In Sunday's sermon, my pastor, Dr. Don Baird, explained how sometimes words are repeated to emphasize the importance of the subject. He used Jesus’ use of verily, verily, and in Isaiah the seraphims' holy, holy, holy as examples. I also am repeating myself and I do want to emphasize a statement that I have made over and over, "A Confession’s main focus must be confessing Jesus Christ."
Carmen Fowler of the Presbyterian Layman has noted in an article, linked to by CHURCHandWORLD, that several committees “support elevating Belhar to confessional status.” In her report she quotes Cynthia Holder Rich, of the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns, that “Theologians have used this document to press issues other than race. The overture from Sacramento refers to sexuality issues. You may or may not know that that is part of the international conversation. … This document is about freedom. People of different sexual orientations are not free and so this document could be used to free people.”
Holder Rich gave a presentation on Belhar at the Stony Point Conference, “Confessing when empire trembles: Belhar and Accra Confessions in conversation.” Fowler writes that in referring to that conference Holder Rich stated, “I hope in the context we talk about power rather than strictly border it by the color of people’s skin. Are we able to use this document to … really effectively share power.”
Belhar was a good document meeting the needs of the Churches in South Africa in their quest for ethnic unity in their various churches. But it was and is not a good example of a true confession since it does not focus on confessing Jesus Christ. And that is why such people as Holder Rich, Witherspoon Society’s Eugene TeSelle, one of the original promoters of the confession, Allan Boesak, and the Office of Theology and Worship of the General Assembly Council of the PC (U.S.A.) can so easily attempt to use the confession as a means to achieve their own particular faith goals.
The author of the PCUSA’s study guide for the Belhar Confession writes, “While the impetus for studying the Belhar Confession in the PC (U.S.A.) is racism, Belhar’s strength is that it speaks to more than one form of injustice. By focusing on the unity of the Church, it gives us theological grounding for the ministry of reconciliation amidst all the sins and disputes that divide the Church.”
The author, Eunice T. McGarrahan, goes on to place unity above all concerns, stating “The Church is fractured over ways in which justice should be done, ordination and sexuality, the nature of scripture, and its posture towards the world.” The guide insists that the Church is a poor witness if she does not maintain unity despite these problems.
But no, all Christian discipleship must come under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Within the Church ethnic unity is a biblical truth under the Lordship of Christ, as is the authority of Scripture, sexuality or the Church’s “posture toward the world. Without that realization there is no ethnic unity, no obedience to Christ, no foundational truth.
Yet some have insisted that not adopting Belhar because of a few person’s different interpretations of Belhar is unreformed since it is the whole Church that will accept or reject a Confession. There are at least three problems with this view.
The first problem is one I keep returning to. That is that the confession itself is wrong, it does not focus on confessing Jesus Christ. It isn’t that other people would be held higher than the Confession if we listen to their different ideas about what it means and therefore do not adopt it, but rather Belhar invites to its table many different kinds of agendas under the category racism. It asks for its confessors to confess unity grounded in human needs such as justice rather than in Jesus Christ.
Secondly, as I have shown, many of those advocating for Belhar, are, like Holder Rich, advocating for something different or something more than racial unity. If Belhar is adopted it will be adopted on grounds other than what it was intended for in South Africa. And this leads into the third problem.
As I have also shown, a great many of those pushing the denomination to adopt Belhar are both in leadership and believe it is possible to use Belhar for issues other than racism. And since there are no scriptural boundaries connected to this confession such as there are e.g. in Barmen, any issue is possible. The possibilities are, in fact, already multiplying.
One new possibility comes in the statement of Holder Rich. That is the desire that Belhar be used to confront power in the Church. While power and its use is an important concern for any Christian, confessions are not about making everything fair or democratic but about confessing Christ. On the other hand nothing will be fair if Christ is not confessed. Playing the blame game with a confession has all of the earmarks of the beginnings of totalitarianism in the Church.
Arthur Cochrane, author of The Church’s Confession Under Hitler, asks a question, that we all should be asking ourselves:
“Are we on the threshold of a day when the Church knows that its only weapon and defense will be its Confession of Faith? Are we conscious of some great heresy by which our Churches are ‘grievously imperiled’ and some great truth by which we are possessed? Are we prepared to make dogmatic and much more important, ethical decisions as a Church, and for the sake of them to lose our life in order to find it? Are we really ready for the fearful ‘either-or’ decision involved in a Confession of Faith?”
We may very well be-but the Belhar Confession does not qualify as the answer.