Christian churches are losing their relevance as a force for reconciliation in racially divided South Africa.
This is the warning from top South African theologians. They see this country's policy of separation of the races increasingly reflected in the pew.
Further, they see growing polarization along racial lines between and within churches as depriving ''church,'' as an important and powerful social institution in South Africa, of a leadership role in accommodating this society's black and white racial groups.
One result of this polarization is growing black interest in ''separatist'' churches of their own. The growth of black independent churches has been spectacular -- they now claim large membership spread across an estimated 3,000 churches.
To air the problem of the churches in South Africa in the 1980s and to take a first step toward a solution, theologians and church officials gathered here Jan. 18-21. The mere opening of talks was seen as a step forward.
Early in the conference a white theologian told the gathering, ''There is so much splendid isolation (in South Africa) that we don't know one another.''
On that point there was agreement. But there were clear differences on the meatier issues.
Black Lutheran minister theologian S. S. Maimela chastised white Afrikaners for increasingly practicing a policy of ''self-preservation'' in South Africa.
Afrikaners are Dutch descendants who, although in minority compared to blacks , control the South African government. As members of the Dutch Reformed Church and its two sister churches --which, combined, have nearly half the South African white church membership -- many Afrikaners see themselves as a ''chosen people'' similar to the children of Israel.
In discussing the role of Israel in white theology, Dr. Maimela said Afrikaner whites had transformed this into a ''political calling.'' Blacks, said Mr. Maimela, were concerned that the political use of the symbol of Israel was increasingly an effort to ''defy existing social arrangements and institutions'' that were discriminatory against blacks.
What churches should not become, but to some extent have become in South Africa, are organizations in which people withdraw to maintain separate group identity. So says David Bosch, dean of the theology department at the University of South Africa.
''It should be an alternative, a way to transcend barriers and make diversity meaningful,'' he says.
The Dutch Reformed Church has three separate ''daughter'' churches for black, Indian, and Colored (people of mixed descent) South Africans. Leading figures in these three ''nonwhite'' churches have in recent years called for reunification with the ''white'' Dutch Reformed Church.
However, unification appears unlikely at the moment, theologians agree.
One Afrikaner objected to Dr. Maimela's criticism, arguing that the claim that Afrikaner theology identified with the symbol of Israel was ''outdated.'' He said this picture of the Dutch Reformed Church was one-sided and ''did not take into account the great improvement and development of thought'' within the church.
Still, the Dutch Reformed Church is under sharp criticism from its own members on many social issues. The recent publication ''Stormkompas'' (Storm Compass), a collection of essays by leading Dutch Reformed Church theologians and officials asked questions about the role of the church in solving critical problems facing South Africa.
Perhaps the most controversial issue raised was criticism that the Broederbond -- the secret political-cultural Afrikaner organization -- was undermining the credibility of the church because it has such close links with the government. Many leading churches figures are also Broederbond members.
Debate was also sparked from a discussion of the role of Israel in black theology. A white theologian pointed out that blacks increasingly see their struggle for liberation in South Africa as similar to the history of Israel.
Some worried out loud that black theology was embracing a notion that only the oppressed could be the ''chosen people.'' A missionary said black ideology was increasingly couched in a ''Marxist idiom'' emphasizing rich vs. poor, not white vs. black.
Even in the English-speaking Christian churches, which tend to be more multiracial, polarization appears to be growing.
In the multiracial Methodist Church, which has one of the highest memberships of blacks, there remains criticism that whites continue to control the church. While leadership posts have been open to blacks, some blacks say they have been stripped of authority to avoid blacks gaining too much power.
In the congregation all is not well, either. ''An age group has come inside the church, even into leadership, that is tainted with the ideology of the day on both sides,'' says Gabriel M. Setiloane, a Methodist minister.
''We don't want mashed potatoes,'' Professor Bosch said. He insists there must be room for cultural ''distinctiveness'' in any church. ''But it should always be a congregation with open doors, into which people from other cultural backgrounds are welcomed.''