18-01 On Amending The Book of Confessions to Include the Confession of Belhar—From the Presbytery of National Capital.
Source: Presbytery Event:220th General Assembly (2012)
[18-01] Confessions of the Church
National Capital Presbytery
Topic:Unassigned Type:General Assembly Full Consideration
Assembly Action
On this Item, the General Assembly, acted as follows:
Approve as Amended
Electronic Vote - Plenary
Affirmative: 395
Negative: 264
Abstaining: 6
Final Text:
Amend the recommendation by adding a second paragraph to read as follows: [Text to be added or inserted is shown with brackets and with an underline.]

“[That the special committee formed to study the Confession of Belhar be granted a budget for education across the church about the confession, in addition to its committee budget for direct expenses.]”

Committee Recommendation
On this Item, the Confessions of the Church Committee, acted as follows:
Approve as Amended
[Counted Vote - Committee]
Final Text:
   Amend the recommendation by adding a second paragraph to read as follows: [Text to be added or inserted is shown with brackets and with an underline.]

“[That the special committee formed to study the Confession of Belhar be granted a budget for education across the church about the confession, in addition to its committee budget for direct expenses.]”

Minority Report
On this Item, the Confessions of the Church Committee, acted as follows:
[Counted Vote - Committee]
Final Text:
18-01 Minority Report
Confessions Committee

We the undersigned, a minority of Committee 18, the Confessions of the Church, recommend that the 220th General Assembly (2012) adopt the following:

That a pastoral letter be authored and be sent to all of the congregations of the PCUSA, utilizing the existing Confessions of the Presbyterian Church USA and their Biblical foundations, as well as the Belhar confession, to address issues of racial division and discrimination.


1.      This will help the Belhar Confession have a wider audience, while at the same time respecting the votes of those in the church who disagreed with its elevation to confessional status. 


2.      It will give the church the opportunity to use already available education materials in study and discussion of the Belhar Confession in the context of the special needs of local presbyteries.


3.      This will respect the historical context of the Belhar Confession. 


4.       This will avoid raising the concept of unity above all else. The Belhar Confession declares that “…anything that threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted.” Further it states that “a refusal earnestly to pursue this visible unity as a priceless gift is sin.” In 1980’s South Africa, the meaning of these phrases was clear and on target. The attempt to divide the church in South Africa on the basis of race was sinful and needed to be resisted. In the Presbyterian Church USA, we value diversity.


5.      The proper priority is to pursue Jesus Christ. The Westminster catechism reminds us that the chief and highest end of humankind is to glorify God and fully enjoy God forever.


We urge the substitute motion to further the peace unity and purity of the church. 


Bob Bryden, Presbytery of Lackawanna

Nora Johnson, Presbytery of Great Rivers

Dale Scott, Presbytery of Eastern Oklahoma

Sharon Brinks, Presbytery of Lake Michigan

Gwen Scales, Presbytery of Upper Ohio Valley

Lance Allen, Presbytery of Los Ranchos

General Assembly Committee Moderator’s statement:

            In accordance with Standing Rule E.7.h.(1), I affirm that the position expressed as recommendation for action by the assembly in this minority report was presented to the whole committee during its consideration of the matter.

This text of this component is being verified.

The Presbytery of National Capital overtures the 220th General Assembly (2012) to begin the process of amending The Book of Confessions to include the Confession of Belhar, as provided in G-6.03.


The recommendation to include the Confession of Belhar in the PC(USA) constitution, The Book of Confessions, was approved by the 219th General Assembly (2010) and was sent to the presbyteries for approval and fell only eight votes short of the two-thirds necessary for ratification.

The Reformed Church in America, which is in full communion and fellowship with the PC(USA), adopted the Confession of Belhar as its fourth doctrinal standard at its 2010 General Synod. The Christian Reformed Church of North America proposed at its 2009 General Synod, for vote in 2012, the adoption of the Confession of Belhar as its fourth confession of faith, the first since its founding in 1857.

The Presbytery of National Capital, a multiracial inclusive presbytery with a history of activism in civil rights, voted on June 28, 2010, in favor of inclusion of the Confession of Belhar, in spite of knowledge that the denominational vote had already failed. The action taken now represents the presbytery claiming its prophetic voice.

Financial Implication

Item 18-01, Ovt. from National Capital Presbytery, 2013: $36,250; 2014: $21,535 (per capita - OGA)

(Also ACREC A&C)


The Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns advises that the 220th General Assembly (2012) approveItem 18-01 as amended, to include the following recommendation:

“[That the special committee formed to study the Confession of Belhar in preparation for bringing recommendations to the 221st General Assembly (2014) regarding its possible inclusion in The Book of Confessions be granted a budget for education across the church about the confession, in addition to its committee budget for direct expenses.]”


The original overture passed by the 219th General Assembly (2010) was defeated by a slim margin of the two/thirds vote of the presbyteries needed to pass, and we believe including its witness in our confessional standards is too important and powerful to founder on such a small margin.

In addition, we believe that a more robust educational program is necessary for the church to responsibly engage the question of Belhar’s suitability for The Book of Confessions. We believe the lack of an educational mandate (with accompanying resources) for the previous special committee on Belhar, as has been provided in other cases (like the nFOG task force, for example), calls the validity of the church’s discernment against Belhar into question.


The original purpose, biblical substance, and ecumenical importance of Belhar deserve serious consideration and we concur with the Advocacy Committee on Racial Ethnic Concerns. Nothing among the church’s criteria for considering confessions, however, should rule out re-consideration of a confession, particularly one that has received majority support among the presbyteries.

We trust the committee will examine carefully the procedures for admitting confessions into The Book of Confessions, yet in the broadest sense, the committee is called upon to assess the needs of both the church and society at this time, as well as the theological “fit” of Belhar within that written embodiment of the Reformed tradition.

A framework for considering a re-circulation of the Belhar Confession to the church contains at least these several factors:

1.     What kind of confession is Belhar, in its initial context, and what purposes would it serve in the current U.S. context, given that it assumes a national responsibility for the church?

The purposes of Belhar in 1980s South Africa and today, in the United States:

a.             Presbyterian theological historian Eugene TeSelle identified several main purposes of confessional statements: “controversial” confessions, which challenge and are primarily prophetic in nature; teaching documents such as catechisms; “reforming” confessions addressed most to the church itself; “church-founding” confessions that justify a new formation; “irenic” (peace-making, or union-celebrating) confessions; and “apologetic” confessions (defending faith and practice to outsiders). (See Eugene TeSelle, “C-67 and the Book of Confessions,” in Church & Society, 92:5, 2002, pp. 44–45.)

b.             Simply put, Belhar served a prophetic and reforming task during the theological struggle against apartheid in South Africa, a task somewhat paralleled by the Kairos Document (South Africa), and a task modeled on the Barmen Declaration of 1930s Germany.

c.             In the PC(USA), the initial concern for a confession that would address continuing racial ethnic challenges—including perhaps immigration concerns today—was seen as addressed from the South African context. Although Belhar has not been accepted by all churches within South Africa, it is a clear affirmation of the unity of the church against the church-dividing threat of racism. Race clearly remains a, if not the, primary dividing line in the culture of the United States, and is a salient factor in social divisions around the globe.

2.     What are the primary challenges to the faith and witness of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) today that a church, “reforming, and always to be reformed,” should address? Our confessions, for example, are to give content to the common phrase, “missional.” What are the dimensions of mission that Belhar, or any new confession, should help us address?

Current Challenges to Faith other than Race:

a.             Economic divisions structure all aspects of life in the U.S. as inequality grows and political capacity for change is weakened by the dominance of personal and corporate wealth in campaigns. A “no-tax” pledge functions as a confession of faith for many; the concept of a common good to be served by a democratic government is examined in Item 11-09: “World of Hurt, Word of Life: Renewing God’s Communion in the Work of Economic Reconstruction.”

b.             Divisions over the status of sexual orientation and sexual practice: clearly these matters are a driving force in the PC(USA) and several other denominations today. Do they have effective confessional status as church-dividing issues, given that The Book of Confessions may be accepted by Presbyterians on both of the primary “sides” of the sexuality debate? The corporate nature of the PC(USA) is clearly at stake in these debates, but structure alone may not be a confessional issue.

c.             Gender inequality and a deeper analysis of patriarchy: few confessional statements address the profound, even primal, influence of gender differentiation and how it has functioned within church and society.

d.             Ecological destruction: this is the primary physical threat to creaturely existence on the planet and is intensifying due to the spread of consumer aspirations around the globe. A “next” church, at most basic level, needs to be a “green church.”

3.     What are the ecumenical considerations that accompany the placement of Belhar, or any other confession, in The Book of Confessions? (We do not address interfaith dimensions that would necessarily, in our view, require an ecumenical body to consider.)

Ecumenical Considerations:

a.             Adopting the Belhar Confession would be an act of solidarity with churches in South Africa and elsewhere in the World Communion of Reformed Churches, and could contribute to the theological unity within this family.

b.             Adopting Belhar could contribute to ecumenical deliberations over the theological significance of racism in the U.S. context, such as have been debated within the Churches Uniting in Christ ecumenical project.

c.             The United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), non-confessional Reformed bodies, unlike the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church in North America, have not considered Belhar.

4.     What other confessions would be considered if we understand that the broader Reformed and Christian family has lessons to teach the church in North America?

Other Confessions or Declarations of Faith:

a.             The Accra Statement of the then-World Alliance of Reformed Churches in 2004, received for guidance but not approved by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 2006, bears a clear “family resemblance” to Belhar. Both show the influence of Barmen, and both address church-dividing issues. In Accra’s case, this is the economic threat of global inequality, intensified by anti-regulatory forms of globalization. Its warnings about a financial system dominating and unbalancing social considerations were reinforced by the credit collapse of 2008. Yet it has not been given confessional status by many European and North American members of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, and was not termed a confession at its adoption by the WCRC. At the same time, it was the outcome of a “processus confessionis,” and involved a wide process of debate within the Reformed family. A “Covenanting for Justice” process continues the work of Accra and cooperates with study teams of the World Council of Churches and Lutheran World Federation (http://www.pcusa.org/resource/message-colloquium-accra-and-belhar-confessions/ and http://www.pcusa.org/media/uploads/hunger/pdf/accra-confession.pdf).

b.             The Kairos Palestine document adopted by a notably ecumenical body of Christian leaders on December 11, 2009, represents a carefully wrought declaration of theological resistance to the occupation and de-humanization of Arab Christians and Muslims. It is steadfastly non-violent and based in a “logic of love;” it addresses issues of power, justice, and the mission of the church in some unprecedented ways. Though calling for liberation, it is not only liberation theology, and while calling for actions of economic solidarity strongly opposed by the Israeli government, it is not only a document of courage and resistance. Its understandings of faith and hope speak to ways that all churches must combine tradition and renewal with an integrity that stands against cultures and politics of domination (http://www.pcusa.org/resource/kairos-palestine-document-and-study-guide/).

c.             A Social Creed for the 21st Century, adopted by both the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 2008 and the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., distilled the social teachings of the church in a Trinitarian theological framework of one page. This document built on the 100 year tradition of social creeds going back to the first adopted in 1908 in response to industrialization and urbanization in the U.S., and identifies a range of current challenges and core resources of Christian faith (http://www.pcusa.org/resource/connecting-creed/).


The confessions in The Book of Confessions set a high standard for all subsequent confessions, though comprehensiveness is not a requirement. New confessions can depend upon the older confessions’ more comprehensive treatment of the faith when they sharpen our focus, as The Confession of 1967 did on “the mission of reconciliation,” or A Brief Statement of Faith did on liturgical and narrative summary. Thus the relatively sharp issue foci of Belhar (or the broader Accra) would not disqualify it from adoption.

The confessions tune and train the church’s theological voice; they are the basis for its social witness policies; and they are intended to be reflected in the mission programs and structures of the church, locally, nationally and internationally. Above all, confessions help the church understand the purposes of its unity for witness in, but not of, and sometimes against the world: they identify the primary antagonists to faithful discipleship. If the Belhar Confession is not the best way to address these concerns at this time for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), we would encourage this committee to write a brief report summarizing its own reading of the “signs of the times” today for an occasion when the church can again take up a confessional task, perhaps in another time of ecumenical engagement or a new form of church union in the face of new world challenges.

Item 18-01 seeks to amend The Book of Confessions by adding to it the Confession of Belhar.

In its confessions, the church, “… declares to its members and to the world who and what it is, what it believes, and what it resolves to do …” (Book of Order, F-2.01).

The Belhar Confession is a confession of the Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa that comes to us from apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. In September 2011 the Uniting Reformed Church celebrated the 25th anniversary of its passage (http://www.vgksa.org.za/documents/BELHAR%20CELEBRATIONS%20PROGRAM.doc). Belhar’s strong witness to the unity of the church as both a gift and obligation (especially in a context where apartheid divided the church) has spoken to Christians around the world, particularly in the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC). Many in the WCRC have adopted Belhar, including the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church.

The 216th General Assembly (2004) called upon Presbyterians to confront the sin of racism in our history and in our midst. It urged presbyteries and congregations to study the Belhar confession as a way to deepen commitment to dealing with racism and strengthen our unity. Study materials were developed by the Office of Theology and Worship of the General Assembly Mission Council in printed and electronic formats. The 217th General Assembly (2008) approved the recommendation of the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns that a special committee be appointed to consider whether the Belhar Confession should be included in The Book of Confessions. The special committee did recommend inclusion of the Belhar Confession to the 219th General Assembly (2010) and the assembly concurred. This amendment to The Book of Confessions to add Belhar was sent to the presbyteries and failed to receive the required 2/3 vote (108 affirmative, 63 negative; passage would have required 116 affirmative votes).

Because of the defeat of the amendment following the 219th General Assembly (2010), the process to amend The Book of Confessions would need to start over, requiring this assembly to affirm the creation of a special committee, that special committee to recommend Belhar’s addition to The Book of Confessions, a subsequent assembly to affirm Belhar’s inclusion, an affirmative vote from 2/3 of the presbyteries, and then a final confirmation vote from a third General Assembly (See “Amending The Book of Confessions,”G-6.03).

The question before this assembly is whether or not to begin again the process to discern whether the Confession of Belhar helps the PC(USA) declare “… to its members and to the world who and what it is, what it believes, and what it resolves to do …” (Book of Order, F-2.01).

Presbytery of New York City