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.
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.