Belhar Part V: Wait, there’s more…

I wonder how many people end their reading of the Belhar Confession at the 4th Section, skimming over the 5th as if it were merely obligatory ending comments.  I imagine it might be tempting for some to do exactly that, yet I’d argue that the whole confession would be weak and ineffective if not for these closing words.

"Lord's Prayer" wood cutting by Connie TenClay (Winnebago Reformed Church)

Detail from “Lord’s Prayer” wood cutting by Connie TenClay
(Winnebago Reformed Church)

I’ll explain why, but before I do that let me back up a second.

Over the past decade or so, I’ve had the privilege of spending more time with Seminary students in the RCA than the average minister (at least compared to most of us outside of the professorate).  I can declare without hesitation that I love spending time with Seminary students more than just about anything else; it gives me immense hope for the future of Christ’s church – so much energy… such hope… remarkable ministerial optimism… sharp memories of their calling.

Students have the ability to warm the heart and strengthen the soul.  Us “more experienced” ministers would do well to spend more time simply sitting in their proximity and listening to them discuss the Church and (hopefully) their place in it.

Many students, however, are faced with a fundamental question (one, I hope, they continue to wrestle with throughout their ministries): If they feel the Church is heading down the wrong path, when do they say something and when do they quietly trust the wisdom of the body?

It doesn’t matter what the topic – ecclesiastical structures, governance, racial/ethnic/cultural questions, denominational priorities, gender issues, worship – students are particularly vulnerable.  Their futures depend, to a remarkable degree, on the whims of people who have vested interests in shaping (or sometimes, forcing) them into particular molds.   Inevitably, many find themselves struggling with whether or not they should speak up or be quiet – whether they should fight for their beliefs or silently bite their tongues until they’ve their Fitness for Ministry Certificate in hand and been ordained.

Those who know me well, know that when teaching and preaching I occasionally use more than my allotment of words (i.e. some would say I talk a lot).  I don’t often give advice though.  Yet, there is one bit of guidance that – and I’m not exaggerating here – I have probably given hundreds of times as a response to seminarian discomfort: To my mind, the key question to ask when deciding whether to speak up or be quiet is whether “you believe the issue is (1) a matter of preference or slowly evolving doctrine or (2) a matter of acute injustice.”

My suggestion: if it fits primarily into the first category, you can remain quiet without sacrificing integrity.  If it fits primarily into the second, speak out.

Sure, most issues don’t fit tidily into one category; indeed most are a combination of both.  However as a general rule, the church regularly take centuries to find consensus on matters of doctrine (cf: the Trinity) but has the responsibility to speak loudly and clearly on matters of acute injustice.  We don’t always do it of course, but I believe we should.

Thus, the 5th section of the Belhar:

We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things, even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence (Eph. 4:15-16; Acts 5:29-33; 1 Peter 2:18-25; 1 Peter 3:15-18).

Christ’s Church (and each of us as a part of it) has the responsibility to fight injustice and seek its elimination.  (According to the Behlar this is done through the promotion of justice, unity, and reconciliation.)  That responsibility does not diminish – indeed, it is probably increased – when doing so challenges those in power – even if it brings unpleasant repercussions.

Wow.

Faced with that truth, I find myself able to do little more than echo the Belhar’s last doxology:

 Jesus is Lord.

To the one and only God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be the honor and the glory for ever and ever.

Grace and peace,

`tim

PS: As a side note, “injustice” is joined by “disunity” and “irreconciliation” as recipients of the Belhar’s condemnation.  I realize I haven’t given much space to the latter two, but I trust you can extrapolate the implications.

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6 thoughts on “Belhar Part V: Wait, there’s more…

  1. Pingback: An important Middle-Road | Credo=Oratio

  2. Thanks for this, Tim. As one who kept my mouth shut for a long time (not only in RCA circles, but elsewhere too) it’s great to be reminded to speak out loudly about injustice without worrying about who might get offended. Injustice prevails when no one says anything. Everytime I read the Belhar I get to this last part and want to do a fist pump and scream “Yeah!”

  3. Does Belhar Part V apply to the RCA General Synod? The 2013 General Synod Minutes reports approval of R-74 (pp. 341-342), that a confessing member lacks “standing” to bring a Biblical charge against their own consistory and classis. Doesn’t Matthew 18:15-17 and Galatians 6:1 give believers “standing” to defend and confirm the Gospel in their local church?

    • Phil,

      I’ve thought a bit more about your question here and wonder if maybe you’re trying to ask something that I didn’t get. As you may or may not know, I enjoy polity stuff… so, if you’d like to have a more focused polity discussion, feel free to e-mail me directly!

      My church address is: tim [at] pultneyville [dot] org

      Grace and peace,
      `tim

  4. Phil,

    As far as I can see, the two issues aren’t related. One is a topic of polity and the technicalities of how we do business (and discipline) in the RCA, the other is a topic of piety – (i.e. our behavior and how we respond to their beliefs and conscience).

    I’ve argued above that we have a personal responsibility to speak out when we see acute injustice; as the Belhar recognizes, that does not mean doing so will be easy or lack repercussions. (Indeed, I think the implication is that it will not be easy and likely will have repercussions.) It’s worth noting that it also does not mean we are “right.” (I.e. it is fully possible to “speak up” and fight for a cause that, in the end is faulty.)

    On a slightly more technical note, in the RCA, lines of accountability are pretty clear. Members’ main participation in that process is by electing Elders and Deacons (and usually an advisory vote when calling a minister). The office holders participate in that process more directly, and the assemblies (made up of office holders) are the context within which it takes place.

    Others may disagree with this statement, but I believe this is a reflection of a foundational Reformed emphasis on the body (rather than the individual). Although the Holy Spirit clearly works in the lives of individuals, we can be most confident in our discernment when it is done in the context of the assembly. An individual may always disagree with the assemblies (and at times may influence them – even OVER influence them, for a period), but we trust that – over the long haul – the assemblies will rightly discern God’s will. That, I suppose, is a slightly different conversation though! 🙂

    Grace and peace,
    `tim

  5. Tim, thank you for answering this question. As much as I care about injustice and want to see it eliminated, I confess that I am often paralyzed by the question of “What if I speak out and they won’t like me? Or dismiss me?” Ugh. This is a huge area of sin I’m working on. I don’t know if there is anything God is calling me to speak prophetically to, but if there is, I don’t want to miss the chance or the responsibility because I’m afraid someone won’t like me.

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