Unity, Justice, and Reconciliation: God’s Call for the PCUSA – Clifton Kirkpatrick

Editor’s Note: I am grateful to serve on the General Assembly Special Committee on the Confession of Belhar. The Committee was charged with discerning whether to recommend inclusion of the Confession in our Book of Confessions, and to develop resources to educate the church.  This week, I am honored that five members of the Special Committee offer their reflections on the Confession.  We look forward to the part readers will take in this important conversation.

In his ringing tribute to the unity of the church and the unity of all things in Christ, the Apostle Paul implores the Christians at Ephesus to embrace “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3)  The Confession of Belhar offers the same invitation to American Presbyterians two thousand years later.

The Confession of Belhar has shaped my life as a Reformed Christian for a generation, and I am eager for it to shape and guide the life of the PCUSA for many generations to come.  I have been deeply involved with Reformed Christians in South Africa through my work with Worldwide Ministries and, more recently, as President of the World Communion of Reformed Churches.  Through these experiences I have come to know those whose lives and ministries have been shaped by the Confession of Belhar and to believe with great strength that while this confession originated in the crucible of a gospel stand against apartheid, it is truly a confession for the life and ministry of the global and universal church.

In a world where divisions of all kinds split the church and threaten to destroy humankind, Belhar’s ringing affirmation that, “We believe in one holy, universal Christian church, the communion of saints called from the entire human family,” is truly a breath of fresh air.  I am convinced that if the PCUSA has a genuine opportunity to encounter this confession and learn of its gifts, it will joyfully embrace this confession as a part of our Book of Confessions. The General Assembly Special Committee on the Confession of Belhar is actively seeking to enable this to happen in the PCUSA, and we hope Presbyterians will find the resources for study that we have developed or secured from others helpful to congregations and presbyteries as they seek to encounter this vital confession of faith. (see our website at www.pcusa.org/belhar)

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The Belhar Confession is important to the PCUSA is because it is a living expression of Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer that we “might all be one in Christ…..that the world might believe,” (John 17: 21) which is the cornerstone of our ecumenical witness as a church.  Clearly the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa has offered the Confession of Belhar as a gift to the church ecumenical.  This confession has been claimed by churches who claim multiple confessions in many parts of the world – by Presbyterians in Southern Africa, by other churches across the continent of Africa, and more recently by the Reformed Church in America.  It is important to the ecumenical witness of the PCUSA because:

  • It uniquely among Reformed confessions lifts up the themes of unity, justice, and reconciliation as foundation stones for the church of Jesus Christ.  These themes are critical to the unity of the church in our time – both within our denomination and beyond.
  • The context that gave rise to the Confession of Belhar in South Africa – racism, injustice and division in church and society – is our context as well in 21st century America.
  • The Confession of Belhar adds integrity to the PCUSA as a confessional church with a Book of Confessions.  Through a Book of Confessions the PCUSA gains insight as to what we believe and do from confessions which share the truth of the gospel in times of trial in different historical eras and geographic locales.  As the majority of the church is now in the global south, having a confession growing out of struggles of churches in places other than Europe and North America is critically important.
  • An understanding of apartheid (by whatever name) as a theological heresy has been a cornerstone of Reformed and ecumenical witness.  The theological basis for such a declaration is clearly grounded in the biblical affirmation that all human beings are created in the image of God and nowhere better articulated than in the Confession of Belhar.

We are a church appreciated for our leadership in the ecumenical movement, in the cause of Christian unity, and in seeking justice and reconciliation.  That tradition would be greatly enhanced and a blessing to the church ecumenical if we would join the movement to see the Belhar Confession as a standard for Reformed Christians.

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It is quite appropriate that the PCUSA Task Force to Study Reparations was the group that initially brought the Belhar Confession to the General Assembly.  That task force well understood that true repentance for the sins of racism come from a Christian perspective of genuine repentance where restitution is made to those who have been wronged and a where there is a turning in a new direction so that the sins of racism will no longer have a place in the life of the church.  Such reparations are undoubtedly financial and involve societal structural change.  However, reparations also call for mental liberation and a new way of thinking and of understanding the will of God.  Racism has deep roots in our culture and in our church and not to change our theology and confessions as a dimension of reparations is simply to leave us open for injustice to raise its ugly head in new forms.

Clearly, Belhar was part of a turning in a new direction and a repudiation of racism in the church in South Africa.  The adoption of Belhar as a confessional standard would also call the PCUSA to the same sense of repentence, turning in a new direction, and repudiation of racism, injustice, and division in the life of our church.

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The passion for adding the Confession of Belhar to the Book of Confessions of the PCUSA took on a special urgency for me in the Spring of 2012. I was in South Africa in March of that year when it became clear that Belhar would likely fail to get the positive votes of 2/3s of the presbyteries in the PCUSA (although it came close!).  That was the same time that the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa (long a supporter of apartheid) had voted to transforming move forward to accepting Belhar.  A situation I never imagined would happen!

I made a commitment then to my South African colleagues and to myself and to God that if the opportunity again presented itself to consider Belhar in the PCUSA, I would work with “energy, imagination, intelligence, and love” to enable my church to encounter and graciously receive the Belhar Confession.  I also made a commitment to offer my own testimony to this Confession as a contemporary expression of Jesus promise that he came so that all might have life in fullness. (John 10: 10).  I deeply believe that God is calling the PCUSA to find this life in fullness through embracing the vision of the Confession of Belhar and becoming a living demonstration of the unity, justice and reconciliation found at the center of the body of Christ.

Clifton Kirkpatrick is Visiting Professor of Global Ministries and Ecumenical Studies at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and Stated Clerk Emeritus of the PCUSA.  From 2004-2010, he served as President of the World Communion of Reformed Churches and is currently Co-Moderator of the PCUSA Special Committee on the Belhar Confession.

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