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Why Not Belhar?

By January 1, 2010 No Comments
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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, 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.


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.