The Belhar Confession (1986, adopted 2016)
- Book of Confessions (page 339)
- For a downloadable study guide with readings and space for written reflection, click here
The Belhar Confession is the most recent entry in our Presbyterian Book of Confessions. Originally penned in 1986, it was approved by the PC(USA) in 2016. In short, the Belhar Confession is a statement of faith that emerged in the context of the system of Apartheid in South Africa. It was formulated by Reformed Christians as a statement of biblically-informed conscience in opposition to racial and ethnic separation in the society and the church. Belhar is the name of the location where it was first adopted, a region of Cape Town, South Africa.
[Check out my Summer 2015 posts on the Belhar Confession for more detailed information on this confession that is relatively new to American Christians.]
The Belhar Confession is a unique statement of faith from a particular time and place that has relevance for Christian living in all times and places. It applies God’s wisdom in scripture to the issues of today, in particular the issue of racial/ethnic unity and justice in church and society. One could go so far as to say that God may have brought us the Belhar Confession “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:24), considering that it speaks directly to the issue of racial justice.
Belhar is written in three parts, each with a major theme as its focus: 1) Unity, 2) Reconciliation, & 3) Justice. For our purposes of confessing through the current crisis of racial justice in our society, we’ll be focusing on the third section. Justice is the theme, and its affirmations are anchored deep in the soil of scripture. Belhar turns our attention back to the Bible to discover God’s concern for justice: 1) God cares about justice, 2) God calls us to stand with those who suffer injustice, 3) God calls us to reject ideologies that lead us astray, & 4) God calls us to take a stand even if we suffer for it.
God cares about justice
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations … In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth…” Isaiah 42: 1, 3-4
The Belhar Confession boldly claims “We Believe that God” cares about justice and works to bring it into the world. Each statement of belief in the first part of this section begins with God. Here are a few highlights:
- God has revealed God’s self as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people;
- God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged;
- God calls the church to follow God in this; for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry;
- God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows and blocks the path of the ungodly;
- God wishes to teach the church to do what is good and to seek the right;
Read: Isaiah 42:1-7; Luke 6:20-26; Luke 4:16-19; Psalm 146; Micah 6:8
- How important is God’s concern for justice in your Christian world view?
- How might you relate other common features of the faith – such as sin, salvation, forgiveness, creation, redemption, etc. – to the biblical theme of God’s concern for justice?
- How does the issue of racial justice in society (and in particular the issue of just treatment of African-Americans by law enforcement) fit into the picture of God’s concern for justice?
God’s people are called to stand with those who suffer
“God presides in the great assembly; he renders judgment among the “gods”: “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Psalm 82:1-4
The confession challenges the church to stand. To “stand by people in any form of suffering and need,” and to stand “where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged.” The church is called to “witness against the powerful and privileged of society who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control or harm others.”
- Who might God be calling you to stand with in relation to the issue of racial justice in our society? How might you demonstrate this “with-ness?”
- Which is more difficult for you: standing with someone who is suffering or standing against the cause of the suffering? Why?
God’s people are called to reject attempts to legitimate injustice
This one hits home. The church in South Africa bought into an ideology that legitimated racism, and this form of injustice was reinforced by the church. It’s important to note that the church didn’t get racism from God’s word; they imported it from the reigning ideology in their culture. God’s people are called to reject these non-scriptural ideologies in favor of God’s revealed will. Easier said than done, as history proves.
- What is one example of an idea or a practice in the American church that comes more from the culture than from God’s will as expressed in scripture?
- Has God ever confronted you about “buying into” a philosophy or ideology that was keeping you from living according to His will? If so, how did you come to this realization, and what did you have to do to make a change?
The Church is called to confess God’s justice “even though” it costs them
“Peter and the other apostles replied: ‘We must obey God rather than human beings!’” Acts 5:29
“For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.” 1 Peter 3:17-18
Picking up on the language of Lordship that we discovered in the Barmen Declaration, the final paragraph of Belhar speaks of courageous obedience to Jesus Christ, even if this obedience brings punishment from unjust authorities or the consequence of suffering for doing what is right. Read this as a capstone to our four week experience of “Confessing through the Crisis:”
“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. Jesus is Lord. To the one and only God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be the honor and the glory for ever and ever.”
- How do you see people suffering for doing what is right in seeking racial justice?
- Have you ever suffered because you stepped out in faithfulness to what God called you to do? If so, what impact has it had on your relationship with God and your view of His work in your life?
- What does it mean to you that Jesus is Lord in relation to the issue of racial justice in our contemporary society?
To find resources on Learning & Living Racial Justice, click here.