May the Belhar Confession Live in Our Hearts
It is now certain that The Confession of Belhar has failed to receive the votes needed to enter our Book of Confessions, the first part of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It will not live among us as an authoritative statement of who we are, what we believe and what we resolve to do as a church.
I confess it was a sad day for me when I heard Professor John Burgess of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary argue that placing the Belhar in the Book of Confessions would probably bury it. He claimed that we were most likely to ignore it if we so honored it. He argued that it could better serve us by our actually paying attention to it as a provocative statement, challenging us from without instead of within.
However, I take from this some hope that the Belhar can still live in our hearts. We will see whether Professor Burgess is right that it will do better to inspire us — to transform us and the world — residing outside rather than among the confessions.
It is ours to make this so. We are Christ’s arms and legs in this matter of making the Belhar live in our hearts.
Even had the Belhar passed, the Accompanying Letter would not have been authoritative and it holds the best counsel I know for the PCUSA in the days to come. Slow down in your reading and ponder this wisdom from our South African sisters and brothers in Christ:
As solemnly as we are able, we hereby declare before men (sic) that our only motive lies in our fear that the truth and power of the gospel itself is threatened in this situation. We do not wish to serve any group interests, advance the cause of any factions, promote any theologies, or achieve any ulterior purposes. Yet, having said this, we know that our deepest intentions may only be judged at their true value by him before whom all is revealed. We do not make this confession from the throne and from on high, but before his throne and before men (sic).
Now that is walking the Christian walk! That’s what I resolve to do!
Perhaps you see what I see: Two aspects highlighted in this declaration have contributed to the deeply painful conflict in the PCUSA these past many years. First, the protagonists both “fear that the truth and power of the gospel itself is threatened in this situation.” I can certainly relate to this. We have often fiercely defended our positions but have been seen as being factions with ulterior motives. Our suspicions of group interests or ulterior motives have weakened us all, so let’s set those aside from now on and see how the Holy Spirit can empower us together.
Second, we have also spoken often as if we were on God’s high throne, rather than before it. The Belhar encourages a different way and we do well to follow it. To speak for our understanding of the “truth and power of the gospel itself” does not place us on God’s throne. We will only thrive as a Christian community when we recognize our common place together before God on high and speak from there.
There is, of course, a whole lot more faithful Christian wisdom in the Confession of Belhar. Since it was first brought to the attention of the PCUSA in about 2004, the church has encouraged us to study it and there is a great study guide to help us do that.
Let’s make sure that Professor Burgess turns out to be right — let’s write the wisdom of the Confession of Belhar on our hearts. Then let’s watch how we, the church, live powerfully in Christ before God’s throne strengthened by the Holy Spirit.
What strikes you most in the Confession of Belhar?
Reverend Janet Edwards