The Belhar Confession

At a regional synod in May 2011 the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) of the Western and Southern Cape accepted the “Belhar Confession” as a fourth doctrinal standard in addition to the three Reformation Confessions, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort which every Reformed minister is obliged to affirm. 1)

What is the Belhar Confession?

This Confession of 1982 takes its name from Belhar, a suburb of Cape Town, where it was composed. It describes itself as “a cry from the heart” of the non-White DRC congregations. Reputedly authored by Dirkie Smit and Russel Botman (now Stellenbosch professor and vice chancellor), the Belhar Confession (BC) is regarded as a precurser of the “Kairos Document” of 1985 which was published at the height of the “liberation struggle” and called for the overthrow of the then South African government.

The subject of the BC is unity, reconciliation and justice, and its purpose is to advance structural unity between the Dutch Reformed Church and its three multilingual (African, Coloured, and Indian) daughter churches. It pledges to resist anything which threatens such unity – i.e. all “sinful separation of people” or the “establishment of a separate church formation.” - “Refusal to earnestly pursue this visible unity … is sin.” - “Descent or any other human or social factor” should not be “a consideration in determining membership of the Church.” The Church, it says, must “witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells.” Calling the traditional Dutch Reformed doctrine “false” and an “ideology”, it declares that God “is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged and that he calls his church to follow him in this… that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need… and strive against any form of injustice… It must stand where he (God) stands, namely… with the wronged… against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.”

Of course, every Christian welcomes the noble aims of unity, reconciliation and justice, but the Belhar Confession is obviously meant to serve broader purposes than fighting racial separation. This became evident when, in 2008, Dr Allan Boesak, while Moderator of the Uniting Reformed Church (formerly the DRC Mission Churches) used the Belhar Declaration to justify homosexuality in Church and Pastorie. When the synod refused to vote in favour of this he left the assembly in anger and threatened to resign from all his offices.

Guilt Manipulation

Dr Boesak rose to prominence during the South African “liberation struggle”. Prior to 1976 he had studied Black Theology and Black Power and received a doctorate from the university of Kampen in Holland. His thesis was called: “Farewell to Innocence – A Social Ethical Study on Black Theology and Black Power.” - As he became more critical of the Dutch Reformed Church, the international ecumenical movement took notice of him and invited him to a general assembly of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) held in Ottawa, Canada, in 1982. Armed with the Belhar Declaration and claiming that a “status confessionis” existed in South Africa, Dr Boesak was warmly welcomed and straight away elected president of the WARC. Meanwhile, the White South African delegates were humiliated, and the Dutch Reformed Churches suspended from membership of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.

The Belhar Confession thus became an international document, but some if its concepts remained doubtful. For instance, the words “witness by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells,” took on a political meaning in the light of statements made by liberation theologians. For in terms of liberation theology the “Kingdom of God” is equated with “socialism.” - In 1980, for instance, Bishop Desmond Tutu defined it by saying: “When justice prevails over injustice as in Zimbabwe, it shows that the kingdom of God is here already.” 2) Dr Allan Boesak explained it like this: “The New Jerusalem is no future world somewhere else. No, the new Jerusalem comes from Heaven into this reality… The New Jerusalem is no mirage from the beyond… It does not need to wait for eternity. This new Jerusalem will arise from the ashes of all that which today is called Pretoria. For the old things have passed away.” 3) - In order to bring about this new Jerusalem, liberation theologians called for world wide sanctions, civil disobedience, and prayers for the downfall of the government. They advanced the African National Congress(ANC) which in those days was still deemed a communist terrorist organisation.

Doubt was also cast upon yet another Belhar statement, namely: “God is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged, and he calls his church to follow him in this.” At the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC), held in Melbourne, Australia, in 1980, Dr Boesak had declared, that whereas “the Gospel is the good news for the poor, it is the bad news for the rich.” The coming of the Kingdom would be a time ofjudgment for the rich. 4) In line with this, Bishop Tutu said: “Thank God I am black. White people will have a lot to answer for at the last judgment.” (Argus, 19.3.84) The redistribution of wealth was (and is) very important to the ecumenical movement. In Melbourne the WCC was expressing hopes that “the spiritually bankrupt churches in the capitalist countries should give their material wealth to the ‘churches of the poor’ because these are closer to God.” 5)

Although Archbishop Tutu and Dr Boesak later criticised Zimbabwe, such statements, in their essence, were never repudiated or withdrawn. Why then should the Belhar Confession (BC) mean anything different today from what it meant in the 1980s?

New Generation

Since the publication of the BC in 1982 almost thirty years have passed. A new generation has grown up into church leadership, who did not experience at first hand the revolutionary climate of those days. Apartheid has long gone. There is no racial discrimination today except affirmative action. The new generation of ministers has been trained in liberal values. They do not have the Biblical foundation and do not hold to absolutes as previous generations did. They have also been taught to view their own history in a negative light, and they do not comprehend the outstanding historic achievements of their Church and people. Hence, they see no harm in the Belhar Confession. On the contrary, tired of being accused of racism, heresy and sin, they welcome it as a bearer of peace.

Quo Vadis Belhar?

What then is the purpose of forcing a declaration such as the Belhar Confession onto a Church and people who, by and large, are innocent of its accusations? Is it not to manipulate them away from Reformed doctrine towards a humanistic religion? Today we live in a democratic age with humanistic values. Democracy/humanism demands that all absolutes be abolished. The absolutes of God’s creation order, the absolutes of His moral Law, the absolutes of His Word and Work, all are watered down if not rejected. The only absolute which is permitted, is absolute equality. The Belhar Confession promotes equality on all levels. The fact that in 2008 it was used to try and equalise homosexual marriage and ministry with God’s ordinances was no accident. The question now is: What else is it destined to sanction? The word “apartheid” does not appear in the Confession. Apartheid is no longer the issue. The issue is equality and the rejection of all absolutes. Having adopted it as a foundation of faith, how will the Church be able to stand on the Bible when confronted with future issues of right and wrong?

The Church’s acceptance of the Belhar Confession is just one more step towards replacing Biblical Christianity with Humanism, the religion of Man, and the One World religion. Man wants to become his own master and god. It is the old old story of Adam and the apple. -

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25) “Therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

May God bless you richly,

D. Scarborough.


1. The Belhar Confession is available on the internet in English, Afrikaans and Xhosa. 2. Ecunews 11/1980; The Archbishop and the Bible, Gospel Defence League 1986. 3. A Boesak, Speech at the Kirchentag, Frankfurt, Germany, 21.6.1987 4. P. Beyerhaus, Aufbruch der Armen, WCC General Assembly, Melbourne 1980, p. 173. 5. Ibid., p. 178.

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