Greetings in the Lord, the eternal Word made flesh in Jesus Christ! We are grateful to God that our church has the opportunity to consider together the implications of the historic Belhar Confession, written by a group of reconciling white and black Reformed Christians in South Africa who trusted that God’s Word and Spirit had something to say about racism, apartheid, and human oppression, especially when that oppression was justified by the church. We American Presbyterians have a momentous opportunity to include this faithful document into our Book of Confessions as the first non-Western confession. We live in a time in which the center of the church is shifting from the global North to the global South. It is past time to take seriously this eloquent and compelling confession.
We are aware of some objections to adoption, especially in the White Evangelical community. As committed evangelicals ourselves who have remained consistent in our support of the current ordination standards, we find this quite curious, especially as evangelicals in the global South appear to support Belhar overwhelmingly. Let us now address some objections directly:
Objection 1: Belhar is weak on the Lordship of Christ and the authority of Scripture
Response 1: To the contrary, Belhar firmly roots itself in the Lordship of Christ, and makes all claims to its three primary themes – unity, justice and reconciliation – based on the conviction that Jesus is the singular authority in heaven and on earth by which all other authority must be judged. Belhar unequivocally affirms the authority of the Bible; it is drenched in scriptural quotes, allusions and metaphors. Only a narrow and pedantic reading of Belhar could argue otherwise.
Objection 2: Can be used as Trojan horse for other controversial issues (pro-homosexual/anti-Semitic?!?)
Response 2: Any document can be enlisted to advance any cause by any group – our country does grant freedom of speech. If one day, those who advocate for changing ordination standards somehow reinterpret Barmen in order to advance their cause, should the church for that reason reject Barmen from our Confessions? Are not all manner of people deploying the Bible for all manner of causes to advance diametrically opposed positions? Does that make the Bible any less authoritative? This argument is fundamentally specious, anti-intellectual and absurd.
Objection 3: Redundancy: The Confession of 1967 addresses racism
Response 3: There is only one paragraph (9.44) in the Confession of 1967 that addresses racism directly. That confession dealt broadly and appropriately with the many sweeping social movements of its day. The Belhar Confession was written in 1982 in the teeth of South African apartheid, and speaks powerfully to our context today as we continue to struggle with racial disunity, injustice and irreconciliation in church and society. The Preface to the Book of Confessions states:
The creeds, confessions, and catechisms of The Book of Confessions are both historical and contemporary. Each emerged in a particular time and place in response to a particular situation. Thus, each confessional document should be respected in its historical particularity; none should be altered to conform to current theological, ethical, or linguistic norms.
Belhar meets these requirements completely. And if redundancy were a reason for exclusion, then we would have to throw out a good number of our current confessions, in all fairness.
Objection 4: Diluting the Book of Confessions when it is already scarcely attended to
Response 4: It is likely true that too few Presbyterians, including pastors, actually read the full text of the Book of Confessions. But to argue that we should therefore preclude any new confession is to hold every potential confession hostage to a standard not applied in the past. Current practice requires that the Book of Confessions be studied by all candidates for ministry, and presbyters are expected to consider its holistic witness in discerning God’s will. And there is ample evidence that once included, the confessions eventually seep into the life of the whole church through its liturgy, theology, preaching, music and various thematic emphases.
Objection 5: Not enough time for study
Response 5: The 2006 General Assembly called upon the whole church to study this document, and the Theology and Worship Office promptly produced a very helpful resource: The Belhar Confession Study Guide. This confession is a mere two pages long! This empty argument is a grasping at straws, and only demonstrates reactionary desperation. Frankly, we’ve had enough time.
We are wise to remember that the PCUSA Special Committee on the Belhar Confession, a diverse group of 15 that included both evangelicals and progressives, unanimously recommended adoption of this confession. After countless hours of study and debate the committee could find no serious, substantive argument against its adoption. The 2010 General Assembly received this counsel and overwhelmingly approved it as well.
We also remember that two prominent evangelical groups, Presbyterians United for Biblical Confessions (its successor: Presbyterians For Renewal) and The Layman, both were formed in 1965 to oppose the adoption of what became the Confession of 1967 (C67). In time, both organizations came to accept its place in our Confessions, and one can even find in several recent editions the Layman newspaper quoting liberally from C67 in support of certain “conservative” positions!
In addition to many global evangelicals, most of the six major racial ethnic caucuses in the PCUSA are in favor of adopting Belhar. We affirm with the 1982 status confessionis of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches that any theological justification of apartheid is heresy, and believe that the PCUSA’s adoption of Belhar will begin to address our own ongoing legacy of racism in the church in fresh ways.
The Reformed Church in America (RCA) in 2010 conclusively adopted the Belhar Confession as their seventh confession. The national synod of the Christian Reformed Church (CRCNA) approved it in 2009, and all indications point to a denomination-wide adoption of Belhar by 2012. The CRC is not known for their “liberalism,” and yet they have publicly declared:
Synod 2009… proposes to Synod 2012 the adoption of the Belhar Confession as a fourth confession of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Since Scripture is the only rule of faith and practice, our confessions are and must be historic and faithful witnesses to Scripture. Synod observes that the Belhar Confession truly expresses the biblical goals of unity, reconciliation, and justice; the church’s commitment to these goals; and the fact that “true faith in Jesus Christ is the only condition for membership of this church” (The Belhar Confession, Article 2).
The National Council of Korean Presbyterian Churches (NCKPC) and the Consulting Committee for Korean American Presbyteries (CCKAP) enthusiastically commend this faithful confession to our beloved Presbyterian Church for inclusion into our Book of Confessions.
On behalf of the NCKPC Executive Committee, Pastor James In Soo Jung, Atlanta Pastor Victor Moon, New Jersey NCKPC Moderator General Secretary
Pastor Jin S. Kim, Minneapolis
English Ministry Director