What about the Belhar Confession?

At its synod last week the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) adopted the Belhar Confession, a statement on the unity, justice,  and reconciliation to which the church must witness as part of its fidelity to the gospel. The CRC adopted the statement as an Ecumenical Faith Declaration, not as a denominational confession. This story follows close on the heels of the adoption of the Belhar Confession as a denominational confession by the Reformed Church in America (RCA) in 2009, approved by a 2/3 majority of that denomination’s classes last year.

The Belhar Confession was written in 1986 to address the problem of apartheid in South Africa and redress the Reformed Church’s complicity in racial injustice. For obvious reasons, many Reformed and Presbyterian Christians in the United States believe their churches should adopt the confession as well.

Of course, adopting a new confession is a very serious step, and it is one that should not be taken without enormous care. Just because one agrees with a document or believes it to be biblical does not mean that document should automatically be raised to confessional status. And in fact, most people who oppose adopting the Belhar Confession do so not because they disagree with it theologically (though there are some who dismiss it derisively), but because they fear it is theologically inadequate or insufficient.

For instance, Kevin DeYoung, a pastor in the RCA, agrees with virtually everything in the Belhar Confession but nevertheless finds it to be unhelpful in solving or addressing the actual problems that face the contemporary church. DeYoung wrote back in 2009,

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.

He then clarified his concern in a very helpful way:

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.

DeYoung points our attention to comments made by Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, who early on endorsed the Belhar Confession but later came to be disillusioned with it. Mouw was close to Allan Boesak, a leading drafter of the document, and noted how Boesak eventually used it to advocate gay and lesbian ordination. Mouw wrote,

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.

Mouw is no reactionary conservative, and his concerns here should be taken seriously. The fact is, the Belhar Confession is tainted both in its origins and in its legacy by the uses to which it has been put. For that reason alone, it may not be advisable for confessional Reformed churches to adopt it.

That said, is the problem really with the document itself? If DeYoung, Mouw, and others can agree with virtually everything the document says, is it possible that the misuses to which it is being put are the result of factors not pertaining to the confession itself? To be sure, in a liberal context the Belhar Confession is easily put to disastrous use. But if it is adopted in the context of strong confessional allegiances to the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dordt, or the Westminster Confession, is it really so dangerous or is it more of a corrective?

DeYoung argues that the Belhar Confession’s statement that God is “in a special way the God of the poor, the destitute, and the wronged” cannot be supported from Scripture. He believes that this statement contradicts the Scriptural teaching regarding God’s covenant with his people. But I would argue that DeYoung is reading too much into that statement, and that he is underselling what Scripture says about God’s concern for the poor. It is Luke, after all, who records Jesus’ proclamation Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God, and woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation (Luke 6:20, 24). It was Jesus who described his calling as requiring him to proclaim good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). DeYoung has argued in his What is the Mission of the Church? that the material significance of these statements is exaggerated, but I find his insistence on downplaying the implications of the gospel regarding poverty quite troubling. It does not go beyond Scripture to say that God is in a special way the God of the poor and the oppressed.

In fact, if the Belhar Confession (or something like it) is worth adopting in our churches, I would argue that it is precisely for the reason that it challenges conservatives in their reactionary stance on matters of justice. Conservative Christians love to downplay (or ignore) the teachings of Scripture regarding the gospel’s implications for race or poverty. But they are in severe danger of allowing liberal extremes on these issues to curb their own fidelity to the biblical witness. For those who read older theologians like Calvin on these issues, the contrast is quite stark.

I am not saying I support adopting Belhar. I agree that the document is insufficient, particularly insofar as it fails to distinguish between the ethic of the kingdom and life under the cultural mandate in the present evil age, between the witness of Christians to the power of the gospel by the word and Spirit and the task of the state in enforcing basic though limited justice. In our day and age, and in the context of liberal abuses, these distinctions (which basically amount to the two kingdoms doctrine) simply must be made. But confessional Christians who successfully keep their denominations from adopting the Belhar Confession should not pat themselves on the back as if their work is done and as if Jesus is pleased. We have much to do and much to affirm if our churches are to be faithful to the gospel as it pertains to the poor and the oppressed.

We do not tend to be good at this. Our churches do not tend to be filled with many marginalized people. Our gospel is rarely viewed as “good news for the poor.” If something like Belhar reminds us of our calling, perhaps it is just what we need.

[Note: this article has been changed from the original version. The original version incorrectly stated that the CRC would reconsider making the Belhard Confession a denominational confession in 2015.]

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on June 22, 2012, in Confessions and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on What about the Belhar Confession?.

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