Last spring I posted a piece criticizing the proposed adoption of the Belhar Confession as a confessional document by some Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America. I received a lot of criticism for my position on the subject. And the criticisms came from many good friends who saw my blog posting as a betrayal of sorts.
My critics ought not to have worried about the impact of my comments on the actual votes. Both the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America moved toward adoption at their synods this past summer, and now the Special Committee on the Belhar Confession of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has announced that they are unanimously in favor of adopting Belhar at next year’s General Assembly.
Let me make it clear that I like the Belhar Confession. I served for several years as chair of the Christian Reformed Church’s Synodical Committee on Race Relations, and expended much energy in opposing apartheid policies, as well as the heretical racist rationales for supporting apartheid offered by several white Dutch Reformed bodies in South Africa. By the time the Belhar Confession appeared in 1986, I was living in California, and actively involved in an Episcopal-sponsored anti-apartheid center in Pasadena. Belhar spoke for me, and it still does on the issues to which it was addressed at that point in recent history. My appreciation of Belhar was also enhanced by knowing that it was authored primarily by Dirkie Smit, a solid Reformed theologian who was one of my Afrikaner heroes in the anti-apartheid struggle.
So why am I opposed to our—the CRC, RCA, and PC(USA)— adopting Belhar as a confessional document? When I wrote about this earlier I mentioned that Allan Boesak, also one of the gifted anti-apartheid spokespersons in South Africa’s Reformed community, had recently appealed to Belhar in support of including active gays and lesbians in the church’s ministerial ranks. I might also have mentioned that many fear that Belhar will now be used to reinforce an unnuanced anti-Israeli stance.
I think those worries are real. But my critics, many of whom share my views about same-sex issues and Middle East matters, rightly insist that this is no reason to oppose Belhar as such. What we must do, they rightly argue, is to make sure that Belhar is understood as a prophetic word against racial and ethnic discrimination within the Christian community.
Fair enough. A lot of good things can be misused. But I promise to be ready to say “We told you so” if this happens with Belhar.
My real concern about adopting Belhar has to do with the broader issue of the nature of confessional integrity in our Reformed and Presbyterian churches. I think I know all three denominations very well. I was raised in an RCA pastor’s home, and attended two of that denomination’s colleges and one of its seminaries. I was an active member of the CRC for 17 years. And for two decades now I have been similarly active in the PC(USA).
When I was studying at an RCA seminary in the 1960s, one of my more conservative professors explained the differing views on the status of the Reformed “Standards of Unity”—Heidelberg, Belgic, and Dort—in this way. The CRC, he said, takes them very seriously. If you are Christian Reformed you are expected really to believe what is in them. This is why, he observed, that when the CRC decides that something in the confessions is no longer binding—such as the Belgic Confession’s statement that the magistrate has a duty to preserve and protect “true religion”—they go on record as saying so. Some people in the RCA, on the other hand, said the professor, tend to see the book of confessions as a kind of museum. They periodically walk through the museum and say things like: “Yes, they really believed that in the past. I respect them for it. I identify with the community that once said that kind of thing.” He made it clear that he preferred the CRC approach.
I think the professor had it right at the time. But today all three of the aforementioned denominations basically endorse the museum approach. Or it may be a little more like a “Great Books” approach. The documents from the past are all there up on the shelf, and we all acknowledge their importance, but some of us really like James Baldwin and others of us prefer Jane Austen.
I personally endorse the older CRC approach. As someone who officially subscribed, in the CRC, to the Belgic Confession, I publicly dissented, as a matter of conscience, from the article that required me to “detest” the Anabaptists, as well as the Heidelbergers’ harsh verdict on the Catholic mass. I was grateful when the CRC declared that these formulations are no longer binding.
These days it is rather common for people—CRC folks included—who have taken ordination vows publicly to express their disagreements with what I take to be essential Reformed doctrines. Indeed, I am often treated as a curiosity of sorts when I make it clear that I still subscribe to the actual doctrinal content of the Reformed “Great Books”—predestination, individual election, substitutionary atonement, the reality of hell, Christ as the only Way.
So, let me put it bluntly. If we—for all practical purposes—don’t care about genuinely subscribing to the actual content of, say, the Belgic or the Westminster confessions, why would we think that adopting Belhar would be in any way binding on the consciences of persons who take ordination vows? When detached from the content of the rest of Reformed thought, many of Belhar’s formulations—as stand-alone theological declarations—are dangerously vague. Belhar deserves confessional status only in a community that takes the rest of its confessions with utmost seriousness.
The most compelling case being made for adopting Belhar is for me the pleas of underrepresented racial-ethnic minority groups in our denominations. They have a right to ask us to declare our firm conviction that racism and ethno-centrism are not only unjust, they are theological heresies. But I fear they are assuming that we are more committed to confessional integrity than we actually are. When all of this debate is over and Belhar—as is very likely—is on the confessional shelf, I hope they will push us hard on whether we really take that whole shelf seriously.