Saying No to the Belhar

| |

I am a convert to social justice. For a long time I found it easy to make excuses not to help the poor. I rationalized a lukewarm commitment to the vulnerable people of our society. I minimized—or denied—problems in the structures and systems of our society.

Sure, I knew that Jesus cared for the poor and that in some way we should share that concern. But that knowledge never really translated into action.

My perspective began to change when I preached a series of sermons on the Minor Prophets: I saw how seriously God takes society’s concern (or lack of it) for widows, orphans, and immigrants. I’ve become increasingly convinced that the task of social justice—addressing racism, fostering reconciliation, and caring for the vulnerable and disadvantaged—is one the church cannot neglect.

Yet I am not a convert to the Belhar Confession.

I see a number of reasons to be concerned about its language. For example, the Belhar states that “God is, in a special way, the God to the poor.” I’m not convinced that is biblically accurate. Does God play favorites? Does material poverty somehow earn God’s favor? Did not Jesus also have a deep love for the rich young ruler who came to him? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that God “has a deep concern for the poor”?

Many favor adopting the Belhar on the basis of its content. That is, they point out that the themes of the Belhar—unity, reconciliation, and justice—are biblical and therefore ought to be confessional. But many who oppose adopting the Belhar as a confession don’t deny that those are biblical themes. The question is whether this statement of belief ought to be elevated to a standard that binds the consciences of officebearers of the church.

Recently Rev. Bryan Berghoef suggested that we are uncomfortable with the Belhar “because it will have some say in how we act day to day” (“Our Discomfort with the Belhar,” December 2010). He goes on to argue that the Belhar calls us to action, while our current doctrinal standards do not. I find that logic puzzling. The Heidelberg Catechism spells out many practical ways we are called to live, including (among many other examples) how we must “do all we can to guard and advance [our] neighbor’s good name.” Does that not include practicing social justice? To suggest that the Reformed confessions de-emphasize action is simply untrue.

Finally, we need to ask, “Would the Belhar unite our denomination?” (After all, one of its underlying themes is the unity of the church.) It would not. The differences of opinion regarding the Belhar are such that adopting it as a confession would divide the church of Jesus.

Rather, let's adopt it as a contemporary testimony of faith, subject to our three forms of unity.

About the Author

Rev. Rob Toornstra is pastor of Sunnyslope CRC, Salem, Oregon.

See comments (8)


The Belhar has become the Hate Crimes legislation of the church. It tries to police your thoughts by presupposing that you are indifferent toward certain people groups whether ethnic, the poor, homosexual or of gender.

The Belhar becomes the gage by which we measure all activities, doctrines and beliefs to see if they measure up its political morals, bypassing the authority of the written Word of God.

It has become a confession of blame and shame.

If, as Rev. Berghoef suggests, the Belhar is about orthopraxy (proper living), we have much cause for concern. Placing a document which delineates what we ought to do with other documents which state what we ought to believe (orthodoxy) will invariably end up with a loss of both. How long before orthopraxy dictates our orthodoxy? In other words, how long before right living becomes more important than right belief?

The term “social justice” is just an innocuous phrase to most people. To many Christians, it just means “fairness” and it is used as a substitute for "outreach to the poor." This is what Jesus commands us as individuals to do: help the poor, reach out to the weak and helpless, protect the innocent children, born and unborn.

The problem arises when some try to pervert and hijack the term "social justice", and somehow try to force redistribution of wealth on people, with a hostility toward individual property rights. They sometimes do this under the guise of charity or justice, but this corrupts true charity because it takes away the personal one of one helping of Christian charity. None of us feel very “charitable” on April 15th when the government raises our taxes, then proceeds to waste our tax dollars through fraud and redundant programs that the government has no business running.

If your church is promoting a liberation theology style "social or economic justice," you should run from it or at least get educated on what progressives mean by this.

Here's a simple rule of thumb: Make sure your church puts God first and politics and government last. Here are the clear warning signs: "social justice" or "economic justice" or "ecological justice." If these so-called church leaders start attacking capitalism and promoting socialist or communist ways, stay far away.

So to be clear: Some people look at social justice as going out on mission and going out and doing good works for God. That's great — as long as you are personally, or in a church group, representing the hands and feet of Jesus here on earth. If your church leaders or anyone else starts promoting a government-bloated program, steer clear!

I cannot understand some of the article's conclusions or the comments being made. The call to care for our brothers and sisters in Christ is in the great commandment. I know we are all still believers but one of us has to be rationalizing. I hope it becomes clear to all of us what Jesus intended.

Ken, I agree, the call to care for our brothers and sisters in Christ is in the great commandment. I think it is clear that Jesus intended us to help the poor and helpless, while not stealing from others to help them. Jesus also did not command us to hire or vote for others to confiscate and re-distribute wealth from our neighbors to help the poor.

Liberation theology is just Communism, Marxism and victimology hiding under the banner of Christianity.

I do not quite understand Rob Toornstra's concern regarding the adoption of the Belhar Confession. As is true of all confessions, they do not affirm or state the same things. Is this his concern? Should the Behar mearly be a restatement of previous confessions? The Belhar Confession is a social justice confession that reflects some of the issues that have not had clear articulation in the recent past. He says that the statement in Belhaar "God is, in a special way, the God of the poor" makes him doubt its veracity as a confession and should be classified as a "contemporary testimony of faith". Confession is an uncomfortible proposition. To confess sin should not be easy. If the Belhar is simply wrong that would be another matter. It is not.

The concern is this:

The Belhar is ambigious in certain places -- in such a way that it could be (and has been) used to promote acceptance of behavior that is contrary to the gospel (homosexual marriage). Additionally, the phrase "special God to the poor" is misleading at best, and unbiblical at worst.

On a practical level -- adopting the Belhar will divide -- and not unite -- the CRC. That alone is reason not to adopt it as a confession.

Rob, thank you for this. I agree.