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For South Africa, North America and the Church Worldwide

By May 1, 2008 No Comments

Piet J. Naude

You stand at the threshold of a very important decision regarding the confessional basis of the Reformed Church in America. If the proposal before this Synod is adopted, the path is cleared for the Belhar Confession to become a provisional, and in two years’ time, a permanent part of your church’s faith foundation. This is potentially a momentous event. The date of the last confession, the Canons of Dort, is 1619, almost 400 years ago! It is amazing that Reformed churches could for such a long time refrain from a confession that declares the gospel anew, addressing the challenges of different times and contexts.

Explication, Recognition, and Confession

In ecumenical circles we talk about a threefold process in the reception of important ecumenical documents like creeds and confessions: from common explication to common recognition and finally to common confession.

The first stage is common explication. I am impressed with the thorough work done over the last decade not only to study Belhar in the Reformed Church in America, but also to allow others, including the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa, to bring their perspectives with regular intervals to your General Synods. To send Belhar back to the congregations for another two years is also wise. This gives ample opportunity for explication in the life of congregations before a final decision is taken.

The second stage is common recognition. The big question Reformed Christians ask when they receive a new confession is, “Do we recognize in this confession the truth of the apostolic faith?” There are two ways to determine this. Test the confession for consonance with Scripture, and then judge the confession against our earlier confessions. Only if the test against Scripture is passed, do we “recognize” the truth. There are numerous references in the study documents that Belhar speaks the Word of God for our times.   We confess because we have no other option. We confess because God has hit us on the mouth and we cry out: Credo!   Belhar is the truth, because it is in accordance with the gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. Belhar also confirms our earlier confessions. There is a deep consonance between Belhar and the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort. A detailed study also shows the strong bonds between Belhar and the most ecumenical of creeds, the Constantinopolitan-Nicene Creed from 381 A D.1

However, true to the nature of confessions, they do not merely repeat scripture and earlier confessions, but they speak anew. They provide us with new insight into both the heresies and truths of our time. Belhar speaks with, but also beyond, our earlier faith heritage. The way in which unity, reconciliation, and justice are confessed, has never been done like this before. Our forebearers could not speak like this, because they were true to the demands of the gospel in their own time, as Belhar is true to our time.

The third stage is common confession. Actual confession can only happen if the prior explication and recognition have been sufficiently achieved. There is no logical or necessary movement from stages one and two to stage three. Many churches reflect on Belhar and recognize in it the gospel for our day, but nevertheless do not confess. There are a multitude of reasons for not confessing.

Let us be reminded that “confession-making” is a particularly Reformed activity. The greater part of the Christian family (like the Lutherans, Catholics, and Orthodox sisters and brothers) can in their view not accept new creeds/confessions; and others, in principle, do not accept confessions at all (like the Free- and non-creedal churches). With the rise of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements, confessions have moved even lower on the agenda of the church.

There are also non-theological reasons for not confessing, although they tend to be presented, and sometimes are camouflaged, in theological language. Some see in Belhar a political witness, true to the times and in accordance with Scripture. It should be read in conjunction with, and on the same level as The Witness to the Peoples of South Africa from 1968 and the influential Kairos Document from 1985, but not on the level of a confession. Others see Belhar as too contextual, too specifically focused on the South Africa of the 1980’s to qualify as a confession of the ecumenical church. For them Belhar is an important declaration, like Barmen and the Leuenberger Concordie, from which we learn how churches spoke in their specific situation, but it is not necessarily to be more widely confessed. There are Reformed Christians who state that Belhar does not witness to the whole gospel, like for example the Heidelberg Catechism, but only highlights important themes from the gospel. It is therefore a partial ref lection of the gospel like a good sermon, but it is not a confession.

The act of confessing is a gift and a miracle. It happens because the Spirit is like a wind. You hear its sound, but you do not know whither it will blow. We confess not, taught Karl Barth, because we think it is a good thing to confess. We confess because we have no other option. We confess because God has hit us on the mouth and we cry out: Credo! (I believe.)

The South African Context

Why is it so important that you move beyond recognition to common confession? Let me attempt to explain this from four contexts: the church in South Africa, the United States, the broader ecumenical family of churches, and specifically, the context of the Reformed Church in America.

I am glad to report that Dutch Reformed churches in South Africa have recently renewed their common commitment to reunification in one church after the establishment of separate churches for different race/cultural groups in 1881, 1911, and 1952. At its General Synod in 2007, the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa clearly said that the debate around unity is no longer about “if,” but about “how.”

Belhar has no doubt complicated that process as those who might resist reunification can use Belhar as insurmountable obstacle. “We cannot so easily reunite with a church that now stands on a different confessional basis,” claim opponents of reunification. From those in the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa, who have accepted Belhar, the counter-claim is clear. “No reunification is possible without Belhar.” The reunification is now planned to include Belhar in the bigger reunited church although it will not be required that ever y pastor sign the confession on the first day. We are sure that the confession will grow in the new church through preaching, liturgy, catechesis, and experience.

If the Reformed Church in America would decide to confess Belhar, it would give our long and painful process a great impetus. It would, apart from the Verenigde Protestantse Kerk in Belgie, be the first full adoption of the confession outside South Africa. This will send a powerful message that Belhar has been judged to be worthy of acceptance on equal footing with our existing Reformed heritage. It will say that semper reformand, so often repeated, does also include the reformation and renewal of our confessional basis.

Although South Africa has undergone a relatively peaceful transition to democracy and we have a stable constitutional state, the challenges of unity, reconciliation, and specifically economic justice, are still looming large. Your confession would show that South Africa and its new challenges are not forgotten by the churches in the Northern Hemisphere. Your confession would be a sign of solidarity that you stand with us in the new struggles we face, as you and others stood with us in our struggle against apartheid theology.

The American Cont

I have had the privilege of being a research guest in the Unites States for the past six months. This nation is too vast and complex to make quick and general conclusions. But allow me in all humility to say why I believe you in North America also need to confess the issues taken up in Belhar.

The freedom on which the United States has been built has turned into a libertarian spirit in the church. Unity and reunification among those churches that could and should belong together are not pursued with the necessary vigor. Schismatic actions and denominational divisions are not seen as counter-witness to the prayer of Christ in John 17, but rather as expression of religious freedom. Mission is replaced by market competition among churches where new Christians are not brought in, but existing Christians simply are “re-circulated.” Religious consumerism can supersede sound theology in a scramble to attract people and satisfy their religious and experiential needs. The sensitivities of Belhar, that Christ has only one body and gave his own flesh to bring unity, and that visible unity in freedom is both a gift and a task, are urgently needed among churches in the North America. Recent events have shown the deep social divisions remaining. Racism “is still endemic to our society” and there is a general denial of history under the cloak of sentimental, Holly wood-style “universal culture,” states William H. Willimon.2 There is still the continued need for a “black history month,” and black bodies are, according to James Cone, still lynched today “whenever a people cry out to be recognized as human beings and society ignores them.”3 The proclamation of Belhar that reconciliation is possible in Christ and that cultural and other “natural” differences are gifts for the up-building of church and society, should be heard loudly and clearly all across America.

As the undisputed economic, military, and technological leader of the world, a huge responsibility rests on the US to use its immense power wisely. There remains, therefore, a crucial task for theologians, ethicists, and church leaders in the US to urge the political powers of the day to actively support global ecological initiatives, and in a rational manner renegotiate the terms of global trade toward a fairer and more just system. Let us be reminded that the connection of security, politics, and religion have shown themselves to be the main building blocks of inhuman “Christian” ideologies in the 20th century. Apartheid is an infamous example of this.

The Global Church

If the churches in the world cannot show greater visible unity, the world will not believe that God sent Christ as the savior of all humankind (John 17). Church union and reunion dialogues, as well as dialogues among the great traditions of the Christian family with a view to celebrate common baptism and communion, are absolutely crucial in a world that yearns for signs that unity is possible amidst diversity and deep historical separations. If we do not achieve more, Christ is divided and the power of the gospel denied.

If the churches in the world do not demonstrate that we are counter-societies where there is no longer Jew and Greek, man and woman, boss and slave, how will the world believe in the power of reconciliation in Christ? If the churches are merely mirror-images of societal divisions between rich and poor, black and white, man and woman, educated and illiterate, we have become cultural-religious clubs that play church, but do not practically demonstrate God’s embracing love (Galatians 3:26-28). I often marvel at the fact that sociology (“birds of a feather…”) is stronger than theology (“body of Christ”) when it comes to the practice of being church.

If the churches in the world merely accept global economic, cultural, and ecological injustices as if the powers behind these new configurations are blind and immutable laws of economics and politics, how will justice be established? Have we resigned ourselves to the fact that many humanist efforts and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with a clear vision have supplanted the churches in the spheres of public life?

The Context of the Reformed Church in America

A confession without action is like faith without works. The best way to disempower Belhar is to accept it as a confession and then make no changes in your life; to see Belhar as an interesting, exotic product “out of Africa” with some curiosity value, but not as a transformative Word of God. Confessing Belhar will raise serious questions for the RCA. You are best able to formulate them. My restricted view allows for the following questions:

  • Do you love the unity of Christ’s body more than your own tradition and history? Or have you become a typical denominational church that sees the boundaries of your church as the boundaries of the kingdom and of your own Christian identity?
  • A re you willing to become a truly multi-cultural church that openly witnesses against racism, sexism, and xenophobia no matter who is involved, and no matter how sensitive such witness may be politically?
  • A re you, a rich, blessed, and middle-class church in the North, willing to stand where God stood in Christ–with the outcast and socially marginalized members of American society and elsewhere in the world?
  • Are you willing to follow Christ who did not cling to his Godhead, but humbled himself even unto the cross? A re you willing to be a kenotic church, a doulos (slave) church for the sake of others?


Confessions in the earliest church did not start with dogmatic statements after careful deliberation by a synod commission. No, they were doxological utterances in reaction to the resurrected Christ. The early church did not “think up” the idea of Jesus Christ as Lord. This earliest confession was a reaction of praise and worship to their encounter with the post-Easter Jesus. They could not foresee what the ecclesial, political, and economic consequences of that kurios-confession would be. In a sense, the act of confession is, humanly speaking, an irresponsible action, because you never know what might follow. When the Dutch Reformed Mission Church confessed in 1982 they, and we in the Dutch Reformed Church also, did not know what would follow. It was politically dangerous and seen by some as ecclesial schism. We now know it was indeed a prophetic witness. We in South Africa, and elsewhere, wait eagerly to hear good news from the Reformed Church in America.


1 Piet Naude 2004. “Confessing the One Faith: Theological Resonance Between the Creed of Nicea (325 AD) and the Confession of Belhar (1982 AD).” Scriptura 85, 35-53.
2 “Why We All Can’t Just Get Along: Racism as a Lenten Issue,” Theology Today (53/4, January 1997), 485-490.
3 “Strange Fruit: The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Winter 2007), 47-55.
Piet J. Naude is Professor of Ethics and Christian Studies at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Port Elizabeth, South Africa.