By Stephen W. Hiemstra
This past summer at General Assembly (GA) in Pittsburgh, I served as a Theological Student Advisory Delegate (TSAD) representing Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS) in Charlotte, NC. One of the highlights of GA for me was getting to meet both outgoing moderator, Cindy Bolbach, and incoming moderator, Neal D. Presa. Neal later contacted me about serving on GA committee looking at the Belhar Confession (Belhar) which I was unfortunately unable to follow up on because of my commitment to finish seminary.
Belhar arose as the South African Churches began to reflect on their role during the apartheid years (1948 to 1994). The confession remarkably anticipated the abolishment of apartheid rather than simply ratified it. The Dutch Reformed Mission Church formally adopted Belhar in 1986. By contrast, the secular response to Jim Crow legislation (the U.S. template for apartheid) was the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which the PCUSA ratified in the Confession of 1967.
Reflecting on Belhar, the question arose. What are the core principles of the PCUSA and how would Belhar enhance them? Core principles normally reflect one’s deepest, jointly-held convictions. The Confession of 1967 guides our reflections on questions similar to Belhar. Does putting forward Belhar again suggest that we should amend the Confession of 1967?
The real story in South Africa is not that white churches adopted a confession; the real story is that they threw their doors open to all of God’s children. What led these churches into revival?
Part of the South African revival story is a mission story. A recent book by Rollin Grams, Stewards of Grace: A Reflective, Mission Biography of Eugene and Phyllis Grams in South Africa, 1951-1962 documents part of this story. Rollin is an NT scholar at GCTS and the son of Pentecostal missionaries, Eugene and Phyllis Grams, who labored most of their careers in South Africa among the black townships before it was politically safe to do so. Rollin writes their story in their own words. The book is, however, more than an oral history or a travel diary. Salted throughout the book are asides (he calls them capsules) to explain to a non-Pentecostal audience what is going on. Far from dry, Rollin poses a sense of humor that makes the stories come alive.
An absence of priorities, not confession refinement, remains the PCUSA’s biggest challenge. Our membership is growing older and our young people are not joining the church. Furthermore, our members are mostly Caucasian and wealthy while the young people in our communities are increasingly multi-ethnic and poor. In this sense, the journey of the white churches in South Africa is also our journey—even my own personal journey during seminary. How do we move from ratification to reformation? What will lead our churches into revival?
This month Centreville Presbyterian Church welcomed its new associate pastor, the Reverend Dr. Jesse Mabanglo. Like Neal Presa, Pastor Jesse hails from the Philippines.
Download Belhar at: www.pcusa.org/resource/belhar-confession.
Belhar is now one of the standards of unity of the new Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa. Closer to home, the Reformed Church in America adopted it as a confession in 2010.
Rollin Grams. 2010. Stewards of Grace: A Reflective, Mission Biography of Eugene and Phyllis Grams in South Africa, 1951-1962. Eugene: Wipf and Stock.