Rev. Spronk is pastor of Peace Protestant Reformed Church in Lansing, Illinois.
The synods of the Reformed Church of America (RCA) and the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) moved towards adopting the Belhar Confession to serve as a fourth form of unity along with the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt. The RCA’s website (www.rca.org/ Page.aspx?pid=4073) contains the following explanation of the Belhar’s status:
Delegates at the 2009 General Synod discussed the Belhar Confession in advisory committees and on the plenary floor. They voted to adopt the confession as a fourth standard, a decision that needs to be ratified by a two-thirds majority of the RCA’s 46 classes, which will report their votes to General Synod in 2010.
According to the CRC’s Acts of Synod 2009 (p. 604; available atwww.crcna.org/site_uploads/uploads/resources/synodical/2009_acts.pdf) the following motion was adopted: “That synod propose to Synod 2012 the adoption of the Belhar Confession as part of the standards of unity of the CRC (as a fourth Confession)….”
In the next three years the two denominations that have the closest historical ties to the Protestant Reformed Churches in America will likely officially adopt the Belhar Confession as a church standard. How far apart we are! How sad!
The Belhar Confession was adopted first by the synod of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC) in South Africa in 1986. The DRMC was established by the exclusively white Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa (DRC) to be a church for black people. Apartheid was still in place as the system of government in South Africa in 1986. This was the system of government that enforced racial segregation and the rule of the minority (whites) over the majority (blacks). Sadly, the Dutch Reformed Church also practiced racial segregation by forming separate churches for blacks instead of allowing them to join the white churches. The DRC was guilty of horrible sin and it is understandable that the DRMC would be greatly offended by this situation. Indeed it is understandable that in such intolerable circumstances the DRMC would feel compelled to take bold action—even the bold action of adopting a new confession that addresses the issue of racial segregation in the church, which it did in adopting the Belhar Confession. However, the Belhar Confession is not a Reformed Confession and is not worthy of being adopted by Reformed Churches alongside of the three forms of unity. The Belhar Confession is seriously flawed.
A preliminary objection to the Belhar is that it is unnecessary. Yes, one can understand why a denomination that is forced to accept racial segregation would think about writing a new confession, but a new one is not necessary because the old ones already address this issue. Especially the Heidelberg Catechism in LD 21 Q/A 54 and 55 addresses the issue of the unity of the church very clearly. The answer to Q 54 explains the catholicity of the church by stating that the church is gathered “out of the whole human race,” meaning from every nation, tribe, and tongue. The answer to Q 55 explains the communion of the saints, stating
that all and everyone who believes, being members of Christ, are, in common, partakers of Him and of all His riches and gifts; secondly, that everyone must know it to be his duty, readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts, for the advantage and salvation of other members.
This Lord’s Day clearly condemns the segregation of members of the church along racial lines as a sin against the catholicity of the church and disobedience to the command to seek the communion of the saints.
Perhaps some feel that a confession is necessary to address the issue of segregation because the other three forms of unity do not extensively treat the issue. The problem with that thinking is that there are other serious issues that are not addressed extensively in the Three Forms of Unity, and the number of confessions would multiply exceedingly if a new one would be written to address each issue.
Another objection to the Belhar Confession is that it is more of a statement on social issues than on ecclesiastical issues. Along with promoting justice and unity in the church, the Belhar calls for seeking justice and unity in the world. The confession states that
the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice.
Perhaps we can concede that there is nothing wrong with witnessing against injustice. But we must take issue with the calling to stand by “people in any form of suffering and need.” The church simply is not mandated by Scripture to seek to put an end to all human suffering. Putting an end to human suffering is the agenda of political parties, not the church.
Which political party does the Belhar line up with? Brian Polet answers that question, writing in the Banner, the official magazine of the CRC, an article entitled “Marxism Comes to the CRC?” Polet writes,
Masking the language of biblical profundities, the Belhar promulgates socialism by demanding obedience to the Marxist ideology of class struggle.
By adopting the Belhar Confession the RCA and CRC would commit themselves to the political ideals of socialism. The adoption of a political agenda by the synods of these two denominations is unsurprising to those who have monitored their meetings over the past several years. When one reads the headlines of the reports on synodical activities such as “Synod Hears Suggestions on Diversity,” “Executive Director Addresses Minority Concerns,” “Synod Seeks to Diversify Leadership,” “Synod Repents the Sin of Racism,” “RCA to Encourage Broader Diversity among Future Synod Delegates,” “Homosexuality Dialogue,” well, one gets the feeling that he is reading updates on the proceedings of the Democratic Party’s national convention rather than the proceedings of an ecclesiastical assembly.
I am reminded of an admonition given by a professor in seminary not to include politics in sermons, not only because the minister has no business pushing a political agenda but also because he will inevitably offend those in the church who have different political ideals. The RCA and CRC claim to be seeking “reconciliation,” but by moving to adopt the Belhar Confession and its “liberal” political agenda, they are inevitably causing division by offending those members who are “conservative” in their political thinking (and being from “conservative” Northwest Iowa, I know there are many of them). As a political document the Belhar is inherently not a form of unity but of division.
Another objection to adopting the Belhar is that it was written by Allan Boesak, a man known to be a heretic. I can almost hear people asking, “What difference does it make who wrote the confession, as long as it is faithful to the Word of God?” True faithfulness to the Word of God is more important than the author of the confession, and we shall address that issue presently; however, the author is also important. Confessions serve as doctrinal standards for the church and her members and as the basis for the unity of the church. When the church believes it is time to write a confession that will be such a standard of truth and basis for unity she has vested interest in knowing that the one who will be writing the confession knows and loves the truth. We have that confidence with the TFU. When the Reformed people in the Lowlands determined it was necessary to write a confession to distinguish the Reformed faith from the detestable teachings of the Anabaptists, they looked to the thoroughly orthodox minister Guido de BrÃ¨s. When Frederick III determined a confession was needed as a tool for teaching children and for promoting unity in the church, he did not think who wrote the confession was a minor matter but enlisted two staunchly orthodox and well trained men, Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus, for the work. And when it was time to defend the great biblical and Reformed doctrines of grace from the insidious attack of Arminianism, the Canons of Dordt were written by the Great Synod of Dordrecht, that is, by men who are renowned to this day for their orthodoxy and committed to the truth of God’s Word.
So we have three confessions written by men that we are confident were qualified by the Spirit of God for the work. Shall we then adopt a fourth confession by a man who openly denies the truth that Scripture condemns homosexuality (see Banner, Jan. 2009 “Allan Boesak Quits Church Posts over Homosexuality Policy, Belhar” p. 16)? Arguments have erupted over whether or not the Belhar promotes homosexuality (Boesak being one of those who argues it does). While that is a matter worthy of consideration, it still seems to me that Boesak’s status as a heretic is the more important issue. It may be that in the future the Reformed churches will determine that it is time to write another Reformed confession. If she does, let her look to men who love and defend the Reformed faith to write it.
Now we come to the most serious problem with the Belhar Confession, and that is that it promotes false doctrine. This, of course, is denied by the RCA and the CRC. The CRC’s synod adopted the Belhar partially on the ground that “previous synods have expressed no difficulty with the Belhar Confession on biblical grounds.” This is a rather negative statement and does not express the kind of confidence one would like to see expressed by an ecclesiastical assembly that is moving to adopt a fourth confession. For some reason the 2009 synod of the CRC did not go on record stating that the Belhar is thoroughly biblical. I did not find an official statement of the RCA concerning the Belhar’s faithfulness to Scripture. Nevertheless, the actions of the synods of both the RCA and CRC must mean that both synods believe the Belhar is thoroughly biblical. It is not.
The Belhar Confession is often simply unclear and should be rejected on the grounds that, although some statements may not be heretical in themselves, they can easily be interpreted to support false doctrine. One such statement is “God has revealed himself as the one who wishes to bring about justice and peace among people.” This statement is simply not clear enough to be helpful for the church to make a meaningful confession. Some could interpret this statement as declaring God’s purpose to establish peace amongst the elect members of the church—a truth revealed in Scripture. Others could interpret this statement as referring to a desire of God to establish peace amongst all men, elect and reprobate alike—an idea that is definitely unbiblical.
That the authors of the Belhar probably leaned towards the second interpretation (a desire of God for peace amongst all men) is indicated by the next statement, which is patently unbiblical: “God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged.” Again, this statement is unclear. What did the authors of the confession mean by “God of”? This is not made any clearer when the Belhar later states that God “stands…with the wronged.” So apparently God “stands with” the destitute, the poor, and the wronged. Though the Belhar does not spell out what it means that God is the “God of” and “stands with” those who are suffering one form or another of injustice in the world, these statements clearly mean that God loves and wills to help all such people. Thus the point to be made here is not only that the Belhar is once again guilty of setting forth political (clearly Marxist) ideology but that the Belhar teaches a universal love of God for the down and out.
The Bible and the Reformed confessions (the TFU) do not teach that God loves all those who suffer some form of earthly injustice. They teach that God loves all the elect (both rich and poor). This doctrine of election taught by the Bible and the Reformed confessions is fundamental for condemning the horrible sin of segregation in the church that the Belhar Confession was written to condemn. The proper Reformed response to this sin is that in election God has chosen (elected) men and women from every nation, tribe, and tongue to be a part of the one body or church of Jesus Christ. Since in God’s eternal counsel the members of the church are one, they must join together in the church institute and form one body. To deny people membership in the church on the basis of skin color, or for any other reason that does not have to do with doctrine, is sin against God’s decree of election.
The Belhar does not mention election, and therefore it cannot be adopted as the Reformed response to segregation in the church. But even worse, the Belhar contradicts the truth of election, God’s love for some, and teaches a love of God for all. Not only, then, is the Belhar not biblical, but it is not confessional! It contradicts the other three creeds to which it is supposedly going to be added as a form for unity. It contradicts especially the Canons of Dordrecht. The Canons were written to reject the Arminian error that, among other things, taught a universal love of God for all men. The Canons reject that teaching, which means that the Canons also reject the Belhar Confession.
That the Belhar must be rejected is clear to one who knows and loves the teachings of the Reformed confessions and who knows and loves the doctrine of election. By moving toward adopting the Belhar, the RCA and the CRC show that they have gone a long way towards forgetting about the Reformed confessions that already exist and the doctrine of election. (In the August 2009 issue of the Banner, Rev. Hoksbergen states “election remains a topic rarely addressed from the pulpits of our churches” (cf. “The New Calvinism” p. 86). What this means is that they are moving away from the Reformed faith. Those who remain committed to the Reformed faith weep as they see once faithful denominations fall further away.