The Belhar Confession comes to us from apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. Apartheid has its roots in the nineteenth century, in the Dutch Reformed Church. The belief began to emerge that the races were naturally divided and should not share common worship or common celebration of the sacraments. Eventually the Dutch Reformed Church was split into racially-bound churches based on a four-fold racial distinction, the so-called white, Black, Indian, and coloured categories [the South African categories can sound offensive in our context].
In effect, this separation of races in the church proved to be the model for the larger society. When Grand Apartheid was established in the twentieth century with separate homelands, strictly separated schools, etc., the society was following the model that the church had set for it.
It was in this context that the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (Indian and coloured) confessed their faith in the Belhar Confession. When the DRMC merged with the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa (Black) to form the Uniting Reformed Church of South Africa, it adopted Belhar.
Sometimes when we hear the term prophetic we think of the righteous church speaking to the unrighteous society. In this case, the word is to the church: how can the church of Jesus Christ allow itself to be divided by race to the point where communion cannot be shared? It is the church and its unity that is the focus of Belhar. This is why Belhar is not as pointed on racism as is the Confession of 1967. Belhar is not about racism, per se. It is about how the church’s unity in Christ is threatened when the church allows itself to be shaped by anti-gospel forces.
The Uniting Reformed Church was not calling out Grand Apartheid South Africa, although it had plenty of reason to. The Uniting Reformed Church was calling out brothers and sisters in Christ who would not come to the table with them. And those white brothers and sisters in the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa continue to be separated from the URCSA, rejecting the prophetic word of the Theological Declaration of Barmen (although some individual congregations have adopted Belhar).
Because Belhar is a response to this specific situation, it is not a comprehensive confession.
My greatest concern as we consider the confessional status of Belhar is that the discussion will remain on the symbolic level. Much of the discussion I have heard for and against Belhar is around its symbolism — to approve Belhar is to make a symbolic stand against the sin of racism; to reject Belhar is to stop the possibility that it will further the cause of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) persons in the PC(USA).
But should we approve Belhar, only its text and accompanying letter will be in the Book of Confessions. In 10, 20, or 50 years it will be Belhar itself that will guide the church — the particular context in which we find ourselves today will have long passed. The confessions are not museum pieces. In them, the church, “declares to its members and to the world who and what it is, what it believes, what it resolves to do” (G-2.0100a). The question before us is whether or not the Belhar Confession does indeed declare who we are, what we believe, and what we resolve to do.
It is my plea that presbyteries focus their discussions on its actual text and this constitutional standard from G-2.0100a.
CHARLES WILEY is coordinator of the Office of Theology and Worship, PC(USA) General Assembly Mission Council, Louisville, Ky.