After three years of discussion and debate, Synod 2012 (the church’s annual leadership meeting) will vote on whether to adopt the Belhar Confession as a fourth doctrinal standard for the Christian Reformed Church.
The report recommending the adoption of the Belhar comes from the CRC’s Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee (EIRC). The Belhar comes with an accompanying letter to give a North American contextual introduction.
The Belhar was written in South Africa during the 1980s when the “colored” Dutch Reformed Mission Church (which is now part of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa) declared that apartheid was a heresy and a misrepresentation of the gospel. Apartheid was a system of forced racial segregation that maintained the rule of a white minority over the black majority in South Africa. The Dutch Reformed Church, the “white” denomination, was associated with that system.
The EIRC’s report noted that a history of discrimination is not unique to South Africa. “All who know something about the respective histories of Canada and the United States can recall the stories of injustice, discrimination, and marginalization that most often were inflicted on members of ethnic minorities,” the report said.
Already in 1984, what was then the Interchurch Relations Committee noted for synod that the Belhar was “in essential accord with the declarations on race issued by . . . synods of the CRC.” Synod 1990 endorsed the evaluation of the Belhar “as in harmony with ‘the Reformed faith as a body of truth’ articulated in the historic Reformed confessions,” according to the report.
The EIRC pointed out that there is “substantial consistency in the content of synod’s decisions concerning matters of racial justice and what is confessed in the language of the Belhar Confession.” Among those decisions was the adopting in 1996 of an extensive report that articulated biblical and theological principles for the development of a racially and ethnically diverse family of God, a report that continues to be distributed to synod delegates each year.
Regarding concerns raised about language that states “that God . . . is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor, and the wronged,” the EIRC said that this statement is fully consistent with what is written in Isaiah 6 and Luke 4. “It is a confessional statement of God’s concern for special need and not a limiting statement for God’s providential care as experienced by all.”
The committee said that the Belhar fills a significant gap in our confessional heritage, because significant biblical themes of unity, reconciliation, and justice are larger in Scripture than some of the other themes in our historic confessions. “For example,” the report stated, “Scripture is less explicit about total depravity than the obligation for God’s people to live in unity.”
There are requests (overtures) coming to synod from 22 of the denomination’s 47 classes (regional groups of churches), many requesting that synod not adopt the Belhar at the status of a confession, but many of those overtures suggest adopting it as a testimony instead, similar to the status of the Contemporary Testimony: Our World Belongs to God.
The EIRC believes that speaking confessionally to issues such as unity and justice is different from affirming or endorsing the Belhar as a testimony. It also pointed out that the Contemporary Testimony is a document written by the CRC for the CRC, and was not written as a confession for the global Reformed community. When adopting the Belhar was proposed by Synod 2009, that synod rejected the option of adopting it as a testimony by a 75 percent majority.
If adopted, it would join the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort, all of which were written during one 60-year period between 1561 and 1619. It would also be the first confession to come from the Reformed church in the Southern Hemisphere.
The Belhar has been adopted by the Reformed Church in America and is used in the Presbyterian Church (USA), though not formally adopted as a confession.