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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 reflecting thoughtfully.”   More >>

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


In our PVJ summary of the Assembly, we reported:

The Assembly voted 525–150 to send the Belhar Confession 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 their race. 

In the plenary discussion, minister commissioner Wanda Lawry Hughes of Long Island Presbytery reminded 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 Assembly committee. 

“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 1967. 

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.

And click 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. Lorelei Hillman

[posted here 10-29-10]

NOTE:  This study document, well suited for use in congregations and other settings, is also available in easy-to-print PDF format.  Just click here.

Psalm 106:6-12

Both we and our ancestors have sinned;
we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly.
Our 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.
Yet he saved them for his name’s sake,
so that he might make known his mighty power.
He rebuked 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.
The waters covered their adversaries;
not one of them was left.
Then they believed his words;
they sang his praises.


A Little History

Apartheid 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.

The European 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.

Churches for 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

Abraham 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.

Within 25 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.

White 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.”

As 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.


In the 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.

The 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.’


That 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.

Once 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.

The 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 follow:

“…the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands…”

Why Should the PC(USA) Consider Adopting the Confession of Belhar?

Our 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.

Having 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 countries.

Why Not the Belhar?

Some 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).

While 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.

There 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.



Further Resources









The 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:

We recently received this thoughtful comment from a website visitor: 

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  

John Tindal
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.    [10-30-10]

This comment was published in the Spring 2010 issue of Network News, p. 28, and was posted here earlier, on 6-4-10.

Established 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 their own.

There are 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.”

The above 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 confession.

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


Visit our lively
new website!

GA 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:

bullet Amendment 10-A, which  removes the current ban on lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender persons being considered as possible candidates for ordination as elder or ministers.  Approved!

bullet Amendment 10-2, 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 receive that.

bullet Amendment 10-1, which  adopts the new Form of Government that was approved by the Assembly.   Approved.

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Some blogs worth visiting

PVJ's Facebook page

Mitch Trigger, PVJ's Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!

You can post your own news and views, or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.


Voices of Sophia blog

Heather Reichgott, who has created this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:

After fifteen years of scholarship and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy, students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and thoughtful community.


John Harris’ Summit to Shore blogspot

Theological and philosophical reflections on everything between summit to shore, including kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology, politics, culture, travel, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood by a progressive New York City Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in Flushing, NY.


John Shuck’s Shuck and Jive

A Presbyterian minister, currently serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tenn., blogs about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and lightening up.


Got more blogs to recommend?

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