As a part of the Seminarian Seminar, while I have the privilege to watch the proceedings of the General Synod, I do not have the power to vote (some of us have the power to speak, but that doesn’t include me). So, I am submitting here a few reasons why I think YOU (that is, any of you delegates who are checking this blog) should vote for the acceptance of the Belhar Confession today.
1- It says something crucial about God and His identity that is not explicit in the other confessions.
God is a reconciling God, who reconciles the whole world to Himself through his Son (2 Cor 5), who has conquered sin and death by his resurrection. Therefore as the body of Christ, we must be a reconciling people (Eph 2:11ff). In this we must be fundamentally concerned with our unity as a body (1 Cor 12), and with matters of justice for the poor and oppressed (Amos 5): these things are what make us distinctive, and our voice distinctive, as a witness to the world. This is the heart of the Belhar, and understanding this is critical to understanding the Gospel, and well as God Himself. Yet, as revered as the other three standards are, they do not make this critical piece of the Gospel explicit in the same way that Belhar does.
We need the Belhar for the sake of being a more thorough witness to who God is, and consequently who WE are, as well as what is God’s hope for the world. Justice and reconciliation are INSEPARABLE from the Gospel.
2- Its use in worship and study will help us become a more confessional church again.
I have heard a few times now that the issue of the Belhar is relatively insignificant, because today, primarily, the RCA is no longer a confessional church. However, since I’ve been here, I’ve heard (from pastors and students) of the Belhar being used in churches around the country, in a variety of ways, both in liturgy/worship and in study. Is it possible that the Belhar’s passage might actually lead to a revival of the usage of confessions in our churches? Is it possible, also, that the use of the Belhar will also lead us to rediscover our other confessions?
We need the Belhar because confessions need to be revived as a part of our worship, and the Belhar contains the necessary immediate relevance that make it viable to do so.
3- It will also help us become more ecumenical.
The other American denominations are watching us this week. The rest of the world is watching us, the RCA, this week.
We need to fully embrace the Belhar so that the rest of the world can see this as our commitment to both internal unity (within the RCA), and external unity (through ecumenical dialogue). In doing so, and being the first U.S. denomination to fully accept it as a confesion, I believe other denominations will quickly follow suit (and give us another point of connection with other Christian bodies)….but someone must take the first step!
4- The arguments against the Belhar are based on a faulty understanding of what confessions are.
I have read and heard virtually every argument against the Belhar at this point… they usually come down to a concern regarding how certain phrases in it might be used to support a position that she or he may not hold (e.g., support of homosexuality)… as if accepting the Belhar will tie their hands and keep them from being able to speak from their viewpoint. Yet, NO confession is meant to function as a pillar, an unmovable, static repository of propositional truths (or, as a useless mausoleum of once important issues that are now irrelevant). No, confessions are a RIVER in which we swim… a stream that originates in a particular moment in time, yet flows into a context much larger than its own and still finds applicability, because something about it touches the very heart of God.
We need the Belhar because it is a uniquely rich river in which we can swim (that is, work, worship, and use to interpret scripture)… one that, while the other confessions were written to help us understand and be assured in who we ARE before God, the Belhar offers to help us understand who we should desire TO BECOME… it confronts us, rather than assures us. This makes it more threatening, but it is no less God’s will upon us… it is a prophetic text.
5- We are in a moment of crisis.
Forged in the fires of apartheid, which was certainly a “crisis” moment (as all creeds/confessions are written in such times), we stand today as the American church at a crisis moment of our own: an increasingly diverse and fragmented, individualistic world, that instills deep bitterness if not hatred for others, tribalism, and profound injustice (the divide between rich and poor being wider than ever). The church, rather than confront these things as contrary to the Gospel, ends up looking a lot like the culture instead, and the question becomes: does the church offer the world anything different than what the world offers?
We need the Belhar because with it we make a stand to the world to say what we believe God to call us to be… and as we live in it, we as the church will once again grow into a more viable witness to the world.
Regarding the two main contentions (as far as I can tell):
The “special way” clause (i.e., God is with the poor and broken “in a special way.”)— I would ask someone who contends with this phrase, first of all, to examine your own reaction when you encounter someone who has dealt with particular hardship. Do you treat them the same, as if nothing tragic has occurred? Doing so would be quite cruel in most cases. Does not God’s heart, therefore, ache abundantly MORE than ours, when he sees his people suffer? Would that be unfair to those who are not suffering?
Is not the primary defining characteristic of our God, according to John, LOVE?
Biblical themes also support God’s concern for the poor: God’s deliverance of slaves because he had “heard their cries,” the numerous provisions made for the poor in the Law, God’s condemnation of Israel when they refused to care for the poor, and of course, Jesus, who at the “inauguration point” of his ministry (Luke 4) read from Isaiah that the word of the Lord was upon (him), to preach good news to the poor….set the captives free, break the yoke of the oppressed, give sight to the blind, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Jesus later said that it is MORE difficult for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19, I think…?) And if that wasn’t enough, he later blatantly identifies himself with the poor in Matthew 25: “Whatever you did for the least of these (hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless)…. You did for me.”
The concept of God being with the poor in a “special way” is biblical. We need to be reminded of it and to confess it, for as Matthew 25 implies, our own souls depends on it.
The “natural diversity” clause– It appears to me that some people read this particular phrase and immediately read “homosexuality” into it… and at that point, stop reading and assume that the Belhar allows some kind of radical liberal agenda. They must not be reading the rest, for as the rest of the paragraph states, the rejection is of any doctrine where absolutizing this diversity leads to “hinder(ing) or break(ing) the visible and active unity of the church, or even leads to…separate church formation.”
So, to violate Belhar, there must be a doctrine, which absolutizes categories of people, and leads to a breaking of church unity. Those three things must all be present, if you are reading the Belhar literally.
Basically, regarding homosexuality, to vote against Belhar means that you wish the church to reserve the right to a) form doctrines that permanently separate gays and lesbians from straight people and b) to kick them out of your churches. Is not wanting to give up these “rights” what the fear is really all about?
Actually, this section threatens gays and lesbians as much as those who are straight. It implies that to separate because of difference is wrong… the Belhar compels those who wish to split from a “hate the sin, love the sinner” kind of church…. to stay and work through their differences, as much as those who want to split from an “open and affirming” kind of church…. are compelled to do everything possible to stay unified.
The Belhar threatens all of us, because our natural, sinful tendency is to divide and categorize each other, and to either fight or flee when the going gets tough. To stay unified in the midst of diversity is what makes the church unique, and it is only possible because of Jesus Christ.
Okay, I have said my piece… now you vote based on your own conscience.
(Remember, as a delegate you are responsible to voting your conscience, not obligated to represent the people in your church/classis.)
In whatever happens today, Solo Deo Gloria.