This week, a woman in one of our congregations asked me why the Presbyterian Church did not speak out more clearly on moral issues. She thought that as a church we often lacked the courage to address controversial issues directly and clearly. I tried to explain that we often do make clear statements in the reports that go to our General Assembly each June and in reports to Boards throughout the year but that these do not often receive much press coverage. It may also be that we fail to communicate our position clearly to many ordinary church members.
This past week, North American Christians have spoken out on important moral issues in The Manhattan Declaration which has received a good amount of press coverage, largely because it has been signed by people from a variety of church traditions. The 4,700-word declaration issues a call to Christians to adhere to their convictions and it informs civil authorities that the signers will not under any circumstance abandon their Christian consciences. It is clearly sending a message to the Obama administration about what they are not prepared to tolerate. The drafters of the Declaration say that 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. It is a robust statement which is worth reading.
The signers identify themselves as Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical Christians who have united to reaffirm fundamental truths about justice and the common good, and to call upon their fellow citizens, believers and non-believers alike, to join them in defending them. These truths are:
- the sanctity of human life
- the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife
- the rights of conscience and religious liberty.
Among the signatories are men whom I know well and hold in high regard: Peter Lillback, Bryan Chappell, Tim Keller and Ligon Duncan. But the fact that other non-evangelical and non-reformed people have signed the declaration make some people uncomfortable and they view the signing of the declaration as a form of undesirable ecumenism. One of the dissenters has been John McArthur who presents his case for not signing.
But Albert Mohler, President of Southwestern Baptist Seminary and a highly respected preacher, theologian and commentator, has signed up. He states his reasons clearly. It made me think that my questioner had a point. Perhaps we do lack courage. Or maybe we are nervous about who might actually agree with us and may want to stand with us on key moral issues? I think Dr Mohler makes his point well.
I signed The Manhattan Declaration because I believe it is an historic statement of conviction and courage that is both timely and urgent. Over the course of the next few months and years, these issues will be reset in our culture and its laws. These are matters on which the Christian conscience cannot be silent. There are, of course, other issues that demand Christian attention as well. The focus on these three issues is forced by the circumstances of current threats as well as the awareness that the time of decision on these questions has come. Though Christians struggle to understand the extent to which our convictions should be incorporated in the law, we must now recognize that the very respect for these convictions — and the freedom to follow and obey these convictions in our own lives, families, and ministries is now at stake.
I signed The Manhattan Declaration because I lead a theological seminary and college, serve as a teaching pastor in a church, and am engaged in Christian leadership in the public square. Thus I see the threats to Christian liberties that now stare us in the face. The freedom not to perform a same-sex marriage is one thing, but what about the freedom to hire employees according to our Christian convictions? What about the right of Christian ministries to conduct their work according to Christian beliefs? What about the freedom to preach and teach against the grain of the nation’s laws (for example, after the legalization of same-sex marriage)? When do hate crimes laws slide into definitions of “hate speech?” The threats to our religious liberties are immediate and urgent.
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. The Manhattan Declaration is not a manifesto for united action. It is a statement of urgent concern and common conscience on these three issues — the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage, and the defense of religious liberty.
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 Christ. But The Manhattan Declaration does not attempt to establish common ground on these doctrines. We remain who we are, and we concede no doctrinal ground.
But when Catholic Charities in Massachusetts chose to end its historic ministry of placing orphaned children in good homes because the State of Massachusetts required it to place children with same-sex couples, this is not just a Catholic issue. The orphanage could have easily been Baptist. When Belmont Abbey college in North Carolina is told by federal authorities that it must offer abortion services in its insurance plans for employees, this is no longer just a Catholic issue. The next institution to be under attack might well be Presbyterian. We are in this together, and we had better be thankful that, in this case, we are not alone.
Finally, I signed The Manhattan Declaration because I want to put my name on its final pledge — that we will not bend the knee to Caesar. We will not participate in any subversion of life. We will not be forced to accept any other relationship as equal in status or rights to heterosexual marriage. We will not refrain from proclaiming the truth — and we will order our churches and institutions and ministries by Christian conviction.
There will be Christian leaders, pastors, seminaries, colleges, universities, denominations, churches, and organizations that will abandon the faith on these issues. They will bend the knee to Caesar. Far too many already have. The signatories to The Manhattan Declaration pledge that we will not be among them.
I want my name on that list. I surrendered no conviction or confessional integrity to sign that statement. No one asked me to compromise in any manner. I was encouraged that we could stand together to make clear that to come for one of us on these issues is to come for all. At the end of the day, I did not want my name missing from that list when folks look to see just who was willing to be listed.