Presbyteries act on Amendment 10-2:
The Belhar Confession
Belhar Confession generating spirited discussion online
Theological conversation indicate confessions still matter in
Presbyterians’ common life together
from the General Assembly Mission Council, by Paul
Seebeck, Communications Associate, Theology Worship and Education
Released Feb. 15, 2011, posted here on 2-16-11
LOUISVILLE – The Belhar Confession, which is being
considered as an amendment to The Book of Confessions of the PC(USA), is
generating a vigorous and spirited discussion on the General Assembly
Mission Council’s website. Underneath the fully downloadable version of the
confession, which was adopted by the Dutch Mission Reformed Church in South
Africa in 1986, are more than 100 posts that fill nearly 50 screens.
“For six months we’ve had this sustained, challenging
theological conversation—online— about the nature of the church’s unity in
Christ,” says Charles Wiley, coordinator of the PC(USA)’s office of Theology
and Worship. “The call of Belhar to unity, reconciliation, and justice has
people thinking about the faith, engaging each other with questions and
Note from your WebWeaver: So far 31
presbyteries have acted on the proposal to add the Belhar Confession to
the PC(USA) Book of Confessions. The vote so far is 19 Yes, and 12 No.
Since a two-thirds vote is needed to amend the Book of Confessions, and
142 presbyteries have yet to vote (and 97 are needed to pass the
change), this looks like a very close vote.
The 219th Assembly has
recommended the inclusion of the
Belhar Confession, developed by
the churches of South Africa, as
part of our Book of Confessions
PVJ summary of the Assembly,
The Assembly voted 525–150 to
the presbyteries for their votes
to include it as the 12th
doctrinal statement in the
denomination’s Book of
Confessions. The Belhar
Confession was developed in the
mid-1980s by the South African
churches as their theological
response to the racism of
apartheid. That confession is
valuable, proponents say,
because it seeks to address
issues of racial justice and
reconciliation that are still
relevant today. One overture
opposed this based on the fear
that Belhar’s affirmation of
justice might be cited to oppose
the exclusion of LGBT people
from full participation in the
life of the church, just as
apartheid excluded people in
South Africa on the basis of
In the plenary discussion,
minister commissioner Wanda
Lawry Hughes of Long Island
commissioners of the countless
peoples, over the centuries,
that have lost their voices due
to racism and oppression,
including the Native American
members of her own family. “Now
is the time to speak up and out
against racism, oppression and
fear; now is the time to rise up
for justice, reconciliation and
unity!” she urged.
“Today we took on our own
denominational history of
racism. By offering this
affirmative vote, the Assembly
accepted the challenge to work
against racism and for
reconciliation and justice
throughout our church and
country,” said the Rev. Sharon
Stanley, who moderated the
“Eighty-five million Reformed
Christians live in the world
today; 80 percent of them live
in the global south,” said
Stated Clerk Grady Parsons.
“Through this first step, we
will be able to hear all these
voices and engage in rich
theological discourse. This is
the good part of globalization.”
The action also directs the
Office of Theology and Worship
to generate an
inclusive-language version of
the Confession for the Web,
similar to the inclusive
language of the Confession of
We are happy to provide
you with a very helpful study guide, below,
on the Belhar Confession, prepared by the Rev. Lorelei Hillman, of
Phoenix, Arizona. She is a member of the Coordinating Team of
Voices for Justice, and is currently serving as Interim Associate Pastor
of University Presbyterian Church, Tempe, AZ.
Click here for the easy-to-print PDF version of this 6-page study guide.
here for a brief comment by the Rev. John Harris, examining the reasons
why "We Need Belhar."
A Brief Study of the Confession of Belhar
by the Rev.
This study document, well suited for use in congregations and other
settings, is also available in easy-to-print PDF format.
Just click here.
Both we and
our ancestors have sinned;
we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly.
ancestors, when they were in Egypt,
did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love,
but rebelled against the Most High at the Sea of Reeds.
saved them for his name’s sake,
so that he might make known his mighty power.
the Sea of Reeds, and it became dry;
he led them through the deep as through a desert.
So he saved
them from the hand of the foe,
and delivered them from the hand of the enemy.
covered their adversaries;
not one of them was left.
believed his words;
they sang his praises.
A Little History
caught the force of world disapproval in the early 1990’s, but it had been
established as a policy of the government of South Africa – made legal and
enforced – in 1948. “How could this have happened?” we ask today; “How could
a nation institutionalize racism in such a way?” Americans, because we have
our own history of slavery and deeply-rooted racism, know the ongoing
struggle to eradicate it from society. “How could a country which had
avoided this until 1948 have suddenly decided that apartheid was okay?” For
the answer, we have to look into South Africa’s past and understand the role
of the church.
settlers in South Africa were predominantly Dutch and English. As they moved
to this new land, they brought their own particular religious beliefs and
traditions with them. Among them were missionaries, who were zealous to
introduce people to Christianity. The work of nation-building is extensive,
so the settlers quickly began to import labor from outside the area
(primarily India), as well as drawing from native groups.
white settlers were established along familiar lines of theology and polity.
Dutch settlers established the Dutch
Reformed Church in South Africa. Missionaries began to plant churches
with the groups of people they ministered to, which varied widely in terms
of economic and social status, and ethnic background or tribal affiliation.
As the different individual churches grew and developed, so did their church
structures, affected by the resources and traditions they interacted with.
Theology as Rationalization
Kuijper (1837-1920) was a popular Dutch theologian of the early 20th
century. In response to the dissolution of the concept of the divine right
of kings (sovereigns are placed by God and therefore to be respected and
obeyed no matter what their decisions might be), Kuijper developed the idea
of ‘sphere sovereignty’ – that God had placed leaders and groups in
varieties of positions of power, and that within their right ‘sphere’ they
held divine right. The white Dutch Reformed church members interpreted this
to have meaning along racial lines – races were spheres, and
should therefore be separated. At the same time, the promised unity found in
the Biblical texts was redefined as a hope for the next life, rather than a
truth to be lived in this life.
In 1829 some
of the rural congregations of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa
asked their denomination’s permission to separate facilities for whites from
those of blacks. The synod considered that there was no distinction between
those who had been baptized in the name of the triune God, and refused to
allow this segregation.
years, however, they reversed the earlier decision. The rationale was that
this allowed those who were “weaker” (1Corinthians 10:28), and could not
accept full unity of the body, to continue to worship. Church services, and
thereafter church facilities, separated along racial lines. All non-white
members were designated as the Dutch
Reformed Mission Church.
Christians knew that this action was wrong. In order to give it authority,
they had to pointedly ignore large segments of the Bible, and set aside
their understanding of the sacraments (baptism and communion), and
drastically restructure their ecclesiology. A theology which Kuijper had
introduced in Europe – specifically in the Netherlands – as a formula for
political theocracy became social and economic slavery in South Africa.
Apartheid (“apart-ness” in Dutch and Africaans), had begun in the church
itself, and from the church became rooted in the secular realm.
“…we can see
the direction that the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa took as it
dealt with racial discrimination. First, it said that the unity of the
church meant that all were welcome at the table. Scripture and theology
led them to that decision. Second, when racial pressures mounted, the
church allowed for the establishment of separate churches and services.
Third, what was allowed became what was required. Finally, the church
created a theology of apartheid that not only required separation of the
races; it said it was God’s divine will for the entire country. At
first, the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa believed that the unity
of the church had to be expressed tangibly in worship and sacraments.
Over time, they developed an anemic belief in the unity of the church as
an invisible and spiritual reality only.”
this separation became entrenched, there were further divisions in
the body of Christ. The Dutch Reformed Mission Church gradually
became a ministry with “colored” people (non-whites of a variety or
mix of backgrounds, excluding black Africans).
The Dutch Reformed Church in Africa
was composed of blacks. The Indian
Reformed Church in South Africa included those whose ancestry
came from the nation of India. Over the same span of time, what had
begun as permission to separate developed into policy
within the church, and through the church into the community’s
social and economic structures. In 1948 it was legalized by the
South African government, and thereafter enforced by the police.
1950’s and 1960’s a new theology began to form through the Catholic
Church in Latin America. Based on the view that one of Jesus’
primary roles was as Messiah, or liberator, the new “liberation
theology” was a response to the suffering and misery of the poor and
the powerless. A Christian moral reaction to systemic injustice,
this approach made the claim that ‘God preferred the poor.’ As Jesus
Christ liberates the individual from sin, so he liberates the church
from its collusion with social sin – and makes the Christian
responsible for their part in either maintaining or changing the
status quo. Although this is an extremely brief description of the
liberation theology movement, the perception that human beings were
not only able, but duty-bound to take an active part in creating a
society which made the promised ‘new heavens and new earth’ a
reality swept out of the Catholic Church in Latin America and took
hold around the world.
intersection of liberation theology and apartheid put tremendous
pressure on the government of South Africa. At the same time, an
international ecumenical movement brought Christians together across
denominational boundaries. Issues common to the church in many
countries began to get focused attention, including apartheid. In
1970 the World Council of Churches created a program to combat
racism. The theology which had been used to validate apartheid was
declared heresy in denomination after denomination – by 1982 the
World Alliance of Reformed Churches bluntly called apartheid a sin,
and its justification ‘a travesty of the Gospel.’
same year, the Dutch Reformed Mission Church composed the Confession
of Belhar; four years later they adopted it as a formal document of
their church. The social situation in South Africa was also growing
more and more tense, as apartheid’s economic results drove
non-whites to violence. The international community, recognizing the
systemic wrong of apartheid, began to isolate South Africa
politically and economically. These were important matters, but for
the framers of the Confession of Belhar, there was even more at
stake – apartheid, they said, called into question the nature and
use of Scripture, for if both whites and non-whites could read the
same Bible and come to such drastically opposed conclusions, what
does the Gospel mean? Again, what will be the nature of the Church?
If we are one, with Christ as our head, how can the separation of
apartheid be allowed and even promoted by the church? The
confession they authored was not a statement of a new
understanding, but a strong affirmation of what was already known.
composed, the Confession of Belhar became an effective tool against
the Church’s sin of apartheid – written by the Church, for the
Church, to remind the Church of what it must be. Study of the
Confession provoked discussion, and discussion led to
transformation. Faced with making a decision between upholding the
status quo or adopting a more biblical, theologically correct
approach to unity, the black Dutch Reformed Church in Africa joined
with the colored Dutch Reformed Mission Church in affirming that the
church must be united in Christ, across all divides, and in
opposition to social structures that tried to preserve apartheid.
Confession of Belhar played a significant role in the years
following the end of apartheid (1994) as well. Not only did it bring
about re-unification of the colored and black churches in South
Africa (now the Uniting Reformed Church), but its message of
reconciliation, of unity in Christ, powerfully affected the way
non-white Christians in South Africa responded to their release from
segregation. The same document that had given them strength to stand
up against injustice gave them the moral authority to move beyond
their incredible pain and bitterness toward those who had caused
their suffering. In Christ, they sought true unity, freedom for all
persons, and protection for the powerful as well as for the
powerless. In doing so, they set an example for all in the Church to
“…the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord
Why Should the PC(USA) Consider Adopting the Confession of Belhar?
discussion of the Confession of Belhar has been prompted by similar
discussion in some of our affiliated denominations. As we take these
relationships seriously, we explore with our Christian brothers and
sisters theological matters which they are considering. Our Book of
Confessions, one of the two parts to our denomination’s
constitution, contains eleven creeds, confessions and catechisms
which not only speak to who we have considered ourselves to be at
points in our history, but also actively help us understand and be
formed by the faith of our Christian predecessors.
come out of South Africa and the context of apartheid, the
Confession of Belhar is uniquely the voice of those who have
suffered the Church’s sin of rationalizing and theologizing racism.
It draws from the strength of the faith of the oppressed themselves,
and not from the voices of the powerful speaking on their behalf.
Confessions are statements of what the Church believes – not only in
the intellectual sense of our understanding of the Gospel, but in
terms of what we hold dear about our faith. Each document included
in the Book of Confessions takes a particular stand, saying (in
effect), “We hold this to be truth for us” as the body of Christ.
Each comes out of a specific context and deals with a specific issue
which the Church faced at that time. Certainly, the issue of racism
is one which cannot be ignored or denied, as it affects believers in
this nation as well as in South Africa. The Confession of Belhar’s
deeply biblical clarity on the complete unity of the Church is
relevant to us today, just as it has been for Christians in other
Why Not the Belhar?
feel that the material covered in the Confession of Belhar is
already available through the other confessions in our Book of
Confessions, specifically through the Declaration of Barmen (which
exhorts the church to stand against being co-opted by the state and
sets the Church’s allegiance to Jesus Christ above their national
sentiments), and the Confession of 1967 (which describes the primary
ministry of the church as reconciliation).
the wording of the Confession is fitting for its particular issue,
there is concern that it might be used on a broader basis –
specifically to strike against the full inclusion of gay, lesbian,
bi-sexual, and transgender persons in the life of the church. Those
who oppose ordination of GLBT persons in active relationships are
wary that the Confession of Belhar might ‘open a door’ to changes in
our denomination’s constitution that would allow for this to happen.
are some who think that the Confession of Belhar has already become
outdated; they would rather consider a confession which goes further
in naming and responding to additional contemporary issues, such as
full inclusion of GLBT persons, the role of women, utilization of
gender-equal language for people and for God in our statements of
faith, ecumenical and interreligious relationships and more.
What Happens Next?
Addition of the Confession of Belhar to the Book of Confessions has
been approved and recommended by the General Assembly which met this
summer. At the November 13, 2010 meeting of the Presbytery of Grand
Canyon, our commissioners (pastors and lay commissioners) will vote
– if a majority of the presbyteries in the denomination approve it,
it will be adopted.
Inclusive Language Translation of the Belhar Confession
A Study of the Belhar Confession and its Accompanying Letter
The PC(USA) Book of Confessions
Texts of Creeds and Confessions throughout History
The Phoenix Affirmations
A theological concern about the Belhar Confession:
recently received this thoughtful comment from a website
I'm concerned about the opening paragraph of
the Belhar Confession that reads:
We believe in the triune God, Father, Son
and Holy Spirit, who gathers, protects and cares for the
church through Word and Spirit. This, God has done since the
beginning of the world and will do to the end.
While perhaps implied by scripture, the phrase
"triune God" does not appear in the Bible.
The doctrine of the trinity is a later
development of the church. Because this doctrine has been a
barrier in our relations with Jews and Muslims, I would prefer
the following wording:
We believe in one God who we experience as
creator, redeemer and sustainer.
With kind regards, I am
Sumter, South Carolina
We Need Belhar
by John Harris, designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in
Flushing, NY, and former member of the Witherspoon Society Board.
This comment was published in the
Spring 2010 issue of Network
News, p. 28, and was posted here earlier, on 6-4-10.
by the 2008 General Assembly, the Special Committee to Consider Amending the
Confessional Documents of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to Include the
Belhar Confession in The Book
of Confessions is
recommending to the upcoming General Assembly that the Belhar Confession be
added to The Book of
Confessions. Produced in 1982 by the Dutch Reformed Church (South
Africa) as a theological response to apartheid, the Belhar Confession became
the confession of the Uniting Reformed Church (South Africa) in 1986. Two
other Reformed Churches in the United States, the Christian Reformed Church
and the Reformed Church in America, are also considering adopting Belhar as
many well argued reasons for adding the Belhar Confession to The
Book of Confessions. According to Special Committee Member the Reverend
J.C. Austin, there are two that stand out. First, “Belhar refuses to choose
among unity, reconciliation or justice, holding them in a unique tension.”
Second, Belhar “gives us a theological argument for being a multi-cultural
church which we do not currently have in The
Book of Confessions. Such an argument is implicit in the Confession of
’67, but in Belhar it is explicit and detailed.”
arguments, as well as other reasons for adding The Belhar Confession to The
Book of Confessions, might lead one to think that amending The
Book of Confessions to
include Belhar is a no brainer. Some think, however, that we do not need it.
But Austin asserts that the only reason some might think we do not need it
is because they have not spent enough time with Belhar to know the
I have spent
time with Belhar, using A
Study of The Belhar Confession and its Accompanying Letter, published by
the Office of Theology and Worship, to learn more about it. After concluding
the study, I determined that Belhar should be added to the Book of
Confessions as its only non-northern, non-western confession. Austin agrees,
saying that “we need Belhar to make a global witness and to be a global
church, not just a multi-cultural church.”
Please join in with your own views,
resources, suggestions, questions!
Just send a note,
and we'll share it here.
Reports on Presbytery Actions
ratified (or not) by the presbyteries
A number of the most important actions of the 219th
General Assembly have now been acted upon by the presbyteries,
confirming most of them as amendments to the PC(USA) Book of Order.
We provided resources to help inform the
reflection and debate, along with updates on the voting.
Our three areas of primary interest have been:
which removes the current ban on
lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender persons being considered as
possible candidates for ordination as elder or ministers.
which would add the Belhar Confession to our Book of
Confessions. Disapproved, because as an amendment
to the Book of Confessions it needed a 2/3 vote, and did not
10-1, which adopts the new Form of Government
that was approved by the Assembly. Approved.|
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