Four reasons the PCUSA
should not adopt Belhar Confession
Commentary by Viola Larson, Naming His Grace blog, July 1, 2010
The 219th General Assembly will consider including the Confession of Belhar in the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Book of Confessions.
The recommendation comes from the Committee to Consider Amending the Confessional Documents of the Presbyterian Church (USA). If approved at GA, the presbyteries would have to approve the confession by at least a two-thirds majority vote of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries.
I have been writing on this confession for the last year. I believe it should not be added to our Book of Confessions for four reasons:
- Failure to focus the confession on the Lordship of Christ
- The issue of homosexuality
- The Israeli and Palestinian conflict
- The issue of pluralism
Before I begin explaining each of these problems I must insist that in South Africa with its problems of apartheid, which included the church, such a statement was necessary. But there are problems with this confession; the first and most important one being its failure to emphasize Christology including the Lordship of Christ. And it is this failure that causes all of the other problems.
Failure to focus the Confession
on the Lordship of Christ
Various theologians have insisted that Belhar looks to Karl Barth and the Declaration of Barmen as its model. While this may be true the writers failed Barth’s most important tenet, the insistence that a confession’s main emphasis is to confess Christ. In fact, Barmen would have been and is the better confession.
The problem in South Africa within the church was with the doctrine of the ‘Orders of Creation.’ That is, that in creating, God instituted certain institutions that could not be changed. In South Africa, the church using this system set boundaries for various races allowing the church to fit within a racist state. In Nazi Germany the rights of government was emphasized in an attempt to allow the church to fit within a totalitarian state.
But Barth’s word on that attempt was to insist that placing anything beside Christ, as He is found in the Old and New Testament, was a compromising position for the church. Here Barth is referring to “Creation and Redemption, Nature and Grace, Nationalism and Gospel.” Barmen, (which was largely written by Barth), supports his concerns while at the same time preventing the church from falling into any kind of idolatry or antinomianism. It does that by insisting, Biblically, that “Jesus Christ, as He is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and death.” (8:11)
This places the Lordship of Christ above all statements and yet Christ is tied to Scripture. What falls outside of Christ’s Lordship is unacceptable. What falls under His Lordship is. For instance the racism of South Africa is seen as sin when one reads, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28)
The Belhar Confession on the other hand emphasizes the unity of the church, which is not a confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, but a confession about what the church is or must do. Therefore unity is not necessarily tied to Christ’s Lordship, since unity may be achieved by other means.
The issue of homosexuality
Because unity is the main point of the Belhar Confession others have insisted on using it for issues that are unbiblical.
One of the contributors to Belhar, Allan Boesak, has sought to use Belhar as a means to gain ordination for practicing homosexuals in the Uniting Reformed Church in South Africa. Quoting from the Banner, I wrote, “He dramatically insisted that the church’s Belhar Confession demands the defense of the full rights of gay members.”
A Belhar statement, “… 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. …” is a very big problem. (Emphasis mine)
In the PCUSA the Witherspoon Society’s Eugene TeSelle in a “Special Report to Witherspoon Society and Friends” from the 2004 General Assembly, writes of that part of Belhar, “While we’re talking about absolutizing natural diversity, we might refer the Belhar Confession to the Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity as it considers the PCUSA’s prohibition on gay/lesbian.”
So in the PCUSA we also will undoubtedly see this confession used in a way that is detached from the Lordship of Christ “as He is attested for us in Holy Scripture.”
The Israeli and Palestinian conflict
Speakers for the Reformed Church in America have used the confession as a solution for what they perceive as racism on the part of Israel. As one speaker, the Rev. Christo Lombard from the Uniting Reformed Church of South Africa, put it “If there is one situation in this world that contextually fits the antiapartheid struggle and its dynamics, for which the Belhar Confession was written, it must be the Palestinian situation, currently.”
Another speaker, Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, pastor of Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, also hoped that the confession might be used against the State of Israel. In the same way those in the PCUSA who are advocating for this confession may attempt to use it as leverage against Israel.
The issue of pluralism
Raheb formulates the last concern that members of the PCUSA may have with this confession.
In a final and complete leap away from Barmen, Raheb divorces Jesus Christ from the confession, writing “On several places in the confession the word ‘church’ is replaced by another category called ‘the people of God.’ The Belhar Confession uses this term to describe the church. My question would be, is it possible to expand this ‘People of God’ terminology to encompass the ‘peoples of God,’ including in this Jews and Muslims? And by this to provide a monotheistic platform for unity?”
Now, with this formula we have unity totally taking over the confession as it shallows up the church’s confession of Jesus Christ as Lord. In fact, Raheb’s formula does more than shallow; it empties and turns the confession into a hollow unfaithful paper, recommending apostasy.
A confession of faith for the church must have as its main focus the church’s confession of Christ. All other important concerns of the church, including her unity, must be subsumed under the heading “Jesus Christ is Lord.” He is Lord over sin of any kind. Lord over adultery and homosexual practice. Lord over racism and anti-Semitism. Lord over all gods and powers. Jesus Christ is the Lord of His Church, within her, above her and leading her. That is the ultimate confession for the church of Jesus Christ.
The Naming His Grace blog can be found at http://naminghisgrace.blogspot.com/