A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery
February 3, 2011
Today at our presbytery meeting we are considering whether the church should add a new document to our Book of Confessions. The Belhar Confession was adopted in the mid-1980s by some Reformed Churches in South Africa to declare that the culture’s practice of apartheid was contrary to the Gospel, and could not be sanctioned by the church. Now we are voting whether we in the PCUSA should adopt Belhar as one of our confessional standards.
To “confess” means, literally, to “speak in agreement with” someone else’s declaration. When we “confess” our sin, we are agreeing with God’s assessment of our condition. The opposite of “confess” is to dispute. If we say we have no sin, John says, we are in effect calling God a liar, we are disputing God’s assessment of our condition. But when we confess our sin, God forgives our sin. (1 John 1:8-10)
Our Book of Confessions is a collection of documents in which believers have sought to articulate what it means to speak in agreement with the church about matters of critical significance. The Belhar Confession is a “confession” precisely because it seeks to speak with the whole church on matters of momentous importance in its framers’ particular place and time. The question they had before them was not, “What new word is God speaking to us today?” Rather, it was, “What does the abiding faith of the church call us to say and do in our place and time?”
The questions before us today are not all that different. How can we, in the USA in 2011, most authentically express the church’s abiding faith? Does joining our voices with Belhar help us better express Christian faith in our own situation? Today our presbytery will be prayerfully asking those questions as we vote on whether to include Belhar in our Constitution.
Whether we join our voices in agreement with God (confessing our sin) or in agreement with the church (confessing the faith), confession is part of our DNA as “Reformed” Christians. Ours is often called a “confessional” tradition, because we insist on regularly confessing our sin and confessing our faith, even in our worship services. Historic Reformed liturgy has always included both forms of confession.
Along with confessing with God and confessing with the whole church, there is another sense in which we “confess” – we believe we are called to live and speak in concert with those who proclaim Christ in our community. To confess the faith authentically we must speak and live in accord both with fellow-worshipers in our own congregation and with sister congregations in our community. That includes, but is not limited to, those who are institutionally joined to us through denominational ties.
While this is just a beginning, I invite us to consider a modest proposal – that Pittsburgh Presbytery will be a people that confesses together. That is, we will proclaim the Gospel with one another, rather than investing our energies in speaking at (or even worse, of) one another. If we can’t speak God’s good news in Christ with a united voice, why should the world believe our claim that in Christ God reconciles us to himself and thereby also to one another? Can we really be a confessing church? By God’s grace, let it be so.
In accord with you for Christ’s sake,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery
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