Adopt the Belhar? Pro & Con [Video]


The following discussion took place on November 3, 2011 at Bethel CRC in Lansing, IL.

Hosted by Classis Illiana, speakers Rev. Peter Borgdorff and Rev. John W. Cooper discuss the pro and con of adopting the Belhar Confession as a fourth confession of the CRCNA. Adoption of the Belhar Confession was proposed by Synod 2009 and is to be decided by Synod 2012. Watch and discuss by adding comments below.

Belhar Discussion - November 3, 2011

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This is quite long (about 90 minutes), and also quite good. Both make compelling cases. Neither questions the theological statements in the Belhar, though Dr. Cooper suggests that some statements (at least) can't stand on their own.

I'm a bit put off by Dr. Bordorf'f's all or nothing' approach, and intrigued by Dr. Cooper's suggestion that we adopt it as a statement of some kind, but not as a confession. I wonder if we could do something like what Dr. Cooper suggests, but make it an extended 'courtship' with the Belhar on the road to considering it as confession, but perhaps along the way realizing that we're 'just friends,' and adopt it as a 'declaration' or a 'testimony.'

I admit that I'm quite partial to the Belhar and agree with it, in as far as it speaks. At the same time, since the way it makes its points are brief, it is possible to interpret it in more than one way -- especially if it is wresteled from it's context of being articulated from within the bounds of the other 3 forms of unity (Heidleberg, Belgic, and Canons of Dort), and from the historical context from which it emerged. But maybe this suggests, to use Cooper's analogy of a confession as a type of Constitution, that this should be seen as a kind of constitutional or confessional 'amendment' (like the U.S. Constitution's 'bill of rights'), adding something that is essential and yet missing from the main body.

I don't think we, as a denomination, are ready to do much of anything official with the Belhar at this point. My guess is that, if Synod of 2012 adopted it as a 'declaration' as Dr. Cooper suggests, it would be filed away and forgotten. That would not do justice to the themes to which it speaks. I would hope that Synod 2012 would ask the churches to continue the discussion and provide some guidance for that discussion by dealing directly with the theological challenges to it (especially the statements on social justice - which, at best, are incomplete, IMHO), and that it instruct denominationa officials to encourage discussion without promoting adoption of it as a confession to the exclusion of considering alternatives, such as those Dr. Cooper suggests.

Finally, I think Dr. Borgdorff misses the point of some who find theological problems in the Belhar itself. While I don't, I know some who do, and could not in good conscience affirm their agreement with it, in signing the form of subscription. Dr. Borgdorff suggests that this should not be a reason for Synod to not adopt the Belhar. I disagree. He is right to suggest that the church should not succumb to threats to leave as a reason to reject something. On the other hand, such might be a good reason to delay action, while greater unity is sought. It's possible that the problem is that further dialog is needed, and it's also possible that there is something that some are seeing that others should see. It would be a mistake to rush into a decision that needs no rush.

By the way, I trust we can all agree that to disagree with the Belhar on some point or points does not make one a racist, or supporter of apartheid, any more than disagreeing with fundamentalists on some point or points makes one a theological liberal.

One more 'by the way:' I was a delegate to Synod 2009 and voted in favor of generating this discussion about adopting the Belhar as a confession by the Synod of 2012. I had hoped that this would generate more discussion than it had, but am pleased with 'balanced' discussions like the one above. It's both healthy and good for the church to wrestle with these things. Even if we decide not to adopt the Belhar we will still have a great discussion on the nature of a confession and the essential theological themes the Behlar contains and articulates so succinctly.

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I just listened to this debate/discussion this evening. One of the things that particularly caught my attention was Peter Borgdorff's recitation of the supposed parallelisms between South African and American racial issues.  The one point I didn't buy too much on that, was that the 1960's represented a time when both race issues and apartheid issues came to the political fore in both countries. Well, the US fought a Civil War over this in the mid-1800's, so its a bit of a stretch to say there was a 1960's parallel.

But my question: does anyone know anything about connection between the "American Reformed Churches" (CRC included) and South African apartheid?  Or, for that matter, between the "American Reformed Churches" and slavery or racial oppression in the United States?

I ask for this reason.  If the CRC were complicit in any way, or even supportive of in any way, apartheid in S Africa, or slavery or racial oppression in the US, I would see reason for the CRC to now "say something about that" (although not necessarily by adopting the Belhar).  But the reason I haven't thought of that before is because I don't know of a connection between the CRC, institutionally or as a practical matter among its members, and either apartheid or racial oppression in the US.  Still, my not knowing doesn't make so.  Thus, my asking for info from others.


It's difficult to find much specifically about the CRC's response to slavery in the mid 1800's, since most of the official stuff from that era is in Dutch.

However, I seem to remember studying something about that in CRC Church history at CTS, and that there was some ambivalence (at least) about being anti-slavery, given that the Bible does not condemn it, but rather seems to regulate it. But that is not the same as saying the CRC were racists, since slavery itself was not inherently racist until the slave trade movements of the 1700's, ff. There were, we know, many Dutch ships involved in the slave trade. How many of them were also faithful members of Reformed churches in the Netherlands, we might not be able to know.

The civil rights movement of the 60's was explicitly a racial issue, where the civil war was initially primarily about states rights, and specifically the right of a state to cecede from the union. By the time of the civil war the precipitating (but not the only) issue was slavery, and the cause of freeing slaves was used by unionists to enlist support for the war. But the civil rights movement was primarily about removing cultural stratification between whites and blacks, where blacks were explicitly and by law second class citizens. King championed a non-violent approach to the problem and won the day, but not without being the target of violence himself, as well as many involved in that movement (some whites, but mostly blacks).

The Southern U.S. had a 'way of life' in the South that paralleled Apartheid in many ways.

The CRC generally was on the side of equality in the 60's, though it was nervous about the civil rights movement. I'm not aware of any explicit statements opposing the movement, but neither am I aware of any statements in favor of it either. Maybe I'm just out of touch. It's not an area of CRC history I've studied.

If the CRC wants to adopt the Belhar as simply a way of 'saying something about that,' we could probably just say something in our own words. But I don't think that's what we're looking at here. The Belhar says that the matters with which it deals have a status confessionis, that is, these things are matters essential to faithfully living out the Christian life. As such, we should consider them at that level.

The debate we're in is mostly about whether the Belhar does that adequately, and whether it's statements are clear enough, without being subject to obvious misinterpretation. Some in our denomination actually do object to the content and want to challenge it as being unbibilical at points. So far, we have not dealt specifically with these theological challenges. Personally, I think the Belhar is Biblically sound, but as long as there is still a debate about that soundness going on, it would be premature (at best) to adopt it now in any form. A second question is whether these matters rise to the level of status confessionis. That would make a great study committee. A third question is whether this confession is one we should adopt. While I think we should adopt it, eventually, I think we need to do the other two steps first.