Why We Need the Belhar

Faith Matters

Having read and listened to many comments regarding the Belhar over the last few years, I feel compelled to weigh in on the issue from a historical and moral perspective, if not from a purely theological one.

The three forms of unity, our confessions—the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Canons of Dort (1618-19), and the Belgic Confession (1561, 1618-19)—have been used by Reformed Christians since the early 17th century. These documents predated the active practice of slavery in America and the brutality of the slave trade. They predated the dissolution of rights for Black Americans following the gains achieved after reconstruction. They predated Jim Crow laws in the United States and apartheid in South Africa.

It’s also worth noting that the slave who called herself Sojourner Truth, born in 1787 in Swartekill, upstate New York, was owned by Dutch Christians in the region of New York and New Jersey, parts of which would later become Classis Hackensack of the Christian Reformed Church.

Throughout all of this, the Christian Reformed Church did not emerge as a group of leaders who aggressively refused to condone or participate in the prevailing culture of the time. History shows that our current confessions are not a sufficient guide for us as Christians to resist the urges of slavery, segregation, and apartheid.

As a member of the board of the Synodical Committee on Race Relations (SCORR), I recall the discussion and debate in the 1980s regarding whether to maintain a relationship with the sister church in South Africa. In a 1986 letter to the director of SCORR, I argued for terminating the relationship for as long as apartheid existed, and I continue to stand by that decision. “Until a real commitment to publicly denouncing the sin of apartheid by [the church of SA] is made, no negotiation is appropriate . . . without this stated commitment, a message of CRC cooperation with apartheid is transmitted to the world.”

 

Now is the time to affirm our answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?”

Apartheid was not an isolated world event; it was simply the latest in a series of events reflecting humanity’s inhumanity to fellow men and women . . . especially people of color and people of other races and cultures dating back over 400 years.

Once again, our denomination is at a crossroads. Many voices have argued either for or against the Belhar from a purely theological perspective.

I have heard two main points against the Belhar: first, that the Belhar may be viewed as being too tolerant of homosexuality, and second, that it may suggest that God has a special concern for the poor and downtrodden.

Regarding the latter concern, as I read the Bible, God has at least equal concern for the poor as for the rich . . . and since God’s love is infinite, that means that as we follow him, our care for the lost and least must be as intense as humanly possible. I also note that the Bible specifically states that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was not people’s embrace of homosexuality but their lack of care and concern for the poor and needy (see Ezekiel 16:49).

The familiar parable of the Good Samaritan told by Jesus Christ demonstrates God’s love for the poor, the helpless, the foreigner, the outcast, people of different races—for all those who are “different.”

Many of the arguments against the Belhar seem to apply a standard that even our existing confessions (in their original forms) cannot match. The argument that the Belhar encourages a homosexual lifestyle implies that the Belhar should be a stand-alone and self-sufficient document that expressly forbids or allows certain behaviors. If we applied that standard to the Canons of Dort or the Belgic Confession, it could be said that these confessions “allowed” the practices of slavery and oppression, and of discriminatory behavior against Catholics. The Behar no more encourages a homosexual lifestyle than the current confessions encourage active discrimination against people of color.

If we adopt the Belhar as a confession, it would be used along with the other three confessions; all four would be read together to more fully express our understanding of God’s direction and will for us all.

Without the Belhar (or a like confession), there is a hole in our confessions that allows for, or at least does not condemn, the sin of racism and all that follows, as our history shows.

The South African churches saw this gap, and the need, and are responding. What will be our response?

Twenty-five years ago when I first I engaged our denomination on this issue—actively pursuing the vision of love, equality, and justice for people of every nation, tribe, people, and language in Revelation 7:9—I was told to wait. I was told that in time, as godly people of goodwill deliberated, these issues would be solved. That the CRC would live up to God’s ideal and become a denomination of all races and cultures. I was told to trust and have faith that all the necessary documents and creeds were in place to help us become all that God wants us to be.

I’m still waiting. Now, a generation later, my grown children wait as well. They have to reengage in the same discussions of an issue that should be central to us all. Now is the time to affirm our answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?”

If not now, when? If not the Belhar, what? If the CRC is to be whole, we cannot wait! It’s time to stop sending negative subliminal signals to our nonwhite members and neighbors. Let's be the church . . . together!

About the Author

Colin P. Watson Sr. is the executive director of the CRCNA. He is a member of Madison Square Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (17)

Comments

A slave owned in 1787... justification for the Belhar? So enlighten me... were there slaves in south africa when the Belhar was written? was that the issue? or was it apartheid.

A slave in 1787 in New York, 80 years before the civil war, and 180 years before legal voting rights etc for afro-americans and former slaves. So we are going to solve a 230 year old problem now? with a confession that simply agrees with all the legalities of the USA in its present condition? So the church finally agrees with the nation it is in, as it did not before? Is this what a confession is about?

A confession would have meaning if the USA still permitted slavery. It would have meaning if some church members or general population still believed that people of varying color and ancestry were inferior and less deserving of God's grace. Then there would be a purpose to such a confession.

A confession highlighting the value of the unborn might actually mean something. It would be more valuable. Those are the really vulnerable, losing their lives everyday for a lack of conviction in the populations of USA and Canada.

What if the Belhar contained a specific statement about the value of unborn life? But a confession like that might be too difficult. It is easier to be politically correct... to finally make a confession on something that has been agreed to already for a hundred years or more. And then throw in a few theologically incorrect statements in the process.

The one verse taken out of context, about Sodom. Yes the sin of Sodom was being arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned. But that does not mean that homosex was not an issue. It does not mean in any way that somehow homosex was not part of that arrogance and unconcern. But in this chapter of Ezekial, it also mentions the fact that Israel was sacrificing children to detestable idols, and this was even worse than all the vile detestable things Sodom had done.

44 “‘Everyone who quotes proverbs will quote this proverb about you: “Like mother, like daughter.” 45 You are a true daughter of your mother, who despised her husband and her children; and you are a true sister of your sisters, who despised their husbands and their children. Your mother was a Hittite and your father an Amorite. 46 Your older sister was Samaria, who lived to the north of you with her daughters; and your younger sister, who lived to the south of you with her daughters, was Sodom. 47 You not only walked in their ways and copied their detestable practices, but in all your ways you soon became more depraved than they. 48 As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, your sister Sodom and her daughters never did what you and your daughters have done.
49 “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen. 51 Samaria did not commit half the sins you did. You have done more detestable things than they, and have made your sisters seem righteous by all these things you have done. 52 Bear your disgrace, for you have furnished some justification for your sisters. Because your sins were more vile than theirs, they appear more righteous than you. So then, be ashamed and bear your disgrace, for you have made your sisters appear righteous."

This article also misquotes/mischaracterizes the Belhar itself. The article says some people object to the Belhar suggesting that:

"God has a special concern for the poor
and downtrodden,"

but more precisely, the Belhar actually says:

"that God, in a world full of injustice
and enmity, is in a special way the God
of the destitute, the poor and the wronged"

The author's characterization is not nearly as "separating" as the actual Belhar text. And if one wants to confirm the intention of the Belhar authors, one can look to what these authors have already also signed onto in the Accra Confession, which has a parallel phrase: "In a world of corruption, exploitation and greed, God is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor, the exploited, the wronged and the abused", before it goes on to condemn political systems that permit free market economics.

If you haven't read the Accra Confession, you need to. The Accra makes no bones about the political position that this reference in the Belhar is intended to take.

I believe God is the same God to the rich, like Abraham, David, Solomon, Nicodemus and many others, and also to the poor. And this one God to all has warned the rich of their special challenges/sins (harder for the rich to enter ..., etc) but also the poor (do not covet, etc). (He also warns the arrogant, the proud, the evil-doers, and the list can go on and on).

I suppose in a sense, God is "a special God" to each of us, but I cringe in writing that because that sequence of words is so open to misconstruction (just what confession writers should try to avoid). But the Belhar says God "is in a special way THE God of of the destitute, poor and wronged" (capitalized emphasis intended). And if you are thinking about what that might mean, just read the Accra Confession to confirm it.

Of significance, I have not heard any Belhar supporter suggesting this sentence should be removed or modified, nor have I heard of from any Belhar supporter encouraging the reading or study of the Accra Confession to get clarification as to the mindset and broader intentions of the Belhar authors.

This is a cornerstone sentence for the Belhar, and the Belhar is a gateway confession, so to speak, to the Accra. If the Belhar is adopted, we'll then be hearing about how our own confessions elevate the poor above the rich as a justification for specific political positions taken by our Office of Social Justice.

Let's do better. Let's speak clearly if we are going to speak, and not use Confessions to pave the way for the wrong-headed political perspectives a few within our denomination would like the CRCNA to pronounce.

We do not need the Belhar just because the three reformed creeds did not sufficiently mention biblical themes like justice, reconciliation, and unity. The Bible did so all along. If we had not used the creeds as our misleading guide on these matters we would have been on track on these issues these last 500 years!! Shame on us telling God we'll fix it with the Belhar!

"If not now when? If not the Belhar, What?... It's time to stop sending negative subliminal signals to our nonwhite members and neighbors."

This is an extremely racist comment! This is an article of blame and shame!

This is why the Belhar has to be stopped! It's language is inflammatory and invokes racism. It divides the church!!!!!!!!!

This article says, "I also note that the Bible specifically states that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was not peoples embrace of homosexuality but their lack of care and concern for the poor and needy (see Ezekiel 16:49)."

The Bible does specifically state the sin as to why the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. "Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which like wise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire." (see Jude vs7)

The author says that "Without the Belhar (or a like confession), there is a hole in our confessions that allows for, or at least does not condemn, the sin of racism and all that follows, as our history shows."

A re-reading of our current confessions would be helpful here. I could cite countless examples, but just a few will suffice:

Heidelberg Q&A 54 says: “I believe that the Son of God through his Spirit and Word, out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith.”

Q&A 55: “Believers one and all, as members of this community share in Christ and in all his treasures and gifts. Second, that each member should consider it a duty to use these gifts readily and cheerfully for the service and enrichment of the other members.”

Q&A105, “I am not to belittle, insult, hate, or kill my neighbor – not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds – and I am not to be party to this in others.”

Q&A107, “By condemning envy, hatred, and anger God tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly to them, to protect them from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies.”

The author says that "Without the Belhar (or a like confession), there is a hole in our confessions that allows for, or at least does not condemn, the sin of racism and all that follows, as our history shows."

A re-reading of our current confessions would be helpful here. I could cite countless examples, but just a few will suffice:

Heidelberg Q&A 54 says: “I believe that the Son of God through his Spirit and Word, out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith.”

Q&A 55: “Believers one and all, as members of this community share in Christ and in all his treasures and gifts. Second, that each member should consider it a duty to use these gifts readily and cheerfully for the service and enrichment of the other members.”

Q&A105, “I am not to belittle, insult, hate, or kill my neighbor – not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds – and I am not to be party to this in others.”

Q&A107, “By condemning envy, hatred, and anger God tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly to them, to protect them from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies.”

Josh hids the nail right on the head

The Belhar document reads more of Karl Marx than it does of Jesus Christ.

The Belhar reflects liberation theology. Liberation theologians developed their “own” theology by reinterpreting Scripture with “a bias toward the poor.”

The Belhar is a work of “justice” rather than a work of mercy, and that “doing justice” is principally the work of redistributing the material goods of this world by taking from those who have more and giving to those (God’s special people) who have less.

The Belhar document should not to be received as a confessional document for the CRC and should not even be received as a contemporary testimony.

Biblical Christianity does not equal Marxism, neither as a confessional document nor as a contemporary testimony. It should be clear that the change is not a change in the direction of biblical Christianity, but a change towards socialism.

Yes, that's me alright-- "hids the nail..." I am in my second childhood, you know.

What a wonderful article! Thank you for joining the chorus of voices in support of adopting this document as the fourth confession of our Church. Blessings!

A small chorus to adopt, and a sizeable chorus to not adopt this piece of paper. Will reason and scripture combine to enable a good decision, or will it simply be about our emotions and feelings?

@John Z.
I'm afraid the latter, though I hope the former.

This is a smart and thoughtful article that gets at the heart of things unseen and things not done. Many people are screaming that we don't need the belhar as if racism does not exist in our denomination but those people who say that are typically white and dutch. The Belhar is not perfect and it could be picked apart just like almost anything could. The problem is the necessity for it. Even with multiple race relation initiatives and things that the denomination has done, it is still difficult for people of race within the CRC. Heck, we are not even well represented in leadership in general. If not Belhar, than what will be done to cry out for their voices, and if not now, then when? I will tell you surely, that if those questions are not addressed nor answered their may very well be a max exodus of people from the CRC.

"screaming"? John Cryer? Most of the people who say that... are screaming, and are white and dutch? You've taken a survey? What is personally irritating to me, is this idea that any objection must be white and dutch. This seems quite a racist comment to me. Why is this type of racism permissable, while other types are not? Most crc people are not dutch; they are USamericans or Canadians, myself included.

The debate is really whether the Belhar is really necessary, and then whether the Belhar is really the best way of saying it. Merely assuming it is necessary don't make it so. If people are selected for office on something other than their spiritual life condition and leadership, then racism is not the main problem. The main problem then is a lack of spiritual leadership and discernment within the church. If you merely solved the color problem thru artificial action, the spiritual problem will simply become worse.

If the Belhar does not solve that problem, the problem of poor spiritual discernment and leadership, then it will have solved nothing at all by putting in different ethnicities and skin colors and still lacking the spiritual leadership and discernment required for elders and deacons. I believe that if the spiritual problem is solved, then ethnicity and skin color will also no longer be problems, since we are all of the same race, the race begun by Adam, and restarted by Noah.

My ancestors may have been from the Netherlands, but I've only been in that country twice briefly. I barely understand the language at an elementary level. I have never paid taxes there, and never belonged to a dutch church. As a Canadian, I know even american history better than dutch history. It is absurd to call someone like me dutch. And I suspect this applies to others as well.

If we were to get another confession, which I do not consider necessary nor useful, I would want it to be our confession, arising from our own history, and our own geography, not borrowed from a country I have never visited, or from a culture I cannot identify with, nor written in such a way as to be ambiguous and unclear about presently highly flammable issues.

I personally have no problem with a person with any different color of skin becoming an elder, deacon, pastor, preacher, teacher, professor, or delegate. As a Canadian, I don't care if their ancestors are from Russia, the Philipines, USA, Europe, Kenya, Nigeria, Israel, Mexico, Brazil, or Hawaii. No problem whatsoever. But if they are chosen merely because of the color of their skin, whether, black, brown, yellow, red, bronze, tanned, pink, or white, then I would have a problem.

The voice of a child crying for the salvation of Christ is the voice we all need to cry out for. The voice of the desperate, the voice of repentant sinners, the voice of born-again believers, the voice of searching seekers, those are the voices that Jesus hears. I doubt that Christ is really interested in those who say, "please just listen to me because I am white." "please just listen to me because I am black". "please just listen to me because I am from Ethiopia". "please just listen to me because I am dutch." These are false dilemnas, false problems, false idols. Our sin, our pride, our need for redemption is the great equalizer. God's grace and God's spirit is the great equalizer.

@John Cryer -

Same ol' same ol' - if you don't like the Belhar, you must be racist.

Nonsense and other comments. It's concievable that those who are opposed to the Belhar are in fact sincere in their opposition on biblical, theological, historical, and cultural grounds. Rather than address the serious issues that opponents might have, most arguments for it are variations on that theme.

It so happens this particular essay of Watson's doesn't - I still disagree with him (the Belhar will not achieve the objective he thinks it will; the Belhar is part and parcel of the CRC's participating "in the prevailing culture of the time" rather than acting biblically and independent of that culture; if statements are sufficient, then existing creeds are as well, but if they are not, then the Belhar isn't either; there are other arguments besides the 2 he's suggesting; we can wait for the matter is not urgent;...) - but at least he's not saying opponents are racist.

Don't sully his essay by dragging that tired, insulting, and lazy argument into it yet again.

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