Where to begin…

When I saw the advisory committee report on the Belhar Confession late Monday night, I was quite concerned that the conversation and voting among the delegates would unfold the way it did. I am still processing last night’s decision and expect I will continue to do so for some time. It was not the outcome I had hoped for. As several delegates expressed last night, there is a bit of frustration in not being afforded an opportunity to vote on the Belhar as a Confession or at least as a Testimony. The non-binding nature of the Ecumenical Faith Declarations designation leaves the Belhar in an awkward place for us. How do we relate to a confession that does not bind us together? On the other hand, by providing some official status to the Belhar and approving it for use in discipleship and liturgical purposes, synod held open the door that the Belhar can be utilized in very beneficial ways within individual congregations.

My post yesterday morning (When Excellence is Not Enough) outlined my concerns with the advisory committee report. What I did not say in that post was that I was actually quite encouraged to see recommendation number 6 in the advisory committee’s report. This idea is extremely important in that it would allow us to explore one of the underlying issues that our denominational dialogue on the Belhar has exposed over the past three years: we have multiple operational definitions of what a confession is at work among us. The fact that a study committee on “what we mean by confession” was not approved by Synod was extremely disappointing. Perhaps, many of the delegates discerned that such a study committee would be all about the Belhar for another three years. Whatever the personal rationale, the communal decision left much to be desired. 

However, in declining to form that committee, we failed to provide the leadership needed to move us forward – not with the Belhar – but in developing a clearer communal understanding of the nature, place, and function of a confession among us. This conversation needs to happen not because of the Belhar, but because we do not agree on what it means to be “confessional”.

But the even bigger issue is the last point I made in yesterday’s post. There is a tremendous amount of disunity in the CRC that already exists. The Belhar has not caused this disunity; the Belhar has helped to expose our disagreements.

We have a significant number of members who see God’s mission shapes the way we do church. They understand church through a missional lens. We have others who firmly believe doctrine determines ecclesiology, which then determines mission as one task among many tasks of the church. In other words, for some the nature of mission shapes the function of the church; for others the nature of the church determines the boundaries of mission. That underlying tension is in the background of most of the overtures this year and in all three of the major reports this year: Form of Subscription, Belhar, and Creation Care.

The tension plays out specifically in relationship to social justice themes and issues, where the differences come up in language of church as institute or church as organism. This Kuyperian language can provide a helpful lens at times, for example in understanding some of the potential abuses or pitfalls that churches fall into. However, we must be careful not to let this become the only lens through which we understand the church’s missional engagement.

What makes me nervous, though, is that there appears to be an increasing dogmatic idolization of a Kuyperian sphere of sovereignty and institute/organism ecclesiology within our denomination. When isolated from other understandings of church, and especially when elevated above missional metaphors that are found in scripture, both of these concepts severely distort the ongoing worshiping-discipling-diakonia-prophetic witnessing mission of the church. Scripture does not use one image to talk about church or one image to describe mission. In fact, scripture repeatedly uses multiple metaphors to describe God’s missional kingdom in which God continually calls us communally and personally to participate.

As much as the Belhar decision involved concern about a perceived lack of clarity around wording (which is a whole other conversation), the disagreements that emerged around the Belhar reveal this deeper disagreement about the relationship between mission and church. Though that disagreement may seem subtle, the way we engage within the world changes dramatically based on whether we believe mission shapes church or whether the church has among its various tasks a particular responsibility to do missions.

The Belhar is much harder to understand as a confession for those among us who conceive of church primarily as an institution with a mandated missionary task. For those among us who perceive church through the missio Dei, the Belhar seems to resonate quite comfortably as a confession. While we agree on the profound significance (or excellence, if you are willing) of the Belhar’s themes of unity, justice, and reconciliation, we do not agree on the personal and communal implications of those themes.

While I am disappointed that we did not embrace the Belhar as a confession – or at least with a status that has some binding relationship on us – I am thankful for the conversation over the past three years because it has helped to expose some of the deeper disagreements among us about church and mission. Now that the discussion on the place of the Belhar is finished, my hope is that we will do the hard work of addressing these deeper disagreements about mission and church. While that work won’t come through a study committee this year, we need to find other ways to talk about these differences. We cannot afford to let these disagreements go back under ground.

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