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.
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.
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,
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.