The Importance of the Confession of Belhar – Elizabeth Wagner

I am new to the world of theological study and had little interactions with the confessions outside of liturgical use during worship. While in seminary, I was blessed with the opportunity to attend a class entitled “The Reformed Confessional Tradition” where we were taught that the eleven confessions adopted by the PC(USA) are more than a collection of doctrinal statements that we 21st century believers can affirm or ignore as needed. The confessions are unique documents birthed by communities of faith who found themselves at points where they needed to declare to each other and the world who they were, what they believed and what they resolved to do about their situation.

Viewing the confessions through the context of language, history, geography and politics helped me interpret the formal structure of the documents and appreciate, if not totally agree with, the scriptural interpretations rendered. More importantly, my context as an American of European descent, whose forbears crisscrossed Europe seeking religious asylum before sailing across the Atlantic, and my blossoming friendship with members of The Reformed Hungarian Church – these allowed me to closely identify with the confessing bodies. Clearly these documents were written when political power external to the church – and at times, inside the church – put the gospel at risk. Truly hierarchical structures and traditional practices had drawn the church far from scriptural teachings. Certainly these strong believers rallied me to bear witness to the gospel not only in their historical settings but also wherever I should find myself.  What a gift the Reformed tradition is!

At first reading, The Confession of Belhar follows in the tradition of our adopted confessions. It is beautiful in its simplicity; powerful in its concise call for unity, reconciliation and justice; and haunting in its proximity. The context spurring the writing of this confession occurred in my lifetime, while I was blissfully finishing my education and building a family safely blinded from these events half a world away. Working on the Confession of Belhar, I am surprised to discover that my context as a middle-class Presbyterian places me not with the confessing body but with the oppressive power, imposing structures and practices contrary to the gospel. In the short span of hundreds of years, the God-affirming, life-nourishing Reformed church has succumbed to “prejudice, fear, selfishness and unbelief, deny[ing]…the reconciling power of the gospel.”

The Confession of Belhar is important to the PC(USA) because it presents a voice from a non-European context.  The Confession also provides a powerful, concise call for unity, reconciliation and justice. However, it is critical to our denomination because it self-identifies the Reformed community as a gathering of human beings, prone to sin and in constant need of God’s grace.  We need the Confession of Belhar precisely because we would rather splinter into a multitude of factions based on human interpretations and delineations rather than stand united as one universal Christian church peopled by beloved children of God, headed by Jesus Christ and guided by scripture.

What a gift the Reformed tradition is! God is actively restoring creation revealing the gospel through scripture and the community of faith. Through our brothers and sisters in South Africa, we have the opportunity to see ourselves, repent, receive forgiveness and, united in faith, begin anew to participate in the establishment of God’s reign, here. Now.

Liz Wagner is an experienced accountant and a recent Master of Divinity graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, NC.  She and her husband eagerly await her first call to ordained service.

2 comments to The Importance of the Confession of Belhar – Elizabeth Wagner

  • “The Belhar Confession” is being promoted to be included in The Book of Confessions in order, at least in part, for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to be affirming of the faith and voice of another church on the other side of the world. That sounds like a good and wonderful thing, as far as it goes.

    But there is a problem. Adopting this confession may not really be so affirming. Consider this footnote to the text:

    “This inclusive language text was prepared by the . . . Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”

    Do you realize what this means? While there is talk of affirming the faith and voice of another church, the reality is that the other church’s “Confession of Belhar” has been retranslated so as to meet the ideological predilections of a liberal, western church. At least some if not all the male references to God in the original have been removed so that the more neutered version could pass muster in the Presbyterian Church. Would not adopting this proposal be saying that we concur with Belhar’s critique of racism but that we think the people who wrote it do not know how to speak or write properly about God?

    Do we really believe that would be affirming of our dear brothers and sisters? Is not this offense—dare I say, this racism—good reason not to approve this proposal? The reality that the church in Africa has now accepted this revision as the English translation of their confession, perhaps in their eagerness for western churches to adopt it, hardly makes it right.

  • “The Belhar Confession” portrays the unity of the church which it so rightly and highly advocates as an imperative:

    “this unity must become visible,” and

    “this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active.”

    Surely such church unity is desirable. But also surely such unity is always a gift and never a human accomplishment or possibility. Does not portraying the unity of the church as an imperative, particularly a divine imperative, create numerous problems? Given a divine imperative for church unity, is not the implication that we can do no other? Is not the implication that we must stay together? Is not the implication that we must agree? Is not the implication that any and all costs for church unity are fully justified? Is not the implication that any division within or of the church is at best disobedient and at worst schismatic and demonic?

    But the very emphasis upon church unity as a divine imperative threatens the continuing existence of the denomination within which we are discussing this. The insistence upon church unity as a divine imperative renders all denominationalism illegitimate. Some would readily admit and embrace that. If, however, all denominationalism were by definition illegitimate, we should quit worrying about the unity of and within the Presbyterian Church, abandon this splinter group altogether, and seek the larger unity of the whole church of Jesus Christ. Indeed, we could do no other. The demise of the Presbyterian Church would be a necessary cost to be paid for the greater good.

    If, however, there is any remaining legitimacy or appropriateness to denominationalism, to Protestantism, or to the Reformed heritage, any at all—and surely even those within the Presbyterian Church who emphasize unity as a divine imperative must place some such value on this branch of the church, or they would not be pushing so hard to maintain its unity—if there is any remaining legitimacy to Presbyterianism at all, then we should not pretend that church unity is an absolute value. It may be a very high value. But if it were an absolute value, if it were a divine imperative, then denominationalism would be forbidden and all efforts to maintain the existence of the Presbyterian Church, let alone its unity, would be inherently sinful. That is to say, absolute church unity and the Presbyterian Church are mutually exclusive.

    Instead of insisting that the unity of the church is a divine imperative, perhaps we should understand the unity of the church as a divine gift. It is something wonderful which God gives to us. Yes, we should pray for it. We should seek it. We should receive it gladly when it comes. We should not stand in its way. We should not work against it. And yet, surely we must realize that the unity of the church is God’s work, God’s business, God’s accomplishment, and God’s gift to us. It is not something we can do ourselves. Let me put it this way: any church unity of which we are capable of accomplishing could not possibly satisfy the divine imperative for church unity if, in fact, there were one.

    Even Jesus Christ prayed for the unity of the church, as recorded in John 17. We all know this. The point here is that he prayed for it! He did not command it. He did not demand it. He did not assume that his followers would be capable of it. In fact, the urgency of the prayer seems to assume that his followers would be lacking it. Jesus asked his Father to bestow unity upon us as a gift! Yes, of course, this means that church unity is in agreement with the heartfelt desire of our savior. But no, it does not mean that it is simply up to us to do it, to achieve it, to legislate it, to mandate it, or to accomplish it.

    Those who push most urgently for the unity of the Presbyterian Church as a divine imperative to be sought at any cost may, in fact, be doing the most to undermine both the desired unity of the church and the church itself.

    Please understand: I am in favor of the unity of the church of Jesus Christ. And within that larger unity, I am in favor of maintaining the gifts that have been given to us in and through the Reformed heritage and Presbyterianism. I am simply saying that in order to maintain the unity of the Presbyterian Church as a viable part of the larger church, it is inherently, dare I say, “imperative” that we not undermine the legitimacy of the existence of the Presbyterian Church in the very process of seeking to maintain it.