The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is gearing up for another biennial General Assembly this year.
On its agenda is an overture rejecting a document on the sin of racism that some believe may be misused to promote gay ordination and other "same-sex causes."
"An Overture on the Belhar Confession" was approved by the Sacramento Presbytery last month to send to the 219th General Assembly, the highest governing body in the denomination.
It states that though they commend efforts to embrace equality among believers without regard to race or ethnic background, the Belhar Confession – which the General Assembly will consider adding to the PC(USA) Book of Confessions – is a "somewhat confusing document, which some parties ... have attempted to use to press issues other than racial equality."
"This overly broad application of the Belhar Confession to champion liberation theology in general or same-sex causes in particular produces a conflicted response to its anti-racism message," the overture states.
The Belhar Confession is a document rooted in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. It was first drafted in 1982 as a theological confrontation of the sin of racism and division and affirms the unity of the church and among all people, reconciliation within church and society, and God's justice.
The document partly declares "that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted."
In 2008, the 218th General Assembly took the first step in adopting the Belhar Confession. It will be considered again at this year's meeting in July. Approval by two consecutive General Assemblies and ratification by two-thirds of the 173 presbyteries between those assemblies is required.
Already, the Reformed Church in America, a PC(USA) partner church through the Formula of Agreement, voted in 2009 to add the confession to the denomination's three other doctrinal standards.
But some Presbyterians are being more cautious.
Joseph Small, director of Theology Worship and Education, said in a meeting last year that amending the Book of Confessions is "serious business."
And while the Belhar Confession speaks to the reality of racial discrimination, it can also speak to the diversity of the church in another dimension, Small has noted.
The Sacramento Presbytery overture requests that the General Assembly discontinue efforts to adopt the document, citing that "clear and explicit directives against racism" are already included in the confessions of the PC(USA).
Moreover, the overture argues that the Belhar Confession does not qualify as a confession of the church "for all times in all places."
"A Confession is therefore not the publication of the opinions, convictions, ideals, and value judgments of men. It does not set forth a program or system of theology or ethics. ... It is not a political or ethical, religious platform," the overture quotes University of Dubuque Theological Seminary dean Arthur C. Cochrane as saying. "It confesses Jesus Christ as the one Lord, the one justification and sanctification of men, the one revelation, and the one Word of God which we have to hear, trust and obey in life and in death."
The 219th General Assembly is scheduled to meet in the Minneapolis Convention Center on July 3-10, 2010.