Thoughts on the Rejection of The Belhar Confession

As inspired by UNCO11 conversations on Twitter…

Some of us Presbyterians of the PCUSA variety are pretty distressed about the fact that the Belhar Confession did not make it into our Book of Confessions.  Here at last was a confession which came to us from the global south, a statement that emerged from within the actual community which had suffered for generations under some of the most horrific forms of oppression.  The Belhar voices called out to their more privileged brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ who not only stood idly by, but who participated directly in the oppression under which they suffered.  With Belhar, I felt PCUSA Christians could begin to examine more deeply our own participation in oppressive behaviors that threaten so many, not only those in the developing world, but right in our own communities.

To be sure, we have already adopted confessions which reflect on oppression, which call the church to attend to the need for taking a stand for God’s righteousness, to live and work in the reality of reconciliation. Yet these documents, as powerful as they are, seem to be more like commentaries, discussing oppression at a distance, offering comments on the oppressive behavior of others toward others. Arms-length, armchair confessing.  Make no mistake, I do believe it is important that we confess and cry out with the voices of the authors of the Barmen Declaration and the Confession of 1967.  But 21st century Presbyterians need to recognize, confess and repent of our participation in systems and processes which nurtured the South African policies of apartheid. We need to seek forgiveness for turning a blind eye, for pretending we didn’t notice the violence that created an environment where gut-wrenching fear and abject humiliation were normative.

Finally, we need this because apartheid still exists in our own communities.  It exists at our borders.  It exists in our schools and even in our homes.  Wherever violence is the order of the day, wherever the poor struggle to survive, wherever the weak are bullied, wherever those who are the “wrong” color or the “wrong” gender or the “wrong” sexual orientation are denied their humanity, it is there – no, it is right here and right now that these words need to be prayed, confessed, lived.

Excerpt from The Belhar Confession

We believe

  • that God has revealed himself as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people;
  • that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged;
  • that God calls the church to follow him in this, for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry;
  • that God frees the prisoner and restores sight to the blind;
  • that God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows and blocks the path of the ungodly;
  • that for God pure and undefiled religion is to visit the orphans and the widows in their suffering;
  • that God wishes to teach the church to do what is good and to seek the right (Deut. 32:4; Luke 2:14; John 14:27; Eph. 2:14; Isa. 1:16-17; James 1:27; James 5:1-6; Luke 1:46-55; Luke 6:20-26; Luke 7:22; Luke 16:19-31; Ps. 146; Luke 4:16-19; Rom. 6:13-18; Amos 5);
  • that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream;
  • that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.

Therefore, we reject any ideology

  • which would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the gospel.

We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things, even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence (Eph. 4:15-16; Acts 5:29-33; 1 Peter 2:18-25; 1 Peter 3:15-18).

Jesus is Lord.

To the one and only God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be the honor and the glory for ever and ever.”

Note: This is a translation of the original Afrikaans text of the confession as it was adopted by the synod of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa in 1986. In 1994 the Dutch Reformed Mission Church and the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa united to form the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA). This inclusive language text was prepared by the Office of Theology and Worship, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  (

One thought on “Thoughts on the Rejection of The Belhar Confession

  1. Personally, the main reason I wanted Belhar to be included was that it was a rare example of the church confessing its own sin. It was in the church that apartheid developed, and the Belhar Confession actually became a tool in ending apartheid as a politically acceptable state. Our other confessions largely proclaim ‘we stand for this and against this’ but Belhar says ‘we have sinned and repent.’

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