The Belhar Confession was written by South African Reformed Christians in the 1980s. It declares the church’s opposition to apartheid (the forced separation of people based on race) and to the theology that supported it.
As a denomination, we are discussing whether we should adopt the Belhar Confession to stand alongside the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. Synod, the Christian Reformed Church’s annual bi-national assembly, will vote on this in June 2012.
Before we adopt it, we must consider what that would mean [in practice].
We might agree with the themes of the Belhar: unity, reconciliation, and justice. We might like what it would say to other Christians and to the world if we adopted it. But before we adopt it, we must consider what that would mean in practice.
When we examine how we use our confessions in the CRC, I find that it would be a mistake to adopt the Belhar as a confessional standard. We use our confessions to mark the line between freedom and constraint in the teaching and practice of the church, and adopting the Belhar Confession is likely to cause us to step over that line on both sides.
What’s a Confession For?
In the CRC we use our confessions for many purposes: for professing our common faith in worship, for teaching the Christian faith to our children, for declaring to the world what we believe. But one use sets us apart from many other denominations: we use our confessions to clearly mark the line dividing where there may be variation within the church from where we must be uniform in our teaching and practice.
We allow freedom within the Christian Reformed Church even on significant issues like the ordination of women and the structure of the worship service. In fact, our Lord Jesus requires his church to protect freedom of conviction and practice in certain areas (see Romans 14).
But the church can’t allow freedom and variation in everything. Our Lord also requires his church to make sure that some teachings and practices are consistent in all congregations (see Titus 1). This cannot be done if every church leader has the freedom to define the message of Scripture for himself or herself.
Somehow we need to find and illuminate the line between areas of freedom and areas of constraint. To do this, we adopt confessional documents and require ministers, elders, deacons, and some others to sign a Form of Subscription agreeing to them. By signing this form, they promise to teach and defend everything taught in those confessions, without exception, and to disagree only by means of a formal discussion with the assemblies of the church. This “full confessional subscription” is our way of being faithful to Scripture and pursuing a church unity that includes both freedom and constraint—freedom in those things that are non-essential and constraint in the things that are.
Our practice of full confessional subscription has been at the heart of some major controversies that have shaped our faith tradition. Our theological ancestors have repeatedly defended full confessional subscription: at the Synod of Dort in 1618-19, during the Secession of the 1830s, in the Acts of Synod 1976, and even as recently as last summer. According to the instructions of Synod 2011, the new Form of Subscription that will be proposed to Synod 2012 must include “positive, declarative commitments to teach, defend, and actively promote the confessions and Reformed doctrine of the CRCNA,” and must take a strong stance on the “scope and binding nature of the commitment” (Acts of Synod 2011, p. 871).
We keep returning to full confessional subscription because we believe that it is the best way to maintain the unity and purity of the church, clearly marking the line between areas of freedom and constraint. The practice is something we should celebrate as our history, as our way of striving to be faithful to Scripture, as a piece of our definition of church unity, and as part of who we are as the CRC.
Stepping Over the Line
Should we begin using the Belhar Confession in the same manner? It might seem so.
The Belhar is structured in such a way that it specifically describes things that must be taught and others that may not. It also describes some of the marvelous truths of God’s Word regarding the unity of the church, reconciliation among people groups, and care for the disadvantaged.
But despite those strengths, we should not require full confessional subscription to the Belhar Confession. Using the Belhar to guide us between freedom and constraint would cause us to step over the line on both sides: exercising constraint where we should allow freedom, and giving freedom where we should exercise constraint.
Immediately upon adopting the Belhar, we would step over the line on one side—constraining teaching in areas where there should be freedom. We might agree on the major themes of the confession, but many in the CRC have found points that they cannot agree with. For example, I and many others object to the teaching that God “is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged” (Article 4). God, I believe, is God in the same way to all of those who put their faith in Jesus Christ.
Are the disputed points of such importance and so clearly taught in Scripture that we may not permit any officebearer to disagree with them? This is a serious question. The church must protect legitimate freedom. Since the Belhar teaches some legitimately debatable things, it would be a mistake to adopt it as a confession in the CRC and force an end to those debates. We would be constraining teaching in areas where freedom must be protected.
The Belhar is likely to push us over the line on the other side as well, so that we allow freedom in areas where there should be constraint. In the first article of the Belhar Confession, which describes the unity of the church, we read that this unity “can be established only in freedom and not under constraint.” And according to the next sentence, “in freedom and not under constraint” means that the variety of convictions that arise within the church, among other things, must be seen as an opportunity for mutual enrichment. Different convictions within the church must be tolerated and even celebrated, the Belhar teaches; unity cannot be established through constraint, but only through freedom.
Throughout our history as a church, and as recently as a few months ago, we have affirmed the opposite. The Belhar seems to conflict directly with our understanding of church unity as a mixture of freedom and constraint, and with our consistent practice of requiring full confessional subscription. Down the road, when a minister is accused of teaching something that is in conflict with the Christian faith, all he or she would have to do is point to this article in the Belhar, which would be part of our confessional standards to which we all submit. The article says that freedom of conviction must be respected. How, then, could we tell a pastor that he or she may not teach, for example, that Jesus Christ was not fully divine? How could we even continue to use our Form of Subscription? The Belhar Confession would push us over the line, allowing freedom in areas where teaching should be constrained.
Other denominations might not face these problems in adopting the Belhar because they use their confessions differently. But we face them because we use confessions to mark a clear line between areas of freedom and constraint in the teaching and practice of the church. The Belhar Confession is not fit for this purpose. If we try to use it in this way, we will likely be unfaithful to Scripture by stepping over the line on both sides—constraining in areas of freedom, and giving freedom in areas where there should be constraint.
We can and should affirm much of what the Belhar teaches, but we should not adopt it as a fourth confession for our church.