Much attention has been given to changes in the second part of constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) – the Book of Order – surrounding the definition of marriage. Meanwhile, another change is afoot that has received far less attention in the mainstream media but is just as significant for our denomination. The first part of our constitution – the Book of Confessions – is much more difficult to amend, requiring a 2/3 majority vote of the 172 presbyteries. The Book of Confessions contains eleven statements of faith that have been adopted by the church throughout history, beginning with the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds from the early church, continuing through the Protestant Reformation and the rise of Nazism in Germany. The last confession to be adopted was “A Brief Statement of Faith,” authored in 1983 with the Presbyterian church reunited after a 120-year separation spawned by the American Civil War.
Today, a new confession is just eleven votes shy of being added to the Book of Confessions: The Belhar Confession. What is this new confession and why might we need to add it to the constitution of the PC(USA)?
Each of the eleven confessions comes from a particular historical context and is a reflection of the crisis facing the church in that time and place. For example, during Nazi rule in Germany, the church discerned the necessity of claiming Christ alone as head of the church, not the German state which had tried to co-opt Christ’s authority in the church. Hence, the Barmen Declaration was born. The Belhar Confession was written in 1986 from the midst of Apartheid South Africa. After many years of being complicit in that institutionalized racism, the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa perceived that the Holy Spirit was calling it to another way, a way of resistance and protest against the sin of Apartheid. They adopted this confession shortly after reuniting with the Dutch Reformed Mission Church.
The confession speaks about reconciliation: since we have been reconciled to God by God, the church ought to make that reconciling work manifest in our own community. Belhar also speaks about unity: because all believers are reconciled by God, we ought to display the outward unity that Christ prays for in John 17:22-23. Separation in the church based on race, or any other human distinction, fails to live into Christ’s desire for his church. Finally, the Belhar confession speak about justice: since segregation is contrary to the will of God revealed in Jesus Christ, the church must oppose those human systems which perpetuate segregation and separation.
While the Belhar Confession comes out of the context of Apartheid and speaks most immediately to reconciliation, unity, and justice in that context, it also speaks a prophetic word to the church today. While not enshrined in law, racial segregation is still the reality in our churches today. Congregations tend to be dominated by a single race, whether African American, Caucasian, Korean, Hispanic, etc. We seldom worship or minister together. We can still see the legacy of segregation in our communities. The rancorous political climate in our nation today demonstrates how we find endless ways to divide and separate ourselves from those we deem “other.” The Belhar Confession reminds us that the most significant separation of all – that between God and humans brought about by human sin – has already been overcome by Jesus Christ. The church, in every context, honors Christ when it bears witness to this truth through our own acts of reconciliation, unity, and justice.
In its confessions, the church articulates to its members and to the world who we are, what we believe, and what we resolve to do (Book of Order, F-2.01). The Belhar Confession provides a compelling witness to Jesus Christ in a world that is torn apart by division, separation, and schism.