. I do hope that the statement will focus on more than just doctrine and include Christian practice in light of our call to be followers of Jesus. While I believe orthodoxy is important, too often it becomes the end itself. Jesus seemed to give great importance to orthopraxy. I realize that when it comes to specifics, not all Christians are going to agree. However, we should be able to agree on the broader strokes. For instance, both pacafist’s and just-war advocates can agree that Christian should not be comfortable with violence and instead should seek to exercise mercy and loving service to all – even our enemies.
    While this might prove to be a daunting challange, there seems to be enough literature published now that suggest Christians living in North America have forgotten how to live as disciples of Jesus.
    Grace and peace,

  5. I couldn’t help but feel encouraged by the strength, solidarity, and boldness of this statement. It is a great example, especially to my generation of beleivers(Gen X and younger), of the importance of knowing orthodox Christian doctrines and understanding both thier biblical roots and how they have been reaffirmed historically. In my humble opinion, this document reflects both the courage and the grace of Jesus Christ, and it calls all Christians out of the passive and fearful attitude that so many have toward our current culture, and into the kind of Truth-full speaking and living that is more characteristic of a people indwelled by the Spirit of the living God.