The Death of Apartheid in the Church

I wrote earlier about the birth of Apartheid and how the theologians of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) were the genesis of the form practiced in South Africa, and I wanted to share the rest of the story as I heard it a couple of days later. After I got to talk to Prof. Nell of the DRC, I shared with former Methodist pastor and bishop Peter Storey the outline of Prof. Nell’s brief explanation of how it happened, and asked Peter to expand on it for us.

During the Apartheid era, the DRC was the ‘parliament in prayer’––a total marriage of church and state. All the members of parliament were DRC members. Meanwhile, there were two other families of churches responding differently to Apartheid. The mainline churches and Catholics joined together to form the South African Council of Churches (SACC), named Apartheid as sin, and looked for ways to work against the government’s sinful policies. The more pietistic/conservative denominations (Pentecostals, Baptists, etc.)––who focus religious life on saving souls––ignored the issue, often declaring it simply a sign that biblical predictions about end times were coming true. Peter would say to his evangelical friends: “You are the only people who can bury your heads in the sand and wave your hands in the air at the same time.” One group of denominations caught in a difficult place was the so-called ‘daughter’ churches of the DRC. Formed because racial separation was essential to the leaders of the Dutch Reformed Church, there were three separate sub-denominations for mixed-race people (‘colored’), Indian people (‘asiatics’), and African people (‘blacks’). There came a time when the daughter churches began to struggle against this situation (“Who are you to call yourself our ‘mother’?”)––this is Peter’s version of what Prof. Nell described as a witness to the DRC’s theological error coming from a fellow Reformed denomination.

Eventually, the World Alliance of Churches (WAC) spoke out against apartheid theology, calling it heresy and expelling the DRC from the WAC. The DRC began to feel a little pain despite enjoying the perks and privileges of being the state church. About that same time, the daughter churches joined the SACC, signaling that they were leaving behind their ‘mother’ denomination and joining the opposition to Apartheid. The wind was changing.

As Apartheid began to crumble, unity among blacks began to crumble and the different black groups began to fight each other over the best strategies for next steps. The leadership of the SACC sensed that it was an important time to come together as the church, thinking, “We cannot heal these fights unless we can be together as the Body of Christ.” They set up a conference and decided they would give reconciliation with the other two groups of churches one try: they invited the DRC and the church bodies that had remained neutral throughout, the charismatics ‘with their heads buried in the sand’. (And despite how mundane inviting the DRC to a conference sounds, this was a huge shift; during Apartheid, Methodist ministers were prohibited from having any contact with their DRC counterparts in their towns. The DRC had literally been shunned by the churches working against Apartheid––until the Rustenburg conference.)

As the conference convened, everyone was uncomfortable; each group had their judgments of the others, and the DRC and the SACC had been enemies for years. The delegates all stood around the room in separate groups, wary of the others.

Just after the meeting began, before the real business could get started, Prof. Junker from Stellenbosch University asked if he could come to the platform to make a statement. You can imagine how many were not all that interested in what those from Stellenbosch had to say. He was allowed to speak, and he told the group that he needed, both personally and on behalf of his church, to confess. He went into a long list of the ways his church and he had collaborated with evil and caused suffering. “We lay ourselves at your feet and ask for forgiveness.”

There was a stunned silence in the room. No one knew what to do at that moment. There was certainly no interest in letting the DRC off the hook just because one of them said they were sorry. Desmond Tutu broke the uncomfortable silence when he approached the microphone and said to the rest of the group, “I don’t know about the rest of you, but my theology says when someone confesses sin, I have to forgive him.” Folks were not happy to hear that, but there was a general recognition that this was the first step toward reconciliation among the churches in South Africa. There was repentance ahead, but confession was an essential as a starting place.

The Pentecostals and others confessed their neutrality in the face of evil (“sleeping through a revolution” in the words of Martin Luther King), and then it was the SACC members’ turn. Everyone there had to search their souls to acknowledge their sin in the face of evil. And then it was possible to move forward together. The central leaders gathered and worked through the night (still dealing with their suspicion of each other) to write a common statement of confession and repentance, which all the groups signed on to. The Rustenberg Declaration was an important step in the history of South Africa. And that proclamation of repentance was greeted with a great deal of anger in the DRC;  the head of the DRC was shot dead in his home within a few weeks, and 30,000 members left that denomination’s churches in the months that followed.

Peter confirmed the story I’d heard from Prof. Nell: the change from division over apartheid theology to unity in repentance was a quick shift among the churches. The wind changed, said Peter, referring to the sense of the momentum in South African society, but there was another wind that was blowing at that time, too, the pneuma of the Holy Spirit, which can change hearts and minds with astonishing swiftness, too.

I take a lot of encouragement from that story of transformation, because it’s a reminder that, by divine grace, it is possible for long-entrenched points of view to be transformed. It has happened to me in my life, and it’s happening every day around us. May it continue to happen in me and my congregation and my city and my nation and our world!


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