The Love of God in Belhar?

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What is your church doing with the Belhar Confession? Synod 2009 has recommended that the CRC adopt it as a fourth confession and thus has promoted a three-year process of discussion around the denomination. All that arose after a well-led and participated series of round tables led by the Ecumenical Relations Committee throughout the denomination in the year or more leading up to Synod 2009’s recommendation.

Funny thing, though—after a flurry of presentations around many (probably all by now) classes by members of the Ecumenical Relations Committee; and despite a pretty well-built webpage with resources to discuss the confession, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of public conversation.

This IS important—isn’t it???? Are we quiet about this because we’re thinking? Or are we quiet about it because we’re not really engaging in the discussion except to say we’re “fer it or agin it”? I pray it’s not the latter, because this IS important.

Is your church doing anything to take part in this conversation? A relative's church council looked at the Belhar over the course of a few meetings, but didn't use outside resources to structure that study. A synodical office staff member recently mentioned that requests for Belhar study resources are not what they thought they'd be at this point--even though they've been promoted in a variety of ways (including a flyer and copy of the devotional mailed to every church).

My congregation hasn’t done much with Belhar yet, but we are requesting to Classis Niagara this Wednesday, February 20, that we engage in a “circle discussion” led by members of CRCs from Classes Toronto and Quinte. The idea of this kind of conversation is that, as all are seated in a circle, everyone respond to a series of questions that do NOT pounce on the end issue of whether or not we should adopt Belhar; that seems antagonistic and not a healthy way of facing the real issue at hand. Rather the proposed conversation deals with the question of the importance and need of the doctrines and teachings of the Belhar: “How do you respond to the need for racial reconciliation as expressed in the Belhar?”

OK—today is Valentine’s Day, a day to celebrate love. Doesn’t the best and truest of all love come from God? Can we talk about the love and reconciliation from God among races within the framework of Belhar? Let’s see if we can get some healthy discussion going on this—maybe in a forum, in comments, certainly within our congregations. A video trailer for the resources, plus other links are available at our main Belhar page.

What is YOUR church doing to study The Belhar?

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All Nations has an "interim" term between 2 "semesters" of Sunday School in which the high school and adult SS classes join in one class.  So, we have a 5 week period and are using the Belhar materials (DVD and study guide) for this combined class.  Attendance in the class has been about 20 +/-, but the time limit of a Sunday morning class slot (about 45-50 minutes) has been limiting.  The material has more good questions to chew on than we have time.  So far, we are saving the "yes/no" discussion until the final class.  I'm also trying to avoid the 50 minute monologue of a retired prof.  :-)

Participant

Here are my reflections on the round table discussions that were brought to our area.  They were really not discussions of pros and cons but a presentation in favour of adopting it.  Everyone I talked with afterward said these were "Belhar promotional events" and not a discussion that helped them a whole lot.  This was especially true for those who had already been wrestling with this document.  In our church context I have not come across anyone who disagrees with the basic thrust of the document as to unity and justice and the sin of racism and whatnot, but many are wondering about making it a confessional statment.  There are a few lines in the document that would need re-wording or clarification.  And it does not strike people to be of the same type as our confessions, even if they can't put their finger on it.  Most feel it reads like Our World Belongs to God. 

Since these presentatons came across as promotional events I wonder if  the congregants get the feeling they aren't really being asked their input but are being sold something that they can buy into or not.  Perhaps that fuels the lack of discussion on this document.  Add to that the reality that it is difficult to speak against such a document without others pigeon holing you as a racist or simply negative to all things new.  The default them becomes to remain silent. 

My concern in such a context is that if this becomes a confessional standard in the CRC, and those serving in ecclesiastical office have in silence disagreed with the document, they will simply carry on and ignore it completely.  (We are after all, west of the Rockies in Canada and there is a tendency to ignore what happens out east in the Grand Rapids anyway.)  I worry that a document promoting unity will result in either further indifference to the Confessions or simply more disunity. 

I was a delegate to the "plague" Synod of 2009 (because we all got sick :) where this was first approved by Synod to propose as a new confession.  There was much pressuring going on emotionally to be in favour of it and not a whole lot of discussion of the problem parts of the document.  It seemed at times that the primary discussion was how not to offend anyone and how this document will keep us from sinning futher in specific areas, neither or which were very helpful discussions.  I am glad for our practice of giving time between Synods to let the churches discuss and wrestle with this document.  I am not so sure the denominational leaders have done a very helpful job as yet in letting people actually tussle with their difficulties, at least not in the presentations I have seen or others from my congregation have attended. 

Our Council has had some preliminary discussions of Belhar and we are planning to discuss it at our Spring congregational meeting in some way.  My intention is to make sure the pros and cons are laid out as clearly as possible and then encourage people to seek the Lord in prayer for a time for discernment and a decision. 

Participant

Yes, we're avoiding it because we have enough controversy to deal with, and have dealt with enough controversy over the first attempt to change the form of subscription. Right now it is nowhere near our agenda, and that has to do with the place where we are at as a congregation, receiving a number of members who are returning to the CRC from the URC and Canadian Reformed churches. Personally, I cannot endorse the Belhar on the confessional level, although I can tolerate it or subscribe "quatenus," i.e. to the extent that it agrees with the word of God, with my fingers slightly crossed. We as a congregation are not studying it because we are still struggling with women officebearers and a growing controversy related to our safe church policy, and we are very shy of division at this moment. And personally, at this moment I do not have the desire or the spiritual-emotional energy to debate it, because my self-differentiation will go right out the window. I look forward to John Cooper's response to Peter Borgdorf in the next CTS Forum. My perspective is the same as Kevin DeYoung of the RCA:

http://www.rca.org/Page.aspx?pid=6245

Jim, your correct to point out the need for conversation on Belhar but the conversation is bigger than that . When I read Randy's post which linked to Kevin DeYoung  comments in the Perspective, I changed my mind on Belhar. It is causing to much division in the polity. Like Randy mentions in his post our church is still caught up with woman leadership. I wish it were not  true but that is reality. I am willing to sacrifice my personal beliefs to remain in said polity. Maybe later I hope we could come to a unified agreement on what Christ intended. But some how we must stop the fracturing. The fracturing Church is definitely not according to God word no matter how you think about it.

Ken

I think Randy's and Ken's comments are very appropriate and relevant.  And Colin's comments also.   Is the Belhar important?   No, not really.   Not in our context.   It was born of a different need, and speaks to a different ethos.   And it is being manipulated towards a different agenda.   We will not be better for adopting it, and will not be worse for not adopting it.   As Colin said, "they will simply carry on and ignore it completely".  

We need to obey the important commandments, including to love our neighbor as ourself.   This is much more inclusive, and in a much better context than the Belhar, if it is preached properly.  

Community Builder

I'm leaning towards disagreeing with John and others on this. After having studied the Belhar and having led our congregation through it in sermons and in Council and other places, I'm left with the conclusion that the Belhar is very relevant to our Canadian and American contexts. Racial issues and social justice issues are huge for us. In Canada I think we have a tendency to say that we don't really have a problem regarding race, but I beg to differ. Where are the First Nations people in our churches? There are some areas in Canada where some First Nations people are present, but by and large First Nations peoples are still marginalized to a tremendous degree. They have poorer life expectancy, poorer educational and financial prospects, greater problems with drugs and alcohol and crime. Certainly they, like anyone else bear their burden of responsibility for their actions, but the fact is that the system here is broken and the church has not been a significant positive contributor to any solutions here.

I would venture to say that the problem is one that needs to be brought into great relief in our churches, and that the Belhar addresses these issues well. It would be extremely relevant to our congregation, classis, and denomination, I believe. 

Having said that, we haven't had to deal with the "controversy" that others are mentioning here. When we went through the Belhar together, no one seemed to have issues with it, that I was aware of, and the few comments that I have had since then expressing some concern have all been mild and easily dealt with. I'm very aware that heaping fuel on fires of controversy that may be present in other churches might indeed be unwise. That's why I'm only "leaning" toward disagreeing with the others.

All the same, I do believe that, if possible (using pastoral discernment), a discussion on the Belhar is important for us to have as a denomination.

Blessings all,

 

in His service,

Dan.

Daniel, I appreciate your disagreement because I can sense it comes from good motives.   However, perhaps our media and popular perception of race seems to color our perspective too much.   Think about this.  You asked about our approach to aboriginals?   I will ask how does our approach to Aboriginals compare to our approach to Italians, to Ukranians, to Germans, to Russians, to Hutterites or Amish, or to Norwegians?  

I maintain that it is not a race thing, but a love thing.   Perhaps we have defined our neighbor as narrowly as the pharisees, sometimes, in order to avoid the commandment to love.

If we were worried about race, we would get confused.   If we help the needy and treat all people as people, then we will be less confused. 

In our church, we have a number of aboriginal children, either adopted or foster children.   But we didn't do that because of some race issue, we do that because they need help and we have decided to help whoever needs it, within our capacity.   

The Belhar would be an entire waste of time for our congregation, and would divert us from the real opportunities for ministering to others. 

Community Builder

John,

Thanks for your response. I also appreciate your responses thus far, as I know that your concern is for the wellbeing of the church and, more importantly, for us to fulfill the command to Love.

I would certainly agree that at heart it is a love issue. Unfortunately, I think that our heart issues with love are sometimes most clearly seen when we take a good hard look at the "symptoms" of those heart issues. If you use a sickness metaphor, we often know we have a cold because our nose starts running, or we get a fever or whatever. But what happens if the symptoms are such that we either don't notice them, or cover over them with "medicine" that only masks the sickness. That is what I feel we have done with regards to love AND race. We have, in Canada at least, often pretended that there is no problem at all. That there is no sickness, and we ignore the symptoms of our sickness. In addition, the sad truth is that we DO treat different races in our countries differently. Why else would it be that some segments of our population have such radically different health, education, and wealth demographics? It's certainly not that those people are less gifted by God (not that you're implying that, of course). The fact is that there exist among us systemic, and societal, and personal racial issues.

An example that really struck me once was one that I experience when living in the U.S. for a brief time. When we lived there we were invited to a "block party". We thought that this would be a great experience. We were living in a primarily African American & Latino neighbourhood, and, having come from primarily white Peterborough, we assumed that our children would have the opportunity to meet and be friends with people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. That was exciting to us. However, when we got there we found that ALL of the people there were white. After digging around a bit (discreetly) we found that the "block party" was sponsored by the neighbourhood homeowners' association. Thus, all the people invited were homeowners. The fact that none (or very few) of the African Americans or Latinos owned the homes in which they lived in that neighbourhood meant that none of them were invited to the block party. It got me thinking about how, in Canada, it's not even so much that we (unintentionally or otherwise) exclude aboriginals from things like block parties--we still all have the complicated baggage of how to deal with the "reservation" system and what was (and still is to some degree) essentially apartheid.

Now don't get me wrong. None of the people in the homeowner's association meant to be racist. For all intents and purposes they were not racist at all, in fact. BUT due to various systemic and societal things the majority of the people living in the neighbourhood were not invited, and NONE of the homeowners thought about changing the situation. The exclusion of two races who were the majority of the people in the neighbourhood was a symptom of a heart and societal issue that needed to be addressed. The Belhar has value at least (but I think more) insofar as it points out those symptoms, and directs us to the true sickness.

Those symptoms include (but are not limited to) race relations. We do marginalize certain segments of our own populations (or of the world's population), and then we turn around and ignore the very things that we're doing and pretend we don't have a problem. It would be like us all having a fever and pretending we didn't (let alone acknowledging that there must be some sickness driving the fever in the first place).

The Belhar helps us to give our heads a shake, by pointing out to us some of the symptoms that point to our sickness. To that extent I believe it is very important for us--it doesn't give us the option of pretending we don't have a fever. 

But I don't believe that it serves only that purpose. My reading of the Belhar is that it DOES go beyond just simply race, gender and/or social justice issues--that it clearly and explicitly points us to the very points you're making about the critical importance of loving our neighbours (wherever and whoever they are). 

Good point about block parties, Dan.   But I'm not sure the Belhar would solve that one.  The other thing is that much of the race issues you mentioned are political.   The reason that aboriginals in Canada are treated differently is because of constitutional issues, and that they want to be treated differently;  they want to maintain treaty rights and self-government based on race.  

At a personal level however, if you believe all peoples are the same before God, then you will act accordingly.   If we only concentrate on race, rather than on people, we will become reverse racists, which is still racism.   We will pay more attention to those with different colors of skin, than to those who have the same color of skin but different nationalities and languages.   Are we less racist if we help out the blacks vs the latinos?   Or help out the yellow skins vs the white russians? 

It is better just to look around and see who needs help, to whom you can witness, and then help and witness, rather than looking for or concentrating only on a different race, whatever that is. 

The Belhar is driven by race issues, and most of the language is colored by the baggage of that issue.   Periferally attached are other issues, but the language of social justice is not attached to a scriptural sense of justice as much as a system of rights, and now the Belhar is being used by some to condemn discrimination of any kind, even when the discrimination is based on moral and scriptural guidelines. 

Perhaps the Belhar does not serve any purpose whatsoever, and is distracting from real effort and Christian living by making a discussion out of it, rather than people paying attention to scripture and loving their neighbor.   I've wondered if the church seriously considered as a whole, making a mission effort out of adopting abandoned children and being foster parents to needy children, how much more success and obedience they would exhibit, than adopting a political statement like the Belhar, and then go on living much like they did before, aside from possibly writing a few political letters about equality, which minimizes and distracts from their personal involvement. 

Community Builder

John,

Thanks again for the response. Just to clarify, I don't believe that the Belhar in and of itself can solve anything. However, I do believe that it points us to our need as individuals and churches and societies to deal with those kinds of issues--issues that otherwise may go unnoticed. I'm fully aware that many of the race issues that I mention are political. I don't see that that makes any difference. I hate to pull the Kuiper card here, but don't we agree and believe that "there is not a square inch of this earth over which Christ does not stand and say 'It is mine!'"? Politics is just as much an area for church and confessional involvement than any other sphere of human existence, in my opinion (and, I think also in good reformed tradition and understanding as well in most circles).

As to constitutional rights and differences, I would agree that, generally speaking, first nations people want "different" treatment than others in Canada. However, I don't think any of that difference extends to them not wanting as many educational opportunities, health care options, etc. First nations folks here in Canada, when we listen to them carefully, really only want (again generally speaking) the land claims and treaty rights and self-governance rights that WE agreed to long, long ago. They're not, for the most part, being unreasonable (any more than the rest of us are unreasonable about other things). Even so, the Belhar helps to point the church in the direction of doing something about the injustices that various people DO in fact face due to the colour of their skin, or the difference of their gender or cultural heritage. I maintain that these are important for the church to address within our own ranks and in the larger society. The biblical call for justice is not just one for personal justice (ie, person-to-person) but also one of national and cultural justice. Just look at the minor prophets (especially Amos--I love Amos). He holds up the mirror to society not just in terms of how they treat their own poor, but also in terms of how they treat the foreigner in the land. 

I would agree with you wholeheartedly when you say that "if we only concentrate on race...we will become reverse racists, which is still racism." I don't think the Belhar heads us in that direction though. On the contrary, it firmly heads us in the direction of treating all people as "people" rather than races exactly as you claim to want. I don't think the Belhar leads us into thinking about helping the black vs. the latinos or any other such nonsense.

Again, I think I would have to disagree with you about the Belhar not being attached to a biblical sense of justice. My reading of it seems to indicate that it is very well rooted to biblical principles. Also, I don't see the fact that the Belhar is rooted in the church's response to racial issues as being a problem. The Belgic Confession was rooted in an attempt to free reformed people from political oppression (strikingly similar in some ways to the attempt to free blacks from political oppression in South Africa, I think), but we don't throw that confession away because of it's political roots, do we? 

As to the Belhar being used to condemn even "biblical discrimination" (although I'm not sure what you mean there). That of course, is a misuse of any of the confessions. Ultimately the creeds and confessions are there to point us back to the Bible. If we believe what the confessions say, we must believe them because they truly reflect what scriptures say. If they don't do that, then I would agree, why bother with the Belhar? Or any other confession for that matter. I married a Baptist woman (she's thankfully seen the light since then! ;-) ), and one of her greatest issues with growing up amongst Reformed people was that she would sit down with them for a faith debate and she would talk about the Bible and they would talk about the Heidelberg Catechism. The creeds and confessions are not weapons to use against each other but helpful summaries and challenges to our "normal" ways of thinking. We must not rely on them to condemn behaviours in and of themselves, but must allow them to point us back to scripture always.

That being said, however, if the confession points to an issue, accurately understood scripturally, then all the better! If the bible truly condemns discrimination in many forms then so should we! 

As to your last point about maybe the Belhar encouraging a few to write political letters which "minimize and distracts from their personal involvement." I don't see how you can say that at all. Many of the people that I know who are most involved politically in justice issues are also most personally involved in these things. Take a look at the group here in Canada, Citizens for Public Justice. They lobby the government here regarding social justice issues on a regular basis, and it doesn't seem to me that their involvement in that way necessarily negates their personal involvement in social justice issues in their own lives.

Besides, the implication you've thrown out there is one that puts up a false dichotomy. You seem to be essentially saying, "It's EITHER you fight injustice on a personal, individual level, OR you fight injustice politically and corporately." That's malarkey, and I'm sure you know it. 

Sorry to end on a harsh note like that, and I do love the idea of the church concentrating more on mission (amen to that), but I just don't see that it has to be either/or.

To keep this a bit shorter I will try to be more concise: 

God's sovereignty over this world includes politics, but I do not think confessions should be political statements.

Dan, it was previous generations that made the treaties, and for most Canadians, it was not our ancestors (nor WE) that made them.   In the days when some of those treaties were made, France and England and Spain were exchanging lands between themselves like they were poker chips. 

The political oppression of the reformed peoples was based on religion, not on race, and thus the confession to explain that religion was appropriate.   Interesting how the reformed peoples also oppressed the anabaptists, and included statements within the confessions to seemingly justify that oppression. 

I agree that the confessions should be appropriately used.   Therefore we should not have too many of them to distract us from scripture. 

I have no difficulty with political letters and supporting political causes.   And you are right, you can do both.   And if we were living in an apartheid system, or a slave society perhaps the political approach would be most appropriate.  However, our constitution, labor practices, public policy do not support, and rather condemn racism and discrimination already.   So it is at the personal level that we will have the most impact.   The Belhar is like DonQuixote fighting imaginary windmills.  

Again, rather than spend endless reams of paper on someone else's confession, why don't people put their money where their mouth is, and each family  befriend, assist and/or protect a needy person or persons irrespective of race: some person or persons who are from a different culture, national heritage, ancestry, language.   And in particular, volunteer to be a foster parent, or adopt one or two children.   You will be amazed at how meaningless the Belhar becomes in that situation. 

 

 

John, you have no moral authoritty from the Bible to discriminate against people period.  God is the judge.  Social justice is about reconcilation and restoration of shalom (peace). Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor which means treating people around you the way you treat your family. We all fall pretty short don't we? That is why God gave us Grace, so none of us earned it or deserves salvation. That's where you start when  you start thinking about these issue;s. If you were part of a oppressed  group of people based on something you can due nothing about, how would you want to be treated? Remember John, we are no better than any of them including those that murder when it comes to sin.

Thanks

Ken

Ken, I do believe your understanding of discrimination is different than scripture.   The Psalms often talk about the wicked and the righteous, and the new testament advises to have nothing to do with certain people who cause dissensions.  We may differ in judgement about who fits into what category, but that type of discrimination is what I call scriptural discrimination.   Although there is always a desire and an opportunity to love people, there is also a need to discriminate in some cases based on actions and beliefs.  We would not permit a buddhist to become an elder in our church, for example.   This has nothing to do with us being better than buddhists. 

John, I understand scripture. No one is righteous with out going thru Jesus. That goes for all mankind that have ever lived. There is perfection of God and sin of mankind. It's pretty easy to figure out scripture when Christ summerized the law and sacrificed Himself for our chance at eternal life. John,  I need Jesus to survive in my present state. I'm a constant sinner so I don't feel a strong urge to judge people. I feels pretty good.

Thanks, John for your clariifcation. I understand what your saying, But were not talking about worship with them. We are trying to get them to see our love as Christ did. He was there with them communicating a message hope, freedom from bondage of the mind. His approach was as if everyone was equally falling short.  John, I know you know this but the real reason  is  discrimination works against our goal to reach out to these very obnoxious, sinfull people because that's part of the Great Commission. We do want to worship with them if they are willing to worship the one true God. John, your correct about being lead in worship by a buddhist but we always need to keep in mind that on God's ledger we all are in the red.

Thanks John for listening,

Ken

There are two types of discrimination, Ken.   One is based on outward appearances.  The other is based on actions that come from the heart.   Jesus pointed out that the sheep would be separated from the goats, and the wheat from the weeds.  But I do agree that we do not have all the answers, nor can we see into the eye of the heart, and therefore we follow Jesus example to love all those who would be loved.   However, when people use this non-discrimination policy to assume that Christians should not discriminate in their lives about how they live, or about which lifestyles they approve then that is a perversion of scripture.   Even though we are all in the red, yes, that does not justify ignoring sin in our own lives, nor should we act as if we have no responsibility to speak against sin.   If we ignore sin, then we are reducing God's claim on our lives.  If we use the excuse of non-discrimination to reduce the significance of sinful lifestyles, then we are being phony.   For after all, if sinful lifestyles do not demand require change or approbation, then why are we worried about discrimination as a sin?   Racial discrimination is not the only sin.  

 John, how did we get from the Belhar to we are ignoring sin?

Thanks, Ken

I've stayed out of this exchange for awhile, in part because I found the initial comments in this thread moderately depressing and requiring a response beyond my time limits to create.  Thanks to Dan for coming in and offering a response that fits my perspective.  The Belhar Confession offers us an opportunity to formally incorporate broad themes of unity, justice and reconciliation that will challenge us in our denominational, congregational and personal expressions of our faith in Christ.

The discussion thread also highlghted for me the broad continuum of individual church experience.  The contextual issues mentioned earlier in this thread (other division/fractures) are not adequate reasons for setting aside the Belhar Confession.  If these contextual issues remain salient for those attending a future Synod, it will be a painful discussion.

We don't have to set it aside.   We do not have to adopt it.  We do not have to claim it as ours. 

We need more action, less talk.  Belhar is talk.  The command to love our neighbors, to realize there is neither Jew nor Greek, has been around for 2000 years.  It has been preached, discussed, dissected.   If you really do it, then Belhar will become irrelevant.   If scripture does not speak to you, then it is not likely that the Belhar will. 

Hi Dale , I'm glad you joined in. When I made my first comment about not adopting the Belhar it's not because the Belhar is the problem. I confess all day about so many issue's in my life I have no problem with the Belhar. 

  I believe the conversation is much bigger than simply race  discrimination that the Belhar seeks reconciliation. We need to flush out  our understanding of Christ's intentions in how  we interact with the secular world. We need better understanding on how each of us as believer's in Christ  fullfill our calling from the Lord.

  I am willing like I said before, to forgo my understanding for the sake of those that haven't  accepted these belief's in the hope that we all can change. Were talking about good people with different type's of faith. It is not worth divsion of the church.

   Thanks Dale, I fully understand where you are coming from. God bless you my friend!

Ken

Community Builder

Well, friends, thanks to all for this continuing growing conversation. There is engagement here--even though only five or six different people have posted on it. It looks from my count that I see on my Guide's Page that 460 people have read this in just over a week. Hardly viral (which is "sick"!), but rather healthy.

Now I'll dip my oar in again. Aren't oars supposed to guide boats?! And I'm a guide after all. So here's my dip:

I'm seeing a few interesting things in this discussion. It reminds me of synod conversations and debates that tend to drift and sway in several always interesting, if not pertinent, directions. First of all, there are several different viewpoints about the content and place of Belhar. That doesn't surprise me. But what does surprise me are the distractions we are experiencing even in our small dialogues from what I think are the central points of the Belhar discussion. I am fully in sympathy with Randy Blacketer's sense of current limitation because of local stresses and problems, but that is not everyone's case--and besides, the rest of us have to pray for congregations and leaders dealing with such stresses that can pull us away from deeper gospel work and life.

A few folks have commented that Belhar doesn't have anything to do with their congregation. Others have looked more broadly and said that the issues go far beyond a given congregation's ministry or limits. That's heading in the right direction. Belhar is NOT merely a congregational issue. It is a covenantal and ecumenical issue that surely has to bear on attitudes that affect in some way of other all congregations--unless yours is a perfect one, perfectly and completely reconciled to God in all forms. Mine isn't. Nor am I perfectly reconciled to God--except through the work of Jesus, but I don't always show that perfectly. Just ask my wife and kids. No; don't, please.

Although ever more we Christian Reformed folk are acting and living congregationally, it is extremely important from a communal and covenantal perspective to think, live, pray and fellowship beyond the hopes and limits of our local, even regional and national areas of ministry and interest. A few blogs ago I confessed to the racism that was part of the air I breathed in my birth community in Chicago.  Apartheid was happening right there in Roseland and Englewood neighbourhoods and I was part of it.

Maybe if something like Belhar had been on our confessional and ecclesiastical radar, there would have been some kind of ethical, spiritual and moral impact on our lives, churches and communities. Instead, in the space of seven years six Christian Reformed congregations fled Englewood and Roseland for the southern and western suburbs of Chicago. Now some of those suburbs are "turning black." Guess what? Some of those suburban churches are now fleeing to northwest Indiana to whiter pastures. Apartheid in North America, not racial reconciliation. Belhar speaks to that. 

Furthermore, Belhar offers us an opportunity to embrace a timely, passionate contribution to the ministry of reconciliation that originates with people who might have left Reformed fellowships in South Africa, but--unlike our white Chicago CRCs--chose to stay. Some say Belhar is not a comprehensive gospel statement. Neither are the Canons of Dort. But I can still preach on 'em (carefully, with limitations of time) and do. I'd love to be able to preach on Belhar, not because it's Belhar, but because it's profoundly biblically based and contextually fruitful--kinda like the Apostles' Creed, Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed and Heidelberg Catechism were, as is Our World Belongs to God today.

We are members of a local, regional, national and international body called the church and can be enriched by the sufferings and lessons of our sisters and brothers. I will never forget hearing from a Lebanese Christian who was listening to the BBC World Service as the bombs were falling one Sunday morning in Beirut. He had tuned into the regular Sunday morning worship at an unnamed Anglican congregation in England. During the prayers of intercession, the leader lifted up to God "our brothers and sisters in Beirut." For a moment the Lebanese heard no more bombs and shelling. He heard only the voice of God: "I am with you."

Belhar gives us a chance for the Lord to be with us in the voice of people whose voices we need to hear and give thanks to God for.

Well, if this sounds like a sermon, that's what it is. It's Sunday, after all!

Keep writing, thinking, praying, confessing, thanking God.

I'm going on two weeks of holidays, but will probably check in on the Network now and again. Blessings. 

The Belhar will not change churches moving to different places, unless the churches have a mission to reach others.  If they do have a mission to reach others, the Belhar will not be necessary.   I think if preachers lack the courage to preach scripture, or to live from scripture, and if people consider their wealth and comfort more important that their neighbors, then they are not listening to scripture.   If they do not listen to scripture, why in the world would they ever listen to the Belhar?   That logic escapes me. 

 

I'm very surprised that you feel that you cannot preach on the Belhar merely because it is not in the back of the hymnal.   It is not really the belhar that should be preached on anyway, but certainly if the themes are valid and the principles are scriptural what would be stopping you from preaching on those themes or applying scripture in a practical way? 

 

Other confessions were born out of life and death issues, usually in great turmoil, persecution, and earth-shaking times.   The Belhar comes at a time when most of the principles it espouses are already supported by laws of our countries.    The adoption of the Belhar is more of a whitewash over our own actions and attitudes.   It is a way of looking good, rather than being good.  And because it follows society, rather than leading it, our motives are suspect.   And because it follows society, it will have a tendency to follow society down the broad path to destruction, rather than following Christ down the narrow path to God's will.   

One other thought:   What is our great concern with empathizing with people in south africa, if we do not first have concern with our own motives with regard to our very neighbors.   Is it easier to claim we believe what they believe as long as they live far away, but if we had to apply this to our everyday lives, particularly from a misssional perspective, then we would change the subject? 

I have had one son and his wife adopt a child from Haiti, another son and wife adopt three boys from Russia, and we adopted an aboriginal child.   There are others who have done similar things both in the CRC and in many other denominations.   This was not because of the Belhar, or adopting some other foreign testimony or confession, but because of understanding God's call to us to be a witness, to demonstrate Christ's love, which scipture is clear on.   Perhaps convicted thru preaching, or thru bible study, or thru personal devotions and prayer.  

It is good to talk about these things, but not under the cover of adopting a piece of paper, when instead we should be adopting real people.  

John, I don't see a lot of empathy in your comments.How can your argue the need for emphasis on missions and loving your neighbor when you can't  see a need for statements of confession in the modern context. I don't buy the no talk just action because you know every thing that is done without love is nothing in God's Eye's. Your casting out comments that reflect a deep uneasiness about politic's being the driving force behind the Belhar. Their are a lot of people that don;t see this because they are speaking from their hearts not minds. I like your fervor for the Church  and I am going to stay with you on these topic's because John you are my brother in spite of your opinion that I don't understand scripture. You are important to me and the church body. As a fellow traveler on this journey of life we are not that far apart.

Thanks John,

Ken

I appreciate your comments, Ken.   As far as empathy goes, hmm, I do.  That's why I think action matters more than words.   To love is to do.  To do, without love is yes, nothing.   To say you love, but not demonstrate it by your actions, is falsehood and empty.  Don't you think? 

If  I implied that you don't understand scripture, then I apologize for that misunderstanding. 

Thanks John, I am hoping my comments show we can love in disagreement. I am hoping the actions of containing my ego would speak to the issue at hand. Either way John, Thankyou for listening and showing you care.

God bless you

Ken

Participant

Interesting reading all these comments.  A few more reflections on adopting the Belhar ... at the 2009 Synod discussions on this it was pointed out that one of the reasons that we should adopt it is that it has been given to us as a gift and we can't say no to a gift.  It is certainly rude to turn down a well meaning gift.  However, since a confession of faith seems to me to have to be something that comes from the person or congregation or denomination confessing it, then this document should be re-written to reflect our particular situation in the CRC perhaps reflecting such things as mentioned in the previous comments.  Our present confessions arose in the context of the congregations dealing with those situations.  I think it would be different if we were coming out of a similar aparthied situation here or something, but our issues, though some racially driven, are not the same context.  I guess I wonder why in the CRC, who can produce some very helpful study reports, cannot accept the Belhar as impetus to write a new confession of faith that would incorporate the good themes highlighted by the Belhar.  I wonder why, if we need to adopt the Belhar out of respect for ecumenical relations (a theme repeated at the Synod discussions) that we do not also adopt the other main Reformed confessions: The Westminster Confession and Catechism, the Scots Confession, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Theological Declaration of Barmen; the Gallic Confession and so forth?  It seems first up would be the Westminster confession.  I suspect that one of the reasons we do not is because themes in those other Reformed Confessions are already covered in the Three Forms of Unity.  And if the Belhar has new themes from Scripture that are missing in our confessions some how, then let's write a new confession or apend what is missing to our present ones.  I can see no reason to not simply add a few more articles to the Belgic Confession that address the  justice and shalom issues present in Scripture.  I have difficulty with the unwillingness of our denomination to update its confessions.  The reason has been that we should not mess with an historical document.  However that approach also lends creedance to the reality that their meaningfulness is also tied to a receeding historical era, one that we are less and less connected to as we enter a post-Christendom context.  And with that unwillingness to update a document once accepted still in place, adopting the Belhar will mean that once in place, we can't do anything about its flaws or need of a further edit etc.  I still would rather accept it, with some initial editing for clarification, as a second Testimony or position statement.  We seem way more comfortable updating our testimony than our confession, so let's put it there for now. 

Colin

Good comments, Colin.   As to a gift.... when someone gifts you a book, you will probably keep it, but you don't have to put in on your night-table.   And if someone gifts you a hymnal, that doesn't mean that you have to replace your own hymnal, or purchase copies of the gift to sit side by side with your own.  This Belhar can be received, appreciated, etc., without making it another form of governance for us. 

Not to change directions so much,

but for a long time I've been wondering,

if the CRC would spend just a fraction of the time that we have spent studying and talking about the Belhar confession, on studying and talking about Isaiah and Amos, wouldn't we be further ahead on both issues of social justice and our awareness of Scripture?  I feel like this denomination places less and less emphasis on Scripture.  What happened to Sola Scriptura? What happened to our history of being people of the Book?  Is there really anything in the Belhar that both Isaiah and Amos have not said better?

Participant

maybe this is really simplistic, but I'm good with Isaiah 58 for our confession on justice  :)

Isaiah 58 is really good.  Of course, it should be; it's scripture... but it's appropriate too. 

Community Builder

I'm very sorry to hear that this is your impression of the CRC, Daniel W. My strong understanding is that part of what the church is called to do is to constantly re-examine herself in the light of the gospel (all of it, of course). Part of THAT process, in a confessional church, is for the church to re-examine the confessions that she holds as accurate summaries of that gospel. Whether that means we talk about the Canons of Dordt and whether or not they truly reflect the scriptures, or whether that means that in the light of a new potential confession we re-examine our actions and beliefs and consider adopting that new confession--whatever the circumstance of our discussion about creeds and confessions, the ultimate aim is for us to "grow into the fullness of He who is our head, that is Christ the Lord." 

This, of course, can only be done if creeds and confessions are never allowed to stand on their own, but are only expressions of faith that point always back to scripture. Even the early Reformers who advocated "Sola Scriptura" most strongly did not deny the value of creeds and confessions as summaries of the teachings of those scriptures. In fact, their cry of sola scriptura was, of course, historically one of decrying the idea of placing tradition or papal authority on the same authoritative leve as scriptures--it had nothing to do with whether or not people adopted creeds per se.

I hope, and believe, that actually the discussion around the Belhar HAS been one that has led us to dive into scriptures like Amos and Isaiah more thoroughly--one is almost irresistably drawn to prophetic literature relevant to social justice issues through the Belhar. 

Part of the beauty of creeds and confessions that come out of different cultural contexts and/or times, is that the writers of those documents have just a sufficiently different perspective on scripture that they challenge us and our presuppositions about what we have always assumed to be true. 

The Belhar, for example, challenges (I believe) many North American's assumption that consumer capitalism is wonderfully at peace with democracy and Christianity. I believe that the Bible expresses grave doubts about that kind of thinking, and that the Belhar can redirect us back to scriptures to analyze ourselves on those points and others.

Blessings,

Dan.

Community Builder

Dan: What do you mean, precisely, when you say "consumer capitalism"?  I understand your perspective of the need to re-examine and use things like the Belhar to do that. But I always get a bit frustrated when folks throw out rather ambiguous phrases like that and then juxtapose it to what they advocate for.

North America has a good deal of political/economic freedom, so that each of us has the legal right to choose to be materialistic or not, spend our money on bad things or good, love mercy or not, etc.  Who is this "consumer capitalism" person who is "wonderfully at peace with ... Christianity?"  By referring to it, are you referring to a person, people, or a political principal (and thus want to change our political system)?

The Accra Confession (like Belhar but less ambiguous, and already adopted by WARC, now known as WCRC) explicitly condemns "neo-liberalism," which is essentially political/economic freedom. A fair reading of the Accra would indicate that subscribers to it do want to change the political system (reducing/eliminating political/economic freedom). Is that what you are suggesting, or otherwise?

Randy I do not find DeYoungs arguments very convincing. I think he is being disingenuous about the word special. The word indicates a fondness because of their condition.  Equality , as an in oppurtinity to be saved is something different. I mean God picked Abraham because of his belief and hospitality not because he was rich. But Jesus went out of way to treat the poor and sick.

  As far as the Belhar being used to argue for inclusion of gays in church leadership,  The Belhar doesn't speak tnis issue anymore than our other confessions. Those arguments would be there regardless.

  What the Belhar does speak to is social justice which is very Bibical. I just reread Amos, it pretty clear there and  lots of other places in Bible that social justice is not optional  to God.

It a good thing we have Grace because none of us deserve salvation any more than the other. That start point makes it pretty clear how we are to approach our fellow man. Thanks

Ken

Participant

Thanks, Ken. I would not want to say that Kevin DeYoung is being disingenuous, any more than others who have some concerns about the Belhar, including myself. To disagree is not to be disingenuous. Disingenous means "lacking in frankness, candor, or sincerity; falsely or hypocritically ingenuous; insincere." Kevin might be wrong, but he's not insincere.

The historical fact is, as some church leaders have observed, that Marxist-influenced Liberation Theology does come through, especially in that one article of the Belhar, and which has to be significantly qualified in order to be squared with a biblical definition of justice, found in Leviticus 19:15: "Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly." Another historical fact is that one of the main authors of the Confession, A. Boesack, has insisted that one implication of Belhar is that the church embrace and affirm homosexuality (homosexual behavior), and even resigned his church offices over the matter. If the primary author of the confession declares that the implication of Belhar is the embrace of homosexuality, then there is good reason to doubt the “theological adequacy” of this confession, as Richard Mouw and others have argued. (http://www.netbloghost.com/mouw/?p=108 ) . So, my basic point is this: People of integrity can have serious concerns and disagreements about this confession without being "disingenuous," and without being opposed to social justice, unconcerned about racism and the poor and oppressed, etc. I react with moral outrage and indignation when I go back and study what happened at a certain school in the Chicago suburbs, disallowing the admission of African-American students. But for some of us, we are very concerned about the wording of the confession itself, among other things. I also understand that pastors and theologians of integrity do not agree with me on this, and have arguments to counter those above. But I don''t think they/we are disingenuous. We might be wrong, but not insincere.

And I think it is the "among other things" that shapes opinion on both sides of the debate (though the debate probably has more than two sides, with various shades of nuance and/or unsettled opinions). For example, some are concerned that we maintain good ecumenical relations with other churches; which I would agree with, but for me it is not adequate grounds for adopting a confession that is, in my judgment, somewhat weak and ambiguous and also highly localized in its context and application. Who doesn't agree that Apartheid was a damnable practice, supported by reprehensible theological principles? I think the CRC has treated the real problem of racism very well in its synodical actions and in the Contemporary Testimony.

One of the "other things" pertains to the identity of the CRC, which is one of my "issues" personally. I was nicely in the confessional middle of the CRC when the 1990's came along and many of the hardliners left the CRC for the United Reformed Church (URC); I freely confess that I still feel anger about that schism. Now I feel like I am uncomfortably on the "right," to use the term loosely, though there are still a number of CRC folk who are much more "conservative" than I, which gives me some comfort (e.g. I am pro-women's ordination, and I changed my mind on children at communion, too--but only after careful biblical-theological reflection, which for me is paramount). This is all a long way of saying that I personally want to see my church, the CRC, steer a middle course, a confessional course, between North American Evangelicalism / Fundamentalism on the one had and Mainline liberalism on the other. I am neither a fundamentalist nor a liberal; I am confessionally Reformed, and in a way that is particularly shaped by the CRCNA, into which my mom and sister and I were evangelized in 1976. I was heartened by James KA Smith's Banner article on the subject. As a convert to the CRC in my childhood, I have a close personal attachment to the distinct riches of the CRC and a deep emotional attachment to what I see as its core principles. I think the Belhar pushes us further into the mainline-liberal direction. This is also why I do not support a CRC-RCA merger, though it's obvious to me that we should work as closely as possible together. I also mourn the disconnection from NAPARC, even though I don't agree with those guys on women's ordination. I wholeheartedly support ecumenical efforts (Dan Meinema and I, though we don't necessarily agree on Belhar, regularly meet with pastors of other traditions to study the Lectionary, and I think I speak for both of us when I say what a blessing it is to learn from other strands of the Christian tradition, and also to share our own peculiar treasures). But confessing one holy catholic and apostolic church does not necessarily require institutional unity, nor is it always healthy to push for that, in my judgment; nor does it require adopting each other's confessions. Moreover, we can support our sister church in South Africa without adopting their very particular and contextual confession as our own; in fact, I've heard one missiologist make the argument that to do so might actually be condescending to them and smack just a wee bit of colonialism on our part.

Also something that would be of great import for me as an ordained pastor in the CRC is whether I would in good conscience be able to subscribe wholeheartedly and robustly to this confession, as I do with the three forms of unity. Would I have to file a gravamen, and if so, would it be a confessional-difficulty gravamen (and I can already see the response: we don't mean by the Belhar what you think it means), or a confessional revision gravamen (which would be doomed to failure, most likely). Or would I subscribe with a Jesuit ethic of mental reservation? Or would I just practice some really massive self-differentiation and say I only subscribe to the Belhar quatenus (a technical term for agreeing with something "insofar as" it reflects the teachings of scripture, which is not really the way of integrity). Is there a grandfather clause? Obviously I don't have that sorted out yet.

I said earlier I am not on this forum to debate the Belhar; but I do appreciate the opportunity to share some of my own personal feelings and struggles with this issue, and I hope that it remains a safe place to express those things, without recriminations or questioning people's motives, wherever they may come down on the issue.

More discussion of the Belhar can be found here:

  • Viola Larson, The Belhar Confession: The Wrong Time, The Wrong Place, The Wrong Confession Larson argues that the Barmen Declaration is more of a real comprehensive confession, but that is also rather debatable.
  • Richard Mouw, Allan Boesak: Earlier versus Later
  • Kevin DeYoung, The Belhar Confession: Yea or Nay or even better: Why Not Belhar? Note the final paragraph: The Belhar Confession, for all its good words and noble intentions, creates more problems in the RCA than it solves. A “no” on Belhar is not a “no” to multiculturalism, learning from the global South, or racial reconciliation. It is a “no” to an ambiguous, open-ended document that, despite the relentless and one-sided efforts of the RCA leadership, is better left as a statement of South African courage than a binding confession that defines us a denomination for years, decades, and possibly centuries to come.”

Randy, I appreciate and agree with all your comments (well except for women ordinates),  and I appreciate the way you have described your background.   I also find it beneficial to communicate and commune with christians from other denoinations, but I agree with you that doesn't mean that we always need institutional unity, or unity of formal written confessions.   Our unity is in Christ and in scripture. 

 

JOhn

Randy , good desription of your position. So basicly if you remove special and acknowledge this document is not a argument for homosexuality you be ok with it?

Participant

I'm not for the unnecessary (in my judgment) multiplication of confessions when are own foundational confessions are being neglected (again, in my judgment). We already have good strong statements about racism and social justice. But now I have to go and finish my two sermons for tomorrow so I can't delay it anymore by reflecting on ecclesiastical politics.

Thanks Randy,

 thanks for the talk. Randy you are entitled to your view. I am also not especting you to answer some of these questions or statements. We just need to get this figured out . The reason I called called Kevin 's statement disingenuous is he know's this stuff and to grab" special " as one of main objections when he know's it can be changed to say loving or consistant. That in my book is a misdirection from him to avoid other issue's. Kevin's a smart guy and a brother in Christ but I feel he may be incorrect  on this issue.

Thanks

Ken

Participant

Ken, you should know that the Belhar is not being proposed as something we can alter and modify, but to accept it as it is, "as a gift" from the South African Churches, according Dr. Borgdorff. Of course, any confession can be changed and modifed through the use of confessional revision gravamina, but I wouldn't expect that to happen with Belhar.

Take out the word special ,why would alter it?

Ken

It is crazy to me that we are looking to adopt this as a confession - and that is not because of it's content. I do not understand the need to go so far as to add a 4th confession, especially one which was written by others in a place different from ours (yes our other 3 were written in a place different from ours but we descended from them theologically). It is not like we have not struggled with and wrestled with racial issues and the call to unity in Christ. Can't we speak to this ourselves? Do we actually need to adopt a confession?

I really do wonder where the energy for adopting this comes from? Acknowledging the value and truth stated in the document, yes, recognizing our need to say and do more, sure, but adopt it as a confession? What? We've had three confessions for nearly 500 years - why suddenly the need to adopt this short document from half-way around the world?

As I commented in a post elsewhere on the network, I believe the discussion should distinguish between the truth and value in the Belhar on the one hand, and whether we should adopt it on the other - affirming the former does not lead to the latter. The latter requires a ton more discussion. I do not believe we should adopt it as a confession or even as a testimony. Speaking to the truth of it does not convince me, because we do not adopt as confession everything which is true and valuable - if we did that we'd have an endless list of confessions.

We do have a endless list of confessions. Their just not in the hymnal. John, we are not going convince you by answering your questions. It is obvious we different point of views. So I guess you vote no  okay?

Participant

We have three confessions, thee creeds, and on Contemporary Testimony. That's endless?  I'm not sure what you're getting at, Ken.

On the other hand, the PCUSA does have a large collection of confessions, and some argue that the multiplication of confessions dilutes the normative character of all of them. The more confessions you adopt, the less relevant they are.

Hello Randy . Glad you joined us.

     Randy my statement was rhetorical. Did you read our entire exchange?

  I do understand what John is talking about. I know you guys do too. What is it about the Belhar that when John already said  it is" true and relevant". Why not make a bold statement to the religious world of something we believe in? Why the caution to  the point you want to prove that its okay to oppose this and be labeled? I have not labeled anybody here. I understand what your points are. I also know you guys are brothers in Christ and I fight to keep thinking positive just like you guys. John and Randy, we are a lot closer in thought than apart. I wish I had the words or the incite to bridge our differences of thought.

Ken

Participant

No I didn't. In that case, interpret my response rhetorically. A man's life consisteth not in the abundance of his confessions. (Faux King James)

Randy

    You have a unique sense of humor. I can appreciate it.

Ken

Ken, thanks for explaining. As Randy said below, the CRC has only three confessions, that is not endless. It is true that we confess everything Scripture says, but that is equivocating on the word confess(ion). A formal confession which has been adopted by the church as a summary and guide to the teaching of Scripture is a particular thing. That is the sort of thing we are being asked to make of the Belhar.

I'm sad that you think of me as close minded. I'm open to changing my mind - I've been wrong before and surely will be again. It is clear to me, however, that I have not heard a good case for making the Belhar a formal confession of our denomination. I'm not going to change my mind simply because I hear some people wanting me to do it.

As I likely will not be at Synod, I won't have a vote except through the long route of congregation, classis, and then synod. However I will continue to ask why we should declare it a 4th confession for our denomination in hopes that those who do have a vote consider the question. To deny it confessional status says nothing about the importance of unity in the body of Christ or the sin of racism, it simply says that we can speak to these and many other issues without going to the lengths of adding confessions.

In the end, though, I appreciate your point. There are many, many, many, many things which we confess without having formal confessions. In fact, we can and do stand for and do many good things and stand against many bad things without requiring a formal confession to be added denominationally - so why do we need a formalized confession in this case? 

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