Synod Proposes Recategorizing the Belhar Confession as a Contemporary Testimony

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After a long and sometimes electric debate, Synod 2016, the general assembly of the Christian Reformed Church, proposed that the Belhar Confession be categorized as a contemporary testimony, giving it a higher status within the CRC. It would give it the same status as “Our World Belongs to God.”

The Belhar is a confession born in South Africa out of the struggle against apartheid. It affirms centrally that the church is a single reconciled and reconciling community in Christ, and that anything, including apartheid or other forms of racism, that would introduce unbiblical divisions into the body of Christ is wrong and should be condemned. The South African churches that created the Belhar Confession offered it to the worldwide Reformed community as a new confession, drawing a line between what is acceptable among Reformed people and what is not.

Lenore Maine set the stage for the discussion early. She said the Belhar is needed for our collective witness. She said that even if others don’t think they need it, “We in New Jersey need it.” She spoke of her anger at the long legacy of systemic racism, of being denied participation in the American dream. She told a story of being a young black girl bused 21 miles to school. One day she was detained by a police officer for jaywalking. By the time she was released, the bus had left. She started to walk the 21 miles home until someone picked her up. These and other racially motivated actions have scarred her.

Tracie Traylor-Rhodes, also of Hackensack, picked up the theme. “I echo my sister’s pain,” she said. “I must say that my life has not always been easy either.” She spoke of her fears for her son. “Where is justice in America?” she asked.

The Christian Reformed Church has struggled to know what to do with the Belhar. Synod 2012 decided not to make the Belhar a fourth confession alongside three Reformation confessions: the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. Instead, synod created a new category of faith affirmation, which they called an “Ecumenical Faith Declaration,” a category not clearly defined nor recognized by the ecumenical partners in the wider Reformed community.

Classis Hackensack, a regional group of churches, asked Synod 2016 to reconsider the 2012 decision and to give the Belhar the status of a confession alongside the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort.

The synodical discussion was long, often intense, and filled with the desire to reach a stronger consensus on the role of the Belhar confession in promoting reconciliation and opposing racism.

Synod prayed a prayer of lament about racism and violence in our societies. “O God of the cross and the lynching tree,” the prayer began. “Gunshots ring out under the heavens that declare your glory.” The prayer went on: “The streets and the sidewalks of your dwelling place flow with blood.” To a repeated chorus of, “How long, O God?” the prayer lamented turning mothers and grandmothers into mourners.

Bruce Gritter, Classis Atlantic Northeast, argued that the Belhar had been “consigned to confessional purgatory.” Jei Wilson, Classis Chicago South, said that assigning the Belhar to separate category with no prior history hinted at “separate but equal.”

Lisa Vander Wal, the fraternal delegate from the Reformed Church in America, said that the Ecumenical Faith Declaration category, like “an airplane on a road,” didn’t seem to fit. The Reformed Church in America has adopted the Belhar as a full confession.

John Meiboom, Classis Toronto, gave another reason why the Ecumenical Faith Declaration category seemed to him to be less than adequate. He said it pointed outward and not to the CRC itself: “I’m hearing today in more clear terms why we need this [moving the Belhar to the category of a contemporary testimony]. We need it for ourselves.” Bert Slofstra, British Columbia South-East, spoke of the need for the Belhar to have relevance to the local church. Situated as  it is now, he said, “The Belhar says absolutely nothing to the life of the church.”

Some delegates doubted that changing categories would make any difference for the use of the Belhar confession in the churches, but others strongly suggested it would. Chelsea Harmon, British Columbia Northwest, said, “We as a synod . . . said that we denounce systemic racism, and this is a way we take action.” To those who opposed recategorizing the Belhar, Jei Wilson said, “I don’t understand why if it won’t make a difference, we are fighting against it.”

Changing the status of the Belhar does make a difference in the Covenant of Officebearers that all officebearers must sign. This covenant now requires officebearers to affirm the contemporary testimony called Our World Belongs to God “as a current Reformed expression of the Christian faith that forms and guides [them] in [their] present context.” If the Belhar is moved to the category of a contemporary testimony, it would require officebearers to affirm the same thing of the Belhar.

Bert Slofstra said that “if we give the Belhar the same status as the contemporary testimony [“Our World Belongs to God”], then every year our officebearers are confronted with the contents of the Belhar.

Some delegates worried whether elevating the Belhar to the status of a contemporary testimony and including it in the Covenant for Officebearers would require them to sign a document with which they could not fully agree, but they were advised that in agreeing to non-confessional statements the CRC already allows officebearers some latitude.

The proposal to recategorize the Belhar Confession is now referred to Synod 2017, which will make the final decision in the matter.

Synod 2016 is meeting at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., from June 10-17. For continuous Banner coverage, please follow The Banner Magazine on Facebook or @crcbanner on Twitter. You can find more tweeting by following hashtag #crcsynod. News stories will be posted at thebanner.org several times daily. For CRC Communications releases, webcast, and live blogging, please visit crcna.org/synod. Unless noted otherwise, all photographs are by Karen Huttenga.

About the Author

Clayton Libolt was the long time pastor of River Terrace Church in East Lansing, Mich. Since his retirement, he has served in a variety of interim positions. He is presently serving as the interim senior pastor of Sonlight Community CRC in Lynden, Wash.

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Comments

I have always rejected the Belhar as not only being unnecessary but as heretical. I remain steadfast in that assessment especially after reading this article and having a conversation with others in my my church with regards to this psuedo confession.

When I read that Ms. Lenore Maine says that, "the Belhar is needed for our collective witness ... Even if otheres don't think they need it, she said, 'We in New Jersey need it'. And how the article records that she goes on to speak of her personal anger at systemic racism and being excluded from the American dream, I can only shake my head in disbelief at the idea that this line of reasoning passes for serious theology.

Out church confessions are suppose to speak about our joint faith in God and to defend the faith from heresy. All 3 ecumenical creeds were written in a time when there was inequality but none of them focused on that. Instead they focused exclusively on what it is that the Bible teaches about creation, sin, man, salvation, resurrection and the life to come. Addressing societal issues of the day have never been within the purview of the historical creeds and confessions nor have they been within the scope of Biblical revelation.

When Tracie Traylor-Rhodes says that, "I echo my sister's pain,' she said. I must say that my life has not always been easy either." "Where is justice in America?" I am filled with revulsion. The creeds are not to focus on our pain. The apostles had lives filled with pain and death but they neve made their personal struggles the confessional concern of the church. We cannot as a community say, "thus saith the Lord", when it comes to anyone's personal pain or when it comes to societal structures.

And I have to ask how is it that the Belhar is suppose to promote reconcilliation and oppose racism in a way that already isn't done by Jesus Christ's life, death and resurrection which is the substance of the gospel, or good news? Is the gospel of Jesus Christ inferior to the task of our mediator? Hasn't Jesus alone been given the ministry of reconcilliation. Of reconcilling the elect to Christ and believers to each other? How does the Belhar accomplish what Jesus has already accomplished? If we need the Belhar to effect our reconcilliation to God and each other then isn't that in effect preaching another gospel?

Is it possibly true that the reason that the Belhar is being pushed on the church is that a certain segment of the church feels that our Three forms of Unity are old and do not speak to the church today? Is it a case that some people feel that the Three Forms of Unity were written by White men to White men? If that is true then isn't that racism? Doesn't the Bible clearly state that in the church there is neither slave nor free, male or female, Jew or gentile (Gal. 3:28, Col. 3:11)? Are we now going to embark on writing separate confessions for every minority group that feels it has a greivance with the White population who started the Reformed faith? Wouldn't that be poor theology because it is in fact a repudiation of theology and instead a succombing to a reverse racial bigotry.

The truths of the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort are the same as what is in the Apostle's, Athanasian and Nicene Creeds. Will we dump the latter 3 also because they are not written by the right ethnic group and because they are anceint?

Lastly, if you take away from the Belhar its window dressing references to God and obvious plagiarism of the three ecumenical creeds then what do you have left? What you are left with is a neo-Marxis document that Marx, Mao, Stalin, Lenin, would be happy to endorse. The Belhar is nothing more than Hegel's dialectical materialism applied to society. And if the CRC is going to give the Marxist their own confession then why not give one to the Captialists also?

I have told my pastor that I am not a Marxist and for that reason I will not stand up in church to recite the Belhar. Nor would I ever stand up and recite a confession that endorsed Captialism. Neither type of confession belongs in the church because they are not relevant to the mission of the church, which is to bring people out of the darkness of their sin.

It is sad that the church is still pursing a Socialist agenda even though the countries of China, Russia and Cuba, which were orgainzed along Socialist lines have had to abandon it because it failed to produce the goods.

 

I almost forgot to comment about Jei Wilson's comment that the demotion of the Belhar reminds him of the old "separte but equal". The obvious point of him making such a comparison is to reinforce the whole tenor of this discussion as being one about race. Well ideas and confessions don't have any racial genetic make up and they don't acquire the racial identity of their author. To make this a race oriented issue is racial intimidation and the only purpose is to shut down the no side of the Belhar debate by falsely portraying any oppenent as being a racist.

Using the race card as your trump card is morally wrong and is self exploitation. Creeds and confessions aren't about your race, time period, geographical location, politics, system of government, or your feelings. They are about God and His church, the body of believers. As judged by that long standing standard the Belhar fails miserably.

 

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