Belhar

This year, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is considering adding the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions. If adopted, it will be the first time since I have been ordained that I will need to tell a class of incoming elders that they need to buy a new Book of Confessions! This is because our Book of Confessions, other than the cover, rarely changes. Overall, this is a good thing because we want the Book of Confessions to always be a book where we can refer and study to see what Presbyterians believed at key moments in the history of the denomination.

Those who would add the confession believe that now is the time for our generation to make a statement. What does Belhar make a statement about? As I read it, it is:
a. A confession for inclusiveness.
b. A confession for the wideness and depth of the call of Jesus Christ.
c. A confession which calls upon us to come together.

So, why wouldn’t everyone just immediately jump on board and support it? I think the crux of the controversy comes at the point where the confession states:

“therefore we reject any doctrine which 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
reconciliation;
• 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
church.”

There are many in the church, both for and against gay rights, gay ordination, and gay marriage who will read the above strictly through the lens of those current debates. But is it fair to take a confession written in 1986, whose authors were thinking about apartheid, and crystallize it down to this single overarching issue that we wrestle with today?

I see us as a fragmenting society and a fragmenting church (not locally but nationally and internationally). We too often view unity as sameness but if that is how we define unity, we will never achieve it. Our tendency to want to factionalize, even for causes we see as righteous, can be our undoing.

I have not made up my mind completely but I see much of value in Belhar and plan to re-read it many times in the coming weeks as I prepare to vote whether to include this confession in our Book of Confessions. I hope every Presbyterian will read it too and think and pray about it.

You can find the confession here:

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