Overture to Synod 2012Overture to Synod 2012: Not adopt the Belhar Confession as a 4th Confession in the CRC
Synod 2009 proposed to Synod 2012 the adoption of the Belhar Confession as a 4th Confession for the CRC. From 2009-2012, the church has discussed the merits of the Belhar Confession. The church now stands on the edge of making a decision regarding adoption. This overture is a response to the proposal before Synod.
It is difficult to overestimate the sin of racism. It is also difficult to overestimate the roots of racial hatred in our own hearts. The allegation of racism is too easily dismissed. Those who have not been an oppressed minority find it difficult to understand the experience of oppressed racial groups. Racism, we believe, is someone else’s problem. Racism, we sometimes suggest, is a trumped up sin. No one likes to be rebuked and the Belhar Confession forces us to ask serious questions about ourselves. For these reasons, it’s easy to dismiss the Belhar Confession. But as children of God, we must resist such tendencies.
The history of the church, and even our own church, is one of racial tension and injustice. Anthony Carter in his book, “On Being Black and Reformed” states, “The sad yet irrefutable fact is that the theology of Western Christianity, dominated by
White males, has had scant if any direct answers to the evils of racism and the detrimental effect of institutionalized discrimination. Those who advocated a caste system of slavery and racial superiority in places such as the United States, England, South Africa, and India have often done so with the consent of a church defined by conservative theologians.” (pp.6, 7) Carter notes that racial sin has been part of our own story. This is clear when we consider our own denominational history. In the 1960’s, African American children were refused enrollment in one of our Christian schools on the grounds of fear of community violence. In the 1920’s missionaries were sent to China instead of Africa because the Chinese people were viewed as more similar to us than African peoples. But we don’t need to go back to the 1920’s or 1960’s to discover the seeds of racial sin in our own hearts. How do we feel about minority populations filling our neighborhoods and churches? Do we succumb to popular racial stereotypes regarding poverty and work ethic? When we encounter someone of a different race, is our mind focused on skin color or do we think of them as coworkers, neighbors, moms, or fathers?
This brings us to the Belhar Confession. The Belhar Confession is a call to action. It challenges the church in the areas of unity, reconciliation, and justice. Much of what it says is biblically based and beautiful in expression. There is much to affirm in the Belhar Confession. However, given its significant weaknesses it would be unwise to adopt the Belhar as our fourth confession. Richard Mouw notes that the Belhar is an important prophetic declaration in its original context, but is too weak to stand on its own as a normative confession. (Mouw’s Musings, Blog, April 21, 2009) John Cooper adds, “The Forms of Unity are not merely venerable documents expressing the faith of our ancestors on the issues of their time. They are doctrinal standards-definitive summaries and explanations of the essential and enduring truths that God teaches in Scripture-foundational to our denominational identity and unity.” (“Affirm the Belhar? Yes, but not as a doctrinal standard”, p.4.) What both Mouw and Cooper affirm is that while a document might convey many truths, there is a stricter standard for that document to be considered a confession. Adopting or not adopting the Belhar Confession must not be viewed as a rejection or acceptance of racial sin, but as a matter of confessional definition. The question before us is not, “what do we think of racism,” but “do we believe the Belhar Confession should be adopted as a confession?” On this matter there are significant concerns.
The first concern is with the Belhar Confession’s content. The content of the Belhar is limited in scope compared to our other standards, the Three Forms of Unity. It’s true as Lyle Bierma points out that “Not all confessions…have the same scope.” (Calvin Theological Seminary Forum, Fall 2010, p.7.) The Belgic Confession covers many topics that the Canons of Dort and the Heidelberg Catechism do not. The Canons of Dort are narrower in focus than the other two. But while not all cover the same breadth of material, each one is a summary of the gospel and the Reformed Christian faith. The Belhar Confession, however, fails to meet that standard. It addresses gospel implications without much explanation of the gospel itself. How can a gospel explanation be missing when it is the gospel alone which has the power to stop racism? Racism is a blood sin which can only be defeated by the power of the blood of Christ. Racism is not first a social issue but a spiritual one. Our deepest problem is not that we are alienated from one another, but that we are alienated from God. Only when we address our alienation from God can we find the answer for alienation from others. The gospel alone has the power to conquer the roots of racial hatred such as pride, greed, hate, and guilt. Yet, gospel content is in large measure missing from the Belhar Confession. The result is that it is left to be interpreted by our other confessions, which makes it submissive to them and not adequate to be considered as a confession with equal authority. Even worse, the Belhar Confession potentially leaves itself and our denomination open to gospel reinterpretation. Considering the absence of clear gospel definition it is no coincidence as John Cooper indicates that the Belhar Confession allows readings from the perspectives of Reformed orthodoxy as well as the progressive social gospel, and various forms of liberation theology. (Copper, Affirm the Belhar? p. 11) How can a document open to so many perspectives serve as a confession?
A second concern has to do with the Belhar Confession’s clarity. Typically, confessions clarify what the church believes. Take the Belgic Confession, for example. It was a clear apologetic to the king what Guido De Bres and others believed during the 1560’s. The Belhar Confession is not nearly so. Take for example, this statement from Article 2: “We reject any doctrine…which explicitly or implicitly maintains that descent or any other human or social factor should be a consideration in determining membership of the church.” What is meant by human or social factor? Race is clearly the intent here but could faith be included as a social factor? Or sexual orientation? Equally puzzling is this statement, “God in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged.” (Art. 4) To be sure, the Bible is full of examples of God’s love for the humble, poor, and oppressed. But does God love them in a special way? Does God love all the poor in a special way? How do we understand that Abraham was the object of God’s covenantal favor and yet was wealthy? Is it through humble faith that God’s favor is received or by economic status? This is a crucial gospel question. Add to this one more example of the Belhar Confession’s lack of clarity. “In following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.” (Art. 4) The language of “powerful, privileged, control, harm” sounds more like a progressive socio-economic political statement than it does a normative confession. The gospel is clearly opposed to selfish use of wealth, but could the Belhar Confession be taken as being opposed to privilege and wealth as a whole? Because of such underlying ambiguities, the Belhar Confession does not stand the test of a binding confession. What exactly is the CRC binding itself to if it adopts the Belhar Confession as a fourth confession?
One final concern regarding the Belhar Confession deals with consensus. Confessions are designed to create unity. Unity is best achieved when an issue arises from the bottom up or from the grass roots. Adoption of the Belhar Confession, however, feels more like a top down approach. We have been told that this is the “gift of the Belhar.” How can you refuse a gift? The burden of proof, it seems, does not stand with those who wish to adopt it but with those who do not. This is not a path to unity. Rather than unifying our denomination, adopting this confession may lead to unnecessary division.
With thanksgiving to God, the Christian Reformed Church already has a clear and compelling gospel oriented statement regarding racism that ought to be reconsidered as a testimony. The 1996 report to Synod, “God’s Diverse and Unified Family” wonderfully explains the gospel and its implications for racial reconciliation and unity. (www.crcna.org/site_uploads/uploads/racerelations/diversefamily.pdf) Let us reaffirm our commitment to racial diversity and harmony by recommitting ourselves to this statement.
Given the above discussion, the Council of First Byron CRC overtures Synod not to adopt the Belhar Confession as a fourth confession of the CRC.
1. The Belhar Confession lacks the content and clarity to serve as a normative confession.
2. Our denomination already has clear and compelling gospel oriented statements regarding racial reconciliation and unity such as “God’s Diverse and Unified Family.”
Done in Council-December 6, 2011
Bill Verwys, President
Steve Snyder, Clerk