Belhar Confession: Summary of Its Church-Wide Study
The Belhar Confession has its roots in the struggle against apartheid in Southern Africa. It is an "outcry of faith" and a "call for faithfulness and repentance." It was first drafted in 1982 by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC, colored) under leadership of the Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak. That church took the lead in declaring that apartheid constituted a "status confessionis" in which the very truth of the gospel was at stake.
The Belhar Confession was adopted in 1986 by the DRMC after years of conversation with the "mother church," the Dutch Reformed Church in Southern Africa (DRC, white). The Belhar Confession was not adopted by the mother church, the DRC, thus setting the DRMC apart from the DRC. In April of 1994 the Belhar Confession was adopted as the theological foundation of the newly emerging Uniting Reformed Church, comprised of the former bodies of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC), and the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa (DRCA, black). The DRC has not yet received or adopted the Belhar Confession, but some regional synods of the DRC have adopted it. The DRC no longer theologically justifies apartheid; however, the final step of becoming part of the Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa remains in the future.
The Belhar Confession addresses three key issues:
1. The unity of the church. Unity is seen as a gift and an obligation for the church. It is to be pursued and sought and built, becoming visible wherever and whenever possible as a witness to the working of God's Spirit for the unity manifest in the unity of the Trinity and so that the world might believe.
2. Reconciliation. God entrusts to the church the message of reconciliation. The church is called to be a peacemaker, giving witness by both word and deed. We are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Peace is the salt and the light.
3. The justice of God. Justice and true peace are revealed as the nature of God. God is the God of the destitute, the poor, and the wronged. The church is called and therefore must stand by people in any form of suffering. The church must stand where God stands.
Belhar Is a Gift
The Belhar Confession is a gift to the whole church. Given its genesis in the struggle in Southern Africa, it is now seen as having far wider implications beyond its original context. It is a confession for the whole church as it seeks to be faithful to God, who stands in the midst of suffering of any and all expression.
The RCA's Historic Confessions
The confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that comprise the Reformed Standards of Unity are the Heidelberg Catechism (1563; adopted by the Reformed Church in America in 1792); the Belgic Confession (1561, revised 1619; adopted at the Synod of Dort 1618-1619, with foreign delegates exhorted to preserve it), and the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1618-1619).
Timely in their context and of great value and significance for the faith of the church, these "standards of unity" say little about the unity of the church. Unity is central to the life, witness, and mission of the church as a full expression of the fullness of the reformed faith.
The themes of reconciliation and justice are repeatedly expressed in and through the ministry and suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ. They are intrinsic in the call to the church to stand where God stands in the world. Their absence from the sixteenth-century confessions diminishes the fullness of the Reformed faith in today's world. The twentieth-century Belhar Confession brings complementarity to the RCA's confessions of the sixteenth century.