As an impoverished college student I gratefully accepted my Dad’s hand-me-downs. He gave me his coat. It went from a seasoned preacher to a pre-seminarian, so we called it “Elijah’s mantle.” He gave me some well-worn shoes. Their tips pointed heavenward. They were my “Hallelujah shoes.”
The coat was more comfortable because shoes wear down in a way that conforms to the wearer’s unique physiology and stride. When someone else tries to walk in them, they cause problems. I soon discarded the “Hallelujah shoes.” I wish I had known that a cheap addition to the heel using “Shoe Goo” would have done the trick!
Synod, the annual leadership convention of the denomination, is meeting in Chicago this month. It has a very important, though under-noted, decision to make. It’s being asked by its Interchurch Relations Committee (IRC) to take the first formal step of adopting the Belhar Confession as the fourth confession of the Christian Reformed Church. (The final step would be taken by Synod 2012 after we all have had a chance to respond to this proposal.)
The Belhar Confession has been adopted by a number of South African Reformed churches as “a declaration of faith that emerged when certain practices of the church were so clearly contrary to biblical teaching that the integrity of the proclamation of the gospel was at stake” (IRC report, Agenda for Synod 2009, p. 277). Those practices included racism/apartheid, social injustice, and indifference to poverty in society as a whole.
- The content of the Belhar Confession develops five major themes:
- Faith in the triune God
- Unity of the church
- Reconciliation of people in Christ
- God’s justice and care for the suffering and the call of the church to work against injustice
- A call to confess and practice the teaching of the Belhar Confession
—Agenda for Synod 2009, page 277
Few doubt that the Belhar’s message against racism and its call to biblical justice and compassionate action to help the poor apply to all Christians. And it’s agreed that the confessions we already have in the CRC address these issues only tangentially.
Where there’s some hesitation in embracing this confession is in the advisability of transplanting into the heart of a North American denomination what grew within the soil of the unique South African social and church environment.
So back to those shoes. Can we walk in each other’s shoes? In this instance I believe we can. The Belhar Confession is an amazing gift that we should gratefully receive from the Uniting Reformed Church in South Africa.
What we should also do, though, is to make a simple addition to contextualize the Belhar and to make it something we can comfortably walk in as we follow Jesus. We should add a preamble that states clearly why we adopt this confession, how we interpret parts that could be misunderstood in our North American context, and how we shall make it confessionally applicable and normative for our church.
Adopting the Belhar and attaching a brief, well-conceived preamble would be worth the effort, providing us with a genuine set of “Hallelujah shoes.”