Why Not Belhar?

Over the past two years I have struggled
a great deal whether to support
the adoption of the Belhar Confession
or not. Part of me wants to support it.
Like everyone else in the Reformed Church
in America–or almost everyone else for
that matter–I think apartheid was evil,
racism is wrong, and church unity is good.
I like the idea of adopting a confession
that comes from the global South and may
speak to non-whites in a way that our present
confessions do not. I agree with most
of the Belhar Confession; much of it simply
a restatement of scripture. I want to support
the Belhar Confession–others whom I
respect do. But in the end I cannot.

I have three main objections to adoption
of the Belhar Confession:

Some of the Language in Belhar
Cannot be Supported by Scripture

I have questions about whether Belhar’s
terminology of “natural diversity” can
be used to support the inclusion of practicing
homosexuals in the life of the church.
I have concerns about what it means that
God “wishes…to bring true peace among
people” when Jesus himself said that he
came not to bring peace on the earth, but
division (Matthew 10:34-35). I’m also hesitant
to accept language that encourages
visible unity at all costs (“anything which
threatens this unity may have no place in
the church”). Unity does not trump all else.
Real spiritual unity must always be based
on truth. And the truth entails not just a
true faith (which can be difficult to judge),
but the proclamation of and support for the
true faith. A Roman Catholic or a Schleiermachian
liberal may have true faith despite
her system of theology, but because
her system is so off, visible unity between
our churches is not advisable.

These concerns are important, but not
fatally critical. The most troubling line of
the confession is this one: “We believe that
God, in a world full of injustice and enmity,
is in a special way the God of the destitute,
the poor and the wronged.”
To be sure, the
Bible is full of examples of God’s heart for
the poor and the oppressed. But it goes
too far to say he is in a special way a God
to them. The covenant promise–I will be
your God and you will be my people (language
Belhar echoes here)–is for those
 
Was God a God to Job, Zacchaeus,
Mary, and Martha in a less special
way because they were well-to-do?
The message of Scripture is that any
of us, rich or poor, can belong to
God through faith in Christ, not that
economic status renders some closer
to God’s special love than others.
 

who put their faith in God, not simply
those who are poor or oppressed. In fact,
Abraham, the man of faith and the model
for all covenantal blessing (Galatians 3:5-9), was especially rich (Genesis 13:5-6).
Is God less God to him than to the poor
man who rejects Christ? Was God a God
to Job, Zacchaeus, Mary, and Martha in
a less special way because they were well-to-do? There are plenty of verses to support
the contention that God cares for the
poor and oppressed (believe me, many of
them have been quoted to me often), that
God uses the poor things of this world to
show the greater glory of his gospel, but
are there any verses to suggest that God is
their covenantal God apart from faith? Or
are there any verses to suggest that God
looks on the believing poor with more favor
than the believing non-poor? God does
not show partiality to the poor, nor does
he defer to the great (Leviticus 19:15). The
message of scripture is that any of us, rich
or poor, can belong to God through faith
in Christ, not that economic status renders
some closer to God’s special love than others.
The “preferential option for the poor”
is an idea owing more to liberation theology
than to careful exegesis.

We Do Not Agree on What it Means to
Confess Belhar Together

I am concerned about what it will
mean for the Reformed Church to confess
the Belhar Confession together. I understand
that possible abuses of a confession
should not be a knock against a confession
itself, but as many RCA voices have pointed
out, adopting the Belhar Confession only
makes sense if we are truly going to confess
it together. Thus, it becomes important to
listen to how others are already “confessing”
Belhar. Those advocating the adoption
of Belhar do not simply want us to affirm
an anti-apartheid document.
They are passionate about Belhar
because of its many implications.
For example:

  • Eugene Heideman, former professor
    and denominational executive,
    wrote in the May 2008 issue
    of Perspectives
    , “Although the Belhar
    Confession spoke in the first
    instance to the South African
    situation, it continues to address
    attitudes and circumstances that
    prevail in many forms in every
    church, including North American
    Reformed churches. In North
    America the past is still very much
    with us, not only in terms of race but
    also gender, ethnicity, and immigrating
    populations.”
  • The Report of the Commission on Christian
    Action for the 2007 General Synod
    stated: “In nearly every issue attended
    to by the commission in 2006 and
    2007 thus far, their labors have been
    enhanced by the witness of the Belhar
    Confession in affirmation of the essential
    Christian principles of justice, unity,
    and reconciliation. The members
    of the commission have informally adopted
    Belhar in their hearts and practice.”
    The issues from the Commission
    on Christian Action included: the farm
    bill, Sudanese refugees, the Iraq War,
    socially screening the RCA retirement
    funds, immigration, minimum wage
    increases, and America’s embargo of
    Cuba. In particular, the Belhar is quoted in support for higher minimum wage
    and policies protecting undocumented
    immigrants. The Confession is used
    a number of times in the RCA Study
    Guide to speak to the Israel-Palestine
    conflict, always in a way that sides with
    the Palestinians. Good Christians can
    disagree on how to handle these issues.
    They are complicated political, economic,
    foreign policy issues that don’t
    always have one obvious Christian solution.
    But for many in the RCA, Belhar
    speaks directly to these issues, and
    where Belhar “speaks” it is always in
    support of left-wing policies.
  • Seth Kaper-Dale, writing in Reformed
    Review
    , suggests that Belhar applies to
    the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the war
    in Iraq, global economics, immigration
    rights, green house gas emissions,
    abortion, social welfare, and taxation
    policies. For Kaper-Dale and many like
    him, Belhar’s talk of justice lends support
    for almost any cause that can be
    put in the broad category of “social justice.”

Equally troubling, Belhar has already
been used in support for the full inclusion
of homosexuals into the life of the church.
Kaper-Dale writes, “There are clauses and
stances now in our life together as a Reformed
Church in America that sometimes
explicitly, and often implicitly, imply that
human and social factors are to be a consideration
in determining membership of
the church. If we don’t address in our polity,
statements that limit some humans
based on gender, sexual orientation or any
other human or societal factor, I don’t know
if we’re ready for the Belhar Confession.”

In the RCA study guide to Belhar, on
page 16, there are instructions to go to
www.understandingprejudice.org, where
prejudices like homophobia and heterosexism
are uncovered and links to lesbian and
pro-gay marriage sites are offered. Several
times in the study guide the pro-gay paper
“Exclusion, Inclusion, and Participation”
by David Lawrence from the World Alliance
of Reformed Churches is quoted. The link
between homosexuality and Belhar is not
made up by fear-mongering conservatives
out of thin air. The official denominational
study guide points us in that direction.

More to the point, Allen Boesak, under
whose leadership Belhar was first drafted,
recently made headlines when he “dramatically
insisted that the church’s Belhar
Confession demands the defense of the full
rights of gay members. When the synod
rejected this, he announced his intention
to resign from all church offices and left
the synod floor with his wife” (The Banner,
January 16, 2009). If the man responsible
for overseeing the first draft of the Belhar
Confession asserts that support for homosexual
unions and homosexual ordination
is demanded by the Confession, why
should we think that this document will
not be used in the RCA to a similar end?

Richard Mouw, President of Fuller
Theological Seminary, summarizes this
objection well when he writes about the unfortunate
trajectory of his old friend Allan
Boesak:

Boesak was also instrumental in
drafting the 1986 Belhar Confession,
which I welcomed at the
time as an important confessional
statement about race relationships.
He now appeals to
that document in support of his
advocacy for gay-lesbian ordination.
In a recent insightful blog
posting, “The Belhar Confession
& God’s Final Revelation,” Violet
Larson argues that this is a good
reason to question the theological
adequacy of the Belhar Confession,
precisely because of the
use to which it is being put these
days by proponents of full inclusion
on same-sex topics. I agree
with her. While that document
spoke forthrightly against the injustices
of apartheid, it did not
explicitly appeal to biblical authority.
That it can now be seen
by some of its drafters as capable
of being extended to the full inclusion
of active gays and lesbians in
ministry says something about the
weaknesses of Belhar–not as an
important prophetic declaration in
its original context, but as a statement
that can stand on its own as
a normative confession
(emphasis
mine).

Moreover, even some who are quick to
point out that Boesak’s denomination rejected
his interpretation and that the Belhar
Confession doesn’t speak to the issue
of homosexuality, still see Belhar as having
a role to play in the debate. As Paul Janssen
argues in the following essay, “In confessing
the gift and obligation to unity, we
hear Jesus’ call to repentance, for whether
the issue is the church’s approach to homosexuality
or any other issue, we are called
to turn aside from our natural inclination
to cut ourselves off from one another, and
to pay heed to the prayer of Jesus that we
be one.” So in Janssen’s mind, Belhar does
not settle whether homosexuality is right
or wrong, but it does settle the issue that
this is something over which we should not
separate. That settles far too much in my
estimation.


Belhar Confuses Instead of Clarifies

I am not opposed in principle to a new
confession. But a new confession should
clarify some issue that is begging for clarification.
While we certainly have a ways to
go to overcome racial tensions in this country,
I don’t see where we are facing anything
remotely close to the situation that
prompted Belhar in South Africa in the
1980s. We do not honor the anti-apartheid
cause by equating our situation to theirs.
Belhar served a clear purpose in South
Africa. In our context it muddies the waters.
We are told to trust the process, that
over the coming years the RCA will sort
through all the implications of Belhar.
But if, for example, Belhar truly speaks to
issues of immigration, sexuality, and minimum
wage, I would like to know what we
think Belhar says on these matters before
we make our ministers subscribe to this
new confession.

In short, instead of clarifying, Belhar
confuses. We are told it will apply to social
justice issues, but how? It will speak to
our need for unity, but in what way? It will
urge reconciliation, but with whom? At this
point in the life of the Reformed Church
in America, Belhar looks to me like a wax
nose, which is exactly what confessions
ought not to be. True, scripture has been
accused of being a wax nose too. We are
always dealing with battles over interpretations. But confessional statements are supposed
to settle interpretive issues, not raise
new ones. The best of what Belhar affirms
can be found in our existing confessions.
The questionable parts put the timelessness
of Belhar into question.


Conclusion

We must remember that we are talking
about adopting a new confession, not a position
paper. It is not enough to say Belhar
is a gift we must accept. It is not enough to
argue in general terms that unity, justice,
and reconciliation are good things. It is not
enough to applaud multicultural churches
and compassion for the poor as broad concepts.
We must ask ourselves three questions
when considering adopting Belhar as
a new confessional standard: Is it true? Is
it necessary? Is it wise? To which I would
reply, in order: not entirely, not now, and
not in the RCA.

I want to support the Belhar Confession.
Its main thesis–God’s people should
not be separated by race or ethnicity–is
courageous and correct. But the Confession
goes beyond scripture in at least one important
place. And further, those who are
most eager to confess Belhar in our denomination
are often confessing a very different
document than the anti-racism confession
many of us read it to be. Even a cursory
read of the official study guide makes clear
that the RCA leadership understand Belhar
through the lens of progressive politics
and World Council of Churches-style ecumenism.
For the RCA leadership and other
supporters, Belhar is that most perfect of
documents, an exhortation to Westernstyle
multiculturalism and an affirmation
of Sojourners-style social engagement.

The Belhar Confession, for all its good
words and noble intentions, creates more
problems in the RCA than it solves. A “no”
on Belhar is not a “no” to multiculturalism,
learning from the global South, or racial
reconciliation. It is a “no” to an ambiguous,
open-ended document that, despite
the relentless and one-sided efforts of the
RCA leadership, is better left as a statement
of South African courage than a
binding confession that defines us a denomination
for years, decades, and possibly
centuries to come.

Kevin DeYoung is the senior
pastor at University Reformed
Church in East Lansing, Michigan.
He is author of Just Do
Something: A Liberating Approach
to Finding God’s Will
(Moody Publishers, 2009), as
well as several other books.