I first read the Belhar Confession when our family was serving with Christian Reformed World Missions in Venezuela between 1984 and 1986. I don’t know how often I’ve read it since then, but it has always been with appreciation and gratitude to the South Africans for presenting this on both their and the larger community of Reformed churches’ tables over the years. The Belhar echoed deeply and harmoniously in the atmosphere in Latin America then. Its main theme of reconciliation in Christ reaches far more deeply into cross-cultural relationships between developed and developing world Christians than its flashpoint theme of apartheid. The Belhar gained attention in many Latin American ecclesiastical bodies and local congregations for its bold biblically resonant address to gospel-related social issues. Not all agreed; but all did benefit from being exposed to it.
So, I was pleased to see Belhar gradually find (some would say worm) its way into the minds and hearts of many Christian Reformed people over the better part of the last decade. I took part in round table discussions both locally and regionally about the Belhar long before it was officially placed on synod’s agenda by Ecumenical and Inter-Church Relations Committee in recent years.
Belhar has now officially toured the denomination for three years before this synod’s official discussion. In 2012 it reached the agenda prematurely via an overture from Classis Niagara; that overture was thoroughly reworked this year and appears as Overture 27 in this year’s printed Agenda. In all 35 overtures from classes, a few churches and individuals address Belhar this year, with one more published in the recently posted Supplement.
The overtures display a wide range of well-argued thought surrounding Belhar. There does not seem to be any clear line-up of opinion following geographical lines within the CRC. The positions argued are literally “all over the map.” Three classes support it as a fourth confession. Ten overtures propose adopting it as a “Testimony,” in the same category with Our World Belongs to God. Fifteen overtures advocate not adopting the Belhar as a confession, with several not wishing it to be a part of CRC documentation at all. Two classes and one congregation propose delaying decision on Belhar, offering different means for continuing discussion: recommit to the churches or appoint a study committee. The remaining overtures take slightly different tacks in the confessional wind by wishing to appreciate the Belhar without adopting it or consider a new category of confessional conversation in which to place it.
All that could lead one to consider that synods debate could deteriorate into Belhar confusion.
What route, if any, will the CRC take? I am not a prophet, but only the son of an accountant. So, I will not predict an outcome. But I will be bold to suggest that the following process will unfold: the advisory committee will consider all the overtures. It will consider dividing into minority and majority, one favouring dismissal of Belhar, another (which, I dare not say) opting for adoption as a testimony. Rumours will percolate during coffee and meal breaks. After several days, the committee will present a unified report (again, I won’t say for which option). There will be no big surprise, but no one will have won. There will be relief, but not great satisfaction. There will be thanks for a long, interesting and not totally predictable debate. The delegates will thank God for wisdom granted, for thorough discussion—and return home united, respected and respectful, if not homogeneous.
And what will the rest of the Reformed churches hear, think and say after our decision?