by Clifton Kirkpatrick
The Confession of Belhar
Echoing through the Belhar Confession is the wonderful vision of Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” From the beginning to the end of the Belhar Confession are affirmations that we are all part of one human family, that we are called to be one church and that we are to stand firmly against any injustice that denies these realities.
The framers of this confession would also remind us that one of the most important ways the church influences the world in accord with the reign of God is to be a living demonstration of what God intends for all humanity. Or, as Belhar puts it, “Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another.”
Drawing heavily on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Belhar explores how God has taken the initiative in reconciling us to God and to one another. Much of what is expected of Christians is captured in the notion that “God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ.”
It started in a seminary classroom in 1978. Professor Jaap Durand was teaching students at the seminary of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (the “coloured” church) in Cape Town and faced a classroom full of students who were still traumatized by the massacre in Soweto a couple of years earlier and by the climate of hatred, fear and violence that gripped South Africa. He asked these students to write about whether there was a theological case to be made for resistance to the apartheid regime.
They struggled together and came up with a collective statement that would later find expression in the Belhar Confession and much of the witness of Reformed Christians in South Africa and elsewhere against apartheid. They stated, “Apartheid is grounded in the irreconcilability of people of different racial groups. It is thus against the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is grounded in the doctrine of reconciliation.”1
Apartheid (the “state of being apart” in English translation) had long and deep roots in South Africa. For hundreds of years, Dutch and British settlers oppressed and even enslaved the indigenous African populations and later populations of people of mixed-racial background and of South Asian origins. Apartheid became the law of the land in 1948, and it quickly became a reality not only in civil society but also in the church. The church of the Afrikaner establishment, the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC), separated out but continued to dominate three “daughter” churches: one for indigenous Africans, one for mixed-race Christians and one for those of Indian origin.
The basic affirmation the seminary students articulated soon became the official position of the Synod of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC), and it was shared with great passion at the General Council of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) in the summer of 1982.2 I will always remember being at this global gathering of Reformed Churches in Ottawa and feeling the oneness of spirit behind this theology of reconciliation and the strong commitment that apartheid was contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
When the two Dutch Reformed Churches refused to repudiate their theological support for apartheid, the World Alliance suspended their membership in the WARC. In a strong way, the global Reformed community had repudiated apartheid and declared itself a community of justice and reconciliation.
Emboldened by the show of global support, the DRMC concluded that God was calling them to make a public confession of their faith in these tumultuous times that would guide their witness and be a gift to the world church. They named a small committee, chaired by the two theologians, Russell Botman and Dirkie Smit. In just a few days, while the synod was still in session, the committee came up with the remarkable document that would become the Belhar Confession. The document was then sent out, in good Reformed fashion, for congregations to study and react to it until the next General Synod meeting that was to be held four years later (in 1986) at the church in the town of Belhar. That synod then adopted the confession and offered it as a gift to South Africa and the world as “a cry from the heart, as something we are obliged to do for the sake of the gospel in view of the times in which we stand.”3
While the Belhar Confession was written to be useful to churches in many different contexts it made a huge contribution to the struggle for justice in South Africa and, at the same time, has amazing relevance to a context like ours in the United States in the twenty-first century. While the confession itself was meant to have universal implications, the drafters also developed an Accompanying Letter, which they asked to always be included with the confession, to make clear why it was written and what might be some of its implications, especially in South Africa.
The Accompanying Letter declares that like all true Reformed confessions, Belhar is written to respond to a situation in which “the gospel is at risk” if the church and good Christian people do not respond in faithfulness to the challenges at hand. In short, the Accompanying Letter makes it clear the Belhar Confession seeks to transform church and society in South Africa; it is also a confession for the church universal and for all times. Quite a claim, but one that has been shown to be true over the years.
The Belhar Confession has made a real difference both in South Africa and in other parts of the world. Modeled on the Barmen Declaration (1934), a confession from the Confessing Church in Germany standing up to Adolf Hitler and his regime, the Belhar Confession helped countless Christians in South Africa and elsewhere see the struggle to end apartheid not only as a political struggle but also as a struggle in which the integrity of the gospel is at stake. It helped create a climate that enabled Nelson Mandela to come out of prison, be elected president of South Africa and lead that nation not toward retribution but toward genuine reconciliation where all people are valued as children of God.
Among the churches in South Africa, the Belhar Confession was the foundation on which churches that had been torn apart by apartheid were reunited. The best example of such a union, based on the Belhar Confession, was the union of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (the “coloured” church) and the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa (the “black” church) as the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa.
The Belhar Confession has also inspired Christians in other parts of the world who struggle to overcome oppression in the Spirit of Christ.
Palestinian Christians, who live in a context with walls, passbooks and ethnic homelands, have found great relevance in the Belhar Confession in their struggle for liberation and freedom. African Christians, who have experienced the enslavement of a global economic system that has left millions of Africans in grinding poverty, have found special resonance in the Belhar Confession as they have joined others in the World Communion of Reformed Churches in the Accra Confession, which calls for economic and ecological justice.
Belhar, as is typical of Reformed confessions, begins with an affirmation of the Trinity and closes with a ringing affirmation that “Jesus is Lord.” In between those two solid foundations, the Belhar Confession offers fascinating and helpful insights into the unity, reconciliation, and justice to which Jesus Christ calls the church.
Belhar makes three major affirmations about unity. First, it states in that somewhat unusual phrase that unity is “both a gift and an obligation.” It is a gift in that unity is God’s intention for the earth, for humanity and for the church, a blessing that God has freely given us. However, it is also an obligation since it is what God expects us to be about.
Second, Belhar states that unity must become visible. There is no focus on an invisible church in Belhar. God wants us to make unity visible so that it can be replicated. Christians are not primarily called to live together in unity for themselves but rather “so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered.”
Third, unity must be active. There is no place in Belhar for Christians to withdraw from the world to be united. Drawing on Ephesians 4, Belhar sees our unity leading us to love one another, to join with one another in community, to share our deepest faith—one Lord, one faith, one baptism—with each other, and to gather together around one table in communion with the Lord. One of the most painful separations in apartheid South Africa was that even Christians of different races were not allowed to gather together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Finally, this unity leads us out from the gathered community to serve the cause of unity in the world.
At a time in which this position was extremely unpopular, Belhar was forthright in making it clear that neither race, nor class, nor gender, nor sexual orientation, nor theological position, nor disability, nor age were legitimate barriers to exclude people from the church. The Church of Jesus Christ is open and welcoming for all people. It is very clear in Belhar that unity is not just to be experienced with “people like us.” The confession sees diversity of races, backgrounds, languages, cultures and spiritual gifts as given by God so that we can enrich one another. With Belhar, it is hard to imagine a faithful church that is not a multicultural church.
Central to the whole of Belhar is the sense that “God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation.”
It cuts to the heart of the matter in South Africa when it states, “The credibility of this message is seriously affected and its beneficial work obstructed when it is proclaimed in a land which professes to be Christian, but in which the enforced separation of people on a racial basis promotes and perpetuates alienation, hatred and enmity.” This section closes with a strong condemnation of the forced separation of people on the grounds of race and colour, claiming that any such action is based on false doctrine and ideology and is an affront to a ministry of reconciliation.
Belhar saves its strongest language for the confession’s focus on justice. The section begins with the affirmation that God is “the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people.” Maybe its strongest statement is the next one: “God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged.” This theme of God’s preferential option for the poor has significant roots in the Confession of Belhar. Another strong statement on justice in the confession is “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.”
We are called to stand where Jesus stood—with the poor, the sick, the woman at the well, the outcasts, the tax collectors and the like. A justice-seeking church is one that focuses its life and ministry on those outside the church and on the “edges” of society and is willing to take the risk to confront “powers and principalities” for the justice of those Jesus loves and favours. We are encouraged to be ardent advocates for justice even when that witness may run afoul of human laws and authorities and may result in punishment and suffering. That was certainly one of the consequences of justice- seeking ministry in South Africa and continues to be the reality in so many parts of the world as Christians take seriously God’s call to justice.
To authorities like those in South Africa, the Belhar Confession served notice that there can be no compromise with the commitment of Christians to unity, justice and reconciliation. To people like us, it should serve notice that unity, justice and reconciliation are foundational values for faithful Christians and the guideposts by which we live our lives.
1 Rogers, “The Belhar Confession,” p. 5.
2 The World Alliance of Reformed Churches has since become the World Communion of Reformed Churches.
3 Accompanying Letter to the Confession of Belhar.