"When a state court can decide that the church has to tolerate heresy in its midst, then the teaching office of the church is destroyed, and it ceases to be church."
Hermann Sasse, Lambeth 1958, Letters to Lutheran Pastors No. 48 (Translated by Holger Sonntag and published here with his kind permission.)
In the Letter this quote is extracted from, Hermann Sasse discusses his reaction to the Lambeth Conference of the world-wide Anglican communion held in 1958, and he has some characteristically interesting things to say about Anglicanism (the essay will be published in an upcoming third volume of 'The Lonely Way' collection of Sasse's Letters and essays). The quote comes from the paragraph where Sasse, who knew a thing or two about the need to stand against radically non-Christian powers from experience in Nazi Germany, has been reviewing the famous 'Gorham Case' of 1850, where a civil court, the Privy Council, ruled against a bishop seeking to uphold baptismal regeneration as the doctrine of the Church of England. That decision was a result of the particular circumstances of the state Church of England, but it would have parallels in other countries later, for example in Sweden where the state directed the church to install women pastors. Things have since moved on considerably...
One hundred and fifty years after the Gorham case, and fifty years after Sasse wrote this Letter, Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical leaders signed the 'Manhattan Declaration' on November 20, 2009, affirming their intention to resist, through civil disobedience if necessary, any state encroachment on the right of the church to determine its doctrine and inner life in regard to the sanctity of life, the dignity of marriage between a man and a woman, and the liberty of conscience in religious matters.
Here are some excerpts from the declaration:
"We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences to affirm our right - and, more importantly, to embrace our obligation - to speak and act in defense of these truths. We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence."
"We recognize the duty to comply with laws whether we happen to like them or not, unless the laws are gravely unjust or require those subject to them to do something unjust or otherwise immoral."
". . . We will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriage or the equivalent or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family."
While the declaration has been drafted and signed by US Christian leaders with reference to their context, it has direct relevance certainly to the situation of the church in other English-speaking countries where a libertarian agenda threatens not just the Christian worldview but the very right of churches to determine their own doctrine and practice.
This is the sort of common witness in the public square that, frankly, churches in pluralistic societies like the US and Australia should do more of - it does not involve common worship or doctrinal compromise, but a much needed common witness to First Article of the Creed/Decalogue matters that the world needs to hear along with the Gospel. Call it the prophetic aspect of the church's teaching office, if you like (for once the word 'prophetic' seems apt to describe a public word of the church!). Now, why no Lutheran signatories?
Click on the post title to view The Manhattan Declaration website.