Does the Dutch Reformed Family of churches know more about unity than Jim Belcher?

December 2, 2009

I was born in 1984. The year Hans Küng visited South Africa, and delivered his groundbreaking lecture on paradigm shifts in theology at UNISA, which became the foundation of Transforming Mission.

I was two years old at the 1986 General Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church when the theological support of Apartheid was ended, and the gays were condemned.

I was 5/6 years old when Nelson Mandela en FW de Klerk was discussing the unity of a new South Africa.

I was 6 or 7 years old when white South Africans voted to end Apartheid, knowing that this will be the end of white government in South Africa.

I was 10 years old when we had the historic 1994 election, that went more smooth than anyone could expect. And I’ve lived through the birth pains of our young democracy, and I’ve seen how people could come together even though they absolutely disagree (think about the amazing story of Pieter Mulder and Jacob Zuma for example).

I was trained theologically while the unity conversations between the Dutch Reformed Church and the Uniting Reformed Church was very tense. And even though we still struggle with it, stories of hope did start to develop.

I was a senior theological student when we approached the gay issue again in 2007. I remember saying boldly that I can see no way in which the church can remain united, since we differ so strongly on this issue. But then Malan Nel made a suggestion at that amazing synod meeting, and the moderators found a way of putting unity above doctrinal and interpretation issues.

When Jim Belcher writes about unity he says:


Is there a way forward? How do we get to the point where both sides can talk about their differences and learn from each other without being accused of heresy? By first agreeing about what binds Christians together. It is that simple. We have to arrive at what John Stott calls the “unity of the gospel.” All unity has a doctrinal aspect. No unity is possible without boundaries of thought and belief around something. There is always a limit to what any group can tolerate without being torn apart.

Deep Church

For Belcher it’s really simple. Agree with the three confessional statements in the pager following the above quote, and you will be allowed to be part of the “new ecumenism”, and not be called a “heretic”. An if you challenge this? Well, he don’t see a way in which unity is possible without these kinds of limits. Even though he has the examples of Jones and Pagitt earlier in the book.

If we were to use Belcher’s definition, we wouldn’t be one denomination any more. But we are.

If my conservative friends in the church used Belcher’s definition, they would have used the word “heresy” much more, but they don’t (at least not my conservative friends, there are some who do like this word).

And we know that Belcher’s “simple” isn’t so simple. Because real church unity, between people who really differ, on issues of race, gender and background. Between people who have a history of one group oppressing the other. Between people who are really divided on economic grounds, require much more than shared confession. It’s not that simple.

Maybe we found a way of putting a braai first, and listening. Knowing that we really disagree, also on “first-tier” stuff (to use Belcher’s language). But to be open to the possibility that we might be wrong (as David Bosch also taught us). Maybe we should listen to our own voices, Nelson Mandela, Desmund Tutu, David Bosch, Piet Meiring, Coenie Burger and others, when it comes to unity. If I listen to this top-seller, then maybe we have some stories of unity to share with the world that they need to hear, even though we are really struggling with unity.

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