As Presbyteries begin study of Belhar, survey shows Presbyterians have much to learn

October 11, 2010

LOUISVILLE, Ky.

In August 2009, 11 months before the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was to consider the Belhar Confession for possible inclusion in the denomination's Book of Confessions, most Presbyterians were either unfamiliar with the confession or were unsure about including it in The Book of Confessions.

More Presbyterians who were familiar with the Belhar Confession supported than opposed including it in The Book of Confessions, however, and this past July the denomination’s General Assembly voted to include it.

These are findings from the August 2009 Presbyterian Panel survey on the confessions and other topics.

The Belhar Confession is a 1986 theological statement about church unity that the Reformed church in South Africa developed during that country's conflict over racial hierarchy and segregation.  The Book of Confessions, which includes 11 other creeds, confessions, and catechisms, is Part I of the PC(USA) Constitution.

The move to include the Belhar Confession in The Book of Confessions now goes to the presbyteries and will go forward only if two-thirds of the 173 presbyteries and the 2012 General Assembly approve including it.  The PC(USA) General Assembly Mission Council's Theology and Worship staff has produced a study guide about the confession.

In August 2009, almost all elders (96 percent) and other members (97 percent) and seven in ten pastors (71 percent) and non-parish ministers (72 percent) were either "not at all familiar" with the Belhar Confession or were at least "slightly familiar" with the confession but were "not sure" about including it in The Book of Confessions.

One-quarter of non-parish ministers and one in five pastors — but only 2 percent of members and 2 percent of elders — were at least "slightly familiar" with the confession and "definitely" or "probably" supported including it in The Book of Confessions.  One in ten pastors — but only 1 percent of members, 1 percent of elders, and 4 percent of non-parish ministers — were familiar with the confession and opposed including it.

"A year ago very few Presbyterians had heard of the Belhar Confession" said Perry Chang, Presbyterian Panel administrator.  "But most of those who had heard of it supported incorporating it into The Book of Confessions."

Survey results also show that almost all pastors (99 percent) and non-parish ministers (94 percent), seven in ten elders (72 percent), and two in five members (42 percent) currently have a copy of The Book of Confessions.  Two in five pastors (41 percent), three in ten non-parish ministers (28 percent), and about one in ten members (7 percent) and elders (11 percent) had accessed The Book of Confessions on the web during the year before the survey online.

The confessions that are most widely used outside of worship by individual Presbyterians and by congregations are the Apostles' Creed, Nicene Creed, and A Brief Statement of Faith — Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). 

The creeds, confessions, and catechisms as a whole are "very important" to about one in six elders (11 percent), pastors (14 percent), and non-parish ministers (12%) as Christians and to just 6 percent of members.  Very important to more panelists were: God, scripture, the work of the Holy Spirit, a current friend or family member and his or her advice or example, and a current pastor or spiritual advisor and his or her teaching or example.  Among the listed elements of faith, for elders, pastors, and non-parish ministers, only the PC(USA) Book of Order is rated as "very important" to fewer panelists.  The Book of Order and Book of Confessions are very important to an equally small number of members (6 percent each).

"Ministers and many members and elders read some of the creeds and confessions at church or at home, but most Presbyterians do not rate them as an important element of their faith development," Chang said.  "At the very least, discussions about the Belhar Confession may elevate the profile of the existing confessions, which isn’t very high right now."

Every three years the PC(USA) Research Services staff assembles representative samples of Presbyterian church members, elders, and ministers who respond to questions on different topics quarterly.  Known as the Presbyterian Panel, these randomly chosen respondents provide a vital means for church leaders to learn the opinions of rank-and-file Presbyterians.

For more information about Panel surveys and other Research Services studies and services, visit the Research Services website or contact Research Services toll-free at (888) 728-7228, ext. 2040, or by email.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) comprises more than 2 million members in more than 10,000 congregations, answering Christ’s call to mission and ministry throughout the United States and the world.  See more information at the PC(USA) website.

  1. Our presbytery (New Hope) voted in the affirmative on Belhar in a recent meeting, after considerable debate. The occasion did not increase my confidence in us being a church guided and instructed by our Confessions and by Scripture. Some had obviously reviewed Belhar thoroughly but others appeared surprised that we were to have studied it and were expected to vote. Others seemed to have been led to find things in it which the majority did not see. The distrust was almost palpable.

    by Jon R. Heckerman

    October 21, 2010

  2. I read the letter about the survey related to the Belhar Confession. Instead of all the surveying, which is typical of the Presbyterian Church, why doesn't the church just print the confession and get it passed out to everyone? Have it available at Presbytery Meetings and other venues. It is only 3 Pages in Length. People can read that without getting mired with too much reading!

    by Bill Garrett

    October 11, 2010

  3. It is shocking that so few Presbyterians consider the Book of Confessions important to our spiritual life. I thought we were a confessional cburch. That being said, I am very happy to see the movement to include the Belhar Confession.

    by Thomas Dombrowsky

    October 11, 2010

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