Comments on the Belhar Confession

Presbyteries are well into the process of deliberating and voting on whether to ratify the vote of the 2010 General Assembly to add the Belhar Confession to PC(USA)’s The Book of Confessions. Should this document, written to confront the policy of apartheid in South Africa, be made a permanent expression of the faith for American Presbyterians?

There are more than two options (yes or no), but to see them clearly we first ask four preliminary questions: 1) What does it mean to confess the faith? 2) Are we currently in a confessional situation? 3) If so, what about our situation makes it confessional? and 4) What are we called to confess?

What does it mean to confess the faith?

God asks every Christian to confess him at every time and place. The Christian life is a life of witness in word and deed. The Greek word for witness is martyr, and the early Christian martyrs sacrificed their very lives in giving their witness.

While our whole life should bear witness to God, God also asks us to make confession at particular times and places. Just as we should worship God at every time and place but need a special time set aside (the Lord’s Day) to remind us of our life purpose, so too God sometimes calls us to make written statements of what we believe as a church, in order to strengthen our everyday witness.

The call to prepare written statements of faith often arises in situations in which the Christian faith needs clarification — what theologians call a status confessionis. Sometimes the purpose of a confession is to correct error from within or without the church; at other times, it is to ground us again in the gospel at a time of social or ecclesial confusion or uncertainty.

Are we currently in a confessional situation?

There are two ways to think about this question. Some would argue that we adopt or write new confessions in order to clarify something that we already hold to be important. We have already made up our minds about a controversial theological or ethical issue, and then look for a confession of faith that ratifies our position and adds authority to our point of view.

A second way of thinking about confession raises the bar. Sometimes God asks us to speak a Word that we have not considered before. This Word confronts us from outside of ourselves. It is not a Word that we have chosen in order to confirm what we already believe.

This second kind of confession asks us to look beyond ourselves to God. It calls us to resist evils that infect not only our world but also our very lives, and it demands that we repent, so that God might free us to new life.

Where there is confession in this second sense of the word, the church puts its very life on the line and ventures into a new future—perhaps in opposition to the world, perhaps in opposition to false teaching in the church, and certainly in opposition to the church’s own sinfulness.

If we as a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are in a confessional situation right now, just what makes our situation confessional?

While American society faces profound challenges, our situation is not that of apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. Parts of the Belhar Confession seem anachronistic or inapplicable to the United States today. Civil law does not provide for the “enforced separation of people on a racial basis,” and our churches do not condone policies of apartheid.

We can nevertheless ask: Is race the overwhelming question before North American Christians today — in a different form from South Africa in the 1980s but of no less consequence? And here, I believe, we must answer both yes and no.

On the one hand, we must admit that racism continues to distort American society deeply. Huge disparities between white and black Americans exist in relation to income, education, and health care.

On the other hand, race is arguably only one dimension of a much larger challenge to the church today. North American society increasingly reduces churches to mere religious services providers. Churches are supposed to offer spiritual products that make people feel better about themselves. According to this consumption model of religion, churches should market themselves with claims about how they can help spiritual consumers improve themselves or their society.

It is in the context of this spiritual marketplace that race also plays a role. Churches learn to cater to different tastes and needs, as defined by various social factors, including race. Race defines just another niche market.

What then are we called to confess?

In such a situation, the church’s first task is to confess the God who is the God of Israel and the church and who speaks to us still. This God resists the reduction of faith to a mere feeling of comfort or community or moral righteousness. We desperately need, instead, theological renewal.

Who is God? Scripture tells us of God the Creator, who is all-powerful, almighty, and supremely majestic. This God freely creates us for covenant relationship with him and each other. God’s love, trust, and mercy become embodied possibilities for us in Jesus Christ.

Who are we before God? In Christ, God calls a church into being. The church bears witness to God and therefore to the new humanity that God has created. This new humanity is defined not by consumer preferences but rather by worship. Our life purpose is nothing less than to glorify the One who is totally beyond us and can never be defined by us, and yet has come to us where no spiritual consumer would ever have looked: as a helpless babe in a stable in Bethlehem.

On the basis of these considerations, should the Belhar Confession become one of our constitutional documents?

It is difficult to answer this question. Many Presbyterians have never heard of the Belhar Confession; few congregations have studied it. Little seems to be at stake for us one way or the other.

Contrast the Confession of 1967. In days prior to e-mail and Web-sites, the denominational offices received in writing more than 140,000 requests for study materials. Debate was vigorous.

There is no question that Belhar is a confession to which we should listen carefully and seriously. It arose out of a genuine status confessionis. It spoke a clear Word of God to its time and place, and it has spoken a Word of God to other times and places. North American Presbyterians desperately need to learn from it and from other confessions from around the world.

But the question before us is not simply whether we should learn from Belhar. Rather, it is whether the Belhar Confession is the Word that God calls us to confess. Does Belhar speak into our time and place? Does it challenge us with a Word of God from beyond ourselves, and not just a Word that we already hold to be true? Does it direct our attention to God, help us to counter false words in church and world about unity and justice, and convict us of sin in order to free us to new faithfulness?

To state it most directly: Does the Belhar Confession confront the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) today with the reality of the almighty, loving God and therefore with the reality of who we really are before God? Does it clearly reject our society’s reduction of faith to a personal lifestyle choice?

Presbyterians appear ready to adopt the Belhar Confession. But I fear that we just want to pat ourselves on the back about what good people we are, committed to church unity and racial justice. Belhar seems to confirm what we already believe about ourselves, rather than confront us with a Word of God that makes us uncomfortable and repentant. The fact that we have had so little debate about Belhar makes me wonder if it is really a Word that we must confess.

As presbyteries continue casting their votes, they have at least three options: They can decide 1) that the Belhar Confession is truly our confession here and now; or 2) that God calls us to be silent and wait because we are not yet truly in a confessional situation; or 3) that we should learn from the Belhar Confession but make a different confession for our time and place in our own words.

I hope that we will not adopt the Belhar Confession simply to make ourselves feel good — because if it is truly our confession, it will ask us to confess our sinfulness so that God might set us free. It will turn us away from ourselves toward God, drive us more deeply into Scripture, force us to do hard theological work together, and demand of us a kind of unity and justice that God alone makes possible.

If Belhar is truly the Word that God has given us to confess here and now, what will finally matter is not whether we adopt it into The Book of Confessions, but whether we allow it to interrogate us and change us.

John P. Burgess is the James Henry Snowden Professor of Systematic Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh, Penn.