Revisionist Christians

Westminster Presbyterian Church

The June 25 sermon, “Revisionist Christians,” by Associate Pastor for Congregational Life, Rev. Sarah Brouwer, at Minneapolis Westminster Presbyterian Church discussed the need for Christians constantly to consider revising, reforming, seeking again and again the plans God has for a future for us as individuals and for all people.[1]

Preparing for the Word

In “Preparing for the Word,” the initial part of the service, we all joined in the following Prayer of Confession: “We confess, O God, we live in extremes. We need you only when things go wrong, but forget you in times of joy. When we have enough, it’s because we did it, and when we have nothing at all, we blame you. We value individualism until we require the help of community. Forgive us, we pray. Nurture peace in our frenetic lives. Help us to cultivate gratitude. Remind us to receive your abundance, and share it with others. We pray, O God, to be grounded in your infinite grace and mercy.” (Emphasis added.)

Listening for the Word

The central part of the service, “Listening for the Word,” sets forth the Scripture reading for the day followed by the sermon.

Scripture Reading

 The Old Testament reading was Jeremiah 29:11-14 (NRSV):

  • For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” (Emphasis added.)

The New Testament reading was Paul’s letter to the Philippians 4: 1-17 (NRSV):

  • “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.”
  • “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.”
  • Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
  • “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
  • “I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.”
  • “You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account.” (Emphases added.)

The Sermon

Rev. Sarah Brouw

Revisionist History, a podcast by New York Times bestselling author, Malcolm Gladwell, is a ‘journey through the overlooked and the misunderstood. Every episode re-examines something from the distant or recent past—an event, a story, a person, an idea—and asks whether we got it right the first time.’”

One of the episodes, Generous Orthodoxy, has “deep theological connections” that builds upon the work of German-American theologian, Hans Frei, who first coined the phrase. “In this episode, Gladwell interviews Chester Menger, “a 96 year old man who has lived his entire life in the Mennonite community and [who] until recently had been a well-known retired clergy. In the last few years, “Menger became famous in the Mennonite world for a challenging letter he wrote to the church after he married his gay son and subsequently had his ordination renounced. As you listen to the story, you become not only enthralled by the stance he took, but also by the love this man continues to have for his church.”

“For Mennonites, community and reconciliation are two essential tenants. The word community, for them, is not just a term they use to describe a religious group; they live it out in grand gestures of support for one another–especially when someone in the community is in need or has been harmed. It’s for this very reason that when Menger’s son came to him and told him he was gay, albeit after a bit of time, he came to wholeheartedly accept the fact–and not just from a personal perspective, but a theological one, too. His church, however, did not.”

“And for Menger, the excommunication of his son from the church flew in the face of everything Mennonites stood for–community and reconciliation. I can only imagine trying to stay in a church that rejects your child, but, according to Menger, leaving also would have flown in the face of what he believed. So, he decided to write a letter–really a statement of faith–to the church he loved. He writes,

  • ‘I am profoundly reluctant to write this letter because I know there are those it will wound deeply. But I have also come to the conviction that I can no longer hide the light the Lord has lit within me, under a bushel. I want to share with you what the Lord has been telling me and my dear life companion…. We invite the church to courageously stake out new territory, much as the early church did. We invite the church to embrace the missional opportunity to extend the church’s blessing of marriage to our homosexual children who desire to live in accountable, covenanted ways. We know that while many of us hear different things from the Scriptures, God’s deepest desire, as made known in Jesus Christ, is “to seek and to save that which was lost.’”

“The letter quotes the Apostle Paul a number of times, and in the interview with Gladwell, Menger notes one verse in particular from Romans 1:16 (NRSV): ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone.’” (Emphasis added.)

“The story is remarkable, and told so well. I found myself envious of this man’s simultaneous ability to love his son and the church that didn’t love his son, a generous orthodoxy on his part, to be sure. Menger was able to maintain respect and reverence for tradition, while also seeing the need to reform and revise with abundant grace and hope for the future. I wondered if I could be so open and willing. The truth is, Menger made it seem easy, as though holding these two things in the balance was exactly what his faith and church had prepared him his whole life to do. Was he worried, that after spending over 70 years as an ordained minister in the church he loved, he would have his ordination taken from him in one fell swoop? No. He laughed when Gladwell asked him.”

’Rejoice in the Lord, always, again I will say rejoice,’ this is what the Apostle Paul writes in the letter to the Philippians. In it I also discovered a sense of awe for what Paul, the author, was able to do–exactly what it seemed he had been preparing his whole life for. It’s Paul’s charge to the Philippians, and comes at the end, written to them, we think, while Paul is in prison. Much like Chester Menger, Paul maintains strength, purpose, humility, and lack of fear for the future–proclaiming his faith even after being arrested and jailed for it; preaching the abundance of the Gospel even from a place of scarcity.” (Emphasis added.)

“Paul, as you may remember, was formerly Saul of Tarsus, who was traveling one day on the road to Damascus, doing his duty to persecute early Christians when suddenly he saw Jesus in a great light and was struck blind. Three days later Ananias restored his sight and from thereafter his life was dedicated to spreading the good news of the Gospel. Paul knew from his own experience what it meant to be a follower of Jesus; he had been made new. He respected the Jewish traditions from which he had come, but knew the message of Jesus was for everyone, and that certain things had to be left behind, or change, in order to welcome all people. As Paul writes, ‘Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.’ Paul not only knew the Gospel was for everyone, but because he was in the trenches with these early Christians he also knew they had to make the church their own, to adapt if it was going to survive. He tells the Philippians, don’t worry, guard your hearts with Christ, keep on doing what is right. He is not more prescriptive than that.” (Emphasis added.)

The good news of the Gospel is that every day is a chance to be transformed, to make things new again- a chance to adapt. The old life has gone away, Paul says, and a new life has begun. [The] most helpful part of worship, in my opinion, is the prayer of confession and assurance of pardon. It always feels like such a relief each week to bring before God all that keeps us from being fully who we are, as a world, as a community, and as individuals. We approach a God who has already forgiven us, we offer up all the ways we fall short, and then we are assured of that forgiveness, again. We hear it from the pulpit and we say it to one another: . . . all of us are forgiven. Alleluia. Amen. It feels like the worship equivalent of Revisionist History, our own generous orthodoxy.” (Emphases added.)

“Hans Frei originally said, ‘Orthodoxy without generosity leads to blindness; generosity without orthodoxy is shallow and empty.’ God has been so generous with us, why would we limit how the church can revise and rethink and retell its story? Tradition is important, yes, orthodoxy makes meaning for us, it is part of our history and foundation, but it’s not all we are. Paul knew that, our reformer forebears knew it, and now as we stand at the precipice of a new era in our life together at Westminster we must know it, too. We are Revisionist Christians. Generous. Open. Adaptable. Transforming. People who examine what God is doing in the world and try to follow; as Chester Menger would say, ‘to seek and save that which is lost.’” (Emphases added.)

“At Westminster I think we do understand what it means to be Revisionist Christians. This congregation is in constant motion, ‘keeping on,’ as Paul charges the Philippians. And we are guided by Paul’s admonition to them, ‘whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just… think about these things.’ But there will always be opportunities to revise. And we know that’s true because we believe in a God who is active. As the prophet Jeremiah writes, ‘I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord.’ Yes, God has plans for us, and it is reassuring to hear in that often referred to verse. But do you remember what comes after it? God says, ‘when you call upon me, and pray to me… if you seek me with all your heart.’ Revisionist Christians seek out God’s plans, they seek the lost, they seek to be generous, and open to the future, even as they remember what they are revising from. To be sure, revising doesn’t mean forgetting. It means appreciating, analyzing, lifting out that which was forgotten or left behind, and pulling it into the future in truth. We must revise with hope, as Menger said, not hiding our light under a bushel.” (Emphases added.)

[Last week’s verdict in the trial following the death of Philandro Castile] should make us all wonder how we can “leverage [our] privilege and give voice to injustice. For me it begins, at least, by coming here, and confessing how far I have fallen short. And when I do that I’m reminded I can’t do it alone- none of us can. We need this community to help us remember that being Christian means being Revisionist Christians. We gather here to tell the truth about what has been lost, and say that black lives matter. And then we make plans to dialogue and act, and stand in solidarity… And God promises to be with us in it, and we make promises in return, and week by week we come back, re-promising, revising, reforming, seeking again and again the plans God has for a future for all people… every one… I trust God is working to make all things new. And, what is always true is that, thankfully, God is revising us. We are being made new, each and every one of us.” (Emphases added.)

“I can only hope to have the same kind of faith or joyful determination as Chester Menger or the Apostle Paul- the kind that is willing to change in such profound ways. But, what I do know is that this community has changed me. Westminster has revised me and my call. And that means now I, too, hold in the balance not only a love for us, but a deep love for the world outside. And I have a call to not only to be changed by you, but by whoever is beyond our doors, and whatever they need. We are God’s people, and we exist to be revised; for our own sake, and for the sake of others. My hope and prayer is that it will be your call, too, to let the light that is lit within you shine.” (Emphasis added.)

Affirmation of Faith

 In the “Responding to the Word” final  portion of the service after the sermon, we all joined in the Affirmation of Faith with the following words from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s “A Brief Statement of Faith” of 1983:[2]

  • “We trust in God the Holy Spirit, everywhere the giver and renewer of life. The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith, sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor, and binds us together with all believers in the one body of Christ, the Church. In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace. In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives, even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Conclusion

This sermon was especially moving to me because it emphasizes that we believe in a God who is active. The good news of the Gospel is that every day is a chance to be transformed, to make things new again–a chance to adapt. We are God’s people, and we exist to be revised; for our own sake, and for the sake of others, what is always true is that, thankfully, God is revising us. We are being made new, each and every one of us.

A more frequent formulation of this idea for Presbyterians and others in the Reformed tradition is “Reformed, and Always Reforming.”

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[1] The bulletin for the service and the text of the sermon are available on the church’s website.

[2] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Book of Confessions at 307-18.

The Confession of Belhar Is Adopted by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

PCUSA

On June 23, 2016, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) overwhelmingly voted (540 to 33) to include in its Book of Confessions the 1986 Confession of Belhar from South Africa.

Let us examine that Confession, its adoption by the PC(USA)’s General Assembly, the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions and the recent use of the Belhar Confession at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, a member of the PC(USA).

 The Confession of Belhar[1]

The Belhar Confession emerged from the era of apartheid in South Africa, 1948-1994. That doctrine and practice of racial segregation was embraced by the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa (DRC) for whites and imposed upon its racially segregated offshoots: the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC) for colored or mixed-race people, the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa for blacks and the Reformed Church in Africa for people of Indian descent.

After the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, the 1964 convictions and imprisonments of anti-apartheid activists Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, the 1976 Soweto Uprising and the 1976 condemnation of South Africa and apartheid by the United Nations, the Synod of the DRMC in 1978 concluded that apartheid was anti-evangelical and a structural and institutional sin.

Eight years later, in 1986, another Synod of the DRMC met in Belhar, a colored suburb of Capetown, South Africa, and adopted the Confession of Belhar. It has the following primary confessional statements:

  1. “We believe in the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who gathers, protects and cares for the church through Word and Spirit. This, God has done since the beginning of the world and will do to the end.”
  2. “We believe in one holy, universal Christian church, the communion of saints called from the entire human family.”
  3. “We believe that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ; that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells.”
  4. “We believe that God has revealed himself as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people.”
  5. “We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things, even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence.”

Three of these statements also set forth additional detailed belief statements and rejections of any doctrine and ideology which:

  • “absolutizes  natural diversity or the sinful separation of people;”
  • “explicitly or implicitly maintains that descent or any other human or social factor should be a consideration in determining membership of the church;”
  • “sanctions in the name of the gospel or of the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race or color;”
  • “would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the gospel.”

The PC(USA)’s Adoption of the Belhar Confession [2]

As previously noted, on June 23, 2016 (30 years after the DRMC adoption of the Confession of Belhar), the General Assembly of the PC(USA) voted to add that Confession to the U.S. church’s Book of Confessions.

Rev. Godfrey Betha
Rev. Godfrey Betha

Immediately after the vote, the General Assembly was addressed by Rev. Godfrey Betha, the Vice Moderator of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa, which was formed by the DRMC and the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa for blacks. Betha told the General Assembly, “It is important to seek solidarity with South Africa. We’ve come a long way with the PC(USA). We are grateful to have you as partners in service to the Lord. Today we offer gratitude, we salute you as the PC(USA) for your historic decision to adopt the Belhar Confession as a standard of faith for your church. I bow in humility to God and thankfulness to you … I’ll never forget this date.”

Betha added: “Your decision affirms that, like those other historic standards of faith, the Belhar Confession transcends its historic circumstances as a standard for faith in all places and times. Your decision affirms that Belhar does speak against ideological and theological attempts to justify specific historical forms of injustice. Your decision affirms to your church, [and] to all, when you come looking for the demon of racism, don’t come to us.”

Rev. Allan Boesak
Rev. Allan Boesak

Also present at the General Assembly was Rev. Allan Boesak, a co-author of the Confession of Belhar and the moderator of the DRMC when it was adopted in 1986. He said, “I thank God for what happened here tonight. I thank God for your faithfulness. I thank God for your acknowledgement of our common humanity in doing this … I thank God, and I thank you, and because of Jesus and because of God’s faithfulness, we shall overcome.”

Rev. Denise Anderson
Rev. T. Denise Anderson

At that point the commissioners linked hands throughout the plenary hall and spontaneously broke into “We Shall Overcome,” the famous song of the U.S. African-American civil rights movement, led by the General Assembly’s Co- Moderator, Rev. T. Denise Anderson, Pastor, Unity Presbyterian Church, Temple Hills, MD.

Earlier that same day, and before the General Assembly action, Boesak had addressed a breakfast meeting at the General Assembly. He said the Belhar Confession “stirs us, humbles us, and inspires us … It’s a unifying document. We cannot yet foresee the consequences of the Confession. No other Confession has been so clear in its intentions: not only unity, but its foundationality; not just reconciliation, but its inescapability; not only justice, but its indivisibility.”

“Today is a defining moment for the PC(USA), as it was for the Dutch Reformed Mission Church 30 years ago as we finally adopted the Belhar Confession,” Boesak continued. “But the defining moment  was  not  just  the  adoption  of  the confession, as stunning as it was. In the years between 1982 and 1986, my friend and colleague and co-author Jaap Durand offered crucial prophetic insights that inspired and haunted the church in ways we couldn’t imagine in 1982, saying, ‘A  confession does not and cannot engage in mere trivialities. It can only be an extension of the ancient confession that Christ is Lord… I’m convinced that the Confession of Belhar will outlive apartheid and the heresy that formed it.’”

Recalling the struggles of black South Africans to remain faithful and pursue unity in light of terrible oppression, mass detention and cruel policies, Bosack said: “The church became directly involved in the efforts of freedom and justice in South Africa. The Jesus we worship and confess as Lord in the sanctuary is the Jesus we take into the street. Our people were slaughtered. Everyone was touched in one way or another.”

“By 1986 we saw no sense in, and had no desire for, unity with the white church, or with white people in general,” he said of the general despair that afflicted the DRMC. “But we had Belhar, [which] . . . understood [John] Calvin as he spoke of Holy Communion. ‘Christ has only one body of which he makes us all partakers.’”

Calling the unity of the church both a gift and command, Boesak said it was difficult in those years to find points of unity or reconciliation with those who were actively opposing the rights of black South Africans. The Belhar Confession, however, understood from Isaiah that God is not only a God of justice, but that God is a God of indivisible justice,” he said. “So against our self-absorbed instinct for self-absorbed victimhood, the black church confessed God as a God who wants to bring forth peace and justice in the world, and that God calls the church to follow in this, that the church must stand next to people in any form of need or injustice.”

This teaching of Belfar also challenged the DRMC when it faced the issue of the rights of LGBTQI and eventually affirmed those rights. Boesak said his denomination had “to face the consequences, not only with the white Dutch Reformed Church, but within itself.”

“In following Christ, the church must fight against those who use their privilege to oppress and put down any people,” he said. In asking the PC(USA) to “witness against any form of injustice,” Boesak turned his attention to Palestine, asking the denomination to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement – similar to those used to end apartheid – to place economic pressure on Israel to end the occupation and expansion of territories. “Kairos Palestine is a cry from the heart of suffering,” he said. “Unless it rolls down for Palestinians, it will not roll down for others. Indivisible. Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.”

In conclusion, Boesak said of Belhar and its broader implications: “It is a confession that stirs us, humbles us, and inspires us … It’s a unifying document.”

The PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions

The Book of Confessions is a collection of confessions and creeds that declare to the church’s “members and to the world who and what [the church] is, what it believes and what it resolves to do.” Prior to the addition of the Belhar Confession, the Book contained 11 confessions and creeds starting with the Nicene Creed of 325 and ending with A Brief Statement of Faith– Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) of 1983.[3]

According to the church’s Book of Order, These creeds and confessions are “subordinate standards . . . subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him” that “identify the church as a community of people known by its convictions as well as by its actions,” that “guide the church in its study and interpretation of the Scriptures,” that “summarize the essence of Christian tradition,” that “direct the church in maintaining sound doctrines” and that “equip the church for its work of proclamation.” They also give “witness to the faith of the church catholic” while identifying “with the affirmations of the Protestant Reformation:” “grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone.”[4]

Westminster’s Recent Use of the Belhar Confession

One of Belhar Confession’s central themes was adapted for use by Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church as its July 17, 2016, Call to Worship (in call and response mode):[5]

  • One: This we believe.
  • All: God longs to bring justice and peace among all people.
  • One: This we believe.
  • All: God teaches the church to do what is good and to seek the right.
  • One: This we believe.
  • All: God sees a day when all people – black, white, red, yellow, and brown – will live together in harmony.
  • One: This we believe.
  • All: God calls the church to follow Jesus, to lift up the poor, to heal those who hurt, to feed those who hunger, and to comfort those who grieve.”

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[1] PCUSA, Confession of Belhar (English translation); PCUSA, The Belhar Confession (paper about the history of the Confession); PCUSA, 30 Days with the Belhar Confession: Reflections on Unity, Reconciliation and Justice (this book weaves together Scripture passages and the Confession’s timely themes of unity, reconciliation and justice; it is written by a diverse collection of scholars, theologians and church leaders and is a great resource for individuals, study groups or entire congregations wanting to familiarize themselves with the Confession through prayer and reflection; the Confession itself is included).

[2] PCUSA, Allan Boesak commends Belhar Confession (June 23, 2016); PCUSA, Belhar added to PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions (June 23, 2016); Duffield, Adopting Belhar, the 222nd General Assembly Makes History, Presbyterian Outlook (June 23, 2016). The Confession previously had been adopted by Namibia’s Evangelical Reformed Church in Africa, Belgium’s United Protestant Church, the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church of North America. The Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, however, has not adopted the Confession in a manner acceptable to the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa and, therefore, has not merged into the latter.

[3] PCUSA, Book of Confessions.

[4] PCUSA, Book of Order, Ch. II (1983-85 edition).

[5] Westminster, Worship Bulletin (July 17, 2016).