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Saying No to the Belhar

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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.

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