The new issue of the Calvin Seminary Forum has an intriguing dialogue among Calvin faculty about the Christian Reformed Church’s impending vote (2012) on whether to adopt the Belhar Confession as a fourth confession of faith (alongside the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort).
The United Reforming Church in Southern Africa, a denomination of mixed-race and black people, wrote the Belhar in 1986. It is now asking other, predominantly white Reformed denominations to stand with it in its opposition to racism and all forms of injustice.
Everyone agrees that the Belhar eloquently calls for unity, reconciliation, and justice in the church. Everyone also agrees that they would really like to stand with their oppressed brothers and sisters in this common confession. The problem is that the Belhar has problems.
John Bolt’s essay explains that the Belhar doesn’t contain enough gospel. It does not say that forgiveness in Christ is our path to unity, but rather asserts that we will achieve reconciliation when we side with the poor and oppressed. But without the gospel—which is what a church confession must be about—the Belhar leaves us where we are, locked “into the dual categories of oppressor and oppressed, perpetrator and victim, rich and poor, black and white, with no mechanism for rising above them.”
John Cooper observes that the Belhar was drafted by confessional Christians, who understand that social justice is an outworking of the traditional gospel, and progressive Christians (read liberals), who believe that God is redemptively at work even in non-Christian attempts to bring reconciliation. Progressives think that “Sin is whatever human activities impede community, restrict freedom, and cause alienation among God’s creatures,” and “All dynamics that promote liberation, reconciliation, and inclusion of individuals in community are redemptive manifestations of God’s coming kingdom.”
So the confessional Christians who wrote the Belhar believe they are opposing such sins as racism and economic exploitation. The progressive authors would check these and add the sin of opposing homosexual activity, for this needlessly ostracizes and oppresses homosexuals.
Cooper concludes that the Belhar is “clearly ambiguous” and so “it cannot perform an essential function of a confession—to clarify what the church teaches. The Three Forms are clear on what they address. But the Belhar is not clear even on some doctrines necessary for a confessional Reformed perspective on salvation, racism, justice, and reconciliation in church and society.”
It seems to me that the Belhar is a test for the church. Will it soften its commitment to the clarity of the gospel for the lesser good of multi-culturalism? Will we “hear [the Belhar] with our hearts,” as one professor says, or will we read it with our eyes wide open to the dangers this well-intentioned confession represents? Some things are too important to ever be ambiguous about, and I would think that the gospel is at the top of that list.
On a side note, I wonder about the political implications of adopting this confession. The Reformed Church of America recently passed the Belhar with only a 2% majority, so it would be politically difficult to put the Belhar on the same level as the other Three Forms of Unity. I’m assuming that signing it is not yet mandatory, as Kevin DeYoung is still a minister in the RCA. If obliging it does become mandatory, would this confession for unity from South Africa divide the Reformed church in North America?