All creeds and confessions are created in a context, and that context is important both in understanding them and applying them to the life of the church. Some creeds and confessions manage to plumb the depths of the faith in a way that remains true across many times and many cultures.
Others, are profoundly limited in their ability to rightly confess the faith outside of the immediate context in which they were written. The Belhar Confession is an example of such a confession–it served well in its immediate context, but is not robust enough to carry the weight of the church’s confession to the world. It’s not without merit, so we’ll consider those before we consider it’s weaknesses.
First, it speaks clearly to the issue of the racism and systemic injustice codified in the South African Apartheid system. Apartheid was an evil system–a profound rejection of the image of God in humanity as well as Christian gospel that affirms all people to be equally condemned before God apart from Christ–black and white, male and female, Jew and Greek.
Second, Belhar comes from the global south. It represents the witness of Christians outside of our predominantly european tradition. As reformed theologian Kevin DeYoung notes, “It is a brief confession and in many ways quite beautiful, a doctrinal statement filled with some precious truths that the white church in South Africa had tragically lost.”
Third–and this is a strength and weakness simultaneously–it is mostly an extended arrangement of Scriptures. In one sense, the Confession is biblical–in the sense that it is comprised of mostly biblical witnesses. At the same time, it is also–at points–sub-biblical in that I query the way in which the witness of Scripture is arranged in this confession.
As mentioned above, Belhar is an extended biblical quotation. However, one of it’s weaknesses is that it’s theological framework does not align with that of classic reformed theology or the Canon of Scripture. Specifically, Belhar applies a liberationist lens. What in classic theology is said to be true of the church–both in its Old Testament and New Testament expressions–is now applied to those who suffer injustice:
We believe that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged.
Hear me well when I say that God cares for the poor, and God instructs we as the church to care for the poor as well the orphan. Scriptures doesn’t view God’s primary allegiance to those who suffer or who are oppressed. Rather, God binds himself to a people and does so by means of a covenant of grace.
Simply put, God makes a promise to Abraham that is expanded and later applied to the church: “I will be a God to you, and you shall be my people” (see Genesis 17:7). Abraham is the pioneer, if you will, the first object of God’s promise. That promise is inherited by successive offspring and then, spiritually, by the church (Gal. 3:5-9).
God cares for the poor and oppressed, but God is not the God of the poor and oppressed–he is the God of Abraham and his offspring. Indeed, the Old Testament shows that God is partial neither to the poor nor to the rich (Lev. 19:15).
This is not a weakness of the confession, per se. However, many advocates of Belhar care more for the implications of adopting it than the theological acuity of the document. Basically, Belhar is a confession that can be used to signal a progressive stance on any situation where injustice actually exists as well as where it is perceived to exist.
One of it’s principle drafters, Allen Boesak, used the confession as a foundation to argue for the normalcy of homosexual practice in the church. This is the motivation that underlies its adoption today.
As Fuller Seminary President Emeritus Rich Mouw noted,
Boesak was also instrumental in drafting the 1986 Belhar Confession, which I welcomed at the time as an important confessional statement about race relationships. He now appeals to that document in support of his advocacy for gay-lesbian ordination. In a recent insightful blog posting, “The Belhar Confession & God’s Final Revelation,” Violet Larson argues that this is a good reason to question the theological adequacy of the Belhar Confession, precisely because of the use to which it is being put these days by proponents of full inclusion on same-sex topics. I agree with her. While that document spoke forthrightly against the injustices of apartheid, it did not explicitly appeal to biblical authority.
That it can now be seen by some of its drafters as capable of being extended to the full inclusion of active gays and lesbians in ministry says something about the weaknesses of Belhar—not as an important prophetic declaration in its original context, but as a statement that can stand on its own as a normative confession.
My conclusion is that Belhar’s merits are outweighed by its biblical and theological deficits. In Mouw’s words, it cannot “stand on its own as a normative confession.” I’m grateful to be serving in ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, where Belhar is not part of our confessional standards. That allows us to use it selectively and prudently rather than leaning on it as a weight-bearing element of our theological vision–something which the confession is incapable of being.