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

12 Responses
  • pennyjane hanson on June 24, 2011

    dear janet.

    i confess, i see some wisdom in the professor’s perspective. it’s very specificity, especially in the accompanying letter, is problematic for me.

    i have been just a bit uneasy from my first reading, i think professor burgess may have identified my uneasiness for me. perhaps committing it’s essence to authority does seem to undermine it in some way.

    i confess, too, that this feeling of mine is entirely visceral, likely not defensible in debate.

    maybe it really wasn’t such a great idea to bring the confession before the presbeteries at the same time with 10a. having one such contentious item before the voters might necessarily have diverted warranted attention away from belhar, the attention needed for many of us to study and digest the meaning and necessity for adding a confession to the book.

    maybe having belhar live in our hearts for a few more years, time for real study and discernment will quash some of the uneasiness in us. i hope many of us will bring the study guide provided by g.a. and that you graciously provided for us here up for programs in our christian education plans…i know our committee is already working on a format for study based on this guide.

    in the meantime we can all be grateful to the “reforming” church in south africa for the gift, let it live and mature in our hearts…and keep an open mind.

    much love and hope. pj

  • Donna on June 24, 2011

    I suppose the following is what stood out the most to me:

    “…that we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; together serve God in this world…”

    Do we “suffer with” or cause others to suffer for what we think is the sake of righteousness?


  • Janet Edwards on June 24, 2011

    Dear pj and Donna,

    Thanks for your thoughts!!

    pj, I am thrilled that your church is planning to study the Belhar. I expect it would happen at your church whether it had been adopted or not. I trust it will resonate deeply with you and your congregation. Let us know.

    Donna, Yes, for me, “for the sake of righteousness” is an extremely provocative phrase. What exactly is that in our time and place? And what if we define it differently–what happens then? Of course, the word I love is “together.” I treasure your further thoughts.

    Peace be with you both, Janet

  • Donna on June 24, 2011

    I break it down this way:

    suffer with – to endure harships together
    for the sake of – for the purpose of, or, to achieve
    righteousness – ethical standing, justice, integrity

    Perhaps since our righteousness rests in our faith in Christ’s supreme righteousness, we endure hardships to reach a state of integrity with one another before the righteousness of God. That is to say, if God’s righteousness is His faithfulness to His covenant with us (through Christ) and we have no righteousness in our own right (only through Christ), then we must strive and struggle together in that covenant to achieve at least some state of integrity before God. We are all saved by grace but we still must bear with each other the burden of loving our neighbor, a state of integrity where we have tried our level best, before God. As you relayed, we are before the throne, not on the throne. I would add, we cannot become the law or enforce it when we are all subject to it. We can only suffer with each other so that we can adhere to it. On the other hand, I’ll be the first to admit that there are things I will walk and have walked away from because I just couldn’t take it anymore, and sometimes that is the best thing to do.


  • Janet Edwards on June 25, 2011

    Dear Donna,

    What great food for thought you have given to us!!

    My own knowledge of the Confession of Belhar suggests that what you say here is in full harmony with its whole point in its effort to bring the church together in South Africa. I would love to hear what parts of the substance of the Belhar you see as best supporting your insights here.

    Ad I am also very interested in your application of this to specific situations in our lives now.

    I am eager to hear from you again. Peace, Janet

  • pennyjane hanson on June 26, 2011

    and so… york becomes the 6th state to “legalize” same sex marriage.

    i just think that’s weird..”legalize”. we have to pass laws granting us “rights” that God gives us freely? and even weirder, the secular “law” in new york has more respect for my loving relationship with my wife than my own church.

    the secular people of new york have more faith in “love” than does pc(usa).


    i know that somehow this is all mixed up in my relationship with belhar. as beautiful, as sacred, as insightful and as profound as this confession is…it is undermined by it’s specificity, it’s incompleteness. what it doesn’t say speaks as loudly as what it says. there is a marked void right in the middle. as i read it, it makes me blush…is pc(usa) really ready for this?

    maybe a confession is supposed to make us blush, maybe it should point out weakness and hypocricy. i don’t know.

    just a morning muse.

    much love and hope. pj

  • Janet Edwards on June 26, 2011

    Dear pj,

    Thanks for your morning musings which allow the rest of us to ponder along with you1

    Yes God moves in mysterious ways and right now parts of civil society–arising from God’s creation through our human ingenuity to my mind– is leading the church. Equal rights before the law is a fundamental premise of our land, including the law that marriage is between consenting adults. An alleluia for New York state is in order but it is only a step to correcting a failure to fully live out what we profess as a nation.

    With regard to the PCUSA, what I see is that the church is actually neutral with regard to marriage between two men or two women. Our only section on marriage in the Book of order is in the Directory for Worship and is a definition. A definition is not a rule so there is, in fact, no rule in the PCUSA though, of course, many want to make the definition a rule. The GAPJC decisions in the Southard and Spahr cases should help clarify all this.

    i hope you will speak more specifically about the void in the middle of the Confession of Belhar. It seems to me that both its writers and our reading of it give great permission to expand its meaning beyond the specific situation in South Africa in the 1980’s. Also, South Africa seems to have done this as it is the first country in Africa to enact marriage equality. And it was the sponsor of the recent Resolution of the UN Human Rights Commission to recognize rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trasngender people.

    I look forward to yours and others’ comments.

    Peace, Janet

  • pennyjane hanson on June 26, 2011

    good afternoon janet and thank you for your attention. i admit, it’s hard for me to not accept the definition of marriage as between “one man and one woman” in the book or order as, if not specifically, at least a spiritual rule.

    if, being true to that definition…at least in spirit, can we extrapolate from that, that we might perform marriages between “one man and one man”?

    just from reading our own book of order i see no way around a sanctioned marriage necessarily having one male and one female.

    if we intend it to mean between “two consenting adults”, i think that should be what we say, having no reference to gender.

    i confess…i did read the decision in your case…but much of it did go right over my head. so, if i may, i’d like to know how the church views the marriage you performed? i know you were acquitted and i celebrate that, but what of the marriage? does the church value that ceremony equally with all those opposite gender marriages performed in our church?

    i’m certainly not disparaging the belhar confession, personally i see God’s fingerprints all over it. i guess one thing i fear is it’s constant reference to racial equality. that’s the part that points to the void i see.

    i guess i can see your point of view, that the confession challenges us to spread that spirit, i can also see a viable arguement on the other side…that this confession is about race and race alone. i guess i can see it being used by either side in debate over even more inclusionary rules and definitions.

    and then, maybe i’m just tilting at windmills….seeing something that isn’t really there….but, i am still very uneasy.

    much love and hope. pj

  • Donna on June 26, 2011

    Hi Janet,

    While I know that the Belhar Confession resulted from conditions based on race, it exemplifies a community that is forward-thinking, that is, looking to ensure that other marginalized populations are gathered into the community, and are thus protected from alienation. This is evident in the section:

    Therefore, we reject any doctrine
    • which absolutizes either natural diversity or the sinful separation of people
    in such a way that this absolutization hinders or breaks the visible and
    active unity of the church, or even leads to the establishment of a separate
    church formation;
    • which professes that this spiritual unity is truly being maintained in the
    bond of peace while believers of the same confession are in effect
    alienated from one another for the sake of diversity and in despair of
    • which denies that a refusal earnestly to pursue this visible unity as a
    priceless gift is sin;
    • which explicitly or implicitly maintains that descent or any other human or
    social factor should be a consideration in determining membership of the

    These are key statements that don’t allow for the different sides of an issue to alienate each other. It doesn’t allow for anyone to stand behind a rusty “letter of the law” facade and hide their unwillingness to love. Rather it names that sin and follows the Spirit and intent of the law in exactly the ways our Saviour did: giving God due diligence before our own selfish needs.

    I think it is very unfortunate that this confession is not included in the Book of Confessions, because when the church faces decisions, such as glbt inclusion, marriage, and disciplinary measures, and so on, it turns to its honored documentation like the church’s Constitution, Book of Order, and Book of Cenfessions for definitive guidance. This addition could have been the salve to help the PC(UCA) of its dichotomous position on glbt inclusion.


  • Janet Edwards on June 28, 2011

    Dear pj,

    Thanks for your further musings!!

    With regard to the Belhar, you remind me of the paradoxical purpose of the confessions in the Book of Confessions recognized in the preface. As I mentioned, the confessions are meant to say what we the PCUSA resolve to believe and do now and into the future. At the same time, we recognize that each confessional statement was written in a specific time and place and will say things that do not fit our time and place.

    We are clear that the anti-semitism or anti-Catholicism which are prominent in the Reformation era documents do not reflect our present convictions. Nor do the sections devaluing of women. In this sense, the confessions open up a dialogue between our ancestors in the faith and ourselves that helps us clarify our faith, not because we agree with a confession but because it has prompted us to think.

    While I think we in the PCUSA right now have a great deal to gain from the stand against racism embedded in the Belhar because of its historic circumstances, the confession can also function as a catalyst for conversation, serving us just as well in that way.

    I hope that makes sense.

    With regard to marriage, I know it will be a topic before us leading up to the General Assembly in 2012. And we are supposed to be studying the report of the Special Committee on Marriage and Civil Union right now. You can search the PCUSA website for it. I am sure it will be quite provocative for you, as will be the Minority Report also commended to the church for study. You can also search timetoembrace about these reports as I have written some on them as well.

    Stay strong, pj. Peace, Janet

  • pennyjane hanson on June 30, 2011

    good morning janet.

    pondering and reflecting…that’s certainly what i’m up to! and, sometimes…yes, strictly from a “devil’s advocate” position.

    i am still quite curious…how do you think the church, our church, pc(usa), views the marriage you performed that got you in dutch?

    i remember when annie and i proposed renewing our vows on our 30th anniversary in the church. it was during the time when you were defending your actions. our pastor at the time was willing without consideration to perform the ceremony. i guess i was a little concerned that he so readily agreed so i asked him if he wasn’t concerned with repercussions from the church. he told me that since it wasn’t a “legal” marriage that he didn’t think there would be any repercussions. i was still a little concerned that since it was to be a “wedding ceremony” that there still might be those who’d want to wish him ill over it. he said, “so it goes”. he told me that if annie and i were just walking in off the street with this request he’d probably have to think long and hard about it, but since we were members of the family and everyone knew us and already respected our “marriage” that there was just simply no question about it. he pointed out to me just how valued pc(usa) holds congregational autonomy, how reluctant presbyteries are to intervene in the personal business of each church. when i pointed out to him the difficulties you were having he just said, “rev janet will beat it.”

    i remember the day you “beat it”, how exhausted you were. i guess there is some truth in the old saying, “what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger,” you seem to have rebounded quite well, thank you.

    how do you think we should address marriage in the book of order?

    back to belhar. it hasn’t escaped me that it seems the “african american” chruches in america are often among the more strident voices against including tgbl in “civil rights” areas. some even seem quite angry with us for what they percieve as co-opting “their” civil rights movement. it seems as if many feel as if we minimalize their struggle, or even defile it.

    i think that’s the kind of backlash i fear when i express uneasiness with the racial emphasis in belhar. a certain logic would say that those who have experienced discrimination would be more likely to recognize and appose it when it happens to others…but history doesn’t seem to support that logic. more often, it seems, when a certain group “gets theirs” they go right on to join the other side in opposing those who still want to “get theirs”.

    some might say it’s fatalist, others might say it’s polyannaish, but we will get ours as well. why? because it’s God’s will. the only question is, how many bodies will we have to trip over on the way from here to there? how many more will be murdered or shipped off to darkness in the name of Jesus?

    statistics don’t help me, they are no more than rationalization…if you kill one person you haved killed us all. the whole universe is no more important than one life within it.

    so, how do we stop the killing…right now…before another one dies?

    much love and hope. pj

  • Janet Edwards on June 30, 2011

    Dear pj,

    Thanks once more for continuing this conversation on marriage and ramifications of the Belhar.

    With regard to marriage, it is thrilling for me to hear that your pastor seem to see things in the PCUSA in the same way as I do. He seems to get that a definition can not be a rule. Take, for example, the word “sanction” which features in the judicial decisions concerning marriage in the PCUSA. Strangely, it has two meanings that are opposite, to bless and to punish. Simply as a word, it cannot be a rule.

    In addition, the Directory for Worship in Presbyterian tradition was a direct response to the rules, “rubrics,” that our ancestors felt restricted the moving of the Holy Spirit in worship. They chose to give directions so that we could honor the Holy Spirit in the worship moment. Your pastor and I acted in that long tradition as we saw the Spirit at work in yours and Brenda and Nancy’s lives, knowing that the present definition in the Directory is presently lagging behind our experience of God in the church.

    With regard to the Belhar, I can not speak for the African American church community. I do know it is in motion the same way all churches are now with regard to eyes opening to God’s love for all God’s children. Deryck Tines is a good example of the leaders who are helping with that–you can search for my conversation with him if you did not see it.

    Your words prompted me to one further thought. It is important that the Belhar is a statement of faith from another country and culture. South Africa is not the United States. There may, however, be a parallel to the fact that the three presbyteries in Alabama voted in favor of 10A. I speculate that their experience in the Civil Rights era helped them to see the principles involved in ordination just as South Africa seems to have been able to apply the principles articulated in the Belhar to marriage equality. What do you think?

    I look forward to hearing from you. Peace, Janet

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