The Belhar: Social Gospel or Confession?

Vantage Point

Is the Belhar a confession or a political polemic under the guise of religion? One way to decide is to contrast the origins of the Belhar with the issues that gave rise to the church’s historic confessions.

From this perspective it is clear that there is a vast difference between the factors that led to the creation of the Belhar and those that gave rise to the church’s historic confessions.

The Belhar [PDF] arose not out of concern for the gospel but as a response to apartheid, which was a civil policy designed for a specific social end. This is in complete contrast to the historical creeds and confessions of the church, whose authors did not choose to address social inequity.

Why didn’t they address social ills? Certainly not because there were no societal inequities at the time of their writing—in fact, societal inequities were pervasive in the cultures that gave birth to the confessions. Instead, these confessions and creeds focused on a few central biblical themes: the nature of God and humanity, the way of salvation, the church, and the biblical role of civil government.

In the New Testament we encounter a Jesus who has no desire to overthrow the Roman rulers.

The reason why none of these confessions was written with an eye to social inequities is that the authors followed the confessional examples set for us in God’s Word. In the New Testament we encounter a Jesus who has no desire to overthrow the Roman rulers; who, when confronted about the issue of Roman rule, replies, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” Paul tells Philemon, a runaway slave, that he must return to his master. And he instructs people who are married at the time of their conversion to remain married to their unconverted spouses rather than dissolve their holy union.

When it comes to making a confession, we follow the example of Jesus Christ in his testimony before Pilate (John 18:33-38). In contrast, the Belhar has as its ultimate goal the reforming of secular society. To do this it commingles a civil social gospel with our one and only confession—Romans 10:8-11.

About the Author

Julian R. Hudson attends Sonrise Christian Reformed Church in Ponoka, Alberta.

See comments (17)

Comments

The line "The Belhar arose not out of concern for the gospel but as a response to apartheid" is at best a misunderstanding and at worst a lie. It is more accurately stated to say that the Belhar arose because of concern that the gospel was being compromised by the strong support of the Dutch Reformed Church for the apartheid policies of the national government; and of the concern of the Belhar authors that the gospel be rescued from accomodation to the prevailing culture and be allowed to speak again with full voice. "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" is the main teaching of Belhar. It's time we listen to this advice.

Julian's short article, and Harry's response is an example of what our denomination has come down to- a "culture war." The CRC's culture has changed throughout its history, sometimes bending easily while other times it has strained under the pressure and fractured. (i.e. Protestant Church, United Reformed Church, etc.)
John Suk, in his book- Not Sure, explores the CRC's culture specifically in one chapter and generally in others. While you may not agree with John on all that he says, IMHO- he hit the nail on the head with one quote:

"In faith communities, doctrines, morality and ethnicity are used consciously and unconsciously to create identification within the community. Altogether, this is thought of as- faith...healthy faith is that one is able to empty herself or himself of too great attachment to any of the aspect of this trinity, while seeking a greater attachment to the core teaching of Jesus about love, including love in community."(p.191-92)

Injustice is the issue the Belhar addresses and something we need to address daily; but we have come to see the gospel through different "lens" when it comes to this word. Often injustice is interpreted to fit our agenda as needed- just like the Boers of South Africa with Apartheid.

As long as we see the Belhar through the lens provided by our current Forms of Unity, the Belhar speaks volumes to our denomination. Each of our current confessions really can stand alone while complimenting the others- the Belhar, while complementing the others cannot stand alone because of its ambiguity, particularly with word and meaning of injustice.

I do hope we find a way to use the Belhar because it will enrich our denomination’s culture and consequently its members; but we do not need to incorporate the Belhar in such a manner that will end in fracturing our church’s culture and the people within it.

It is not the Belhar itself that will so much cause the "culture war" Dutchoven bemoans (I too) as it is the trajectory promoted and continued by the Belhar. The key provision of the Belhar that promotes "culture war" is that which declares God to be a special God to the poor and oppressed. That is a 'gateway' point to the 'next step' in the trajectory.

And actaully, that 'next step' is not in the future but already in the present. The 'next step' is the Accra Confession, already in a sense adopted and promoted by the CRCNA via its membership and active participation in the WCRC (World Council of Reformed Church). The Accra Confession and the WCRC see true religion as predominantly a political struggle, the true church as predominantly one that advocates against Western capitalism (free market economics), which is condemned as the worship of the idol god mammon.

The Accra repeats the Belhar's key phrase, almost verbatim, that God is a special God to the poor and oppressed, but then continues to expand on that in a way that is much more reminiscent of Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas than of anything Dutch Reformed (or Presbyterian Reformed) that you can find in history.

"Culture war" probably will just happen. In fact, confronted with certain cultures, it should happen if Christians (NOT the institutional church) are doing what they should do. But it should not happen WITHIN the institutional church, because the institutional church should preach justice, and mercy, and a whole lot of other things, but yet not purport to become a political or political/economic institution. I think most of those who so strongly promote the Belhar intend that CRCNA become much more of a political/economic institution. If that happens, what Dutchover and I fear will happen. The culture war will be be waged INSIDE the CRCNA. And the CRCNA would be unrecognizable -- and some would cheer that. I wouldn't. Nor would many others.

@Doug,

If what you and I fear happens, the CRCNA will simply cease to exist. It's already small (about 250,000 members) and has been losing members at an average of 3,000/year for the last 20 years.

Turn the CRCNA into a socio-political organization instaead of a church, and that membership loss will go even faster, forcing a merger between the (also shrinking) RCA and us. This will sustain some of the infrastructure for a time, but the merged denomination will also continue to shrink.

The confessions that we already have were in themselves a cultural answer to what was going on in the netherlands and around. They are chock-full of references to issues of the day in the way the words are phrased and the syntax. In many ways, such as the HC, they were trying to contradict prevalent Catholic ideas of the day that were hurting people's faith.
There is nothing wrong with a confession stemming from a social catalyst as long as it is based in Scripture in a sound way: which the Belhar does.
Your article does not surprise me because it is what many in the CRC feel, which is that they are completely ignoring that we have any problems with racism or unity in the US or our denomination. Belhar will not solve those issues within our little CRC but it sure will create other problems that others don't yet foresee.
To not pass Belhar when so many of our theological cousins have will be an outright embarrassment and will condone disunity through racism in our denomination.
Many will leave and should leave the CRC if Belhar is not passed because it will again confirm that if you're not white or dutch, you're not one of "us."

@Jonah S.
In other words, I'm a racist because I think the Belhar is a deeply flawed document to which I cannot in conscience subscribe.

I really get rather tired of that accusation. It is as malicious as it is false, but when you get down to the bottom line, it's the only argument proponents of the Belhar have.

Jonah,

Your implication that not passing the Belhar would be racist is rather frightening. Do you truly believe that anyone opposed to it's adoption is a racist? And the notion that we ought to pass something simply because theological 'cousins' have passed it is a weak argument.

I do not want the Belhar adopted. I believe racism is an issue in our culture, churches, and in our hearts. While it has particular manifestations in our communities, it is a human problem extending throughout time and across the globe. I do not think that adopting the Belhar will do anything to combat this wickedness, and I see that the prospect of it's adoption has the potential to divide the denomination. I would be all for Synod declaring something against racism and thanking the folks who passed on the Belhar, but declining to accept it in an official capacity.

Adopting it would be a mistake and to imply that those opposed to it's adoption are racist is wrong.

More enlightening than the text of the Belhar itself has been the response to it. Seems that it is difficult for members of the CRCNA to deal with conflict and controversy within its own fellowship.

Maybe the continuing loss of membership should be attributed to an incessant need to out-orthodox each other. People leave, form a new church or a new denomination which subscribes to their notion of "pure" doctrine -- until even that purity is challenged and there's another schism, and then another, "purer" version. I suggest we call this tendency "ecclesiastical solipsism."

Considering the baggage it carries with it, I suggest we avoid use of the term "social gospel." Unless, that is, we want to distinguish it from "the a-social gospel" or "the anti-social gospel" -- neither of which would be very Reformed.

The reference to paying taxes to Caesar is also a popular one, but who really thinks that Jesus considered the coin brought to him by the Pharisees and Herodians -- it's portrait and inscription --to be beyond the realm of what is "God's"?

Julian,
Thank you very much for your article. I very much agree with what you say. Jesus Christ came to proclaim a gospel of reconciliation between God and his people, bypassing Rome and the religious systems. Unity, reconciliation and justice are a byproduct of focusing on Jesus Christ himself, not focusing on ourselves and our own institutional solutions. Thank you again!

@GLD

The phrase "social gospel" is a well established phrase in American and English history, with a well established meaning, and is useful to describe a particular perspective.

Look in up in Wikipedia if you need a good synopsis. The interesting thing in that article is that it cites a number of "social gospel" church traditions, not one of which is the CRCNA. Should the CRCNA continue its current trajectory, I suspect that article will not long from now be edited to include the CRCNA.

The Belhar, and its sequel, the Accra Confession, contain/represent a "social gospel" perspective. Adopting the Belhar would signal to many that the CRCNA has become of that perspective as well.

I suspect that those who want to adopt the Belhar would want to, for the sake of getting the votes required to get it adopted, "avoid the use of the term 'social gospel' ..." because of "the baggage it carries with it...."

@GLD
Would you think we have an easier time dealing with conflict if there were no conflict? As for myself, I'm rather enjoying the debate and not having a difficult time dealing with it at all.

Nor am I trying to out orthodox anyone. Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas tend to have bad consequences. The ideas that collectively go by the label "Liberation Theology" or "Social Gospel" are some of those bad ideas which have bad consequences. While the Belhar is ambiguous on that level, its authors and its sequel (as Doug calls it) are not. It would not be possible to use the existing confessional statements as an effective check on the bad ideas to which the Belhar is vulnerable if the Belhar were elevated to the same status as those creeds and confessions. It is therefore necessary to make sure it remains subordinate if we are to be able to make effective use of the Belhar's good ideas.

What an excellent point about our issue! Our confessions have to follow His life and teachings, not in the world's contexts, but for the worldly issues.I truly wish that this article should be translate into our other brothers' languages-Spanish & Korean, etc. for better understanding of our issue for our churches & Christian lives.

@ Doug Vande Griend --

When I used the term "Social Gospel" I was quite aware of its history and its "well established meaning." I don't think that just because something is "well established" that it is useful for rational discourse. Sometimes we have to be willing to give up our pet notions if more useful alternatives become available. Should we be slaves to our linguistic expressions?

Note than no-one in this discussion has addressed the other two options: a-social and anti-social. I wonder if this is the result of having painted oneself into a rhetorical corner with the SG label.

I will withdraw my objection if you can honestly say, and defend, the notions that the teachings of Christ in the Gospels (or the admonitions of the prophets, e.g. Isaiah 10:1-4) are a-social or anti-social.

@GLD

I'm honestly confused. Using terms that are well established in meaning usually makes for more rationality in discourse. Discourse tends to break down when people use terms that mean different things to the different people in the discussion.

Frankly, I am not at all certain what the terms "a-social" or "anti-social" mean, or what you intend for them to mean.

These days, the CRCNA is doing that you advocate, which is to dump the phrase that has a more established meaning. The new phrase is "social justice." Most CRCers don't know exactly what that means when they say it, but it does sound good, and they think they are really obeying Micah 6:8 when they say it. Other CRCers, that is, those who want the CRCNA to move in a 'social gospel' direction and probably have the power make that happen, would probably with you just as soon kick the 'social gospel' phrase, lest too many CRCers check out the phrase in Wikipedia and figure out where we are going.

I'm probably not willing to dump terminology that meaningfully informs CRCers of exactly where its leadership it trying to take their denomination.

Does not the Reformed Church already have the Belhar?Are they not members of the World Council of Churches..and do they not still allow members to be members of the Masons (thus having one foot in darkness and one in Light)..so why discuss all this..once the two churches combine you have it ALL!!

Smiley, get a grip.

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