Belhar Confession: FAQ
What is the Belhar Confession?
The Belhar Confession is a statement of faith, based on Scripture, that focuses on God's call to unity, reconciliation, and justice.
Who wrote the Belhar?
The confession was drafted in Belhar, South Africa, as an "outcry of faith" and a "call for faithfulness and repentance" in the struggle against apartheid (legalized segregation and political/economic discrimination against non-European groups). Written in 1982 by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa, Belhar articulates a scriptural and theological challenge to the apartheid practiced by the government and churches of South Africa. It lifts up three themes:
- unity as a gift of God and an obligation for the church;
- reconciliation as the God-entrusted message to the church, called to be a peacemaker;
- justice as the revealed nature of God that calls the church to stand by people in any form of suffering.
In 1994 Belhar was adopted by the newly emerging Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA), comprised of the former bodies of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (colored) and the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa (black). The new church took the lead in declaring that apartheid constituted a status confessionis, meaning the truth of the gospel was at stake.
Why do we have confessions?
A confession of faith is a formal statement that speaks internally to the church and speaks externally to a world so loved by God. It declares the church's beliefs and actions to other churches and to those outside the church. It tells the world that Jesus Christ is Lord and articulates the church's mission and witness. A confession also speaks to God—a hymn sung to God's glory.
Is the Belhar only about apartheid?
Justice, unity, and reconciliation—the main themes of the Belhar Confession—are applicable in a wide variety of contexts. They were important values during apartheid, but they are also important values for the church as it cares for poor people, works toward healing racism in North America, and strengthens its missional focus.
In an address to General Synod 2002, Dr. Seth Pitikoe of the URCSA said, "The implications of Belhar are far wider than its original context. Our wish is that the Reformed family would recognize this and not see it as only South African." At General Synod 2004, the Rev. Dr. Mitri Rahab of the Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem said that Palestinian Christians "compare the Palestinian situation with the situation under apartheid in South Africa...It is important that we work to contextualize the confession in a way that will speak clearly to our unique situation." At General Synod 2006, the Rev. Dr. Israel Batista of the Latin America Council of Churches noted that Belhar is a "witness to the God in whom we believe, a discerning of the action of God in our lives and in history, a will for integrity of life, a vocation of service, a call to resist in the face of behavior that is dehumanizing, and a renewed passion for proclaiming the gospel."
What role does the Belhar play in the RCA now that it's been adopted?
Adoption put the Belhar on the same level as the RCA's other standards of unity—the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, and the Belgic Confession. These standards are statements of Reformed belief and faithful witnesses to the Word of God. They help us interpret Scripture, but they do not supersede Scripture.
The confession provides a scriptural and theological foundation for the RCA's call to "follow Christ in mission" and participate in God's transformation of our lives, congregations, and world. Belhar provides a substantive response to the RCA's vision of being a church that is called by God to stand where God stands with the poor; a church that is racially inclusive; a church healing brokenness, transforming lives by the love of Jesus Christ.
When's the last time the RCA adopted a new standard of unity?
Before the Belhar was adopted in 2009 and ratified in 2010, it had been 238 years. The RCA formally adopted the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort, and the Heidelberg Catechism in 1771.
How did the RCA adopt a fourth confession?
A General Synod delegate brought the Belhar Confession before the synod in 1985, encouraging the RCA to read the confession and respond to the URCSA. The synod voted to receive the confession for study and response, and it was distributed to commissions and agencies.
In 1996, URCSA also invited the RCA to study the confession. As heirs of the Dutch Reformed Church in the Netherlands, the URCSA and the RCA are related. The URCSA adopted the Belhar and in turn offered the confession as a gift to the RCA and to the wider church.
From 2000 to 2010, the RCA studied and considered the Belhar for adoption, and in 2010, the RCA declared the Belhar Confession to be a standard of unity for the denomination. Read about all the steps that were involved.
These FAQs were compiled from a May 2007 Church Herald article written by Doug Fromm, the RCA's associate for ecumenical relations, and from 2009 and 2010 articles in RCA Today.