The Christian Reformed Church is, for the first time in its history, proposing the adoption of a new confession: the Belhar Confession.
If adopted in 2012, the Belhar would join the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort, the newest of which is nearly 400 years old.
Second only to Scripture, those three Reformed confessions, together with the ecumenical creeds, have guided the Christian Reformed Church across every generation.
In the latter part of the 20th century, the CRC adopted Our World Belongs to God, but as a “Contemporary Testimony,” not as a full-fledged confession.
Drafted by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa (now merged into the Uniting Reformed Church of South Africa), the Belhar was written in 1986, emerging from a context of acute racial tension in that country’s apartheid era.
Rev. Motlalentwa Godfrey Betha came to Synod 2009 from the South African church that produced the Belhar. “In considering the implications of the Confession of Belhar for the CRC,” Betha urged synod, “you are being challenged to confirm once again that reconciliation is the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and thus that justice and unity are the indispensable public duties of the church in this divided world and terrifying time.”
The confession focuses on themes of unity, justice, and reconciliation. It is the only confession ever received from the Southern Hemisphere by the worldwide Reformed community.
Synod’s debate about the Belhar was passionate. “What holds us together as Christians is confession in Jesus Christ,” said Rev. Gary Van Leeuwen of Classis Toronto. “I appreciate the Belhar Confession, but I don’t find in it the same wonderful statements of salvation that we find in our other confessions.”
Some delegates preferred to adopt the Belhar as a testimony or an ecumenical confession, rather than give it full confessional status.
“What is Reformed about the Belhar Confession?” asked Rev. Ronald Meyer of Classis Zeeland. “We’ve always made the distinction between those things that are ecumenical and those things that are Reformed. Our three creeds are ecumenical; our three Reformed standards are strongly and uniquely Reformed. I see the Belhar Confession as being very strongly ecumenical.”
Some studies and commentators have linked the language of the Belhar—particularly its fourth article, where it states “God . . . is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor, and the wronged”—to liberation theology. Liberation theology is a radical reinterpretation of Scripture emphasizing social justice and political activism, often at the expense of the Christian gospel as it is traditionally understood.
“Does [this] mean that black liberation theology is the basis of this confession? There is nothing to prove or disprove this either way,” said elder delegate Jose Rayas of Classis Arizona. “But if this is the connection that is being drawn in the newspapers, in the blogs, and in the websites, it would serve us as the church best not to raise the Belhar Confession to the same level as the three Forms of Unity, for the sake of the unity of the church.”
But several delegates spoke in favor of adopting the Belhar and giving it full confessional status. “We are narrowing our understanding of racism,” said Rev. John Tenyenhuis of Classis Toronto. “I can’t understand why we think this is just a small ethical problem that could be talked about in terms of a testimony. The other three confessions never kept any of us from the racism that we participated in so deeply and for so long.”
Victoria Gibbs, elder delegate from Classis Grand Rapids East, has been promoting and teaching the Belhar Confession at workshops and gatherings for several years. “One of the most surprising things for me as I’ve stood in front of people is that the ability to even have cross-cultural conversation is so diminished that it’s frightening,” she said.
Vice president of synod Rev. Sheila Holmes, of Classis Hackensack, told delegates she believes God wants to do a new thing in the Christian Reformed Church. “He wants to open us up, wants us to be vulnerable, wants to expose us,” she said.
According to the Church Order of the CRC, a decision of this magnitude must be made by two separate synods. Synod 2009 proposed adding the Belhar Confession as a fourth confession, and it will now be up to Synod 2012 to adopt the change.
In preparation for synod’s discussion of the Belhar in 2012, and to engage the churches in that historic process, Synod 2009 gave the denomination’s Ecumenical Relations Committee the task of promoting intense study of the Belhar over the next three years.