After an hour-long education session and nearly two hours of debate, the Assembly Committee on Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations overwhelmingly recommended Monday that the full 222nd General Assembly (2016) take the final step to include the Confession of Belhar in the Book of Confessions of the PresbyterianChurch (U.S.A.).

The process for amending the Book of Confessions is significantly more involved than amending the Book of Order. It begins with a proposal to amend the Book of Confessions, which much be approved by a General Assembly. A special committee is appointed to study the proposed change or addition. The study committee’s findings are then reported to the next General Assembly, which considers whether to recommend it to presbyteries for inclusion.

If it is sent for a vote of presbyteries, it must be approved by at least two-thirds of them. The proposal then returns to the General Assembly for a third time, where it must be approved again and enacted.

This is the PC(USA)’s second attempt to adopt the Belhar Confession, which comes from the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa. The previous effort failed in 2010 when the Confession was approved by a majority of the presbyteries, but failed to reach the two-thirds threshold.

The second process began at the 220th General Assembly (2012), then was sent to presbyteries after the 221st General Assembly (2014), receiving 84 percent approval.

The committee vote to recommend approval passed 57-3 with one abstention. The recommendation now heads to the full assembly for vote later this week.

Matilde Moros, co-moderator of the Special Committee on the Confession of Belhar, outlined its three goals: unity, reconciliation and justice. 

  • Unity (Articles 1&2) as a gift and obligation that “must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin, which Christ has already conquered.”
  • Reconciliation (Article 3) rejects any doctrine that “sanctions in the name of the gospel … the forced separation on the grounds of race and color.”
  • Justice (Articles 4&5) declares that God is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged.

Adopted by the DRMC in South Africa in September 1986, the document is considered a benchmark in Reformed theology for its repudiation of division based on race and class.

Many Presbyterians consider the adoption of Belhara kairos moment in which the church recognizes that it is once again facing a critical juncture in its history. A letter from the PC(USA) accompanying the study guide on the confession says, “We believe that the Confession of Belhar, a profound statement on unity, reconciliation and justice in the church, comes to us as a word from God for this particular time and place for the PC(USA).”

Dana Wilmot of Kiskiminetas Presbytery in western Pennsylvania suggested that a comment be added to the committee’s approval of the motion: “Out of respect for the origin of the confession, it shall serve as a guide for racial justice and not for issues of human sexuality.”

After much debate, including a secondary objection to theological language in the confession, the motion to add the comment failed by voice vote.

Alonzo Johnson, mission associate for the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, said Belhar “adds a voice from the Global South to the PC(USA) Book of Confessions.”

“America’s most original sin is racism,” Johnson said. “It manifests itself in that we are separate. How do we understand this as a denomination that is 94 percent white? How do we understand this in light of [Charleston shooter] Dylan Roof, who came from this culture of hate?”