At the Christian Reformed Synod: Belhar adopted but not as a confession

The most contentious part of the evening was recommendation 6, to appoint a study committee to “explore and define ‘confession,’” and recommendation 7 to “reconsider the status of the Belhar Confession for adoption” in 2015. 

The Christian Reformed Church Synod 2012 adopted the Belhar Confession on Tuesday night, but as an “Ecumenical Faith Declaration” without the authority of the Three Forms of Unity.

Synod created this new category of confessions at the recommendation of the synodical advisory committee that surprisingly presented a unanimous report. “Ecumenical Faith Declarations” will be statements of faith officially accepted by the CRC that will “speak to global realities and uniquely enable the CRCNA to formally state its commitment to and live out key biblical principles” which will be “important and contributing to the CRCNA’s worldwide witness and ministry” but “not considered part of the confessional basis of the CRCNA.”

The advisory committee included those who wanted to adopt Belhar as a full confession alongside the Three Forms of Unity and those who wanted to not adopt Belhar at all. This new category was presented as a middle ground where Belhar could be affirmed in an official way with some authority but not with the confessional status of the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort.

The Belhar Confession comes from the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA), which has adopted it alongside the Three Forms of Unity.  The URCSA offered it as a “gift” to other Reformed denominations around the world. The CRC’s sister denomination, the Reformed Church in America, adopted Belhar in 2010 as a fourth confession. Belhar has polarized the CRC ever since 2009 when synod recommended that Synod 2012 adopt the Belhar Confession as a fourth confession.  Proponents argue that Belhar is necessary to take a stand and address the racism and prejudice still present within the CRC. Opponents were concerned that it promoted liberation theology, and included some questionable phrases, such as “God… is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged.”

Reactions to this middle ground of “Ecumenical Faith Declaration” were mixed on the floor of synod.

Bill Vis, from Classis Grand Rapids North, was impressed: “When I looked at the report I thought ‘genius.’”

Michael Vander Laan, minister from Classis Toronto, thought this middle ground missed the objective. The Uniting Reformed Churches of Southern Africa “asked us to decide what the Belhar means for us. This ecumenical category means for everybody else. I am saddened by the work of the committee.”

The Belhar Confession “is a confession, and to treat it as anything else is disrespectful,” said elder Shiao Chong from Classis Toronto. “Even the best traditions have their blind spots. We need to dialogue and listen to the voices of other cultures because… Our theological oversights are caused by idols of our culture.”

“I would admit that we have a blind spot when it comes to racism,” said John Heidinga of Classis Niagara. “My problem with the Belhar is that it also has its own blind spot.”

Synod 2012 decided to adopt the new category of Ecumenical Faith Declarations with a 148-26 vote. Shortly thereafter, the Belhar Confession was adopted into this new category almost unanimously by voice vote.

The most contentious part of the evening was recommendation 6, to appoint a study committee to “explore and define ‘confession,’” and recommendation 7 to “reconsider the status of the Belhar Confession for adoption” in 2015.

David Cheung, minister delegate from Classis British Columbia Northwest, said, “As a mission and church historian I have to deal with a lot of materials and the history of the research of Christian missions in China we discovered that in later half of 20th century western scholars tend to criticize themselves a lot. They begin to realize the mistakes made in the colonial period and find it very difficult to criticize Chinese culture and other elements; a new blind spot in the making.”

Cheung was responding to Shiao Chong’s earlier statements but foreshadowed an upcoming comment by a scholar delegate.

Elder Linda Naranjo-Huebl, a Calvin College professor, advocated for the study committee. “Our church has not adopted a confession in the last 400 years,” she said. The Classis Grand Rapids East delegate mentioned Europeans invading the new world, committing “acts called genocide today” and “Dutch slave ships… with kidnapped Africans who were purchased by Christian colonists using Scripture to rationalize the institution of slavery.” She brought some brief applause when she closed by saying, “People might look at that history and ask where were the confessions of the church that would speak God’s truth and righteousness into these injustices. Not only do the majority of Christians fail to fight these outrageous violations of the sanctity of human life, they frequently use the Holy Scriptures to support their oppressive actions. We need to study.”

In spite of such passionate appeals, the recommendation to appoint a study committee to study the word “confession” for Synod 2015 was defeated by a vote of 77-96.

Speaking against recommendations 6 and 7, George Koopmans of Classis Alberta South / Saskatchewan said, “I have welcomed into our congregation people of diverse backgrounds – people of 13 different nations. …I want to go home now. I want to keep doing the work I’ve been called to do… preaching Jesus Christ and continue preaching the gospel without distractions of study committees. We have a beautiful Ecumenical Faith Declaration. Let’s take that, let’s run with it, let’s go to work.”


Rev. Aaron Vriesman is the Pastor of the North Blendon Christian Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Michigan. He reports on the CRC for The Aquila Report

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