Belhar Gets Official Status, but Not as a Confession

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Synod created a new category for adopting the Belhar Confession, stopping short of giving it full confessional status.

Elder Shiao Chong, Classis Toronto: “Perhaps the Belhar rubs us the wrong way because of our cultural idols. We need to see our blind spots.”
Photo: Karen Huttenga

The Belhar Confession will be an “Ecumenical Faith Declaration” for the CRC, a new category that generated vigorous debate but in the end won a solid majority vote.

The Belhar Confession was created by Reformed Christians in South Africa in 1982 as a response to the sin of apartheid. Their denominations have invited other Reformed denominations to adopt the confession. The Reformed Church in America (RCA), a sister church of the CRC, recently adopted the Belhar.

At Synod 2012, the high level of interest in the Belhar quickly became apparent when the gallery was almost full of observers. The discussion was launched with a protracted debate about whether to call the Belhar “excellent,” “significant,” or “passionately moving and compelling” in its first statement. Delegates settled on the word “significant.”

Many delegates would have preferred a straight yes or no vote on adopting the Belhar as a full confession before considering giving it a different status. Several delegates spoke about the desire to have the Belhar adopted as a confession.

Elder Shiao Chong, Classis Toronto, said the denomination would be acting in fear if it did not accept the Belhar as a confession. “Perhaps the Belhar is unwelcome [as a full confession] because it rubs us the wrong way . . . because of our cultural idols. . . . If so, we need to hear that voice resoundingly; let it rub us the wrong way so that we see our blind spots, so that we bear fruit as God’s people,” he said.

Teaching the churches about the Belhar has been the job of the Ecumenical and Interchurch Relations Committee (EIRC). The EIRC had desired that the Belhar be adopted as a full confession.

However, committee chairperson Rev. William Koopmans said the committee gave “qualified acquiescence” to the newly defined category: “We wish to be active partners in a discussion and decision that will attain the most unified position of appreciation for the Belhar Confession.”

Several delegates said they thought that creating the new category was a Spirit-led way to create that unity. “There is lots of ingenuity here—this is a new way of moving forward. It allows us to affirm the riches of the Belhar without any more debate. We are seeing that it does have a place for use in our congregations,” said Rev. Ken Benjamins, Classis Hamilton.

Synod agreed, and adopted the Belhar as an Ecumenical Faith Declaration.

Synod decided it did not need a study committee to help the churches better agree on the nature and role of confessions in the life of the church. The intent was that such a committee would have reported to Synod 2015 and opened the way for synod to reconsider adopting the Belhar as a confession.

Synod chose not to further study it. “We have studied this and studied this and studied this,” said Elder Jerry Heinen, Classis Wisconsin. “The churches have spoken, and it doesn’t make any sense to kick it down the road again.”

As the debate ended, Rev. William Koopmans, whose term on the EIRC is finishing, spoke to delegates.

“[As] my last official act on behalf of the EIRC, I wish and I dream that we can find a way to submit ourselves to the binding force of the Belhar Confession with regard to these marvelous principles of unity and reconciliation—perhaps through something like a web page—where officebearers could voluntarily bind themselves from the heart,” he said.

“It is my dream that hundreds and hundreds would line up to do that.”


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About the Author

Roxanne VanFarowe is a freelance writer who lives in the woods with her artist husband James and their five children in Hillsborough, North Carolina. They are members of Blacknall Presbyterian Church in Durham.

See comments (3)


I wish they'd adopted it as a testimony.

Even this article illustrates the enormous disconnect betwen the CRC's top-level stuctures (agencies, boards, Banner, etc.) and the nationwide membership.

The response of the bottom-level CRC membership to the denomination's years-long, top-level push to adopt the Belhar as a fourth confession was clear and resounding: NO.  But still, anyone who knew nothing of the issue except what this article says, would think the Belhar was the best thing ever, and that something must have gone wrong (voting software malfunction?) for the Belhar not to have been adopted as a confession by Synod 2012.

The truth is, while most of the Belhar may be completely unobjectionable (although still of little to no additional value other than to be our act of politely accepting a gift), other parts (see especially section 4) clearly moves the CRCNA to a WCRC-driven perspective articulated quite clearly in the Accra Confession, which is this: that the primary job of the church-as-insitution is to rid the world of political/economic/climate injustices that bad rich capitalists, in an evil ("worship of mammon") free enterprise system, have wreaked on all of its victims.

The more the Belhar was read and truly explained by CRCNA membership, the more membership rejected it, not because they were racist, but because they didn't want the denomination to to buy into a neo-Marxist styled Liberation Theology (aka Social Gospel).  For that matter, CRC membership simply doesn't want their church to become a political association.

Ultimately, the Advisory Committee (and Synod) did its typical "split the baby" thing with the Belhar: split the difference by adopting it, though not as a confession.  Were this decision made by the CRC membership, I think the decision would have been simpler: just plain 'no'.

And now that we have a new category, Ecumenical Faith Declaration, might we see overtures in ensuing years for adding to it a variety of more established, tested-by-time, reformed confessions, like the three Westminster Standards, the Scots Confession, the Gallic Confession, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Barmen Declaration, and others?  I wonder whether the Advisory Committe and Synod really intended to create a new category, or to just create a "half win" for those who wanted the Belhar as our fourth confession.  Indeed, this may create a whole new area of contention for future Synods.  Law of unintended consequences striking again?

Synod thanked Peter Borgdorf and Koopmans for their work on the Belhar;  on behalf of all the overtures and councils against adopting the Belhar as a confession, I would like to thank John Cooper, Doug VandeGriend, and Eric Verhulst for expressing their cogent arguments against adopting the Belhar.  I would also like to thank all those who spent much time and effort in drafting overtures which clearly expressed the problems and difficulties with adopting this statement or declaration as a confession in the CRCNA.   Their work is appreciated, and contributes to the the benefit of the future of the CRCNA, as well as to the glory of God, and the recognition of scripture as our authoritative Word of God.