In the Belhar, we find the following:
Therefore, we reject any doctrine
- which absolutizes either natural diversity or the sinful separation of people in such a way that this absolutization hinders or breaks the visible and active unity of the church, or even leads to the establishment of a separate church formation;
Again, the Belhar document suffers from severe ambiguity on this point.
We already noted in the last post the problems from which the phrase “natural diversity” suffers, so we will not go down that road again, although we most certainly could. Let us assume instead that this is a prohibition against the formation of ethnically homogeneous congregations. A natural reading of this rejection might be (and who can know for sure, given the ambiguity?) that it is verboten to have congregations or classes that are Korean in their makeup, since a Korean classis would be an example of hindering or breaking the visible and active unity of the Church.
So, if the Christian Reformed Church makes the Belhar document a binding confession, will that mean that Pacific Hanni California Korean Churches will have to dissolve or reorganize, since such a classis breaks the visible and active unity of the Church?
Really, though, what is sinful about an ethnic people being homogeneous in their formation and worship? It is perfectly understandable that people find it more comfortable to worship with people who have a shared culture, language, and history. In “The Bridges of God,” church growth guru Donald McGavaran wrote: “People become Christian fastest when least change of race or clan is involved.” In Understanding Church Growth (1970, 3rd ed. 1990), which McGavaran co-wrote with C. Peter Wagner, this observation has become the “Homogeneous Unit Principle.” Empirical evidence demonstrates, they argue, that “people like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers.” As a result, homogenous churches grow fastest. Homogeneous churches are those in which all the members are from a similar social, ethnic, or cultural background. People prefer to associate with people like themselves – “I like people like me.” And so we should create homogenous churches to be effective in reaching people. Obviously the Korean churches and classes in the CRC are employing the homogeneous unit principle, yet, should we make the Belhar a confessional document, it would seem that classes formed like this would have to go.
If we affirm the status of the Belhar as “Confession,” are we saying that the Koreans are racist? But if we do not pass the Belhar as “Confession,” are we saying that we affirm the homogeneous unit principle for all peoples? And if we are affirming the homogeneous unit principle for all peoples, then would we not be in error for pursuing quotas in the denomination’s hiring practices? Would not such hiring practices be erecting more barriers to individuals of all people-groups pertaining to salvation?
Ironically, the insistence that we must reject any doctrine which “absolutizes natural diversity” could be argued as “racist,” since the insistence that churches must be a homogenization of multiple people groupings is to succumb to current and recent Western notions of the way culture should be formed. To insist on a multicultural approach to organizing churches is to absolutize the fad of pop Western multiculturalism as the organizing motif by which all churches must be formed.
It seems we are on the horns of a dilemma here. If we affirm the Belhar, we are implying that the Korean churches are racist. If we do not affirm the Belhar, we are denying the homogeneous unit principle.
However, all of this is assuming that the statement on “natural diversity” is referring to ethnic groupings and not to something else. Given the ambiguity of the document, it is hard to know what is being said exactly.
Next, the Belhar would find us confessing:
- that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ; that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells
Now, remember the problem that we have recognized with the Belhar is its ambiguity. The reason for that ambiguity is lodged in the reality that we do not know with what meaning the drafters of the Belhar are filling their words. We need to keep in mind in this discussion that, while words have true meaning in themselves, one tactic used by an alien worldveiw to overthrow an existing worldview is to retain the form of the word while emptying it of its true meaning, and then filling that word with a novel meaning unique to the worldview in which the word is now dwelling. Purposeful ambiguity thus becomes a chief weapon for those seeking to introduce non-biblical thinking. The Church has had to fight this tactic of subterfuge by purposeful ambiguity for millennia. If one reads carefully through books like Jude or 1 John, one sees that a similar tactic was being used there as the gnostics/docetists were retaining the language and jargon of the Christian faith but were filling it with a meaning that was unique to their alien world-and-life view. In the twentieth century, in the modernist vs. liberal controversy that roiled the Church, the battle was fought over such a tactic. The liberals/neo-orthodox sought to empty Christian words and jargon of their orthodox meaning, only to fill those words and jargon with a meaning that was alien to biblical Christianity. In all such contests, the form of Christianity is maintained but the thing itself is mutated into something unrecognizable to those who previously identified with it.
This is the kind of ambiguity we find throughout the Belhar. Over and over again, we find words, concepts, and jargon which sound familiar to the Christian ear; but upon closer examination, one is left wondering if the words, left undefined as they are, really mean what they have historically meant, or if those words are being used ambiguously in pursuit of subterfuge.
The emboldened words in the paragraph above are just such an example.
What few people in the American setting recognize is that the words “witness by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells” have a decidedly political meaning, particularly in light of statements that have been made by liberation theologians. In other words, the phrase has been co-opted by some of the liberation theologians. Dr. Allan Boesak, a key drafter of the Belhar and one influenced by liberation theology and theologians, explained the above emboldened phrase like this:
The New Jerusalem is no future world somewhere else. No, the new Jerusalem comes from Heaven into this reality. . . . The New Jerusalem is no mirage from the beyond. . . . It does not need to wait for eternity. This new Jerusalem will arise from the ashes of all that which today is called Pretoria. For the old things have passed away.
Now, when you read the quote immediately above and then juxtapose it with this liberation-theology-inspired quote below from the same author, the implications of the Belhar suddenly take on a foreboding meaning:
[Black Power] is action to achieve justice and liberation for black people. It does not purport to be the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, or the true Christian church. Black Theology is how black theologians understand Jesus Christ, the Spirit, the church, etc., in relation to justice and liberation1
In light of these words, one wonders if the “New Jerusalem in which righteousness dwells” is in fact a community ruled by black liberation Marxist theologians and inhabited by disciples of James Cone. At the very least, we see that the phrase “the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells” is filled with ambiguity. If the Belhar is adopted, that phrase could be read in terms of its historic Christian meaning, or it could easily be read in terms of liberation theology. Do we want to affirm a confession of whose meaning we are so unsure?
Full text of the Belhar Confession here.
Previous discussion of the Belhar Confession on F&H here.
- Dr. Allan Boesak, Farewell to Innocence: A Socio-Ethical Study on Black Theology and Power, p. 71. ↩