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ADMIN NOTE: Now that we have a forum dedicated to Belhar conversations, we've closed this original thread (and moved it here for reference purposes). Please post discussions as new topics within this Belhar forum.


To discuss the 2009 report regarding the Belhar Confession, post your comments here.

The report and related resources are available at


I find it interesting that where the Belhar Confession comes out of the struggle of apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada deals with the evils of forced integration and assimilation. In my ministry with the First Nations peoples in Winnipeg, I have had to allow for a separate development of a Native Christian worship style, in order to let the people worship God with the gifts of their culture.

The Belhar confession speaks to this with this statement:
"-- that this unity can be established only in freedom and not under constraint; that the variety of "spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and "cultures, are by virtue of the reconciliation in Christ, opportunities for mutual service and "enrichment within the one visible people of God."

That freedom without constraint is however hard to achieve when there is a power imblanace between and established institution, and a struggling community that tries to find its own voice.

The 6th and final segment has also been posted. I could wish that every delegate to Synod would read this before attending. I think that Synod Office would only be fair to have made this resource available to delegates - link it on the CRC's Belhar resources site, etc. Everything else 2850 has done is far too one-sided.


Dave in Kent, WA

Peter Borgdorff on May 22, 2010

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

OK David - so you are the one who asserts that 2850 is far to one-sided. You say that despite the fact that the CRCNA provides you with the capability to express your opinion. Hmmm. No, I do not think the articles in Christian Courier need to be posted on the CRCNA website since these articles are available elsewhere. If the CRCNA would begin to post other publication's materials then there would be no end to the material that could be gathered. I am reading (have read) the articles and am appreciative of the contribution they make to the general discussion. That is not the same thing as saying that any writer has the last word - and I disagree with some of John Bolt's reasoning. But, it is part of the discussion and we will be discussing our diverse viewpoints publicly at a Belhar Confession conference in London, Ontarion one week from today (May 29).

Peter Borgdorff

Dr. Richard Mouw (former Calvin College prof, President of Fuller Seminary, and Calvin College commencement speaker this year, has written several musings on the Belhar

A good overture from Riverside CRC in Canada is before Synod - to adopt the Belhar as a Testimony rather than as a Confession

Peter Borgdorff on May 22, 2010

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Synod 2010 will not be receiving any overtures about the Belhar Confession because that is scheduled for Synod 2012. There may well be some discussion about the state of the denominational process as the Belhar is considered - and it is true that a few churches/classes have addressed alternatives to adopting the Belhar Confession as a fourth standard of unity, but Synod 2009 explicitly decided that the discussion will precede a decision.

It is interesting to note that the classis that approved the Riverside "overture" has also requested a formal presentation by the Ecumenical Relations Committee about the Belhar Confession. That presentation is scheduled for this Wednesday (May 27) at the meeting of classis Niagara at 7 p.m.

I have also noted some posts that "2850" (whoever that is) is presenting a one-sided view of the Belhar. No evidence of such one-sidedness is offered in support of that conclusion. I have made many of the presentations so I take a comment like that very seriously. The fact is that both the pros and cons are presented in discussion but it is also true that the Ecumenical Relations Committee is currently on record for favoring the adoption of the Belhar. Simply endorsing the Belhar Confession as if it were like the Contemporary Testimony is not officially on the table. ERC considered that option in its earlier consideration and rejected that as a recommendation to synod.

Enough for now.

Peter Borgdorff

Peter, are you saying the overture has been ruled out of order? The program committee report shows it going to Advisory Committee 7.

Bill Vis


I guess I'm a little disappointed by your comments. Classis Niagara did not request to have a presentation. The ERC requested that you would come to make a presentation. This request and our approval of that request was made before the Overture was presented. Your comments are somewhat misleading. I also find it interesting that you claim our overture will not be discussed at Synod. That's the first I've heard about it. You'll also notice that our overture is still asking for Synod 2012 to make the decision. We're simply trying to add to the discussion.

One of the challenges we're seeing is that hosting a "discussion" is a very complicated thing, especially when it comes down to owning a "confession". A denominational organ that takes a position of endorsement naturally has certain advantages in promoting their point of view. When that organ also appears to have a degree of control or influence also on the process by which a discussion is supposed to take place it understandably looks to some as if a fair and free discussion is impossible.

This is enormously complicated by the fact that adoption of a new confession has never taken place within the lifetime of any of the participants today. Adoption of a new confession, which in terms of our ecclesiastical machinery is far more consequential than say adjusting the rules regarding women serving in office, seems to be a matter of an up or down vote at a synod a few years away, not unlike deciding on a church order article. It seems disproportionate to wrestle with women in office for a generation while we adopt a confession within 3 years.

Also within this discussion is the reality of how our current confessions actually play out within the life of the church. We increasingly don't know what to do with the three we have, why add a fourth now? Bringing the Belhar forward now is probably a good opportunity to lead the church in a discussion about what it means to be a confessional church, this at a time when these issues are as hot as they've been for a long time in terms of discussions in the broader church (the rise of the emergent vs. young-and-Reformed).

Granted, a lot of this broader leadership responsibility is beyond the purview of the mandate of the ERC, but one might ask where we might find this broader leadership perspective in our denominational structure if in fact it can be located anywhere?

I don't have an opinion on this matter. I've never read the confession in question and I don't like to judge something merely on hearsay.

I have read the confession. It is vague and ambiguous on key points. Lacking clarity, it is open to misunderstanding and misuse. It also is highly contextualized to conditions in South Africa and of limited value in a North American context.

To the extent that it boldly states racism is wrong, I agree with it, but is there anyone out there saying racism is right? Did I miss something, or is there a pastor or classis somewhere advocating racism who needs to be straightened out? Is there a societal approval of racism that needs to be countered in North America? I'm not saying there aren't racists or that people don't unwittingly make racist judgments, only that nobody of any significance in the larger culture or in the church is denying that this is wrong or sinful - not in North America, anyway.

That leaves the confession's prescription for overcoming racism and I'm not sure that can be easily transplanted from South Africa to North America given our respective histories. To the extent American society is still segregated, it is voluntarily so, and that requires a very different approach than South Africa does.

In sum, it's vague and open to abuse, it is unnecessary, and it's a solution to the wrong problem.

Jolanda Howe on June 18, 2010

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

In light of Christ’s prayer that we would be one, just as the Spirit, Father, and Son are one, I think the relationship of people within the body of Christ should always and everywhere be an important priority for the church. North America and North American churches have a very long way to go in making this a reality.

I would not accuse anyone of purposely thinking or acting in racist ways—but I see an unhealthy apathy in myself and others. We are not yet convinced that life together is richer than life apart. We don’t fully appreciate the theological value of diversity—that if God created us in his image to reflect his goodness and glory then we need the insights of other people from different cultures and experiences in order to have a fuller, richer, deeper understanding and experience of God’s goodness, faithfulness, majesty, love…. etc. We aren’t moved to go out of our way to understand others, to make new friends, to widen the circle.

This is contrary to who we are as Reformed Christians. We believe that God uses as part of his plan to reclaim and restore all of creation. We pray with all other believers, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” And we see in Scripture that “thy will be done” includes God shaping us into a multicultural people who sing his praises together. But as individuals and churches we aren't very motivated to make that happen here on earth. How many of our churches are multicultural bodies, or wish to be? How many are striving to be places where people from every tribe and every nation feel welcome? I wonder if that is important to us only in theory, or in practice too.

Jesus said that the thief comes to steal and kill, and destroy—where do we see that more than the realm of human relationships? All over the world, all throughout history, skin color has been used as a reason to kill, degrade and destroy lives, families, communities, etc. In the USA alone, systemic racism still affects everything from the school systems, to the job market, to the justice system, to the person who feels comfortable sitting next to me in church.

But (ever an optimist) I believe the church has a great opportunity. We have the answer in Jesus Christ, if only we would live it more fully. We have the message that God created each of us with dignity and value. We believe that we all stand before Christ, equally guilty and in need of mercy—each one receiving salvation in the same way, as a free gift. We have the power of the Holy Spirit, who brings conviction, transformation, healing, and reconciliation. So, striving to become a body of believers that lives in unity and demonstrates genuine love for one another isn’t just another thing to do—it’s one of the ways that we can taste of the new heavens and the new earth now, and it's a powerful testimony to the world that God is real and his love transforms.

Adopting the Belhar as a confession isn't the magic solution for making us a more anti-racist, multicultural denomination that testifies to God’s grace. But I wonder what it would do to shake us out of slow motion and move us toward the kingdom vision that we’ve been inching towards for years. The Belhar is a good reminder that the 1500's wasn't the last time that the church spoke in a powerful and prophetic ways. Whether we adopt it or not, the Belhar is already challenging our assumptions and making us think about the role creeds and confessions play in shaping our lives. I hope it will also call us to be a prophetic voice here in North America.

I respect all opinions. The purpose of a confession is personal and communal. As such political views and general statements are not lifted up to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When we confess our sins and are forgiven by God we can move forward together to build a better church, society and world.

JH - None of what you've said, really challenges my points with regard to the Belhar and its adoption as a confession on par with the Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort.

In regards to your last question - would adopting the Belhar shake us out of slow motion - the answer is "no." If encouraging, arguing, goading, motivating, inspiring from the Bible doesn't do this, the Belhar won't, either. And looking at the rather scant attention paid at present to the other creeds of the CRC, I have a hard time imagining that much more attention would be paid to this one.

And given the Belhar's vagueness on other points, it is potentially dangerous in its openness to abuse. If you would like my specific objections to statements in the Belhar, I would be happy to provide them.

Jolanda Howe on June 18, 2010

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I understand the concerns about the vague points within the Belhar. But we always hold Scripture as the final authority over the HC, Belgic, and Canons of Dort. Certainly we would do the same for the Belhar. The vague points or points of contention within the Belhar would be subject to our corporate interpretation of Scripture.

I hope the discussions over the next couple years will not be dominated by fear. We have faced tough issues as a denomination and will continue to face them as long as we seek to be faithful followers of Christ in a rapidly changing world. But whatever the issue, whether the Belhar or something else, I hope we will never let the fear of what could go wrong keep us from standing up for what we know is right.

Thank you for this thought-provoking discussion!

I firmly believe we have to be in prayer communaly and ask that our eyes and hearts are opened in Christ to living the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And with open hearts we can move positively forward to real confession of our personal and corporate sins of hearts, minds and cultures. Then we can enter into Christ centered unity conversations of Christian substance.

The articles on the Belhar Confession written by Shiao Chong and John Bolt can be found on-line at:

About the Belhar being open to abuse - the Bible has been abused since it was written, that does not stop us from reading and teaching the truths found in its pages. The confessions have also been abused in the Christian church. People have misread and misapplied what we hold so dear to our faith. Why should we then allow the fear of abuse stop us from adopting the Belhar and using this document to teach and inform us about living out our faith?

The Belhar is not a perfect document. There are some points where we would probably like to change things but to be effective I don't think that it needs to be perfect. I don't think that the other confessions are perfect either - they are human inventions and affected by the fall. These documents can still direct and inform us and are important to us as we live out our faith.

Thanks, Elizabeth, for letting us know that the Bolt-Chong discussion is posted on the Classis Toronto website (more than the Dr. Borgdorff was willing to do on the CRC Behar page). Part of the problem with the Belhar isn't just the Belhar's ambiguities, but the way in which it is being "forced" upon us from "above." A CRC church in Holland, MI, is also hosting a Belhar Resource page - -
The "fears" that are there are not irrational. The Belhar is being used by gay-ordination advocates in South Africa and in the US as a "wedge" to get their viewpoint accepted.

I find John Bolt's arguments dispositive. They can be summed up as:

1. The Belhar is not perfect and far too political.

2. The Belhar is not needed, particularly in a North American context.

3. Therefore my conscience should not be bound by it.

Adopting it as one of the formal creeds of the CRC, however, would do exactly that. We should be extremely careful about the burdens we place on one another.

Specific objections to the text follow:
BELHAR:We believe...that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe; that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the Church and must be resisted [John 17:20, 23];

ME: Great. Who decides what threatens unity? What if somebody teaches a denial of the virgin birth - is that person the one threatening unity or are those condeming that person for heresy? Where does truth figure into this?

BELHAR:We believe...that this unity can be established only in freedom and not under constraint; that the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and cultures, are by virtue of the reconciliation in Christ, opportunities for mutual service and enrichment within the one visible people of God [Rom 12:3-8; I Cor 12:1-11; Eph 4:7-13; Gal 3:27-28; Jas 2:1-13];

ME: But some convictions are simply wrong. The assumption of a dialectical approach to truth that sees all convictions, no matter how contradictory, as reconciled in Christ is one such wrong conviction. The panentheistic implications of this are disturbing.

BELHAR: We believe...that true faith in Jesus Christ is the only condition for membership of this Church;

ME: Who defines "true faith"? Will not any possible definition offered "threaten unity"?

BELHAR: We reject any doctrine...which absolutises either natural diversity or the sinful separation of people in such a way that this absolutisation hinders or breaks the visible and active unity of the church, or even leads to the establishment of a separate church formation;...[and]...which explicitly or implicitly maintains that descent or any other human or social factor should be a consideration in determining membership of the Church.

ME: Is Classis Pacific Hanmi a "separate church formation"? Classis Red Mesa? Does the practice of bringing in advisors to Synod on the basis of race and ethnicity constitute "absolutis[ing] natural diversity" - it most certainly does maintain that descent and other human social factors are determinitive for participation? Would an explicitly Korean (or Navajo or Laotian or Hispanic or...) congregation constitute a "separate church formation"? If not, why not? In fact, all of these things explicitly or implicitly maintain descent and other human social factors as considerations regarding membership. Either the practice or the confession must be in error.

BELHAR: We believe...that the Church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the Church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream;

ME: Without defining "justice", this is a blank check to the loudest complainant. It also ignores the fact that sometimes suffering is itself just. Should a murderer not suffer? Should a rapist not be shamed and punished? And what is punishment if not the just infliction of suffering? This statement assumes that all pain and want is necessarily unjust and it is not.

Suffering: Is objective and subjective, physical, mental and spiritual. Suffering deals with all aspects of humanity. Most people agree starvation is suffering, yet today suffering is generically used when people do not have what they want. So parsing phrases and words can go on forever (as we do with Scripture). I believe we have to include God in our discernment prayers and be open to God's revelation in our life context.

If my conscience is going to be bound by the Form of Subscription to this document's phrases, I want them parsed, even if it does take forever.

I encourage you to check out the latest issue of the Calvin Seminary Forum for a more balanced presentation on The Belhar.


Reflections on The Belhar Confession 3

Confession of Belhar 5

Making Shalom: The Belhar Confession

by Mariano Avila 6

Adopting the Belhar:Confession or Testimony?

by Lyle D. Bierma 8

Necessary Testimony—Flawed Confession?

by John Bolt 10

Context and Confusion: What Does the Belhar Confess?

by John Cooper 12

The Belhar Speaks Today by Ronald J. Feenstra


Formation for Ministry 14

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

From biblical times till the present, Christians have united the church, fought heresy, testified to outsiders, defied persecution, taught newcomers, and worshiped God—all by the use of creeds and confessions. Also by the use of catechisms, canons, and testimonies. These documents are of immense value, especially when people care deeply about them.

So it is with the Belhar Confession. Forged in the fires of racial injustice in South Africa in 1986, the Belhar Confession speaks eloquently to the need for unity, reconciliation, and justice in the church. The church should witness to these great realities, model them to the world, and become an agent for spreading them. All because of the costly work of Jesus Christ—the one through whom God was reconciling the world to himself.

In 2009, the Synod of the CRCNA, in an unprecedented move, proposed to Synod 2012 “the adoption of the Belhar Confession as a fourth confession of the Christian Reformed Church in North America.”

Response to Synod’s proposal has varied, including among the members of our faculty. In this issue we expose some of our own thinking. Professor Mariano Avila writes movingly of how the Belhar is a cry from the heart “that we will never understand unless we hear it with our hearts.” Professor Lyle Bierma writes of the purposes of confessions and applauds the Belhar as an apt instrument for these purposes. Professor John Bolt provides a sobering review of global “blood sins” and commends the Belhar for its “powerful and necessary testimony” against such sins. But he observes that the Belhar lacks a gospel emphasis on repentance and forgiveness as the heart of reconciliation—and, really, the only real hope for it. Professor John Cooper frames his discussion of the Belhar Confession ecumenically: the CRCNA belongs to the World Communion of Reformed Churches, an organization big enough to include confessional churches, like our own, but also churches with progressive agendas and universalist tendencies. The problem with the Belhar is that it is ambiguous enough to be claimed as a friend by both kinds of churches. Professor Ronald Feenstra finds in the Belhar a compelling call to American Christians to embody the gospel message—which, like that of the prophets, does make God “in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged.”

President Plantinga


Thanks for the link to that, Dave.

I also just saw that the seminary is hosting a panel discussion on the Belhar Confession next week Tuesday, October 12, at 7:30pm. Here's a link to their events calendar and the description:

John Cooper, Victoria Proctor-Gibbs, and Peter Borgdorff will dialogue on the Belhar Confession. Thea Leunk will moderate the discussion. One question that will be addressed is "Should the Christian Reformed Church adopt the Belhar?" Free and open to the public. Please join us. 

Maybe this could be recorded, or webcast? I'll email the seminary to see if they can let us know about that.

I just heard back from Betsy at the seminary. The panel discussion WILL be recorded and broadcast live (if technology cooperates). Links will be available on the CTS Lecture Archive page (update: or try this lecture calendar page). She writes:

"...a box will appear in the top left of page that says something like "listen/watch live."  Be patient for a couple of minutes so the IT guys can get things going (or if we start a couple minutes late).  If for some reason it doesn't work it will definitely be on the archive within days of the event."

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