Monday, June 1, 2009

The Belhar Confession & The RCA

Not long ago I listened to a sermon on the Belhar Confession (click here to read the confession). I learned that the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America (RCA) is meeting in a couple of weeks to consider its adoption. If adopted, it would stand alongside the Three Forms of Unity as the RCA’s official statement of belief.

This confession was created in 1982 in South Africa as a means to confront apartheid. As such, it clearly condemns the sins of racism, discrimination and segregation but it goes further to advocate unity, reconciliation and God’s justice. Those are admirable goals but does the church really need another confession to explain the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself”? I think that Leviticus 19 does a fine job illustrating how this is to be lived out.

After reading the confession and listening to this sermon I have one major observation/criticism: that the use of biblical terminology is slippery at best. The unity that is advocated seems broader than the unity Christ prayed for in John 17. In the face of human trafficking along with ‘wars and rumors of wars’ the desire for God’s justice is at least as old as the imprecatory psalms. Yet, I get the distinct impression that this longing for justice is not rooted in the tension of the ‘already…not yet.’ It is a naked belief that God’s justice can largely be achieved by human activity.

Likewise the application of reconciliation (II Corinthians 5) doesn’t ring true to the biblical text. The confession talks about reconciliation as if it is mostly on the horizontal level (i.e. man to man). In the sermon the pastor talked about reconciliation in terms of personal relationships. He said something like, “How many of you have solid friendships with people of another political persuasion? How many of you have close friends of another race? How many of you have close friends who are homosexuals?” While those might be good measurements of whether church members are involved in outreach and evangelism I don’t think that such friendships achieve the reconciliation spoken of by the Apostle Paul in II Corinthians 5.

In that passage Paul notes that God has been active, in the person of Jesus Christ, reconciling us (the elect) to himself. This reconciliation involves ‘not counting men’s sins against them’ (5:19). All believers have been given this ‘ministry of reconciliation’ and have been sent out into the world as God’s ambassadors (5:20). Verse 20 ends with Paul’s admonition that the Corinthians to be reconciled to God. What is this ministry of reconciliation? It appears to have two components. On the one hand Christians have been entrusted with a message of reconciliation to be heralded to a world in rebellion towards God. Reconciliation with God can only be achieved through faith in Jesus Christ. On the other hand Christians are called to live in a state of constant reconciliation to a holy God (vs. 20).

The Belhar Confession appears to overlook this biblical distinction. It argues for a type of reconciliation apart from the biblical Jesus. Moreover, its reconciliation is largely based on the horizontal plane between people.

I am not alone in my concerns. Richard Mouw has weighed in on an unforeseen application of the Belhar Confession – advocacy for gay and lesbian rights. Read,
Mouw’s Musings - The President’s Blog » Allan Boesak: Earlier versus Later

Similarly, RCA pastor, Ken DeYoung of Lansing, Michigan has his own concerns:
DeYoung, Restless, and Reformed: The Belhar Confession: Yea or Nay

In my opinion the RCA would be better off to not adopt the Belhar Confession choosing instead to put its energy into teaching and applying the Three Forms of Unity.


Rae Whitlock said...

Well, Belhar was passed this morning at GS. Now to see if its powers will be used for good or for evil.

Dave Sarafolean said...


I think that it will distract the denomination and contribute to its downfall. How? Well the RCA is not doing a particularly good job teaching or subscribing to the Three Forms of Unity (Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession and Canons of Dordt). A fourth confession diverts attention from that problem and causes people to focus on its application as a measure of true biblical health.
Don't get me wrong, I think that there are some admirable things about the Belhar but it really smacks of social gospel.

Though it may have passed the General Synod vote it does not become church law until a majority of classes approve it over the coming year. We shall see.