the gospel and multi-culturalism

The new issue of the Calvin Seminary Forum has an intriguing dialogue among Calvin faculty about the Christian Reformed Church’s impending vote (2012) on whether to adopt the Belhar Confession as a fourth confession of faith (alongside the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort).

The United Reforming Church in Southern Africa, a denomination of mixed-race and black people, wrote the Belhar in 1986.  It is now asking other, predominantly white Reformed denominations to stand with it in its opposition to racism and all forms of injustice. 

Everyone agrees that the Belhar eloquently calls for unity, reconciliation, and justice in the church.  Everyone also agrees that they would really like to stand with their oppressed brothers and sisters in this common confession.  The problem is that the Belhar has problems. 

John Bolt’s essay explains that the Belhar doesn’t contain enough gospel.  It does not say that forgiveness in Christ is our path to unity, but rather asserts that we will achieve reconciliation when we side with the poor and oppressed.  But without the gospel—which is what a church confession must be about—the Belhar leaves us where we are, locked “into the dual categories of oppressor and oppressed, perpetrator and victim, rich and poor, black and white, with no mechanism for rising above them.”

John Cooper observes that the Belhar was drafted by confessional Christians, who understand that social justice is an outworking of the traditional gospel, and progressive Christians (read liberals), who believe that God is redemptively at work even in non-Christian attempts to bring reconciliation.  Progressives think that “Sin is whatever human activities impede community, restrict freedom, and cause alienation among God’s creatures,” and “All dynamics that promote liberation, reconciliation, and inclusion of individuals in community are redemptive manifestations of God’s coming kingdom.”

So the confessional Christians who wrote the Belhar believe they are opposing such sins as racism and economic exploitation.  The progressive authors would check these and add the sin of opposing homosexual activity, for this needlessly ostracizes and oppresses homosexuals.

Cooper concludes that the Belhar is “clearly ambiguous” and so “it cannot perform an essential function of a confession—to clarify what the church teaches.  The Three Forms are clear on what they address.  But the Belhar is not clear even on some doctrines necessary for a confessional Reformed perspective on salvation, racism, justice, and reconciliation in church and society.” 

It seems to me that the Belhar is a test for the church.  Will it soften its commitment to the clarity of the gospel for the lesser good of multi-culturalism?  Will we “hear [the Belhar] with our hearts,” as one professor says, or will we read it with our eyes wide open to the dangers this well-intentioned confession represents?  Some things are too important to ever be ambiguous about, and I would think that the gospel is at the top of that list.

On a side note, I wonder about the political implications of adopting this confession.  The Reformed Church of America recently passed the Belhar with only a 2% majority, so it would be politically difficult to put the Belhar on the same level as the other Three Forms of Unity.  I’m assuming that signing it is not yet mandatory, as Kevin DeYoung is still a minister in the RCA.  If obliging it does become mandatory, would this confession for unity from South Africa divide the Reformed church in North America?

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  1. I’ll try to keep my cynacism in check, but I really do wonder about the motivation behind adopting this as a fourth form of unity. Did the RCA and CRC finally wake up and realize that the world includes people who are not Dutch? (That’s obviously a joke, as any Reformed person could tell you – if you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much!)

    I do think this is a logical ending point if you take amill, missional theology seriously. It’s not the only ending point, but it is one of them. I just don’t see how they can maintain the tradition of the Geneva Academy and the Protestant Scholastics and embrace an intentionally ambigious confession. I agree with Cooper’s assessment: this is an important document that should be officially endorsed, but a level below that of confession and within the already established framework of the Three Forms and the contemporary theological statements on equality and justice. In my opinion, promoting the Belhar to confessional status not only cheapens the historic confessions on which the RCA and CRC are based, it also feels like pandering.

  2. I am thinking there are perhaps some parallels to the PCUSA adoption of the Barmen Declaration of 1935. The historical settings for Barmen and Belhar are somewhat similar in terms of the political culture and times in which both were formulated. We are told that after the war some conservative Lutherns took issue with the Barmen Declaration on several points, but I’ll leave that discussion to those who know more about it then I do…

    On another side I was recently made aware of a situation in a certain loose association of churches where one of the the points of contention, among a host of others, was the question of updating the language of their common confession from its 1600’s “King James” language. The argument over that and other related issues has been pretty sharp on both sides.

    These situations raise the fundamental question of what the nature, scope and place of a confession should be in the life of a church. (Hint to Mike as a subject for him to tackle in another post in the future.)

    Cheers…

  3. “Everyone agrees that the Belhar eloquently calls for unity, reconciliation, and justice in the church. Everyone also agrees that they would really like to stand with their oppressed brothers and sisters in this common confession. The problem is that the Belhar has problems.

    John Bolt’s essay explains that the Belhar doesn’t contain enough gospel. It does not say that forgiveness in Christ is our path to unity, but rather asserts that we will achieve reconciliation when we side with the poor and oppressed.”

    Hm. I am thinking of the gospel…a few scriptures,

    “Righteousness and justice are the foundations of His throne.” Psalm 97:2

    And i am thinking of the heart of Paul, to the church at Corinth re: a man who “has his father’s wife:”

    “And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you!…deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved…is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? Purge the evil person from among you!” -I Cor. 5

    So we see…Paul rebuking the Corinthian church for their passivity, illucidating what of “justice” and “righteousness.” looks like.

    Yet, later in II Cor., he says,
    “Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.
    2 Cor 2:5-7 (ESV)

    So we see, “justice” and “righteousness” and “forgiveness” working together. Paul urged the errant church at Corinth,

    “We implore you on behalf of Christ; be reconciled to God.”
    II Cor. 5:20

    But without the gospel—which is what a church confession must be about—the Belhar leaves us where we are, locked “into the dual categories of oppressor and oppressed, perpetrator and victim, rich and poor, black and white, with no mechanism for rising above them.”

    Now, that is certainly true.

    Paul says…we achieve reconciliation when we are reconciled to God, and his views. Without an appropriate gospel understanding of “is it not those inside of the church that you are to judge,” without an understanding of justice and righteousness within the church, forgiveness and reconciliation and healing among people will be hindered.

    grace and peace,

    Martha

  4. I appreciate you bringing this document to our attention. It is beautifully written and until something better is penned it should be read by all Christians. How tragic it seems that such a document of reconciliation might be used to divide.

    As a side note…I rather doubt that it will become ‘mandatory’ in the RCA. There may be edges that demand some type of compliance one way or another, but the gathering swirl should win the day and ‘compliance’ will stay ‘ambiguous’ for the most part.

    Much of what is going on in this ‘illustration’ is what Tickle describes in The Great Emergence. The gathering center is gaining momentum and the edges are taking their predictive stand. Have you read this book yet? Quite a time ago you indicated that you would read it and I am still interested in your opinion of it.

  5. Unfortunately, Belhar is not about reconciliation and it certainly is not about the work of Christ. It is about replacing Christianity with statism and a different Gospel altogether than what appears in the Scriptures.

    The Gospel itself undermines racism and all that undergirded the old apartheid regime in South Africa and Jim Crow in the United States. That people used the Bible to justify these things does not change the fact that they were wrong, very wrong.

    Being that I am not Dutch (and, therefore, not much), I am not part of the whole Dutch Reformed ghetto and all of the inside politics of the Dutch churches. However, I am from a Reformed denomination and have been brought up in Calvinist circles all of my life and am quite familiar with all of the tenets of Reformed Faith. That being said, I constantly marvel at the fact that many who have claimed belief in such a faith also hold to a belief that the Scriptures are not enough, and that we also have to accept whatever comes from Jim Wallis and Brian Mclaren as being equal with the Gospel.

    There also is the larger problem of the entire Reformed “Creation Mandate” theology that holds that if the “right people” can grab the levers of political power, then we can restore Eden. In the end, what is restored is tyranny, but that brass ring of statism apparently is so tempting that evangelicals of both the right and left continually abandon the Gospel for it.

    We have criticized the Roman Catholic Church for its policies of syncretism, yet it seems to me that evangelicals have done the same thing. However, instead of combining Christianity with local or tribal gods, instead, we combine Christianity with the worship of Caesar himself.

  6. I guess I am glad that in Michigan, they are hot on the trail of stopping injustice. While I don’t know if this is what they in mind at places like Calvin, nonetheless it does fit with the current mentality that we are seeing these days.

    http://overlawyered.com/2010/10/denounced-anonymously-for-seeking-christian-roommate-request/

  7. Are you suggesting that believing in ‘forgiveness of sins’ is gospel but racial reconciliation and caring for the poor stand at a lesser level in our understanding of the gospel?

    Thus this confession is of lesser value?

  8. Ironic that the book of Ruth doesn’t contain much gospel either – at least not from an evangelical wealthy white euro-centric perspective.

    On the other hand, if I were a poor middle eastern woman living four thousand years ago without a home, without a child, without a meal… “Give us this day our daily bread” comes to mind. [If I were a South African enslaved black person trying to follow Christ, there is a calling and hope as well.]

    In Ruth, the graces of Naomi & Boaz almost perfectly reflect our God who protects his people, the love and compassion of Jesus Christ, and the words of the Apostle Paul who invited people saying, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”

    Not enough gospel? If the Belhar doesn’t contain enough gospel, then neither does the bibilcal text contain enough gospel. Do we really prefer to condense the gospel to to our claims of what it is rather than what it claims for itself?

  9. Words like “standing with the poor” and even “racial reconciliation” have to be more than slogans. I really am weary of having people throw out those terms triumphantly as though they are self-defining.

    Of course, using words like “Eurocentric” basically identify you as being someone who wants us to believe a Politically-Correct Gospel, with you setting all of the rules of what we are to believe.

    As an economist, I see laws in poor countries that stand in the way of entrepreneurs just trying to get on the ground floor, yet we never hear the “social justice” people saying anything about that because it conflicts with the way they want the world to be. Instead, we hear terms like “the rich” and “the poor” thrown around with no meaning. To a lot of people on the Left, the only thing we need to do is to confiscate lots of property from the “rich,” “give it to the poor” (through governmental means, of course), and we have achieved justice.

    Yes, the kleptocracies of the Third World (not to mention the kleptocracies of this country) are proof positive that this version of “social justice” really works.

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