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The Manhattan Declaration Controversy

  • Alex Crain Editor,
  • 2009 11 Dec
The Manhattan Declaration Controversy

On November 20, 2009, Charles Colson, Robert George, and Timothy George set forth a document they called The Manhattan Declaration affirming the sanctity of life, marriage, and religious liberty and calling on Christians everywhere to sign it. Since then, hundreds of thousands of people who profess faith in Christ have affixed their signatures to the document.

However, significant debate remains over the fact that the Manhattan Declaration has garnered the signatures of a number of leaders from Evangelical, Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Many prominent evangelical leaders are concerned about the accuracy and propriety of identifying such theologically disparate groups as "Christian" together in the same document.

Evangelical leader R.C. Sproul, who elected not to sign the Manhattan Declaration, sums up the controversy by his response (posted 12/8/09) on his blog, "The Manhattan Declaration confuses common grace and special grace by combining them. 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."

The Manhattan Declaration does call "Christians" to unite in "the Gospel," "the Gospel of costly grace," and "the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness."  Furthermore, Jews, Muslims, Mormons and other non-Christians are not invited to sign the document even though they generally hold to the same positions about abortion, marriage, and freedom of religion. One interesting validation of the grounds for this controversy came from the following Google search: "Franklin Graham Manhattan Declaration."  Among the hits returned was a gay activist website commenting on Graham's absence as a signatory. The author, Timothy Kincaid, who professes to be a Christian and takes offense at the Manhattan Declaration's bias against gay Episcopal bishops, commented: "…this manifesto has less to do with social goals and more to do with Christian definition." Such an observation by Kincaid, who is clearly opposite Sproul theologically, politically, and socially does, in fact, corroborate Sproul's and others' reading of the Manhattan Declaration as an attempt to define who is and who is not "Christian."

Other Evangelical leaders declining to support the Manhattan Declaration also cite the errant ecumenical tone of the document. R.C. Sproul is joined in his view by notable leaders like John Piper and John MacArthur who sees the Manhattan Declaration as an implicitly theological statement… a flanking maneuver that attempts to redefine Christianity without addressing long-standing issues that have been around since the 1500s—the time of the Protestant Reformation.

Such assertions appear to be grounded in fact since in his commentary on November 25, Chuck Colson—one of the three authors of the Manhattan Declaration—said that the Manhattan Declaration is "a form of catechism for the foundational truths of the faith."

Other Evangelical leaders like Mark Driscoll, Alistair Begg and Michael Horton believe that the Manhattan Document reduces Christianity to mere Trinitarianism and degrades the heart of Christianity, namely, the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a set of ethical standards and a non-descript gospel.

All of this draws attention to the very important question, how should we think about collaborating together with others who profess allegiance to Christ but hold differing beliefs about Him and the definition of the Gospel?

Two of the chief organizers of the Evangelical leadership movement known as Together for the Gospel, Mark Dever and Ligon Duncan have weighed in on this important topic.

Ligon Duncan explains why he signed The Manhattan Declaration, while Mark Dever's article lays out general principles for collaboration, asking the thought-provoking question, "how can Christians disagree well?" 

Alex Crain