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The fifth bullet of the second point in the Belhar states:  "that this unity can be established only in freedom and not under constraint;"


I am wondering from a theological viewpoint whether this statement is Biblical?  It seems to say that God cannot unify under constraint?  Or maybe it is we humans who cannot unify under constraint?  In either case it seems to me that we are limiting God, either working through His people to unify or directly himself.  What am I missing?

I think I would be OK if the phrasing said that we must strive to establish this unity in freedom and not under constraint, but using the word 'only' in this case seems to limit what God can do.  I have read through the Bible references at the end of the paragraph (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:1-11; Eph. 4:7-13; Gal. 3:27-28; James 2:1-13) but they do not seem to speak to the use of the word 'only'.  I am looking for another opinion on this.

I apologize in advance if this topic has already been addressed.  I was not able to find a thread that seemed to speak to this question.  If there is something out there please point it out to me.


Thanks,  Brad


I think Mr. Van Surksum has a valid point.  I believe that the  composers of the Belhar were trying stress that God is on the side of justice and freedom, and maybe the problem is that they use the word "constraint" with a very specific idea in mind, ie. the evils produced by Apartheid. And certainly in that context, their statement makes sense; if two races are treated seperately and very unequally how can there be unity between the two groups. 

The problem, then, is that the authors of the Belhar Confession were really addressing a particularly unjust political, social, and religious situation and the document is designed to support the abolishion of that situation.  But the confession does not put forth a universal and timeless set of truths as the other Christian confessions do.  Therefore, while it may be an admirable statement, it is applicable only to the time and environment in which it was generated.

It should not be included in the church's set of important creeds and confessions.


Bill Durkin

This is a curious statement. I believe the Church did make large strides under a Roman government which codified slavery in various ways, as well as considering The Way to be an ‘outlaw’ religion. Certainly believing slaves in Philippi and believers within “Caesar’s household” [Phil. 4.22] were not considered “equals” under the law of Rome – and yet they aknowledged each other (perhaps secretly!) as brothers and sisters in Christ. This is the miracle and the power of hearts won out of a fallen world by the Holy Spirit. The Gospel of a resurrected Christ transcends barriers that humans erect against it.

So, are the premises of the Belhar faulty? In which ways? If we answer “yes”, then we need to examine ourselves to see on what level we can – or cannot – “confess” a not-quite-so–exact document.

Affirming what Michael and William said already, the statement might have additional considerations. Belhar itself gives reasons to not adopt it as a confession, and this is one.

If we can accept that a considerable number of members and officebearers in the CRC oppose adopting the Belhar Confession as a fourth confession, then adopting it as a fourth confession would be going against what Belhar itself says. Confessions are statements all officebearers must accept and agree with, as they sign the FOS. Many current officebearers disagree with some certain statements in Belhar and would not be able to sign the FOS (or Covenant of Officebearers) if Belhar was included. If Belhar is made a fourth confession it will put these officebearers under "constraint" in adopting the unity, justice and reconciliation, which Belhar says cannot be done.

I think that it is important to keep in mind that "this unity" is the unity we have in Christ. No one can become part of Christ without their will being transformed. This is not constraint. It is the gift of God.

So how do we live this as a church? Do we demand conformity to "our" way of doing things (constraint), or do we accept all Christians as a blessing from God (church life as a gift of grace)?

This is really about finding our identity and unity in Christ and not in our cultural, ethnic, stylistic, or idealistic 'gifts.' I think this has something important to say to the CRC. We are constantly struggling with conservatives vs. liberals (as if we had political parties in the church). The Belhar Confession is really calling the CRC to ditch categorizing each other and look to our unity in Christ as what matters first. Then when we have the difficult conversations, we can listen to each other as gifts to the church and not blaming the other for the numerical decline of the denomination.   

Aaron Vriesman on March 21, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Mike, I hear what you are saying. It seems as though Christians are divided along party lines that are defined by the political sphere more than anything else. This seems readily evident.

However, equally evident is that the Belhar Confession is exasperating the divisions in the CRC instead of healing them. Some "fighting words" have been said on both sides of Belhar, and categorizing seems to be on the rise instead of decline. Belhar, as a statement in favor of unity, is ironically drifting us apart.

Brad Van Surksum on March 22, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Hi Mike,

I appreciate your thoughts on this topic.  It is not clear to me that 'this unity' refers to the unity we have in Christ.  I cannot say that your statement is untrue, I just can't seem to grasp that it must be true in the context it is used.  I wholeheartedly agree that we should accept all Christians as a blessing from God, I just am not sure the Belhar articulates that clearly enough.  It is ambiguous to the point of allowing itself to be interpretted in ways that are not Biblical in my opinion, this being chief among them.

I also agree that Synod 2012 will have it's hands full and I plan on being there to be a part of the decision.

Thanks again


I agree with what you have said, Aaron. And Synod 2012 will need to make some hard choices given the "fighting words" which have (and likely will be) spoken.

The reason I responded was because I feel that it is very important to deeply think about how we respond to such situations. We have slipped into picking sides a bit too quickly. We need to embrace our unity in Christ!

Whether the Belhar discusses this well enought to be a 4th form of unity is not that important to me. But the Belhar Confession does discuss these situations well enough that we should interact with it honestly. In other words, we shouldn't blame the Belhar Confession for our own misbehavior.   

John Zylstra on March 22, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I agree we shouldn't blame any confession, statement, declaration, testimony, creed, or discussion of it, for our own misbehaviour.   But I am not sure why you made the statement.   I have not seen anyone doing that.  Other than one of the authors of it attempting to use the Belhar as justification for behaviour which is contrary to scripture.  And it doesn't seem as if this co-author believes that the behaviour is actually "misbehaviour".   Which merely demonstrates the lack of clarity of the Belhar. 

Perhaps Mike your judgement that people have slipped into picking sides too quickly, is a bit misplaced.   People will obviously have opinions on the appropriateness of a proposed new confession or testimony.   That is as inevitable as the opinions of those who wrote and proposed it.  It is during the discussion that these opinions either change or are confirmed.   Usually the difference in opinions is not primarily based on the facts of the document itself, since often there is agreement on that.   The difference in opinions is usually based on the standards applied to the facts, and the insights applied to the longterm impacts of the wording, and whether the wording is sufficiently appropriate and clear not to cause problems in the future, and whether adopting a particular statement in such an official way is appropriate in the context of need for other similar types of statements on different issues.   

Mike, unity in Christ is a tenuous thing.   Unity is in truth, and there is no real unity in untruth.   Unity is in Christ, and there is no real unity in the trappings of religion.   I can have unity with believers from various denominations, even if I do not have complete unity with them in their confessions, or practices, or interpretations of scripture.  I can have unity with members of SDA, if they confess Christ as Saviour and Lord, even if I do not attend church with them, and even if they rest on Saturday and work on Sunday.  But not unity in some of their ecclesiastical practice.  I can have unity with a RC priest in understanding Christ's sacrifice, but not in his administration of the sacraments, or partial works righteousness.   I can have unity with an RCA member in Christ's lordship and claim, but not in rca de-emphasis of christian education, or in their denominational positions on bearing "office", or on some other issues.  I have unity with Baptists, Pentecostals, Alliance, in their dedication to scripture and their service to Christ, but not in their denial of the sacrament of baptism to infants of believers.    ETC, etc.   As individuals, we are all united in Christ, even when we are not united in a common "confession" or statement of faith (although the Creeds are pretty universal for Christians).   Statements of faith divide at least as much as they unite.   Therefore, adding more of them ought to be done very carefully, or preferably, not at all.   Each one is a potential minefield.   And to us, scripture is not inaccessible.   Scripture itself provides our profession of faith, and our guide for living.   Do we need to replace it with more official "faith statements"?    

That depends on who is doing the constraining.  Since the Belhar is in many ways a political document, I think it is appropriate to understand that statement in such a light.  It is little different, then, from Luther's statement in his essay On Secular Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed - "Heresy is a spiritual matter, which no iron can strike, no fire burn, no water drown.  God's Word alone avails here..."

But God's Word does constrain, and there are pressures which can - and should - be brought to bear on those who would disrupt the unity of the Truth.  The Form of Subscription constrains us, though the acceptance of that constraint is voluntary (one does not have to serve as an elder, deacon, ministry associate, pastor, or professor).

So, while I think in context this particular statement of the Belhar is innocent enough, if somewhat contradicting the move to make it a constraining confession in the CRC, even if its literal meaning might give pause.

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