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.

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