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Belhar Confession Critique Essay

This June, at its General Synod, my denomination–the Reformed Church in America–will vote on whether to add a fourth confessional standard. Currently, and since the denomination’s inception, we have held to three standards–the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. I’ve not been pleased with how loosely some in my denomination hold to these Standards, but at least on paper the theology is rock solid.

For more the past several years there has been an effort to add the Belhar Confession as a fourth confessional standard. If the General Synod approves Belhar this June (and it almost certainly will), then the Confession must be approved by 2/3 of the Classes (plural of Classis, which is like a Presbytery) to be officially adopted alongside the other three Reformation documents.

The Belhar Confession dates back to 1986 and comes out of the struggles with apartheid in South Africa. It is a brief confession and in many ways quite beautiful, a doctrinal statement filled with some precious truths that the white church in South Africa had tragically lost.

And yet…and yet, I have my reservations. Below is a short article I posted over at my other, RCA related blog.

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I want to support the Belhar Confession.Like everyone else in the RCA, or virtually everyone, I think apartheid was evil, racism is wrong, and church unity is good.I like the idea of adopting a confession that comes from the Global South and may speak to non-whites in a way that our present confessions do not.I agree with most of the Belhar Confession, much of it simply a restatement of Scripture.I want to support Belhar—others I respect do.But in the end, I cannot.

First, there are a few lines that cannot be supported by Scripture.Here’s just one example: We believe that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged.To be sure, the Bible is full of examples of God’s heart for the poor and the oppressed.But it goes too far to say he is in a special way a God to them.The covenant promise—I will be your God and you will be my people (language Belhar echoes here)—is for those who put their faith in God, not simply those who are poor or oppressed.In fact, Abraham, the man of faith and the model for all covenantal blessing (Gal. 3:5-9), was especially rich (Gen. 13:5-6).Is God less of God to him than to the poor man who rejects Christ?Was God a God to Job, Zacchaeus, Mary and Martha in a less special way because they were well-to-do?There are plenty of verses to support the contention that God cares for the poor and oppressed, but are there any verses to suggest that he is their covenantal God apart from faith?Or any verses to suggest that God looks on the believing poor with more favor than the believing non-poor?God does not show partiality to the poor, nor does he defer to the great (Lev. 19:15).

Second, I am concerned about what it will mean to confess the Belhar Confession as a denomination.I understand that possible abuses of the confession should not be a knock against the confession itself, but adopting the Belhar Confession only makes sense if we are actually going to confess it together.Thus, it becomes important to listen to how others are already “confessing” the Belhar.

Those advocating the adoption of Belhar do not simply want us to affirm an anti-apartheid document.They are passionate about Belhar because of its many perceived implications.The Commission on Christian Action in 2007 lauded Belhar because it spoke to so many issues before them, including the farm bill, Sudanese refugees, the Iraq War, socially screening RCA retirement funds, immigration policy, minimum wage increases, and America’s embargo of Cuba.Others in the RCA have suggested that Belhar applies to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, global economics, green house gas emissions, abortion, social welfare, and taxation policies.For many in the RCA, Belhar’s talk of justice lends support for almost any cause that can be put in the broad category of “social justice.

And for some, “social justice” includes the affirmation of the homosexual lifestyle.This concern cannot be dismissed as fear-mongering.Allen Boesak, under whose leadership Belhar was first drafted, recently made headlines when he “dramatically insisted that the church’s Belhar Confession demands the defense of the full rights of gay members. When the synod rejected this, he announced his intention to resign from all church offices and left the synod floor with his wife” (The Banner, January, 16).If the man responsible for overseeing the first draft of the Belhar Confession asserts that support for homosexual unions and homosexual ordination is demanded by the Confession, why should we think that this document will not be used in the RCA to a similar end.

I’m not opposed in principle to a new confession.But a new confession should clarify some issue that is begging for clarification.While there may be pockets of insensitivity regarding race in our denomination, I don’t see where we are facing anything remotely close to the situation that prompted Belhar in South Africa in the 1980s.We do not honor the anti-apartheid cause by equating our situation to theirs.

Instead of clarifying, Belhar confuses.We are told it will apply to social justice issues, but how?It will speak to our need for unity, but in what way?It will urge reconciliation, but with whom?At this point in the life of our denomination, Belhar looks to me like a wax nose, which is exactly what confessions ought not to be.The right confessional statement settles issues; it doesn’t raise them.

I want to support the Belhar Confession.Its main thesis—God’s people should not be separated by race or ethnicity—is courageous and correct.But the Confession goes beyond Scripture in a few important places.And further, those who are most eager to confess Belhar in our denomination are often confessing a very different document than the anti-racism confession many of us read it to be.

P.S. A few weeks ago, Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary, blogged about the unfortunate trajectory of his old friend Allan Boesak (HT: Stephen Ley). Here’s part of what Mouw said:

Boesak was also instrumental in drafting the 1986 Belhar Confession, which I welcomed at the time as an important confessional statement about race relationships. He now appeals to that document in support of his advocacy for gay-lesbian ordination. In a recent insightful blog posting, “The Belhar Confession & God’s Final Revelation,” Violet Larson argues that this is a good reason to question the theological adequacy of the Belhar Confession, precisely because of the use to which it is being put these days by proponents of full inclusion on same-sex topics. I agree with her. While that document spoke forthrightly against the injustices of apartheid, it did not explicitly appeal to biblical authority. That it can now be seen by some of its drafters as capable of being extended to the full inclusion of active gays and lesbians in ministry says something about the weaknesses of Belhar—not as an important prophetic declaration in its original context, but as a statement that can stand on its own as a normative confession (emphasis mine).

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The Belhar Confession: Yea or Nay

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The Belhar Confession (Afrikaans: Belydenis van Belhar) is a Christianstatement of belief written in Afrikaans in 1982. It was adopted (after a slight adjustment) as a confession of faith by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC) in South Africa in 1986.

Themes[edit]

According to the Belhar Confession, unity is both a gift and an obligation for the church.[1] This unity originally referred to non-segregation between Christians of different races, but after the formation of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA) in 1994, the word "unity" came to refer to administrative unity within the managerial structures of the denomination.

Another key theme of the Belhar Confession is the dichotomy of reconciliation and the justice of God. According to the confession, God is the God of the destitute, the poor, and the wronged, and for this reason the church should stand by people in any form of suffering. It claims that individual, racial and social segregation is sin, and that all forms of segregation always lead to enmity and hatred.

Adoption by the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa[edit]

The URCSA has made it a prerequisite for the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa (NGK) to join the united denomination that all of its members adopt the Belhar Confession. Although the NGK is eager to join the new denomination, it has decided not to compel existing members to submit to the confession. The NGK had offered to compel only new members of the NGK to submit to the confession, and to request existing members to submit to it voluntarily, but this offer was rejected by the URCSA. The URCSA's position was that all members of the NGK should be required to swear that the Belhar Confession is true, or be expelled from the denomination.

The NGK's opinion of the Belhar Confession had varied over the years. Initially, the NGK rejected the confession as being a political document or as a statement of Liberation Theology. Some time later the NGK acknowledged that the document's contents were true, with the proviso that references in the Belhar Confession to "the poor" not be regarded as an implicit reference to non-whites. At the 2011 meeting of the General Assembly of the NGK, it was decided that processes to make the Belhar Confession part of the confessional base of the NGK should be initiated by its leadership.

Adoption by non-South African churches[edit]

The Evangelical Reformed Church in Africa in Namibia (ERCA) adopted the Belhar Confession in 1997 and in so doing became the first non-South African Church which adopted the Belhar Confession. Apart from the URCSA, the Belhar Confession was also adopted by the United Protestant Church in Belgium in 1998.[2]

The Reformed Church in America (RCA) adopted the Belhar Confession as a fourth Standard of Unity (or confession; alongside the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort) at its 2010 meeting of the General Synod, having adopted it provisionally in 2007.[3]

The 2009 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA) proposed to the 2012 Synod that the Belhar Confession be adopted as their fourth confession of faith.[4] Instead, the CRCNA created a new, less-binding category for the Belhar, and adopted it as an "Ecumenical Faith Declaration"[5] During CRCNA's Synod 2017, the church recategorized the Belhar Confession as a "Contemporary Testimony".[6]

The confession was also instrumental in the RCA's efforts to found the Reformed Church in the Dominican Republic.[7]

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has added the Belhar Confession to its Book of Confessions. In 2014, the denomination's 221st General Assembly submitted the proposal to the denomination's 171 presbyteries for ratification.[8] The required 2/3 approval having been received, the final step was a vote at the 222nd General Assembly (2016) meeting June 18–25 in Portland, Oregon. The Belhar Confession was adopted at the 222nd General Assembly on June 22, 2016 by an overwhelming 540-33 vote in favor of acceptance.[9]

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