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Why the Belhar Should Not Be a Confession

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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?
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