At this time of year, our church gets together with various other local churches for a Community Thanksgiving Service. It's a wonderful tradition. This past Sunday evening, 7 different churches from 4 different denominations gathered for worship and food afterward. This year the CMA pastor preached, and he gave us a great sermon on heaven. I felt this message was particularly appropriate for this varied group; heaven is the place where we will all worship again, without any denominational differences. That service was a little picture of heaven.
One pastor, however, did not come. He could not, for reasons of conscience. He is so closely tied to his own denominational thinking that he cannot worship with some other churches, nor participate in any way with them.
The service was so uplifting, God-honoring. The message was entirely Biblical. The gathering of brothers and sisters in Christ was so warm and comforting. I felt real sorrow for this man, this pastor, who missed all this. And yet -- to be there would not have warmed his spirit, but plagued him. How sad!
This matter of conscience in ecumenical gatherings occurs often, and is playing out yet again in the Manhattan Declaration. This document, which can be read and signed online, is a statement by Catholics, Orthodox and Protestant Evangelical Christians, addressing three issues: abortion, marriage, and religious freedom. The document takes a strong stand on these issues, affirming that all who sign the document are pro-life and firmly oppose abortion, that they define and support marriage as a union between one man and one woman and oppose all attempts to define it otherwise, and that they defend the human right of conscience to worship and practice one's religion freely.
I know some Christians who will not sign the document. They agree whole-heartedly with the sentiments in it: they are pro-life, pro-marriage, and for religious freedom. But their difficulty is in putting their signature to a document that will be signed by people of different views.
The document can be found at this website.
The Manhattan Declaration begins with the assumption that its Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical signers are all Christians. This may seem obvious to many of you, but there are Protestant Evangelical Christians who take issue with this assumption -- they see the teachings of the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches as being so far away from true Biblical orthodoxy that these denominations cannot be called "Christian," and thus their members cannot be called so either.
The document clearly states that those who sign it "sign as individuals, not on behalf of our organizations." Thus, the document in no way claims that all 3 churches are Christian; that is not its goal. It is merely stating that all its signers claim to be Christians. Regardless of their affiliations, they say, "We are Christians."
What do these signers mean by that? Do they understand what a Christian is? On the website's first page, they avow: "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."
It seems clear to me that the document is in NO WAY making any claims about the theological tenets of the 3 churches, but makes claims only for its signers. If you sign the document, you are a follower of Christ, you believe him to be both crucified and risen, you believe he is the only way to salvation.
The signers state this. Why would I not sign with them?
Further, the signers state, "We act together in obedience to the one true God, the triune God of holiness and love and who has laid total claim on our lives...."
I know a lot of Protestants who could never state such things. I'm thrilled to find out there are thousands of Catholics and Orthodox who will eagerly do so. The signers put their names to this document "in light of the truth grounded in Holy Scripture," and then proceed to give Scripture texts in each section of the document to support their positions on the 3 issues at hand. I'll note also that the document demonstrates deep humility, in that the signers attest to their own failings and sin in conduct, and in the historic weaknesses of the institutions that claim Christianity. Nevertheless, in spite of these sins and weaknesses, they insist on pursuing righteousness and justice.
In defending freedom of religion, the signers state, "The nature of religious liberty is grounded in the character of God himself, the God who is most fully known in the life and work of Jesus Christ." That is quite a statement! When looking for a defense for themselves, as to why they have a right to proclaim their dissent against not only their culture, but against government regulations, these signers cite Scripture, and the apostles:
"Going back to the earliest days of the church, Christians have refused to compromise their proclamation of the gospel. In Acts 4, Peter and John were ordered to stop preaching. Their answer was, 'Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.'"
Is the Manhattan Declaration's purpose to make an inclusive theological statement that binds together Catholics, Orthodox and Evangelicals? No. It states openly that there are deep, historical ecclesiastical differences among them. Is the Declaration theologically neutral? No, and it does not pretend to be. It lables abortion, same-sex marriage, and restrictions on religious freedom as "immoral." It calls sin, sin. Is it surprising that these 3 groups might have members who can agree on what sin is?
I'm disappointed that I have dear friends who cannot get past their dislike and disapproval of Catholics, and sign this document, or at least support those who do. Do they think there will be no members of the Catholic or Orthodox churches in heaven someday? Surely not! But this is where the rubber meets the road, as they say. The signers of the Manhattan Declaration claim to be Christians, and to be members of these churches. This is an incongruity for some, and they cannot get past it. I, for one, am thankful that my salvation is not determined by my affiliation with a particular sect or denomination; it is dependent only on my faith in Jesus. It seems to me that the signers of this document believe that as well.