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.