The Belhar Confession was drafted in 1982 by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of South Africa (DRMC). I have been using the Confession in seminary courses since 1985. My question, perhaps yours, too, is: What makes Belhar a compelling confession of the Gospel for the PCUSA today? To address this question, I will look at the Confession itself and how confessions work in a confessing Church like ours.
Belhar is a true confession of faith in the Reformed tradition. As the attached letter makes plain, the Confession does not seek to add some new principle or doctrine. Belhar simply restates the age-old, Biblical Gospel for a moment when the Gospel is at risk. Look at the main affirmations. Trinitarian language (i) brackets the whole confession, at the beginning and at the end. The Confession elevates the central role of Jesus Christ (ii) in every section, almost shouting “Jesus is Lord!” at the end. Reconciliation in Christ (human to God, human to human—iii) resounds throughout the document, echoing Paul and the PCUSA Confession of 1967.
The prominent themes of unity centered in Christ (iv) and justice (v) are hardly new themes for Presbyterians. In the Old Testament justice pertains to those who do not deserve it, will never earn it, and cannot sustain it except as an act of God’s grace. In the New Testament these accents emerge as the justification of sinners like us. Our historic concern for the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all of life extends to his identity with the least among us. And the sovereignty of God covers God’s preferential treatment of the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. Beginning with Calvin’s Geneva, these very accents on justice have led Presbyterians to vigorous, Christian living, both public and private.
The authors of the Belhar Confession, however, perceived that the Gospel was at risk in their church situation. They were members of a mission church, one of three long-time, successful missions of the all-white Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa. The mother church, however, refused to share communion or open fellowship with its daughter churches, who were colored, black, and Asian. Apartheid, the separation of people by race and color, originated as a doctrine of the mother church in the 19th Century. Over time the doctrine became a national policy. By 1980 apartheid brought both the churches and the nation to a crisis of community.
The breakthrough for them and for us may be where Belhar brings reconciliation together with unity centered in Jesus Christ. Section 2 traces in detail how Christians united in Christ live freely together. Reconciled by Christ and united in him, the Christian community has its mission (to seek reconciliation, Section 3) and its place (to stand where Christ stands, acting for justice toward the least among us, Section 4). Belhar also speaks against the sin, idolatry, and hypocrisy that resists a visible, transparent unity on racial grounds (Section 2). It speaks against the forced separation of races (Section 3) and against racial injustice (Section 4). Unity in Christ, says Belhar, cuts across all lines of race or color. I find that compelling.
For those of us who lived through the American Civil Rights era of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, this may sound passé, even déjà vu. Everyone in this southern Presbytery, young and old, I suspect, resolved long ago to defeat racism in our church, in our culture, and in ourselves. That doesn’t mean we have done so. No matter how hard we try, Americans both North and South cannot escape the history of racism at our backs or its lingering effects. On the other hand, reconciling the races seems like a vague, open-ended task. With its focus on visible unity within the Christian community, Belhar makes racial reconciliation specific. I find that compelling.
Providentially, unity is a flash point for the PCUSA today. Mistaken notions of unity offer both opposition and support to Belhar. Some people oppose Belhar saying it elevates unity above truth. Some people support Belhar saying it promotes principles of justice. Both approaches assume what I believe Belhar DOES NOT DO—set forth any new doctrine. Let’s be clear: The only basis for unity among Christians is Jesus Christ himself and our life together in him. And that’s where Belhar points us—to Jesus Christ alone. What holds us together amidst our doctrinal disagreements and our political disputes is only our unity in the person of Jesus Christ, who is God with us. As a theologian I find unity in Christ alone, compelling.
Now, the PCUSA is a confessing church. We have eleven confessions in our Book of Confessions. Faith itself, you see, drives Christians to make sense out of life in terms of the presence and activity of God. When Christians face a situation where the Gospel itself is at risk, faith drives them to declare a status confessionis, a crisis moment which calls for confessing the truth of the Gospel. So, on the basis of Scripture, they restate the heart of the Gospel, redefining the moment and the issues in dispute. And they rally Christians around the flag of truth—in their own community, everywhere, and for all time. They appeal, that is, to “the great cloud of witnesses” of which Hebrews speaks, to come and share the truth of the Gospel for this time, this place, and this setting, using this language. Behind all our confessions lies a similar story (with the possible exception of The Brief Statement of Faith, 1996).
Like Belhar our confessions focus thus on the heart of the Gospel, not everything we’re supposed to believe. They try to discern the universal truth of the Gospel for the whole Christian Church, not some new or sectarian dogma. Belhar clearly fits this profile of a Reformed confession, verified by its increasing appeal world wide. Here, too, for 25 years I have found Belhar compelling.
Do we need another confession to add to our Book of Confessions? A confessional church does not stop confessing the faith anew just because of past confessions. And a confessional church honors all its confessions, old and new alike, the way parents embrace all their children with love, from the first to the last. The basic question is whether the confession is true. Does this confession restate the Gospel, duly grounded in Scripture and authentically focused on when and where it was at risk? Any other question is beside the point, and no threat of misunderstanding or misuse can deter us from considering the truth of this confession. The Belhar Confession is compelling for me because of its truth and authenticity, not because of any need it meets, threat it poses, or leverage it offers.
Navigating thus through the jumble of confusion and competing claims, I hope the members and ministers of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) can hear the Gospel stated in the words of the Belhar Confession, and share in it enough to make this confession our own. Thank you.
Copyright © 2011, by Merwyn S. Johnson.
All rights reserved.