Ecumenical Faith Documents
February 21, 2014
Updated June 19, 2018
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In 2012, Synod adopted a new category, Ecumenical Faith Documents, and placed the Belhar Confession therein. This category is interesting and puzzling. This category was never defined by Synod 2012 and I believe a definition was put on hold during Synod 2013. There was an overature presented to Synod 2013 to bind the consciences of officebearers by puting a sense of allegience to this category in the Covenant for Officebearers.
The Banner reported that some proposed criteria for this category are: "The proposed criteria would have meant that an EFD be in harmony with biblical principles, global in scope, relevant for Christian living, not already covered by current confessions, and beneficial for the denomination’s ecumenical relations."
This category, and even these criteria, bring up some serious questions:
First, what documents are eligible for this category? Going by the name of the category, the articles contained must be documents that are used to either explicitly or implicitly define or influence the faith of an ecumenical body. How are each of these terms defined? Who is recognised as an "ecumenical body" for these purposes? How broad are we willing to take this category? Would the London Baptist Confession be eligible? What about the Five Articles of Remonstrance? What about the Westminster Standards?
Second, what power should these documents hold? Due to the current ambiguity of the category this question is of utmost importance. If the documents in this category are held as something binding, as requested in the overature to Synod 2013, is it not a "back door" way of getting a confessional status without the title? How does this play into our understanding of the "Contemporary Testemony"? Is that document above, below, or equal to these other ecumenical documents? How do we deal with these other documents?
Finally, we cannot be shortsighted in our understanding of these documents. By the accepting of these documents as binding upon officebearers, we shape future officebearers and denominational doctrine to come into line and practice with these documents. That is the great trap. What we see to be a modern guide for living in a contemporary time and place, turns into a document that shapes our future. Our Three Forms of Unity were never designed to be a contemporary expression, but a clear statement of biblical truths that could guide Christians to an orthodox understanding of the timeless Gospel. The Belhar, the sole document in the EFD category, does not address points of doctrine that are either (a) new developments to our Reformed theology or heritage, or (b) unrevealed in the biblical text that has been heretofore unseen by the church or her agencies. This narrow document with broad language is contemporary to the time an place that it was written, in South Africa during the ending of Apartheid. Yet, the Three Forms of Unity are doctrinal statements that are true in every time and place, second only to the divine Word of God in Scripture. The Belhar itself either (a) limits the documents that are able to be put into the EFD category, or (b) limits the power these documents are able to hold in the EFD category.
If the Belhar is elevated, one faction of the church would push out another, forcing many officebearers, and even churches, to leave the denomination and would not promote unity and diversity in the denomination, but kill it.
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