Why the Belhar Should Not Be a Confession

In the November 2010 Banner, Rev. Peter Borgdorff stated why the Christian Reformed Church in North America should adopt the Belhar as a confession. I agree that we should endorse it in some way. But I find decisive reasons why we should not make it one of our doctrinal standards:

1. Insufficient Content. Compared to our three “Forms of Unity” (as well as to our Contemporary Testimony), the Belhar Confession is much too brief and narrow to be a confession. It neither summarizes the Christian faith (as do the Heidelberg Catechism and Belgic Confession) nor elaborates God’s plan of redemption (Canons of Dort). Moreover, its prologue states that it was not meant to be a doctrinal standard.

I find decisive reasons why we should not make it one of our [doctrinal standards].

2. Social Gospel/Liberation Theology. The Belhar focuses on God’s concern for the poor, racial reconciliation, and social justice. But it does not first make clear the basic gospel truths that all humans are sinners, that salvation is God’s gracious gift of eternal life extended without regard to social status, and that salvation comes only through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.

Read as a confession—a summary of the Christian faith or the gospel—the Belhar does look like the social gospel or liberation theology. It seems to equate the gospel with social well-being and to conflate human reconciliation with reconciliation to God. It does not sufficiently distinguish salvation from providence, eternal life from earthly welfare, or unity in Christ from human solidarity.

Indeed, the Belhar has been promoted as liberation theology by prominent leaders of denominations in the former World Alliance of Reformed Churches (now part of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, which includes the CRC). Allan Boesak, an original sponsor of the Belhar and former president of WARC, is a famous example. The Belhar has been widely used to advocate progressive economic and political policies and gay marriage as gospel mandates.

3. Theological Ambiguity. The authors of the Belhar probably did not intend it as liberation theology. (They were more influenced by Karl Barth.) But that reputation has stuck. The Belhar's wording is not sufficient to rule out progressive theologies or to make its intended meaning clear. This ambiguity disqualifies it as a confession, because confessions are supposed to clarify doctrine.

4. Confessional Integrity. Adopting the Belhar as a confession despite the deficiencies mentioned above will undermine our confessional integrity. If we give it the status of the Three Forms of Unity, then either we pretend that they are equal in doctrinal authority, or we have a double standard for confessions, or we inflate the Belhar, or we deflate the other Forms to its level. None of those options has integrity. (Neither does ranking the Belhar above our Contemporary Testimony.)

5. Redundancy. The Belhar adds little to what the CRC already affirms. Our Contemporary Testimony repeatedly addresses ethnic diversity, unity in Christ, and social justice. Synod condemned apartheid in 1983, calling it “unbiblical” (Acts of Synod 1983, p. 712). And our report God’s Diverse and Unified Family (1996) is much more extensive than the Belhar.

6. Precedent-setting. If it is necessary for the church to make biblical mandates into confessions in order to take them seriously, then we should also add confessions about worship, evangelism, lifestyle, and more. But isn’t Scripture sufficient?

7. Potential Divisiveness. The Belhar is supposed to promote unity. If it becomes a confession, then all officebearers must subscribe to it (unlike the ordination of women). Will those who cannot conscientiously do so have to leave office? Will they stay in the CRC?

What will we do with the Belhar? The World Communion of Reformed Churches is watching us, and so are other Reformed, Presbyterian, and evangelical friends. Let’s not undermine our confessional integrity and unity by adopting the Belhar for the sake of symbolic relevance and a few ecumenical relationships. Instead, let’s retain integrity, unity, relevance, and broad ecumenical respect by endorsing it as a testimony, affirmation, or declaration subject to our Three Forms of Unity.

For Discussion

  1. Cooper argues strongly against the Christian Reformed Church adopting the Belhar as a confession, but then adds, “I agree that we should endorse it in some way.” What other ways might we endorse the Belhar without raising it to the level of a doctrinal standard?
  2. Do you agree that “the Belhar is much too brief and narrow to be a confession”? Why or why not?
  3. The kind of liberation theology that is most strongly opposed to our Reformed confessions argues that God’s salvation is to be found not in some “sweet by and by” but in this world, through the liberation of the impoverished, dispossessed, and enslaved—any people victimized by injustice. Does the Belhar Confession make sufficiently clear that salvation is more than that? (See http://www.crcna.org/pages/belhar.cfm for the full text of the confession.)
  4. Would it be sufficient to embody the main message of the Belhar Confession in Our World Belongs to God: A Contemporary Testimony? While our Contemporary Testimony does not have the stature of our Reformed confessions, it does enjoy wide support in the CRC and could eventually be given confessional status.
  5. Do you think our adoption of the Belhar Confession would be potentially divisive, as Cooper claims? Might it cause problems because potential officebearers would refuse to sign it? Would you sign it if you were in that positions? Why or why not?
  6. Does it make a difference that other Reformed denominations have adopted the Belhar as a confession? What does it say to other churches and to our brothers and sisters in South Africa if we do not adopt it?

About the Author

Dr. John Cooper is professor of philosophical theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (42)


Amen and Amen.

Very true.

Add a confession!? I am trying to remind people we have confessions and that they are meaningful and useful!

One of the most concise, insightful and informative comments on this subject. Thank you, Professor.

I agree, except that I am not sure we need to add the Belhar as anything, whether confession or testimony or affirmation or declaration. I have not heard a good argument as to why any of these options would be good. The burden is on those who want it to demonstrate the importance of having it. I do not believe they have done so. I appreciate Cooper's insight that it seems motivated by "symbolic relevance and a few ecumenical relationships".

How can a reconciliation statement without being rooted in the cross be a lasting document? Just asking.

So far, the only real argument offered in favor of the Belhar is that we're racists if we don't. Boil away all of the fluff & stuff, and that's what you're left with.

I find that argument silly.

PNR said,

"So far, the only real argument offered in favor of the Belhar is that we are racists." Well, said PNR. That why the Belhar is a confession of blame and shame, keeping racism alive and always in front of you as an issue in the church. Never to be overcome.

The Belhar is a humanistic document, about trying to save ourselves, instead of confessing our brokeness and our need for JESUS as our savior.g

The Belahar, by my understanding, was written in response to apartheid in South Africa by the/a Reformed denomination in South Africa. So, tell me, why do we in North America need to adopt this as a doctrinal standard? It's cultural; it's in response to what has happened in South Africa and has nothing to do with American culture--granted we have had and continue to have problems with hatred for all groups of people. Then we would need a confession for every type of hatred.

Well done, Dr Cooper. I have been pounding on this issue for several years, both locally and in the Banner, and glad to see Dr. Cooper and fellow Calvin professor, John Bolt have taken it to task as well. CRC members should be aware that the playing field on this issue is not level. This is the only time that I can recall that the Banner has given a full article to an opponent of the Belhar. Other con voices have been IMHO essays. Borgdorff and company have had carte blanc as to how much space they need to make their arguments. Interestingly, when John Cooper had a forum in October with Borgdorff and another proponent, he was the only panelist that was difficult to hear. Listen for yourself at the CRC website. At about the 15 minute mark Dr. Cooper's microphone is turned down and becomes nearly inaudible.

Well done John.

Yes, you are absolutely right, Dr. John Cooper. Three forms of confessional standard are enough. The Belhar has nothing to add to them in terms of fundamental truths of the Gospel. The Belhar should remain as it is now. Thank you for your concise statement of the issue involoved.

I thoroughly agree with Dr. Cooper. While I agree that racism is and mostly like will continue to be a present issue, I do not see how it is necessary to adopt this narrow statement as a confession. I agree that confessional standards ought to be a circumspect articulation of our theology, not our stance on a social justice issue. Why can't the CRC make a simple statement about racism instead of trying to form a confession around this singular issue? Also, confessions are to be points of unification, but the Belhar seems to be a rather divisive and incendiary statement - either you're on one side or the other and if you're not for it, the implication is that you might be a racist. To me, this is another situation in which the CRC has failed to hedge their doctrine, to draw clear lines in the proverbial sand. Instead, there is much waffling and debating leading to strife, confusion, and dissent. Note to the CRC: let's leave well enough alone.

My endorsement of my colleagues column is probably redundant. What I find so gratifying is the growing number of comments that share our concerns about the Belhar. May your tribe increase; that would bode well for the CRC.

This is a very confusing piece. If, as Dr. Cooper maintains, there are "deficiencies," lack of the necessary theological connections, ambiguities, redundancies, threats to conservative economic policies, etc., why does he conclude with advocacy of an endorsement of the Belhar: "... let's retain integrity, unity, relevance, and broad ecumenical respect by endorsing it as a testimony, affirmation, or declaration subject to our Three Forms of Unity"?

Maybe definitions (not supplied) of the terms "confession" and "doctrinal standards" would have helped reduce the confusion.

Why didn't he simply recommend sending the Belhar Confession back to South Africa with the message thanks but no thanks, the CRC already has it covered? Hmmm.

With regard to "misuse" of the document, does Dr. Cooper think that the historic confessions (Three Forms of Unity) have not been misused over the centuries?

To clarify Dr. Cooper's "rankings" (#4), maybe The Banner should inform its readers of the CRITERIA used in "ranking" the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, Canons of Dordt, Contemporary Testimony, God's Diverse and Unified Family. Dr. Cooper asks: "But isn't Scripture sufficient?" Apparently not.

This is one of the best things I have read yet in The Banner about the Belhar, but there are points that continue to be missed, or could be said more strongly:
- Everyone knows there is ambiguity in the Belhar; why is there no effort to correct it as would be done with the existing confessions? (Double standard?)
- Has anyone yet offered an interpretation of the statement that "God ... is in a special way the God of the destitute, [etc.]" that agrees with the Bible?
- There is little talk about which categories of doctrine belong in confessions, and which not. I think confessions should define the marks of the church, or nearly that--the gospel (TULIP too), the sacraments, and the authority of the church (versus other authority)/church discipline--whereas detailed applications of doctrine belong elsewhere.
I believe the Belhar does not qualify for approval, let alone doctrinal standard status.

Good questions, Mr. Einfeld. With regard to society's poor and marginalized, the hundreds of biblical references form a pattern. To those who claim that the poor are NOT singled out for special emphasis in Scripture, and who would remove governments from responsibilities, I recommend a reading of Isaiah 10:1-4: "Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and rob my oppressed people of justice, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches?..."

To say that the poor and marginalized are singled out for special emphasis in Scripture does not make God somehow more their God than anybody else's ("...in a special way the God of the poor").

As for Isaiah 10:1-4, one might ask if it is just to confiscate the property of the prudent in order to subsidize the imprudent. Just laws do not require a welfare state or subsidies that encourage sloth and dependency (this is not to say the poor, as a class, are slothful - only that the current policies encourage it). Neither do just laws necessarily require racial set-asides, quotas, or affirmative action.

I don't find Professor Cooper's piece all that confusing. He is unwilling to simply drop the Belhar all together. In part this is, I suspect, because the taint of racism has already been applied to those who reject it and he wishes to avoid its application to himself. Understandable. But as a practical matter, "thanks, but no thanks" is the best response to the Belhar.

The Belhar does not need to be adopted. The following statement may suffice:

Responding to the assertion of the authors of the Belhar that their document is not meant to be a doctrinal standard, we respectfully acknowledge and receive their statement as one that reflects their historical struggle toward concern for the poor, racial reconciliation, and social justice. SDW

Ah yes, "acknowledge and receive" has a long and distinguished (?) history. Maybe we should add: "We feel your pain -- but it is not ours."

Thank you, Dr. Cooper

Maybe one of the benefits of Belhar discussion will be a closer examination of your division of people into
"the prudent" and "the imprudent."

In many years of public policy analysis and legislative liaison, I have had occasion to witness numerous examples of how the wealthy and influential are able to wrangle government contracts, i.e. subsidies, from compliant legislators (many of whom profess to be born-again Christians). These contracts involve public, taxpayer dollars for substantial private gain. To you use your term, they "confiscate property" from the public. It allows the recipients to become dependent on such government contracts to sustain their private interests-- and live lives of ease and sloth.

This is not to say that the wealthy and influential, and their well-paid lobbyists, as a class, are slothful, only that such policies and practices encourage it. The practice is sometimes referred to as "welfare for the rich," but seldom considered by those who speak of "the welfare state." On the contrary, such people are more often applauded for their successes and their business acumen -- as long as they continue to thrive from their subsidies.

In such instances, who are "the prudent" and who are "the imprudent," and where is the justice of whom Isaiah writes?

Are we seeing all of the prayer concerns necessary through this discussion? If the primary force of pro-adoptors’ arguments really does lie in ‘political’ considerations (such as the formal expectations of the ‘global north’ appearing unified with the ‘global south’, the public distancing of oneself personally and denominationally from the sin of racism, etc.), then do we really expect the issue to be settled with a 2012 synod vote?

I believe that we need to take a note from the Women in Office struggles and pray NOW for unity in the Gospel – today and through synod 2012. Say the vote goes against adoption. Many will cheer and breathe a sigh of relief. But even after that, will there still be sermons preached in the CRC on a failed document? Will the issue be continually brought up in future synods? Will this be the next back-and-forth Banner IMHO topic even after the 2012 vote? Will there be comments from African churches denouncing the commitment of the CRC to Africa - and reactionary damage control from Grand Rapids officials?

IF we're not in active, passionate prayer over this, all of this MAY happen – and what more if the vote for adoption is passed? What then of our denominational commitment to the Gospel and the Great Commission? What of our unity and likemindedness with brothers and sisters within our own denomination, not to mention with the RCA (our new brothers and sisters in church planting) or Reformed African denominations!

Not that ‘politics’ is the basis for being bound to theological statements, but ‘politics’ can become a fixed reality that distracts us from the commitment to preach the Gospel and build local congregations that worship our Father in Christ alone – WHATEVER the outcome of the 2012 vote. Let’s pray now that we will be focused on the real prize, and that we continue to fight the GOOD fight, not just the exciting one.

Yes, I would consider such dependence upon government contracts to be imprudent, though some businesses (i.e., makers of armored fighting vehicles or missiles) don't have much choice. I am not particularly supportive of corporate welfare for it, too, is often unjust. One injustice does not justify another, however.

I'm not sure that these folks are slothful or that the particular forms of welfare they access encourage it. Corruption, maybe, but not sloth. The sheer volume of talent and energy dedicated to milking (and bilking) the government is staggering. How much more could be achieved if that were directed at more productive pursuits!

From my reading of the Belhar, I don't see that it addresses issues of prudence, imprudence, corruption, or integrity - at least, not as we've been discussing them here. It might be a better document if it did. Instead, it simply assumes the poor are ennobled by their poverty and the wealthy are tainted by their wealth. The mutual participation in sinful human nature of both rich and poor gets short shrift.

You are correct, the Belhar does not focus on "the mutual participation in sinful human nature of both rich and poor." But then, the adoption of Belhar is intended to supplement, not replace, the Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dordt, or Belgic Confession. Those three confessions already deal extensively with that sinful nature. I don't think repeating those confessional formulations in the Belhar is necessary -- and here I disagree with Dr. Cooper.

If the existing Reformed confessions inadequately guide us in their applications, then maybe more education on those applications is desirable. My catechism instructors tended to respond to questions about application to current concerns by saying "the confessions don't get that specific." A great way to avoid difficult issues of public policy.

With regard to slothfulness of the corporate welfare folks, I refer to those who, in my experience, use their largesse to simply purchase the staggering amounts of "talent and energy dedicated to milking....." They generally don't do it themselves. This leaves plenty of time for a few timely phone calls from the Caribbean.

Your catechism instructors were both correct and incorrect. The creeds are typically not that specific, nor should they be. Foundational documents that lay out core truths and principles should leave the specific application of those principles alone.

But rather than dismiss the question, it should be explored in the context in which it is asked. The principle that Christians should care for the poor and marginalized of society is non-negotiable. Circumstances, means, and numerous other factors can and will affect the "how".

Forcible confiscation of property and redistribution - a kind of Jubilee Year, back-to-the-beginning move - may indeed be appropriate and just in some settings. In other settings it would be horribly unjust, damning the society to decades of upheval and distress. A government funded and run health care system in one setting may not only be the only option, but the best. In another setting it may be devastating. The credal principle allows for the prudential discernment and differentiation Christians must make in application.

The Belhar, in my opinion, gets far too specific in the application of the principle, cutting off that prudential discernment and imposing on varied circumstances a single "how" of application that we will either ignore (in violation of our promise) or attempt to apply to our great hurt.

Thanks for your well-reasoned response. I understand the role of "prudential discernment and differentiation." The problem, as I see it, is of the kind addressed in the Belhar. In the absence of guiding principles of application (as distinguished from "belief") Christians often rely on secular principles

For example, with regard to health care, my views differ substantially from those of fellow Christians who rely on principles far more closely aligned with Ayn Randian objectivism (or Rand's successors e.g. Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and other high-profile political conservatives) than with Scripture or the Reformed confessions. In their view, profit-driven cost centers of health care are preferred, even if profit depends on cherry-picking the healthiest and limiting care to the most vulnerable - the elderly, the infirm. and people with pre-existing conditions, all of whom are not profitable. In their view, health care should be treated like other commodities.

The issue here is not simply "circumstance" or context, but selection of values.

This preference for profit, combined with a preference for de-regulation and other anti-government measures, stands in stark contrast to the kind of Christian ethic you have formulated. However, it is deeply entrenched in political partisanship. My Christian friends' responses to my call for Christian alternatives, is: Scripture deals with matters of personal salvation, not with social relationships. They suggest that I have caved in to the "social gospel." On the other hand, they cannot tell me whether the Gospel is a-social or anti-social. This is, of course, a matter which needs much more careful study and deliberation.

Bottom line: many Christians have no problem with differentiating between their beliefs, grounded in their understanding of a Scripture bereft of social dimension and its implications for our life together, and values derived from non-Christian sources.

A perusal of objections to the Belhar reveals similar dynamics. Note Dr. Cooper's repeated use of the term "progressive." If there is a philosophical/theological context in which that term is used -- as distinguished from political context -- I would like to know it.

I submit that the chasm between the Reformed confessions (your "core truths and principles")and applications is a serious one which should get far more attention than is currently the case. The profile of the opposition to the Belhar does not inspire optimism.


A response to your position on the health care debate would take more time and space than I have. Suffice to say for the moment that a preference for less government involvement is not dependent upon Randian objectivism. Other issues, including freedom, responsibility, the illusion of omniscience, and the more practical, mundane question of what actually works in bringing the best quality care to the most people come into play. These are also issues on which our Reformed Creeds offer guiding principles.

In other words, the question of values attained by practical political policies frequently involves a certain trade-off in this world that is so far short of Heaven. A prioritization of these values, as well as a discernment of which are in fact in the balance, must be made at a particular temporal, geographical, cultural point.

The same Bible that says to care for the poor, for instance, also says the one who does not (will not) work should not eat. In the case of the poor, unemployed man, smelling of alcohol, who stops by my church in search of money or a sandwich, what does that mean? Which value is at stake? What is best to help this man? Given my other commitments, how much can I give not just of money and food, but of my time and self to him? What public policies will encourage him to work, to not waste his money on alcohol, keep him from starving or freezing to death? And how will those policies impact others who are already working, providing for their families, and accepting responsibility for themselves? What works in a small town in South Dakota might be very different from what works in Chicago or New York. We should not constrain either with a credal statement imposing a single answer to these questions.

In the matter of race relations, however, that is just what the Belhar does. An honest application of its strictures against separate ethnic/racial church formations, for instance, would require the elimination of Classis Red Mesa and Classis Pacific Hamni, for instance, yet in an American context these classes are an essential step in racial/ethnic reconciliation.

A further word is required in the context of profit. Profit is not a bad thing, even in the realm of health care and medicine. Profits encourage people to take risks and those risks have allowed for the development of many new medicines, surgical techniques and equipment, and so on. Profit also provides an incentive to endure the rigorous schooling, internships, residencies, exams, and pressure in order to become and remain not merely competent, but excellent physicians and surgeons (and nurses and PAs and therapists and...).

The parable of the talents has, in English, become something about developing skills and abilities, but in the Greek it was plainly and baldly about money - investing it wisely in order to reap a profit. To be sure, it applies to *all* the resources at our disposal, and the quest for profit is to be carried out in light of the fact that both what is invested and what is reaped belongs not to the servant but to the Master. Nevertheless, profit has its place.

We must bear in mind that the issue is not to prevent profit. It is to care for the poor - to provide them some access to profit, too. But what is it to me if God should entrust billions to another and only thousands to me? Or hundreds? If I have food and clothing and shelter and am able to serve the Lord, is that not enough?

You write: "If I have food and clothing and shelter and am able to serve the Lord, is that not enough?"

If I have the above and am also wracked with constant pain and discomfort, suffering from cancer,and desparately trying to help my family pay the medical bills, is that not enough?

If $200,000 per year is still not considered wealthy or rich by critics of the President's economic proposals, how much is "enough" for these folks?

If an insurance company, its executives and its investors ration care to boost profits and are unwilling to assume the risk for older patients, where is the benefit of the risk you describe?

If what is reaped belongs to the Master, not the servant, how do we justify the emphasis in our culture on "private property," which must be protected at all cost, and which governments should not be allowed to "confiscate" by taxation? It is mine, mine, all mine, I tell you. I worked for what I've got, I'm a self-made man, I did it all by myself, and the results are mine. We are losing more and more of our freedoms.... And so it goes.

The poor, unemployed man "smelling of alcohol" -- which you describe -- may have been employed and earning a decent living only weeks ago. We have learned enough about alcoholism and other addictions to know that treatment and rehabilitation (even with relapses) are far more effective and cost-effective than incarceration, but policymakers would rather build more prisons.

There is a stronger, more influential lobby for "get-tough policies" than for prevention and treatment of addictions. Treatment costs money (see your earlier comments abour profit in relation to investment in a medical education) and if an unemployed person cannot afford treatment ........ Surely personal responsibilty is important, but do we want to be the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son?

We're straying rather far from the Belhar and whether it should or should not be adopted and into just that prudential debate on what will or will not best provide for those who suffer, who are poor.

I have not lived in a state yet where the policy makers would rather build prisons for alcoholics than seek rehabilitation for them. The threat of prison, however, has been a strong motivator to many an alcoholic to seek treatment. But I also asked, how should I deal with the man here and now, too. Would it be better to let him go hungry, feeling the pain of his addiction and therefore more inclined to accept and/or seek treatment? Would it be better to give him food and arrange for a place to sleep tonight, or would that be enabling and encouraging the self-destructive behavior? The answer to these questions is a prudential judgment based on experience in part. It should also be based on an openness to the Spirit's leading in that instance - and the Spirit has in different instances led me to both extend and to withhold.

Charities are freer to respond to this leading of the Spirit than are government systems where they are bound to the letter of law and regulation regardless of circumstance.

Whether it is the insurance executive or the government bureaucrat who rations care, both seem quite willing to deny that care to older people on the basis of cost and profit (though the politician measures profit in terms of votes more than dollars, it is also with the understanding that the former leads to the latter). Why you would believe that just because somebody works for the government he is suddenly inured to thoughts of profit and self-aggrandizement is beyond me. (continued...)

(continued from earlier)
As for whether $200,000 is rich or not, I really don't care. My annual income is about 1/3 that, but I consider myself rich in material blessings. But yes, if I have the basic necessities and am able to serve the Lord, that is enough. Indeed, being able to serve the Lord and *LACKING* those basic necessities is enough - or so the prophets, the apostles, and Jesus himself would teach us. Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. This is not to say the person with $200,000 is therefore free to ignore his brother or sister who has nothing, as Matthew 25 makes clear.

The emphasis on private property stems from the notion that this is what God has entrusted to me, as opposed to another, just as some land was given to Benjamin and other land was given to Judah, and within that land, it was subdivided by clan and household. Furthermore, the command to not steal assumes private property. In the parable of the talents, the servant given 1 had no right to take the talents given the others, nor did those given more have the right to take his one. Indeed, trade, even at the level of mere bartering, is impossible apart from some sense of private ownership. Perhaps the better biblical term would be "Private Stewardship", but "ownership" is the term we have in English.

I don't think we have strayed too far from the Belhar, at least not to the sources of opposition to it. This discourse has helped me -- and perhaps others -- from understanding some of that opposition.

I find your reference to "prudential judgment based on experience in part" highly relevant. Our life experience is at the base of much disagreement about policy, and about our approach to the confessions.

For example, unlike you, I have lived and worked as a legislative liaison in two states in which policymakers indeed preferred building prisons to providing resources for treatment and rehabilitation. Until recently anyway. Now, finally, they realize that the state cannot afford to maintain all the correctional facilities built to house the multitude of people addicted to alcohol and other drugs. Now, finally, they are looking for sentencing alternatives and "diversion" programs like "drug courts," which combine the threat of incarceration with remedial programs and mutual-help groups for long-term recovery. Unfortunately, budget cutting has also prevented the needed resources from reaching these successful drug courts, and waiting lists are getting longer.

What, then, to do? A Senate Majority Leader, who was a fellow Christian, voted to oppose additional resources to drug courts. He responded to my question by simply saying: "Just keep praying." He also opposed increasing the excise tax on alcoholic beverages by a penny a drink, to cover the cost (the state tax on beer amounts to $0.006 per 12-ounces, the lowest in the nation, thanks to industry lobbying) because "we don't want to disadvantage the social drinker." That's the industry line, of course. The solution? "Just keep praying."

BTW, a lobbying group representing Southern Baptists (who advocate total abstinence) also opposed the penny-a-drink proposal, on the grounds that "we don't want increased taxes on ANYTHING." If the result is cheap beer and vodka, and/or enriched alcohol industry profits, so be it. The Bible is about personal salvation, not social policy -- with notable examples, e.g. abortion. We take care of "our own" alcoholics and drug addicts. We don't need government to do it for us.

Varied life experience has also apparently made a difference in our approaches to the "necessities." You cite food, clothing and shelter. I added health, based on personal experience. My father used to say that "as long as God gives us health we'll be able to make it through this horrible situation." I find that health and health care should not be treated like commodities. Maybe this is why Jesus uses healing so frequently in his ministry and encourages us to care for the sick in His name.

Also in my experience, individual Christians and churches are quick to show mercy, to provide aid and comfort to the afflicted. They will pour their energies into fund-raising projects and raise maybe $5,000 or $10,000 for an unfortunate family. But what happens when that "project" concludes, and the medical bills amount to ten or a hundred times that amount? Who, then, looks at the institutional practices that affect all in the community - actually or potentially?

Should we not combine mercy and justice, in His name? This takes us back to the Belhar. But, you may say, we must leave justice to God. "Social" justice is an alien concept and should not be included in our Reformed confessions -- though maybe as some kind of declaration. At his point we may have to simply agree to disagree.

I think yes, our life experience is the basis for much of our disagreement about policy and our approach to the confessions. Mercy and justice not only can, but must be combined as we serve the Lord together. That rather begs the question of what is merciful and just in any given situation - and there experience, judgment, and the leading of the Spirit may bring us to different conclusions.

My concern with the Belhar is that adopting it as a confessional statement rules out the possibility that prudence and experience might push us to a different method in achieving - or at least seeking - racial reconciliation. It binds us to a method that was necessary in South Africa, but could well be counter-productive in North America.

In this, I note that many of the things we have changed in the Belgic Confession, for instance, are those most thoroughly tied to the context of the 16th century conflict between Catholics, Protestants and Anabaptists in the Low Countries. They simply didn't work in a 19th-20th century North American context. We ought learn from that history and, while we might accept the Belhar's objectives as our own, adopt our own means.

Quoting from the earlier theologians, "Amen and Amen" and "Very True!" Incredibly insightful and helpful article. Thank you Dr. Cooper!

I agree with your basic premises and thank you for the e-dialogue. You are correct, I think, in that "experience, judgment and leading of the Spirit may bring us to different conclusions" about the Belhar. It is reminiscent of the Methodist "quadrilateral:" Scripture, Tradition, Experience, Reason, and their inter-relationships.

The Spirit has led me back to the CRC after an absence of more than 37 years. The Spirit has led me to work in multiple sectors -- academic, ecclesiastical, public (state government - executive branch, professional non-partisan, not elected), private for-profit, private not-for-profit, and legislative (as liaison with the executive and in a bridge-building ombudsman role with the public) -- and on various levels -- local, state, and national. I have served on four local church councils in 4 different denominations and have worked at the level roughly equivalent to the CRC Synod.

Among others, the Spirit led me to work in a community-based agency charged with building relationships with the black community during the racially charged 1970's.

I might also add that the Spirit led me through Christian education at elementary, secondary and college levels -- and through residency experiences in four countries other than the U.S. Each of these experiences has undoubtedly informed my judgments about the value of the Belhar as a confession.

I agree with Dr. Cooper that we should afirm the Belhar in some way, and maybe adding it to our confessions is not the best course at this time. But his piece and this discussion do raise some questions for me about our confessions in general.
1. Dr. Cooper asserts that confessions are "doctrinal standards" and should stand as a "summary of the Christian faith or gospel." It seems to me, however, that confessions are really affirmations of what the Church needs to affirm in order to bear witness as the Church. Just because hundreds of years ago the issues were doctrinal doesn't mean that those are the only issues that might be relevant. Apartheid was carried out by people of our own tradition who affirmed all of our confessions, yet failed to act as the body of Christ in a very sobering and destructive way.
2. While the Belhar might add little to our understanding of "basic gospel truths" (at least as understood doctrinally), I would cite the Barmen Declaration as a parallel example of how a faith community might articulate and affirm what it has needed to learn from its own historical crises. When a creedal faith tradition learns something important about its faithful witness through a formative experience, I think its creedal documents should reflect upon it.
3. Worries about "progressive uses" to which the Belhar might be put are troubling. Are we trying to ensure that we never affirm any statement that might establish common ground with those whose politics differ from our own? Are we choosing our creedal documents as pawns in our own political games?
4. I wonder about talk that suggests the eternal sufficiency of our "Three Forms of Unity" as the basis for our denomination. Those confessions--like the Belhar--are powerful but fallible reflections upon very particular historical challenges. Has God shown us nothing since then? We sometimes talk as though we have traded the infallibility of a medieval pope for the infallibility of a handful of 16th century theologians. If church office bearers were required to affirm the Belhar, I'm sure they would do it the same way most office bearers affirm, say, the Canons of Dordt: broadly and generously, not with a critical eye toward every detail that might better be put in some other way.
Whether we adopt the Belhar as a confession or not, we are (I hope!) a living tradition, and I think our creedal practices ought to reflect an open stance toward the work God has done and is doing in our midst.


re: point 3, The problem with the uses to which the Belhar might be put is not that it would "establish common ground with those whose politics differ from our own" but that it would be used to bind the consciences of those whose politics are different from liberals/progressives. Given the Office of Social Justice, certain elements of the Contemporary Testimony, and other movements afoot, that is a reasonable fear. There is a concerted effort already underway to define conservative political positions as outside the boundaries of Reformed and Christian doctrine.

re: point 4, We have never held the 3 Forms of Unity to be infallible, as the numerous modifications to both the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism attest. Several of those revisions have occurred within the last 25 years or so. But we do need to define our identity as an institution. Those documents, along with the process established for clarifying/modifying them that was settled on in response to Dr. Harry Boer in the '70s and '80s, provide a solid identity that is yet flexible and open to the Spirit leading the Church. Both the Belhar and the Contemporary Testimony (esp. art. 44-54) are, in fact, efforts to constrain that flexibility in the direction of what are called "liberal" or "progressive" politics in the U.S.

In other words, we are a living tradition with an "open stance toward the work God has done and is doing in our midst." We would be less open were the Belhar to be adopted as a confessionally binding statement.

According to the Presbyterian Coalition website (the same as below), the Belhar has already been "defeated" in the PCUSA with 58 "No" votes.

Belhar Confession voting: 87 (yes) - 58 (no) updated 6/6/11

For the PCUSA to have added the Belhar as a Confession would have required 116 presbyteries to approve it. For it to be defeated, it required 58 "No" votes.

Best analysis of the Belhar Confession I have read yet. Thank you, Dr. Cooper.