An Analysis of the Belhar Confession, Part 3

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 paragraph discussing anything which threatens the unity of the church, and we found that this statement was way too broad, and put unity as a more foundational concept than truth. We noted that the same Bible which says that God is love also says that God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.

The fourth bullet point consists mostly of (mainly) helpful quotations of Scripture on how unity is to be maintained and showed. One could quibble that there are very few references to truth in this paragraph. There is one reference to “having one mind.” But this is not explained. The same problematically broad statement that categorically castigates anything which threatens unity is also found (and also in an unqualified way) at the end of this paragraph also.

There are two main problems with the next bullet point. The first problem is actually not a problem at first. That the unity which is desired has to be established without constraint is an admirable thought. That this is being done in the RCA is open to dispute. During the last RCA classis meeting I attended, three ministers described their experiences at the General Synod. One of them was favorably disposed towards the Belhar Confession, but the other two had some concerns. But what was most troubling to me was their descriptions of being manipulated by the General Synod to go into a certain rut. They were made to feel that if they had any concerns about the Belhar, then they were automatically racist. They also felt that the discussion was curtailed, and not a fair discussion pro and con concerning the Belhar. In other words, this is being rammed down our throats in General Synod, and no opportunities for discussing this properly are being provided. So this unity of which the Belhar speaks is being impressed upon the RCA by force.

The second problem with this bullet point is that there is no awareness of the distinction between the visible and invisible church that is so essential to the Belgic Confession, for instance (see the first paragraph of Article 29, for instance). The true unity of the church has always been, in Reformed theology, that of the invisible church, which crosses denominational lines. This confusion is especially evident when one compares the ending of this bullet point with the next bullet point. Here are the two statements:

that this unity can be established only in freedom and not under constraint; that the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and cultures, are by virtue of the reconciliation in Christ, opportunities for mutual service and enrichment within the one visible people of God;

that true faith in Jesus Christ is the only condition for membership of this

The end of the first statement says “one visible people of God.” Then the next bullet point says that true faith in Jesus Christ is the only condition for membership of this church (emphasis added). The referrent of “this church” can only be the visible people of God at the end of the previous paragraph. This conflicts with Articles 27-29 of the Belgic Confession, which plainly describe membership within the true church as being invisible. In other words, the church consisting of all believers is the invisible church, and is not limited to any one particular denomination, much less can it be said to be “the one visible people of God.”

If we are talking about membership in the visible church, the only requirements are baptism, for membership, and a credible profession of faith, for communing membership. True faith is not the condition for membership in the visible church. However, we must be careful here, because the Belgic says that hypocrites are “mixed in the church with the good, yet are not of the Church, though externally in it” (first paragraph of Article 29). In other words, the Belhar is sloppy here.

That this is not mere word parsing is evident in that, historically speaking, the visible/invisible church distinction grew out of the Reformation. The Romanists asked the Reformers, “Where is your church? Where has it been all this time? The church is Rome, and the church is visible.” The Reformers responded by saying that the true church consists of those who have true faith, which is invisible. The visible part may be more or less faithful, but the invisible church consists only of the elect.

One may ask further this crucial question: if nothing may be allowed to hamper the unity of the visible church, nothing whatsoever, then wasn’t the Reformation wrong? If we shouldn’t allow pesky little things like truth to get in the way, then we should go back to Rome.

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