Dutch reformed Church and apartheid theology
The Confession of Belhar has as background the racial, racist, segregationist and apartheid history and theology in South Africa. The common point of reference in all of this, within the framework of Church history, is the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC). The separation on the basis of race goes as far back as 1829. The Presbytery of Cape Town of the DRC met on 29 April 1829 to deal with an enquiry of the Somerset West congregation with regard to the administering of Holy Communion to what they called ‘ persons of ‘colour’. The question to be consider was, whether ‘persons of ‘colour’, who were confirmed and baptized, should be allowed , together with ‘born again christians’ ( white people), to take the Lord’s Supper or whether these people should take the Holy Communion separately.
At the 1857 Synod of the DRC this question of segregation or not, was dealt with and paved the way for church separation and racism in practice. The Synod of 1857 spoke with a double tongue and that indicate clearly that they could not take a clear stand on issues of Biblical principle. They said YES this and Yes the other. Their inability to take a qualified stand on the issue, paved the way for church and societal apartheid . The decision of the DRC Synod reads as follows. ‘The Synod considers it desirable and according to the Holy Scripture that our heathen members (non-whites) be accepted and initiated into our congregations wherever it is possible; but where this measure , as result of the weakness of some, would stand in the way of promoting the work of Christ among the heathen people, then congregations set up among the heathen , or still to be set up, should enjoy their Christian privileges in a separate building or institution‘.
This decision paved the way for the ‘final solution’ for this heathen problem, with the establishing of the first racially separated church in 1881, called the Dutch Reformed Mission Church for ‘couloured’ people(DRMC- Sendingkerk). After this the DRC would established racially separated churches for Black people, which was called Dutch Reformed Church in Africa (DRCA) and for Indian people, called the Reformed Church in Africa (RCA).
That this theology of apartheid became entrenched in the DRC, became clear when ‘Kerkbode’ official Newspaper of the DRC, wrote in its editorial in September 1948, after the National Party came to power on an apartheid policy platform, ‘Apartheid is a Church policy‘. This policy meant in South Africa, white supremacy and all the other races were inferior and they were dealt with in an inferior manner. The result was the oppression of the non- white people of South Africa and the privilege position of white people. Church ( DRC) and state were inextricably linked in an unholy union. The state received moral and theological backing for its unjust and apartheid policies from the DRC.
World alliance of reformed churche’s (WARC) responseE (August 1982)
After decades of struggle from the side of the Black Reformed Churches to rectify the situation, the issue of racial theology and practice in South Africa was taken to the meeting of the World Alliance of Reformed Church’s (WARC – August 1982) General Assembly in Ottowa, Canada , because the DRC, DRMC, DRCA and the RCA, were members of WARC. Dr. Allan Boesak of the then DRMC, was asked the WARC to deliver a speech on the situation in South Africa. In a speech titled , ‘ He made us all but, .. Dr. Boesak agued his case against racism and apartheid. He pointed out that the WARC had a responsibility towards it member churches in South Africa, who suffered under the apartheid theology and policy. Boesak put the DRC and other white Reformed Churches in the middle of this debate, he said, ‘ As far as the white member churches are concerned, they have direct responsibility and the power to change the situation fundamentally if they want to. They should be addressed in terms of that responsibility and in terms of the historical development of apartheid as it has been directed by the Churches. The WARC should accept the challenge to address the meaning of an apartheid that has been under girded by the Gospel and presented as commensurate with the Reformed tradition.
In its response the WARC said that:’ the white Afrikaans Reformed Churches through the years have worked out in considerable detail both the policy itself and the theological and moral justification for the system. Apartheid is therefore, a pseudo-religious ideology as well as a political policy. It depends on a large extend on this moral and theological justification. The division of the Reformed Churches in South Africa on the basis of race and colour is being defended as a faithful interpretation of the will of God and of Reformed understanding of the Church in the world’.
The WARC declared that the situation in South Africa constituted a status confessionis- which means that the WARC regard this issue on which it is impossible to differ without seriously jeopardizing the integrity of our common confession as Reformed Churches.
On the basis of this situation the WARC made the following declaration. ‘We declare with the black Reformed Christians of South Africa that apartheid ( separate development) is a sin, and that the moral and theological justification of it is a travesty of the Gospel and, in its persistent disobedience to the Word of God, a theological heresy‘.
The DRMC at its Synod later that year followed in the footsteps of the WARC and declared a status confessionis. The Church realized that in a situation like this you have to confess anew to the truths of the Bible in the light of the pseudo gospel. The DRMC decided to draw up a Confession in order to do that. It was a confession in concept form, which was distributed to the whole church for comment and was to be finalized at the next Synod in 1986. At the 1986 Synod of the DRMC the Confession was accepted and called the Belhar Confession 1986. The name Belhar in the Confession refers to the Suburb of Belhar ( in the Cape) where the Synod met. This Confession was also adopted by the DRCA. When the DRMC and the DRCA unified in 1994, forming a new church, nl. the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA) confession became part of the confessional basis of URCSA. During the DRMC” Synod in 1990, a monument was erected and dedicated to the occasion of the acceptance of the Belhar Confession by the then Moderamen.
Re-dedication of Belhar monument
On September 30, 2006, the Belhar monument was re-dedicated by the moderator of URCSA’S General Synod, Prof. S. Thias Kgatla.
The Belhar Monument is one of the most visible and important historical sites of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa. On September 30, 2006, the Church Council of the Congregation of S.A. Gestig ( the oldest congregation in URCSA) on whose property the monument is build, transferred the site symbolically to the General Synod, to be taken care of by the relevant General Synodical Ministry of Comunication, Publications and Archives.
(Rev. Daniel Kuys)
Sources: Apartheid is a heresy: Edotors: John de Gruchy and Charles Villa-vicencio
Acts of Synods: DRMC – 1982, 1986
Acts of Synod: URCSA Unification Synod 1994
Newpaper clippings: 1982 etc