What about the Belhar?

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Is it possible to be theologically and theoretically correct but relationally and practically wrong?

In recent years we have visited South Africa several times as volunteers. Mostly we work with and attend the Uniting Reformed Church (URC), which united separate branches of the Dutch Reformed Church that existed for whites and people of color. A few years ago, we were present as the URC celebrated the 25th anniversary of its adoption of the Belhar Confession.

In ensuing discussions, we had to admit that our church, the Christian Reformed Church in North America, has chosen to establish a separate category for the Belhar instead of adopting it as a full confession. That information was usually received with a puzzled look and the question “Why?”

We struggled a great deal with this question. Although we were unofficial representatives of the CRCNA, we felt we owed our South African brothers and sisters an explanation. We felt awkward, considering their very difficult lives as blacks under the apartheid regime, with all its attendant restrictions, discriminations, and injustices—many of which people still experience daily.

So what are the correct responses? How do we engage people who live with the issues of racism and social and economic disparity in a discussion about weak theology, hidden political agendas, and slippery slopes? Claims regarding the Belhar’s length, its possible irrelevance to North American culture, or the distinguishing features of a “true confession” seem insufficient. Is it possible to be theologically and theoretically correct but relationally and practically wrong?

Historically, it appears that the institutional church has almost always been slow to speak out and act on social justice issues. The church is and always has been an establishment-oriented, conservative institution that resists change, not wanting to upset the apple cart because of the dominant cultural narrative and powers-that-be. Church leaders, including clergy, usually play it safe in order to avoid controversy and maintain support. The biblical prophets railed against the religious establishment as much as they did against the political establishment.

The church is in a tight spot. It must take into account its constituency’s assumptions, fears, lifestyles, and worldviews while confronting and challenging the same. The “Catch 22” is that, eventually, silence, avoidance, and inaction implicate the church, and even Christianity itself, as being unconcerned and unengaged, or worse, as being supporters and even perpetrators of injustice. Many have left the church, believing it to be self-absorbed and irrelevant.

In our humble opinion, it is incumbent upon individual members and church groups to courageously speak out against injustice and to advocate for change in established orders if they produce and support structural injustice. And so we call on the Christian Reformed Church to adopt the Belhar as a confession—standing alongside our brothers and sisters in South Africa.

About the Author


John and Yetty Joosse are longstanding members of Ingersoll (Ontario) Christian Reformed Church.

See comments (6)


A willingness to adopt bad theology in the name of good relationships is a very dangerous slippery slope.

My answer to inquiring South Africans would be pretty straight forward.  The Behlar contains little that is new to our existing three doctrinal statements and our confessions, but among the new things is the statement: "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."  It is not untrue that God is God to the destitute, poor and wronged.  But he is equally God to all, not just, or "especially," to the destitute, poor and wronged.  He is "the special God" to none -- no one can say "he is my special God, not yours."  Indeed history is far too full of those claims.  This objection might seem trite to some of course, but if one also reads the Accra Confession (which has been adopted by the WCRC, the CRC's ecumenical organization), which might be fairly characterized as the big sister to the Behlar, one will find this theme -- which is an old liberation theology theme -- taken much further.  Traveling down the road of that theme does indeed reach the place the Reformed community has long rejected as liberation theology.

Had advocates of the Behlar proposed/agreed to alter this one line, I would have dropped my own objection to it, even though it still added little, perhaps nothing, to what our existing creeds already say.  But I think proponents of the Belhar in fact wanted to move in a liberation theology direction.  I didn't, and many (most) others in the CRC did not either.

I think the CRC errs as it moves, at the denominational level at least, to become more and more of a political organization.  Certainly, the organic church (CRC) should be very politically involved, but not the church as institute.  So when this article asks, "Is it possible to be theologically and theoretically correct but relationally and practically wrong?" the article's authors suggest we should allow the institutional church's political stances to trump its ecclesiastical stances.  And that is precisely what needs to be avoided, even if it seems trite.  A number of so-called "mainline" churches in the US did not avoid this, and as a result they have become predominantly institutional political organizations that consider theology, doctrine and ecclesiology to be secondary concerns.

I would recommend the video debate between John Cooper and Peter Borgdorff about the Behlar, which took place before the Behlar was taken up by synod.  (I'm sure the video exists somewhere yet.)  That debate illustrates the two different answers to the authors' question: should the institutional CRC be more concerned with the doctrinal/ecclesiastical (Cooper) or the relational/political (Borgdorff)?

If Wikipedia is accurate, only about 6 churches of the hundreds in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition throughout the world have adopted the Belhar. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belhar_Confession

The CRCNA stands with 98% of denominations in our tradition by not giving the document full confessional status. If Mr. Joosse has the means to travel to Africa on a regular basis (commendable in itself), I'd suggest he also has the means to "advocate for change in established orders" and whatever else he is into with or without the institutional church and with or without the Belhar Confession. 

I am always grateful to hear from others who agree that the CRC needs the Belhar Confession. The reasons are quite obvious. I pray that God will move us to follow Him more closely in this.

We’ve had this discussion. The last time we had it, we agreed that racism is sin, and adopting unbiblical theological statements (that other stuff in the Belhar) as proof of our denomination’s repentance was pretty bad, too. All without the Belhar Confession, I enjoy holding hands with believers of all colors and praying, “thy will be done” – and then doing that will with them. What plagues the CRC is not a lack of statements. it is a lack of Spiritual conviction about the Word, which no vote, designation or political statement will be able to produce.

Another Confession?  Old story, preacher is trying out for pastorate position. First Sunday he preaches a great sermon. Second Sunday, he repeats the same sermon. Third sunday, ditto, which confuses the elders. Why the same sermon three sundays? "I'll preach it until you learn it."

Gandhi was quoted as saying, "Christianity appears to be a wonderful religion. To bad no one has tried it." Maybe Gandhi read "The Sermon On The Mount." Christianity lost interest in that catechism soon after St Paul's Reformation. Or was it Constantines'?