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Is the Belhar Marxist?

Brian Polet in "Marxism Comes to the CRC?" (June 2008) regards statements in the Belhar Confession, such as "We believe that God [is] the God of the destitute, the poor, and the wronged," and "[God] wishes to bring justice to the oppressed" as promulgating socialism. The statements may be one-sided, but they are neither socialist nor capitalist but very biblical. Whether one-sidedness makes for a good confession is another matter, but then the prophets were often one-sided as well.

—Bert den Boggende
Brooks, Alberta

Brian Polet has allowed political ideology to co-opt theology in arguing that the Belhar Confession is socialist merely for referencing God's preferential option for the poor and oppressed. The assumption is that political ideology should be the final arbiter of right and wrong, rather than God's clear call to love our neighbor as ourselves. Polet bases his argument for the confession's supposed Marxist tendencies on the presence of language such as “the destitute, the poor, and the wronged" and "the oppressed.” But this is the language of the Bible itself (Isaiah 58 and Prov. 31:8-9)!

The result is a complete detachment between God's commands for our lives and our faith. Rather than “Whatsoever you do for the least of these, you do it for me,” Polet argues that all that matters is our personal communion with God. This is the same divorce between faith and reality that justified the apartheid that inspired the confession. Ironically, the confession itself wholeheartedly rejects any ideology, political or otherwise, in favor of the gospel of Christ (Point 4).

Instead of allowing ourselves to be wooed by ideologies of power, political or economic, the Belhar Confession could serve as a powerful reminder to the CRC of our responsibility to love and serve those around us and to reject all forms of control and subjugation. This could only serve to strengthen our foundations.

—Matt Helleman and Chandra PasmaOttawa, Ontario

When I was a sociology student at Trinity Christian College, Karl Marx fascinated me. So I was dismayed when I read Brian Polet's article about Marxism coming to the CRC.  In a wonderful display of language, Mr. Polet tried to paint the Belhar as some agent of evil bent on destroying the CRC. Brilliantly written, yes. But I think he's entirely incorrect. The examples he quotes from the Belhar, like "God [is] the God of the destitute and the poor, and the wronged," and that God brings justice to the oppressed, are right out of Scripture. What fascinated me about Marx was that some of his writing echoed strongly with Old Testament prophets. I agree Marx went too far to have the state supersede the church. But the Belhar Confession paints a biblical picture of what the church is called to be.  Whether or not it sounds Marx-ish is irrelevant.

Maybe Mr. Polet means that the Belhar is not Reformed because it does not call society to account and places the responsibility on the church. The Reformed tradition does teach that Christians should be a part of all aspects of society because, as Abraham Kuyper famously said, every square inch belongs to Christ. So yes, we are to be a part of politics and government, business and social services, but that does not negate the church's role to keep society accountable. The church is God's prophet to the world, and to think society will magically transform itself into the kingdom of God without the church as a catalyst is not only not Reformed but simply wrong.

I agree with Mr. Polet that the Belhar may indeed weaken the denomination's foundations. It may challenge us to rethink church. It may even force us to ask questions about our own power and privilege and how we use them to set the oppressed free, following the very command of Christ himself (Matthew 25). That may shake some of our churches to their core and make us “weaker.” But some of our churches need shaking. I need shaking. I am also reminded that God didn't pick Israel as his chosen people because they were mighty in battle or extremely wealthy.  He picked them because they were small enough and weak enough to have enough faith that God would overcome their weakness in response to their faithfulness.

—Jeremy HeyboerChicago, Ill.

I found this article to be quite misguided. Polet believes that the Belhar “promulgates” a Marxist agenda that will inevitably “weaken the foundations on which the CRC has been built.” This is clearly not the case. The Belhar Confession speaks just as loudly as Scripture speaks concerning God's (even, at times, special) care for the destitute, the poor, and the wronged (Isa. 58, 61; Amos 2:7, 5; Luke; Matt. 25:31-46; Jer. 22:16; etc.). Furthermore, the Bible is also clear that Christians are to do something about matters of injustice. This includes, as the Belhar states, suffering alongside of those who suffer and speaking out against the "powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests" (Isa. 10:1-10; Prov. 31:8-9; Micah 6:8; Matt. 25:31-46; etc). These statements and obligations are not the specter of Communism haunting the CRC; they are the specter of the biblical testimony that should haunt the CRC. (This kind of activity, of course, has nothing to do with justification; but it does have something to do with sanctification.) If one wishes to critique the Belhar Confession, one must (1) show from Scripture why it is false or (2) come up with good reasons why it should not, given our understanding of confessions, be a confession.  Polet's article chose neither of those options and instead opted to marry the Belhar to Marxist theory. This move allowed him to dismiss the Belhar as Communist jabber instead of doing the much more difficult task of evaluating it against Scripture.

From my perspective, the Belhar is a scripturally sound document. And the last time I checked, confessions that are scripturally sound provide a good foundation for Christ's church to be built upon. That being said, whether or not this confession fits our definition of “confessions” and/or contains the conditions necessary to become a confession, in my mind, remains undecided. This actually might be, given the current Form of Subscription fiasco, a good time in our history to spend some time wrestling through these important questions.

—David SalverdaGrand Rapids, Mich.

Brian Polet is so right to warn us against adding the Belhar Confession to our long-cherished doctrinal standards given in the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. It behooves us not to be swayed by an array of mega-church leaders and other high-profile evangelicals who view the influential neo-evangelical movement’s Social Gospel in the same vein as the Great Commission.

The Church’s primary directive is to go to the ends of the earth telling the world about Jesus. Concern for earthly injustices, however well-intended, must not overshadow concern for those who are spiritually perishing. Synod would do well to consider what 19th-century Scottish theologian George Smeaton said: “To convert one sinner from his way is an event of greater importance than the deliverance of an entire kingdom from temporal evil.”   

 —Joe A. SergeOshawa, Ontario

After reading the two articles regarding the Belhar Confession in the June Banner, I found myself disappointed with Brian Polet's response to the Belhar Confession. It seems to me that the language of the Belhar,  which Polet believes to “promulgate socialism by demanding obedience to the Marxist ideology of class struggle,” is articulating the biblical foundations of justice, shalom, and the redemption and transformation of God's broken world.

In its best moments the church has never feared using (redeeming?) the language of contemporary movements or philosophies to further the kingdom—as seen throughout Christian history, from Augustine's use of Greek philosophy to John Calvin's grasp of legal frameworks.

If the “socialist litmus tests” to which the Belhar would have churches submit include bringing justice to the oppressed or standing by people in any form of suffering, then the church would do well to sign on without reservation. Perhaps we would be placing ourselves inside the biblical story, the same story that contains the prophets Isaiah and Micah and is made fully incarnate in Jesus Christ's life among the marginalized.

If signing on to the Belhar Confession looks anything like the Holy Spirit-filled community life of First CRC in Seattle, then I would “hope and pray that the leaders of the church see fit” to sign on to the document and “be energized for kingdom service” like the Christian Reformed church community in Seattle. If doing so would “weaken the foundations on which the CRC has been built,” as Polet suggests, then perhaps we would do well to enter into a healthy discussion of those foundations.

—Jonathan Nicolai-dekoningVancouver, British Columbia

I'd like to echo Brian Polet's concerns about the Belhar Confession and the CRC's relationship with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. While we acknowledge that racism is a sin, how many other social sins are there? Abortion? Gay marriage? I'd suspect that many of our brethren interested in elevating Belhar would be hesitant to make a confessional statement out of either of those issues. One must also ask why the CRC continues its relationship with the WARC despite the organization's obvious left-wing political agenda when there are more politically neutral bodies such as the World Reformed Fellowship we could consider.

This issue dovetails with the Interchurch Relations Committee's request that synod consider relations with the Protestant Church of the Netherlands, a denomination that has embraced unbiblical doctrines regarding human sexuality. On one hand our church leaders keep telling us to get out of our supposed "Dutch bubble," yet would this matter even be discussed were the PCN in any other country?

I sincerely hope that the CRC's ecumenical leaders will more seriously consider who they are representing in the future.

—Jason EllisKentwood, Mich.

If some 350 years of signing the Form of Subscription, confessing that our Three Forms of Unity “do fully agree with the Word of God,” have not wiped out racism among us, why would adding one more confession do so now?

There would be no Belhar today if seminaries/pulpits had paid attention to the gist of Jesus’ message to the people of his day: Love God above all and love your neighbor as yourself.

—Jake PrinsGrand Rapids, Mich.

The following contains the full text of Sean Larsen’s letter that appeared in the August 2008 Banner.

Brian Polet’s opinion piece, “Marxism comes to the CRC?” is unfortunate on a number of levels. What I have to say, finally, reflects not a recommendation to adopt the confession, but a concern about the form of Polet’s piece and the implications it could have for our church.

The argument of the piece amounts to an assertion of guilt by association. Consider the alarmist style. Opening with a quote from Karl Marx, “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” Polet then cites Allan Boesak, author of the confession, who uses similar words to make a different point than Marx’s–but Boesak has already become guilty by association. What is more, though words echoing Marx are nowhere to be found in the confession, Polet implicitly suggests to his readers that the confession must bear the same ideology. The confession, so the argument goes, because of its association with Boesak, threatens to infect the church with “liberation theology,” “socialism,” and “Marxist ideology.” Never mind that it is not Boesak and his opinions that the church would adopt, but the confession based on its own merit. But Polet gives next to no consideration of the actual claims the confession makes. Instead, he throws at his readers a few partial (and at times misleading) quotations about the poor and justice.

Let’s examine some of these passages. Even the most cursory reading of them suggests a very different and far more sensible reading is possible: “We believe that God [is] the God of the destitute, the poor, and the wronged.” Polet leaves out a key moderating phrase that minimizes the possibility of excluding the rich from God’s lordship: God is “in a special way the God of the destitute…” (emphasis added). Polet quotes to his readers, “[The church] must witness against the powerful and the privileged,” which would give some cause for questioning, except that he omits the qualifying phrase that immediately follows, “who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.” One wonders why he would omit the rest of the phrase, as the partial quotation skews the meaning. Who can read biblical prophets such as Amos and come away with the opposite conclusions? Even more to the point: does not the assertion that these concerns are not central to the witness of Scripture, which demands that every sphere of life be brought under the gracious and empowering rule of Christ, belie a corresponding ideology that seeks to privatize the claim of Christian faith on our lives? Who can contest that “[God] wishes to bring justice to the oppressed,” or that “the church must stand by people in any form of suffering”? I challenge Polet to give us a good reason from the Bible, the Reformed confessions, or the broader Christian tradition why the specific claims of the Belhar Confession contradict the teaching of Scripture. A good place to start may be the Roman Catholic social encyclical tradition, which began in 1893 with Leo XIII’s response both to Marxism and the new industrialization, Rerum Novarum, and has moved all the way to John Paul II’s Centessimus Annus.

Reformed Christians should be wary of the implicit claims in Polet’s opinion piece for a number of reasons, the first of which is that we believe that it is finally Scripture, not an ideological agenda, that shapes all our confessional norms. An adopted confession testifies to the Spirit’s movement, leading our church–formed as it is by our existing confessions–to extend the reach of the faith we profess, to respond to new situations and clarify something that may have been left unclear in the past. Adopting the Belhar Confession as a confessional standard of the CRC would not amount to canonizing Boesak’s private opinions. It is certain that Boesak errs in all sorts of ways, as we all do. As much as the Spirit illuminates all the people of God, helps us to read Scripture rightly, and protects us from error, we are nevertheless prone to all sorts of errors about the world in which we live, about God, and especially about ourselves. Part of the reason we need Scripture and confessions is because we do not see clearly. We should not therefore be surprised if the author of the confession holds opinions that we may find biblically questionable. But, of course, the point is that the claims should be evaluated on their own merits and not by their resemblance to other more debatable claims that an author makes.

Second, should a denomination whose rallying cry is that no inch of creation stands outside of the Lordship of Jesus Christ be convinced that there are some aspects of life that are the concern of society exclusive of the church? Further, the confession nowhere claims that faith should “no longer [be] a matter of our personal communion with God.” Nor does it suggest that faith should become “a matter of jurisprudence.” The confession is clear from the beginning, using some of the most moving words of the New Testament, to show that the concern for justice flows deeply from our personal and collective knowing of the depths of divine love. The idea that personal faith can be divorced from any sphere of life, however, does contradict not only our confessions but also the very words of Jesus in Scripture.

Third, don’t we know that all truth is God’s truth? Should we be convinced that, since Marx is worried about oppression, we shouldn’t talk about it, either, as if a Marxist sounding idea preempts our obligation to consider its truth-value? The danger in opposing an ideology such as Marxism is that one becomes prone to accepting the reverse ideology that shares its assumptions. Our current confessions give us a better place to stand in evaluating the claims that the Belhar makes.

Fourth, one of the most disturbing aspects of the opinion piece is the implicit threat of “alienating” the church’s “core members” that it ends with. Threats, alarmism, slippery slope argumentation, and appeals that move through fear have no place in Christian discourse. Christians ought to move each other rationally and therefore nonviolently, not through manipulative threats that seek to compel externally. What we really have to fear is not a threat of Marxism or anything else from the outside, but who we will become as a communion if we feel the need to charge our opinions with threats of alienation. Discussions about adopting a new confession should bring out what is best about us: the faith that we hold to, the love we have for one another, the great hope we have for the world.

The “one faith” we profess is most beautiful. It calls us individually and corporately to move deeper into the blazing fire of God’s great love. From that fire which does not consume, which calls us, leads us, comes to rest upon our heads, burns within us, we can step out in confident hope. With the spiritual confidence of faith, love, and hope, our speech to one another does not need to reflect primarily what we are against, but what we are for. Christ raises up our whole lives–including the level of our debates! Certainly, we should be critical, but even the form of our criticism, the nature of our discussion, should reflect a much deeper underlying confidence. After all, “we have put our hope in the living God!”

—Sean LarsenDurham, N.C.

On the Lighter Side

For years I have read the advice columns of Ann Landers and her twin sister Abigail. Sometimes I even agreed with them. Then one day Dear Abby stated, “When you have to blow your nose, you should leave the table.” Well, being a farm boy I had to smile at that, then I went on my merry way. If I had to blow my nose at the table, I did so—discretely, of course.

Then I picked up the May Banner and discovered the Table Manners Quiz on p. 31 (“Just for Kids”). I read, “Always leave the table when you blow your nose or sneeze.”

Sometimes a sneeze doesn’t give much warning. But society has spoken. I never realized that blowing one’s nose is such an offensive act.

How come society didn’t consult folks with sinus problems like mine before making this decision? One man, Mr. Sherman, can stop whole towns from “discriminating” against atheists, but I can’t sneeze. I’m surprised that facial-tissue manufacturers don’t protest. Sigh. Must I become a closet diner?

I think I’ll put a sandwich in my pocket and go out and mow the lawn.

—John LangelandWorth, Ill.

Metallica in Church

Regarding “Standing on Holy Ground” by Rev. John Van Sloten (May 2008), according to the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 33,

Q. What do we do that is good?

A. Only that which arises out of true faith, conforms to God's law, and is done for his glory; and not that which is based on what we think is right or on established human tradition.”

That runs contrary to what Van Sloten says: “Everything, no matter how twisted and perverted by sin, still has some of God's original goodness in it.” The things he mentions in his article are not done for God’s glory.

Yes, God created musically gifted heavy-metal rock band members, but just because they cry out about injustices in this world does not mean thatthey are image-bearers of Christ. Even the ungodly cry out about the injustices of this world.

God doesn't speak through a Super Bowl victory or a rock band. The wickedness of the devil speaks through those. God speaks through his Word, creation, and his chosen people.

This type of article only confuses those who are new babes in Christ. Only the truth should be written, and that is the truth of God’s Word.

— Linda CottonKent City, Mich.

Attracting the Young

When Larry O’Brien became National Basketball Association commissioner, he recognized a simple fact: media influences American culture. The public is enchanted by the superstar. His advertising switched from highlighting the Lakers vs. the Celtics to advertising Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird in the game of the week. And the NBA flourished. Although Kristin Kuzera Palacios makes some valid points about the loss of young people from traditional churches (“Attracting the Young,” Next, April 2008), her example of Mars Hill Bible Church reflects the singular phenomenon Larry O’Brien recognized. The superstar enchants us as well. Mega-churches are built on the back of charismatic individuals.

I do not want to negate the value of Mars Hill’s mission to build affordable housing in Grand Rapids or in Burundi.  However, the traditional CRC in Grand Rapids has offered remarkable opportunities in building affordable housing through ICCF, in community stabilization through Baxter Community Center, and international benevolence through CRWRC. I believe that opportunities for young people to join those types of efforts are countless within the Christian Reformed Church as a whole.

Let’s be honest, people are attracted to Mars Hill by the celebrity of Rob Bell. That is nothing new. The growth of the Christian Reformed Church around the turn of the 20th century was affected by the personality of Abraham Kuyper. As long as people are influenced by the surrounding culture, that which most closely reflects that culture will “win.” The traditional church reflects history and years of thoughtful deliberation. The “dogmatic cramming of doctrine” is hardly reflective of the current CRC, as few young people can cite much in the way of doctrinal tenants. The traditional church survives when young people mature and learn about that history; some tend to return and value that tradition. When this happens it’s because the questions they ask have been asked over the centuries, and truth is defined by things we hold more surely in spite of the ever-morphing culture’s assault on our deepest moorings.

—Ron HofmanGrand Rapids, Mich.

Testing Our Reformed Commitment

It was interesting to read the April 2008 editorial and article regarding revising the “Form of Subscription” (FOS) in light of the discussion over why people are leaving the Christian Reformed Church (“A Longer Leash for Leaders?” and “Testing Our Reformed Commitment”).

One reason for their leaving may be the requirement of leaders in the CRC to sign the FOS. I could not subscribe to John Calvin’s view of election that seems to eliminate the free will of man. Calvin’s belief is that God loves only the elect to whom he gives saving faith, and it’s the doctrine of reprobation for the non-elect. I should have read the Canons of Dort before signing the FOS. At the time, I hesitated but I did “just shaddup, swallow hard, and sign” as Banner Editor Bob De Moor so succinctly puts it.

Could not the CRC allow for leaders who hold a wider perspective and acknowledge the mystery in election and not try to explain it away? As long as the CRC requires its leaders to sign the FOS with no exceptions, they will continue to lose members over this issue. Such is the case with our family. We hold on to both God’s sovereignty while still upholding the free will of man.  

Let us, as the family of God, adhere to the essentials of our common faith in Christ and allow for differences of opinion on the nonessentials.  

 —Gerrit Knibbe

In “Testing Our Reformed Commitment,” Rev. Randy Blacketer centers his attention on the revision of the Form of Subscription, which, he contends, has become in the late report of the study committee "a replacement of the traditional form, rather than a clarified or simplified form." That is in conflict with the synodical mandate.

The problem with the Form of Subscription, says the editor in his editorial, is "its strong wording," which does not allow for small disagreements. And he reports that "some congregations just ignore it. They no longer require their leaders to sign it." That's why we need a revision.

But I do not understand that the problem lies with the form. It seems rather obvious to me that the real problem lies with the people who have problems signing it. For decades it has been signed by all officebearers, giving us the confidence that we were all of the same conviction, that we confessed the same Reformed faith, and that we could trust each other's preaching and teaching. We were one in our Reformed faith as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity.

Blacketer is right on when he asks about our Reformed commitment.

It struck me that in this same issue of The Banner we are told that Redeemer Christian Reformed Church in Sarnia, Ontario, "went against the ruling of Synod [in 2007] and invited children to the [Lord's] table, with parental consent." And Calvin Seminary professor David Rylaarsdam says Redeemer CRC is not alone in moving ahead. He knows of at least a half-dozen churches in Michigan alone that welcome children to the Lord's Supper.

So now the matter will be discussed in Classis Chatham and by way of the reports that come to synod.

All this leaves me bewildered. I am thankful to God that I am now retired, because it is beginning to become very difficult for me to feel part of the CRC, which I do not recognize as the church in which I signed the Form of Subscription.

—Martin D. Geleynse

With much interest I read the articles about the revised Form of Subscription in the April Banner. I also hope there will be some practical implications as to how to make it effective. When I was an officebearer in our church, and later stated clerk of classis, I had to make sure that all officebearers had signed the FOS. First in the council room and later at classis, all officebearers attending for the first time were required to come to the front and sign. When I was installed for the first time, I confess and am guilty for I did not read the Belgic Confession or the Canons of Dort beforehand. I often wonder how many officebearers have read them before they sign.

Everyone who is required to sign the FOS should first be asked if [he or she] has read all three of them.

I believe that signing the FOS has become a mere formality for some, rather than a commitment and a statement of faith.

—Durk De JongCalgary, Alberta

I say amen to Rev. Blacketer’s article defending our doctrinal beliefs, which tell us what it means to be Christian Reformed. Shame on Rev. Plantinga for claiming that if we are distinctly different we are heretics or a cult (“On Being Reformed,” April 2008). The distinctiveness of our Reformed doctrines is that they are firmly based on what we believe the Word of God says. To water down our doctrinal beliefs is to water down God’s Word.

—Hugh MeintsLawton, Mich.

For too long the (Christian) Reformed Church has been hiding behind the confessions, preventing many from “digging” into God’s Word for themselves. Is it really that, with the revision of the Form of Subscription, we’re afraid of more division, or are we too insecure to defend our belief system? Our identity is in Jesus Christ, our head, and with the Word of God, from cover to cover. We should get back to the basics and learn to wield the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God in its entirety—and not focus on the tidbits that the confessions represent. When we see Jesus face to face, it will not matter how Reformed but how Transformed we are.

—John WassenaarJarvis, Ontario

Whenever I hear the phrase "our Reformed tradition," I begin to ask myself grammatical questions. Why do we use the past tense? Does Reformed mean something that happened 400 or 500 years ago? Did John Calvin and Guido De Bres solve all theological problems? I feel the phrase "always Reforming" is a much more accurate and relevant description of our Reforming tradition. The Reformation started in the 16th century and continues today. As we move from a modern culture into a post-modern culture, our Form of Subscription should evolve as well. The new form gives freedom and flexibility for our leaders to find better ways to express what it means to be Reforming. Our confessions will find new life when we explore new ways to understand them. Restraining this will only cause them to become stale.

—Dan DorenColorado Springs, Colo.

On “Testing Our Reformed Commitment,” most CRC members appreciate the teachings of the Heidelberg Catechism and agree with the Belgic Confession. But when it comes to the Canons of Dort, eyebrows are being raised by those who did read them. Actually, in my 60 years in the CRC, I have never heard a sermon on them. The canons have been a point of debate for decades.

—Walter VanderBeekCaledonia, Mich.

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