An Analysis of the Belhar Confession, Part 2

In this post, I will analyze section 1 and part of section 2. Again, the link to the BC is here.

Section one is fairly unobjectionable, really. One thing struck me as a tad odd: the combination “Word and Spirit.” In most Reformed theology, Word and Spirit are almost assumed to belong together, for the Spirit always operates through the Word. So, there is nothing wrong with this pairing. It is just that when I hear “Word” I always also hear “Spirit.” I was actually expecting “Word and Sacrament.” For the Sacraments are certainly part of what God uses to gather in His saints. This is not really a quibble with the document at this point. But I do think that the Sacraments are important in how God gathers His saints. And this is certainly NOT to say that the Spirit is unimportant.

Section 2, initial statement is really only a restatement of the Apostles Creed and is therefore unobjectionable.

The first bullet paragraph has a problem. I am not comfortable saying that the Gospel strictly includes reconciliation with one another. I think that is a necessary consequence of the Gospel. (In fact it is so necessary that without reconciliation with one another, we are to question whether we are reconciled to God; confer the parable of the unmerciful servant). However, the Gospel itself is reconciliation with God by means of justification by faith alone. This is the Gospel in the strictest sense. One may legitimately broaden the definition of the Gospel to include the Good News concerning the believer’s entire life, although one must be careful to distinguish between the broader, looser meaning, and the stricter, narrower meaning. That clarity is lacking in this first paragraph.

The second bullet paragraph seems to assert a synergy on the question of the unity of the church. This synergy means, in effect, that God and man must work together for the peace and unity of the church. The exact language of the Belhar is “gift and obligation.” They describe church unity as, in effect, both a gift and a goal. To a certain extent, this is correct. The unity of the church is given by the Spirit. It is accomplished through the finished work of Christ. What is not clear is how the Spirit’s work co-exists alongside what man must do. There is no care here to walk the tightrope between antinomianism and legalism. But since the Belhar has defined church unity as part of the Gospel, this becomes a concern. And, as we have already stated, there are two possible ways of using the term “Gospel,” a broader and a narrower. We are not clear as to which way the Belhar is using the term.

The third paragraph I will quote in full, as it is one of the most problematic statements in the Belhar:

that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that
separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which
Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which
threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted;

The statement that the unity must become visible is ambiguous. Does this mean an organizational unity, as in the Roman Catholic Church, or does it mean simply that our “getting along” becomes visible? Given that the clarifying result clause specifies that the world may believe, in effect, that Christian really do love each other (and that statement is also questionable: the world will always misunderstand the church), one might assume that more than mere “getting along” is meant here. Now, I am not opposed to greater visible unity in the church. Neither am I opposed to the seeking of it diligently. However, we must not let a drive for greater visible unity hamper the already present invisible unity of the church.

Furthermore, the statement that will cause the most trouble is the final clause. This final clause places unity at a more foundational place in the church than truth. This should not be. Truth and love are equally foundational in the church. As soon as unity becomes more foundational, truth suffers. This clause will be used by homosexual advocacy groups, for instance, to say that homosexuals are part of the church and entitled to church unity, and that kicking them out will be an attack on church unity. One could argue that the South African church already dealt with this problem by forbidding such an interpretation of the Belhar. That does not guarantee that North American church will do the same. One could also argue that the rest of the document limits the threat to racism alone. That may be the case, but it is not forced from this particular paragraph, which has no qualifier whatsoever. In short, this statement is broad enough to drive a truck through it.

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8 Comments

  1. Scott said,

    September 16, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    What strikes me as odd about this is that a summary of confessed doctrine would be isolated to one idea or sin rather than to the biblical plan of redemption.

    It would be like confessing two of the ten commandments only, omitting redemption and ignoring God’s revealed character.

    Scripture does not speak in isolation to God’s people, it speaks as a coherent whole.

  2. greenbaggins said,

    September 16, 2009 at 4:34 pm

    Exactly, Scott. That is one of my many problems with it.

  3. s.e. hoffmeister said,

    September 17, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    Hi Lane,

    Did I miss something? Where are the scripture proofs?? Strange to have a confession and no proofs. They can believe what they want,but were is the proof text for such a belief?

    s. e. hoffmeister

  4. greenbaggins said,

    September 17, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    There are Scripture references for many places in the Belhar, but not in this particular place.

  5. proregno said,

    September 19, 2009 at 3:20 am

    Thank you for this great topic and study. I am from South Africa, and although I have not done an in depth study of Belhar, I do reject it for its ‘liberation theology’ context, and even more because some of the big supporters of this confessions, such as bishop Desmond Tutu clearly reject the historic christian faith as confessed in our reformed confessions.

  6. proregno said,

    September 19, 2009 at 3:42 am

    See this important article, written by a Christian lady of “Gospel Defense League”, on this topic :

    http://www.christianaction.org.za/GDL/Newletters/2005-03.htm

  7. November 20, 2009 at 9:59 am

    [...] 20, 2009 at 9:58 am (Bible, Church) Part 1 is here, and part 2 is here. A copy of the Belhar is available here. Where we left off last time was in examining the third [...]

  8. jrd said,

    April 13, 2010 at 10:49 am

    I believe that one great problem with the Belhar, and one important aspect of dissecting it, is that it speaks of unity as though there is only one type, when the Scriptures clearly reveal to us that there are two. Specifically, in Ephesians 4:1-16, Paul describes that there is to be a kind of unity, which we might call “provisional,” (Paul calls it the unity of the Spirit) which provides for the church the necessary atmosphere for a higher unity to be created. This higher unity Paul refers to as the unity in the faith. In between these two types of unities, Paul describes how the church was given the gift of the, “apostles, prophets…pastors and teachers.” The meaning here, obviously, is that the members of the church are to “make every effort” to get along, since we are all members of the same body, in order that the pastors and teachers can do the work of God in teaching the truth. In the end then, the specific kind of unity that God purposes to build among us is a unity in the truth. The unity of the Spirit simply provides the necessary atmosphere where this forming of the truth upon us can take place. What the Belhar does is to enshrine the unity of the Spirit as the final goal of God. It is in this way that it places unity above the truth. For, if it is that first kind of unity that is enshrined, anything that any pastor or teacher does in teaching the truth (see here any one of a number of current issues including homosexuality), which convicts any part of the body of sin, would be viewed as breaking unity. This is completely backward. The unity of the Spirit is to give the pastor the space in which to use the word, not prevent him from doing the same.


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