Adopting the Belhar

While you went about your business today, 30,000 children died of hunger. Some 1.2 billion people struggled to survive on less than a dollar per day; 14,000 died of water-borne diseases; 6,000 died of AIDS.

Because of the 21st-century explosion of communication technology, we encounter daily the cries of our neighbors around the world who suffer because of injustice and poverty.

We hear, too, the voice of Jesus asking us to respond.

Who will help us in the difficult task of shifting our focus from ourselves to our neighbor? Who will provide leadership for the church to respond to Christ’s call?

We, the Missions Committee of First Christian Reformed Church in Seattle, believe that God has provided that leadership in the form of our brothers and sisters who themselves have suffered and, indeed, continue to suffer unimaginably in South Africa.

For nearly 350 years black South Africans, including many converts to Christianity, were subjugated by a people and a government that was largely under the influence of Dutch, Reformed, white believers in Jesus, who held that the native people of South Africa were inferior and should be kept separate. The white government strongly opposed any policies that would lead to gelykstelling (social leveling). A frequent refrain from these Afrikaner colonizers was, “Die wit man moet altyd baas wees.” (The white man must always be boss.)

Out of this mindset the Apartheid regime emerged in 1948. With it came 25 public laws designed to maintain white domination. Native peoples were forced from their homes in favorable land areas into relatively small rural reservation-like areas called Bantustans. Blacks’ movement into white areas was restricted by rigidly enforced “pass laws”; mixed marriages were prohibited; blacks were restricted from white amenities such as restrooms, water fountains, and beaches. Separate worship facilities were established. Schools for blacks were separate and substandard. Families were torn apart as black men, recruited as cheap labor for the mines, were forced to live separately in ramshackle bachelor quarters.

As the black people’s bitterness and resentment increased, attempts to resist were met with more restrictive laws and brutal police retaliation, including beatings, imprisonment, and murder.

In pain and tears, leaders of the black Dutch Reformed Mission Church searched the Scriptures and produced a confession that is a cry for change. While it was significantly prompted by issues of racism, in essence this confession is a call for justice, reconciliation, and unity among God’s people everywhere. This call to faith and action is called the Belhar Confession.

It was born and given to the Christian Reformed Church in 1982. Synod and its committees have been engaged in intermittent study of the Belhar since that time. Synod has concluded that “[The Belhar] is in accord with the decisions of several synods” and “it is in harmony with the Reformed faith as a body of truth articulated in the historic Reformed confessions.”

In 2006 and 2007, perhaps somewhat in response to an overture (request) from our congregation, synod (the annual leadership meeting of the CRC) called for a denomination-wide “discussion and consideration” of the Belhar in cooperation with the Reformed Church in America.

Our congregation has studied the Belhar for two years. Church members have visited South Africa and talked with many Reformed people and pastors there who hold this confession dear. Our pastor has preached a series of sermons on the issues of the Belhar: poverty, racism, justice, reconciliation, and unity. We’ve studied the confession and its biblical basis in adult education classes. We’ve sponsored a weekend interactive seminar on the confession that included brothers and sisters from a new and thriving multiethnic inner-city sister church.

Congregational meetings have produced probing questions on why we should be concerned with, let alone plan to adopt, the Belhar as a creed. Members of our congregation wrote a devotional (similar to the Back to God Hour’s Today devotional) using the support texts of the Belhar. On Oct. 21, 2007, by a 94 percent majority, our congregation voted to adopt the Belhar Confession as its own and added it as a fourth standard of unity.

While racial issues were an impetus for the confession, we see it in a much broader context. Our overture to Synod 2006 stated, “The issues addressed by the Belhar Confession—Christian unity, reconciliation, injustice, and racism—are as relevant for the Reformed churches in North America and the world today as they were for the Reformed churches in South Africa under apartheid. . . . The evils of racism following centuries of slavery, discrimination, and abuse of minorities linger in most facets of North American society. Growing poverty and injustice are major worldwide issues affecting billions of people around the globe.”

You might rightfully ask why we chose to adopt the Belhar independently. Our answer is the question asked by a black member of our Seattle sister church: “Why are you hesitating to do the right thing?”

The needs are urgent, the crisis is now. The church cannot stand on the sidelines.

Our congregation discovered there is no precedent for adopting a new confession. The Church Order of the CRC does not forbid us from receiving a confession as binding on our members if it agrees with Scripture and our other confessions. Our desire is to heed Christ’s call now.

During this intimate engagement with the Belhar Confession, God has remarkably energized our church family, providing a new passion to focus outside our walls as never before. We are partnering with other congregations to plant new churches in our area. Members are giving significantly more money to missions. We have established sister-church relationships with a South African black congregation as well as with the Seattle-area multiethnic church Word of Truth International Ministries. To our delight that congregation recently voted to affiliate with the CRC.

We truly believe that those who connect with the Belhar will be energized for kingdom service in ways they cannot even imagine. It is our fervent prayer that God will lead many more Christian Reformed churches and even the denomination itself to follow in this path.

for discussion
  1. Read a copy of the Belhar Confession, which you can find at the following link:  (Belhar Confession).  Share with the group the words or ideas that struck you.
  2. The Mission Committee’s overture to synod 2006 stated, “The issues addressed by the Belhar Confession—Christian unity, reconciliation, injustice, and racism—are as relevant for the Reformed churches in North America and the world today as they were for the Reformed churches in South Africa during apartheid.” Do you agree with this statement? Discuss.
  3. How do you feel about First CRC adopting the Belhar Confession independently?
  4. Discuss how First CRC has been energized for kingdom service by their commitment to the Belhar. In what ways has your church been energized by the Spirit?
  5. Read this month’s IMHO: “Marxism Comes to the CRC.” What do you agree with in this article? What do you disagree with?
  6. Do you think synod should adopt the Belhar as a confession of the church? Why or why not?

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