When Excellence is Not Good Enough

Like many of you who will read this post today, I have eagerly and perhaps somewhat curiously been waiting to see how the advisory committee responding to the overtures related to the Belhar Confession would present their recommendations to the CRC Synod (This is the annual leadership gathering for the denomination in which I am rooted). Admittedly, I was quite surprised to see a predominately unified report emerge. I had fully expected a set of majority-minority reports to be presented this year. For their efforts to present unity in the presence of an ongoing disagreement about the status of the Belhar Confession within our denomination, this advisory committee needs to be thanked.

However, for as much as I would like to see consensus emerge in our discernment surrounding the Belhar, I do not believe that the creation of a new category of Ecumenical Faith Declarations is the route we should take. I have three significant concerns related to the advisory committee’s recommendations and two comments in response to our reactions around the Belhar.

Three Concerns in Response to the Advisory Committee

My central concern here is recommendation 3b, which states: “Documents in this category, while important and contributing to the CRCNA’s worldwide witness and ministry, are not considered part of the confessional basis of the CRCNA and, therefore, will not be listed in the Form of Subscription.” By this framing, the proposed category of Ecumenical Faith Declarations would have absolutely no binding commitment on us. In other words, we can conveniently receive them for information and without allowing them to form us. What these recommendations are proposing is a formalized structure through which we can express appreciation for the way other Christians have attempted to reflect theologically on their experiences, while clearly indicating that the issues being addressed are not our issues.  Let me be specific.

First, notice that 3b says that the proposed Ecumenical Faith Declaration would not be included in the Form of Subscription. This location outside of the Form is particularly interesting since the Contemporary Testimony is included in the Form of Subscription (proposed version). This means that any document included in this category would have an official status that is less than the status of Contemporary Testimony. If the Ecumenical Faith Declarations are not part of the Form of Subscription, they will not impact our identity. We have a Form of Subscription for a reason – to locate who we are as a people among all others with respect to the revelation of God and the participatory way of life called for through the biblical narrative. If the Ecumenical Faith Declaration category does not have a place in the Form of Subscription, we are essentially establishing a “separate and not equal” category, wherein these documents are categorized as interesting, but not relevant to us. The Belhar (and any other document we place in here) becomes little more than a fashion accessory that we can choose to take on and off depending on how we are feeling at the moment.
Second, we are formalizing “us” and “them” categories among Christians. If recommendations 1-5 pass, the themes of unity, reconciliation, and justice articulated in the Belhar have just become “global issues” that by implication are not North American issues, and therein, not our issues. They are certainly issues other Christians have needed to deal with but they have not been recognized as our issues. It’s subtle, but extremely important what is happening in this move. By making a category of Ecumenical Faith Declarations, we would provide an institutional mechanism for formally distinguishing what are “our issues” and what are “their issues”: us and them becomes systemically entrenched. This proposal would allow us to formally distance ourselves from the experiences and theological reflections of fellow Christians. It’s as if we, as one part of the body of Christ, are saying to another part of the body of Christ, “that’s your issue, not ours.”  We fail to recognize that whenever one part of the body encounters a challenge to the faith, we are all being challenged. I am concerned that this proposed category will allow us to conveniently disengage from issues that have the potential to require that we change our ways of living and will further separate us from the worldwide body of Christ.
With the respect to the present conversation on the Belhar, the “us” and “them” tension is quite striking. In this proposed structure, the Belhar becomes a statement that we have collected as an interesting artifact about a South African issue related to their historically condoned practice of Apartheid. Unity, reconciliation, and justice in the face of racism and classism would become systemically identified as South African Church issues that we in the CRCNA do not need to deal with. This proposed structure would provide a systemic vehicle for telling others: “We agree they needed to clean themselves up. They took care of it in a great way, but it really wasn’t our mess to deal with.”
Third and finally, given our denominational temptation to think more highly of our theological thinking than we ought, this proposed structure would provide the means to further indulge in the delusion that we are the only ones who can explain the Christian faith in a satisfactory manner. With a non-binding category of Ecumenical Faith Declarations, we are setting ourselves up to further institutionalize our theological hubris. We give in far too often to the temptation to believe that we possess the truth and, therefore, have nothing truly substantive to learn from our Brothers and Sisters. We fail to recognize that the Spirit is intentionally calling and forming our Sisters and Brothers in other geographic, cultural, ethnic, and economic locations in the world and through that calling is giving the whole body of Christ, including us in the CRCNA, a gift that we need in order to more fully and faithfully become disciples of Jesus Christ. I am afraid that this proposed structure would make the temptation to ignore the Spirit’s work in others even easier for our denomination to indulge in. While we affirm that our confessions fully agree with the Word of God, we must also admit that they do not fully convey the whole of the biblical narrative and the call to faithful living that echoes throughout scripture. We in the Christian Reformed Church still have much to learn. This proposed category would make it even easier for us to believe we’ve already figured out what scripture has to teach us about obeying everything that Christ has commanded.

Two Comments on Reactions to the Belhar

The Advisory Committee’s response to the Belhar has also helped me to recognize two things about our reactions to the Belhar. First, excellence is not good enough for us.  Recommendation two states: “That synod express its gratitude to the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa for the gift of the Belhar Confession to the CRCNA and the worldwide Reformed community as an excellent call to unity, justice, and reconciliation.” But this recommendation leaves me wondering, why isn’t this “excellent call” good enough for us? A similar sentiment pops up in several of the overtures related to the Belhar, where the Belhar is recognized as offering “a clear, strong voice” or “an excellent declaration of the universal principles of biblical justice and racial reconciliation”, and in which Synod is encouraged to thank the Uniting Reformed Church in South Africa “for the valuable contribution made to the worldwide Reformed community and to the CRC in the Belhar Confession.” Yet, even with this affirming language, we remain resistant to adopting the Belhar as a testimony or confession. Why isn’t their excellence good enough for us? I am at a loss of how to answer that question.

Second, there is a common objection to adopting the Belhar as a confession that simply points to all the disagreement we’ve had in talking about the Belhar, saying “Look at all the disunity we have on this. The Belhar is supposed to be a document about unity and it is creating all sorts of disunity.” Honestly, I have been somewhat persuaded by this argument until the last few weeks. What has struck me as I have listened more intently to our conversations about the Belhar, about church as institute and organism, the creation care report, and the form of subscription (among other conversations) is that we already lack unity. The Belhar discussion has not created disunity; the Belhar Confession has exposed our lack of unity. The Belhar is exposing our brokenness and helping us to see more clearly where we still need to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. The Belhar is not simply a Christian response to a South African issue of systemic racism, but is fundamentally about articulating the gospel in a way that also holds us accountable to embody the Good News in our relationships with one another. By exposing the disunity that already exists among us and urging us toward unity and reconciliation with each other, the Belhar has already taken on a confessional function in our midst.

So these are my restless thoughts this morning as I process the Advisory Committee recommendations. I look forward to reading and hearing your responses. In the mean time, I will continue to pray along with many of you for wisdom and insight among our delegates that together they may discern the Spirit’s leading and follow him faithfully.

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4 responses to “When Excellence is Not Good Enough

  1. Robert Joustra

    Excellence is often not enough, and to suggest so is a kind of intellectual purism that is out of step with both postmodern politics and theology. I agree the Belhar did not create but revealed disunity, which is one reason the prudential nature of this report strikes me as politically sound. It does not dismiss the Belhar, but calls for its reconsideration only *after* the denomination has sorted out what is meant by the term confession, and what purpose the forms of unity in fact serve, as this has become increasingly ambiguous. Adopting the Belhar as confession prior to this clarification would be an unnecessary risk, especially given the fractious overtures that were made. Tempers are running very high in anticipation of this debate, and giving more time to defuse and debate might seem theologically insincere (truth hates delay) but it may also be denominationally practical. Synod may yet need to make a decisive action, and will still have the privilege of declaring it a confession after 2015, but let us be sure utter diligence has been done and everyone who can come along is coming along before hand. Excellence in politics is never enough, and often a liability. I don’t doubt the day is coming these fault lines will expose and break parts of the communion, but an unsatisfying compromise may just buy us more time together that we need.

  2. Karl Westerhof

    And Before Belhar there was….

    The Synod of the CRC has made some clear and ringing affirmations about racial justice in past years. This could raise a question about why we are having such a difficult time with the Belhar. On the other hand, it could simply suggest that the Belhar is the expression in a very specific situation, of the biblical teachings on race shared by the Reformed Churches. One might argue that we don’t need to “say it again”. What we DO need to do is revisit our own commitments, repent, and commit to rediscover ways to live out our convictions in today’s world. Whichever way the argument is made, integrity demands that we take our own commitments a whole lot more seriously.
    In 1959 the Reformed Ecumenical Synod (including Reformed Churches in South Africa) formulated a 12-point declaration on race which was adopted by the Synod of the CRCNA.
    These 12 points included such things as:
    “…no single race may deem itself entitled to a privileged position and consider itself superior…”
    “…it is the duty of the Church to avoid even the semblance of an attitude which can engender estrangement…”
    The Church has a responsibility “with respect to the policies of the central government and other civil bodies, which policies the Church should scrutinize in the light of God’s Word.”
    “In everything it teaches or practices in connection with racial matters, the Church would make every effort to state unequivocally that it is not being led by general slogans such as those popularly proclaimed; but that it will endeavor, whenever it is confronted by an embarrassing situation, to act I humility and in obedience to the will of its Savior and Sovereign Lord. This implies that it shold critically examine in the light of God’s Word such concept as trusteeships, racial distinctiveness, etc, which are the stock-inb-trade of discussions of racial matters in order to purge such concepts of any ulterior motives which may be lurking therein.” Acts 1959, pp 82-84
    Then in 1968 Synod declared “… that exclusion from full Christian fellowship on account of race or color is sinful, and that if members are judged responsible for such exclusion they must be dealt with according to the provisions of the Church Order regarding Admonition and Discipline.”
    And furthermore, “That Synod declare that fear of persecution or of disadvantage to self or our institutions arising out of obedience to Christ does not warrant denial to anyone, for reasons of race or color, of full Christian fellowship and privilege in the church r in related organizations…. And that if member of the CRC advocate such denial, by whatever means, they must be reckoned as disobedient to Christ….” Act 1968, p. 19

    In 1996 synod received a 23-page report on “Biblical and Theological Principles for the Development of a Racially and Ethnically Diverse Family of God”. The report contained 12 principles, each with explication. One principle (#11) states: “Obedience in matter of racial reconciliation calls us individually and corporately to continually repent, to strive for justice, and to battle the powers of evil.”
    In the discussion of the implications of this principle are these lines: “… those who have found their identity in Christ not only should have no part of behavior that causes alienation along racial and ethnic lines; they should be on the front lines of working for racial reconciliation. The deafening silence of the church in matters of racial reconciliation must be broken. A legitimate test of discipleship in this racially polarized world is whether our life and witness for Christ are building racial reconciliation and understanding and breaking down walls of alienation.”
    Synod adopted the 12 principles, commended the full report to the churches for study, AND issued separate calls to the whole church, to the congregations, to classes, to the BOT, and to future synods!
    One particular word to congregations went like this: “To witness publicly against racism, prejudice, and related unemployment, poverty, and injustices and in defense of all people as image bearers of God”. (italics in original)
    Acts of Synod 1996 pp 595-619
    Karl Westerhof

    • I hear you, Karl. The pressing and long term issue is not the adoption of the Belhar but the transformation of our lives. We’ve already said much about reconciliation and justice. What we still lack is a united application of the commitments we’ve already articulated.

  3. Pingback: Where to begin… | Muddied Prayers

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