1. The Confessions

W-4.0404 f.—Will you in your own life seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love your neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world?

As the third question introduced, the confessions are a resource for the church’s unfolding understanding of what it means to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love our neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world. For Presbyterians, and particularly for those who are ordained as deacons, ruling elders, or pastors, the confessions are lived. Through study of the confessions, we gain insight into the historical moment for each of these statements of faith, as well as learn about who we are called to be as followers of Jesus Christ. Some confessions, particularly the Confession of Belhar and The Confession of 1967, as well as The Theological Declaration of Barmen, are important because they stated the convictions of the Christian faith in the face of a controversy or proclaimed the identity of the church during great social change. We believe that God continues to work. It is a “Reformed obligation to confess the faith in each time and place.”[1]

Even though we do not live in apartheid South Africa, or in the rapid social change of the 1960s United States, we believe that Christians of different times and places are able to provide a witness to one another.

The Confession of Belhar

The Confession of Belhar arose from The Theological Declaration of Barmen in conversation with the realities of apartheid South Africa. It was adopted in 1986 by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa, and then by a series of churches in South Africa and the United States. This moment in the life of church is one of particular shame, as the church was integral to the creation and maintenance of apartheid, much as the church has been integral to the colonization of what came to be called the Americas, and as it has been a central player in the creation and justification of Native American removal and cultural genocide, chattel slavery, and Jim Crow laws.

Unity is not just meant to be spiritual and a matter of worship practice, but also tangible. Unity must be real and cannot be achieved if legal separation exists.

This confession is relevant today because separation persists through less blatant legal, economic, and cultural means. It took two efforts in the PC(USA) to include this confession in our Constitution, which speaks to the divisive nature of race in the United States. However, to follow Jesus, love one’s neighbors and work for reconciliation demand we acknowledge the real and powerful divisions between us.

The Confession of 1967

Following decades of conflict over doctrine and essential tenets of the faith, dispensationalism, the fundamentalist-modernist conflict, the advent of neo-orthodoxy, splits and mergers, the church determined it needed a modern confession, after an overture to the PC(USA) came asking for updated language for the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Naturally, there was a great deal of controversy over the new confession. Revisions were made, including a concession that created a new item on personal morality (in regards to sexual behavior and relationships), and the modifications made the confession more likely to pass and be accepted.

The confession is divided into sections on reconciliation and equality, in the context of racial discrimination, international conflict, persistent poverty, and gender equality.

For Reflection and Discussion:

What surprises you about the history of either the Confession of Belhar or The Confession of 1967?

Why do you think it is important for us to provide a witness by having these confessions as a part of our church’s constitution?

[1] Small, Joseph. To Be Reformed: Living the Tradition, Louisville: Witherspoon Press (2010), 3.