Grace Presbyterian Church

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Sermon: Always Being Reformed: The Belhar Example

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 30, 2022, Reformation

Psalm 146; Amos 5:14-15, 21-24; Luke 4:16-21

Always Being Reformed: The Belhar Example

Ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda.

“The church reformed and always reforming…”

This particular motto began to appear, in various formulations, in the earliest years of the Protestant Reformation, particularly in those churches in what came to be called the Reformed tradition, primarily under the influence of John Calvin and some of his contemporaries. It was a clear statement of two essential traits of that Reformed tradition:

1) Being “reformed” was not the work of human beings; those verbs in that motto are passive. Only God could or can reform the church by acting upon and leading the church. 

2) Being “reformed” was not a one-off; it was – it is – an ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. 

But by the way many churches in the Reformed tradition (including the Presbyterian branch of that tradition) have conducted themselves over the five centuries or so since then, you’d think the motto went something like “Reformati semel et nunquam iterum,” or maybe “Reformata semel et pro omnibus.” Those would, very roughly (it’s been more than thirty years since I studied Latin), translate as “Reformed once and never again” and “Reformed once and for all.” We got it once and are therefore never to be changed or reformed again.

Doesn’t really seem to capture the whole reformata et semper reformanda spirit, does it? But note how many churches in the Reformed tradition, for example, admit no creeds or confessions or statements of faith any later than the Westminster Confession, which originated back in 1646. Sounds very “reformed once and for all,” doesn’t it? I mean, Westminster is a pretty impressive and thorough document, to be sure, but one hopes that God did not stop moving through and in the church after 1646. Note also that different denominations within the Reformed tradition have adapted or modified Westminster more than once, so that at this point it’s not really that unifying a document.

The number of documents in our own denomination’s Book of Confessions is, as best as I can tell, less about setting up some kind of doctrinal authority than about reflecting the fact that God continues to move through and in the church, at all points in its history, sometimes provoking remembrance and reflection and reassessment, sometimes provoking much more dramatic action – a real, tangible, un-missable act of being reformed. 

This is, in many ways, why the Confession of Belhar might be, after all, the most important – the most semper reformanda – of the statements in the Book of Confessions.

The history that led to the creation of the Belhar Confession is an overwhelming one, inextricable from the dark and bloody history of apartheid in South Africa. Enacted after elections in 1948 installed an Afrikaaner-dominated National Party in power, apartheid was a system of laws designed to keep that Dutch-descended white minority (a minority by a substantial margin) in power over a large (and more diverse than you might think) nonwhite majority. 

 Perhaps more disturbing was the enthusiastic embrace of apartheid by many if not most of the churches of South Africa. It should not be a surprise, given the prior historical examples of German Christian acquiescence to Nazi power in Germany in the 1930s or even the splits over slavery that occurred in US denominations in the mid-19th century (including Presbyterianism). The degree to which South African churches participated in apartheid is striking, nonetheless. 

Take the Dutch Reformed Church as it existed in South Africa, for example. Clearly under apartheid blacks could not be allowed; hence the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa was formed as a segregated denomination. But apartheid was also strict enough that blacks were not to share with “coloreds,” or mixed-race persons; hence the Dutch Reformed Mission Church was formed as well. (These two bodies would be united in 1994.) Finally, due to an influx of immigration from India, the Reformed Church in Africa was created to keep that population separate as well. 

The international community, and churches around the world as well, were only goaded to react after violence against blacks at a protest in Sharpsville in 1960, and again at Soweto township in 1976. Even then, the impetus in the church came not from the outside, but from within the nonwhite South African Churches, particularly the Dutch Reformed Mission church, which challenged world Reformed bodies to call apartheid, a system that denied the possibility of reconciliation between peoples, for what it was: heresy. The good news of the gospel cannot be separated from the divine drive to reconcile all peoples unto Christ. Confronted with this argument from the DRMC, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches had to agree; as a result it was the white DRC that was excluded from that communion in 1982.

 In response to this international affirmation of their plight, the DRMC at its synod later that year drafted the Confession of Belhar, a response to the practice of apartheid and an affirmation of the hope of reconciliation in Christ. The DRMC submitted it to its member churches for four years of consideration, and it was formally approved in 1986

The Confession of Belhar is deliberately and consciously modeled on the Barmen Declaration, created by a portion of the German church in response to advancing Nazi domination of that country in the 1930s; a citation of scripture, an affirmation of the faith, and a rejection of false doctrine for each portion of the confession. It is divided into three parts, significantly ordered Unity, Reconciliation, and Justice. That order is indeed significant. The church desires unity in Christ, but unity cannot happen without reconciliation. The church desires reconciliation in Christ, but reconciliation cannot happen without justice – “justice rolling down like waters,” to echo Amos’s words. And the confession concludes with the unswerving resolve that the church must pursue these things, no matter how much state or even church authority persecutes them; a simple affirmation that “Jesus is Lord,” with its equal implied affirmation that no one else is; and finally a Trinitarian benediction. And the word “apartheid” appears not at all in the confession, yet it is thoroughly repudiated throughout.

Hear these affirmations on justice from the third section of Belhar:

  • that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream;
  • that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged;
  • that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.

One could argue, and some did during the PC(USA)’s debate on adoption of Belhar, that the themes articulated in Belhar are similar enough to themes in the Confession of 1967 that the later confession was somehow unnecessary or redundant. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Belhar speaks without reservation. There is no trying to please differing parties. It is unequivocal in its denunciation of racial separation, particularly when practiced or enforced as somehow “holy” or sanctified by God. And most of all, it speaks these words not from a committee of white onlookers, but directly from those whose faces had met the boot heel of state enforcement of apartheid far too many times. For once in its history, the church responded to the cry of the oppressed. 

And this is why Belhar may be the most important confession in our book. The Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds were created for and sanctioned by emperors. The Reformation-era confessions also enjoyed the patronage of kings and princes. The Confession of 1967 was a product of a denomination with national reach and a rather high general level of affluence among its membership. And while the Barmen Declaration spoke out against wrongful church submission to state power in a way that Belhar’s framers deliberately echoed, none of its creators were in danger of the gas chambers or concentration camps.

For the first time, churches in the Reformed tradition listened to the persecuted, took their words to heart, and recognized them as inspired and meaningful for the whole church. Those churches also took a dramatic step towards recognizing the truly global scope of the church – rejecting a model that only listened to European and North American voices and hearing from a church from the global South, rather than dictating theological terms to it as had been its historical practice. For once, the church truly took on the submission of being reformed

This confession matters, a lot. Clearly the church has not successfully negotiated the true enactment of justice for all, reconciliation in Christ, and unity with God and one another that the confession demands. Even today there are those who claim that the conditions that apartheid imposed in South Africa should be reinstated in the American church; whites worship only with whites, blacks only with blacks, etc.

We have a lot of work to do, to be sure. But Amos still thunders at us, reminding us that short of insistently pursuing that justice, all else we do is in vain. 

For the charge of semper reformanda, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #757, Today We All Are Called to Be Disciples; #379, We Shall Overcome; #345, In an Age of Twisted Values

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