Tensions Beset Church of South India

by Max L. Stackhouse

At the time this article was written, Max L. Stackhouse taught at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts. He subsequently taught at Princeton Theological Seminary.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 9-16, 1986, p. 743. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


It may be that in the near future the church of India will find ways to include a new emphasis on both church growth and significant social engagement. It may also reinvigorate preaching and principled leadership, find ways to modulate the influence of caste, extend democratic participation and balance it with judicious episcopal oversight, while reducing the temptation to submit every intrachurch disagreement to the secular courts.

When the Church of South India was formed shortly after World War II out of the various mainline denominational churches established by Western missionaries in the previous century, the entire ecclesiastical world celebrated. Here, quite possibly, was the beginning of the reunification of the fragmented body of Christ. The Western Protestant experience, which included church splits and the formation of new denominations on the basis of national, ethnic and class differences -- as well as differences of doctrine, sacramental practice and biblical interpretation -- had been exported to the mission fields, where many of these differences seemed to be of even less enduring significance than they were at home. This splitting the CSI planned to overcome, along with any residues of cultural imperialism brought by European and American advocates of the gospel.

But not everything has worked out as planned. As the CSI approaches its 40th birthday, it appears to the outside observer to be less integrated, less vigorous and less independent than its founders had wished.

By all estimates a higher percentage of members of Indian Christian churches attend services on a given Sunday than do Christians anywhere in the West. And even though Christians constitute only about 2.5 per cent of India’s population, that is an enormous number of people in a nation of at least 750 million. Further, the leadership of the CSI is almost entirely Indian, and a growing number of good seminaries are supplying a trained and committed clergy. Recent decisions have allowed for the ordination of women in the CSI, although only a few have been ordained as of yet.

Perils, however, beset the church. A second wave of missionary efforts is now under way, bringing dissension and competition from several quarters. And internally, ecclesiological problems remain to be solved.

The second wave consists of two parts, each of which contains further divisions. The first and most noticeable of the new-wave movements derives from the explosion of evangelistic, fundamentalist and pentecostal activity in the West, giving rise to new missionary efforts in India. In the Indian city slums, the towns and some villages, revivals, tracts and English-speaking Christian schools (for which there is a great demand in any case) are popping up everywhere. Minor Western denominations each have their missionary outposts, economically dependent on their benefactors. They report, of course, great success stories with so-and-so-many new converts. But many of the latter are in fact from CSI churches.

In addition, both those churches that were founded by Western denominations in the past century but which did not join the CSI -- some Baptists, Methodists and Lutherans -- and Indian denominations with a deep and long history, such as the Syrian Orthodox and Mar Thoma churches, are increasingly using the literature from Western evangelistic and fundamentalistic sources in their religious education programs. Many of the young people who are students in the ecumenically oriented Christian colleges are as influenced by the Evangelical Union as they are by the Student Christian Movement. Lay leaders responding to these new developments pummel their pastors with questions about creationism, faith healing and the verbal inspiration of Scripture, and are overtly suspicious of the historical and critical interpretations of biblical texts.

The second part of the new wave consists of those who have been captivated by Marxist or quasi-Marxist forms of liberation thought. These groups have such names as "Social Action," "Institutes for Social Analysis" and "Christian Dalit Movement." ("Dalit" is the indigenous vernacular term for outcastes -- otherwise called "harijans and girijans" or "scheduled castes and tribes." Its advocates want to develop an Indian theology something like "Minjung theology" among the Koreans, and think that the future lies in the encounter of Christianity with the "little traditions" of the oppressed, rather than with the "great traditions" of Hinduism and Islam.) These groups are also funded largely by Western sources, mostly German or American. Some others, usually working under the title "Peace and Justice," are said to be funded by the Eastern European Christian Peace Conference. The fact that funding comes from abroad continues to be an embarrassment to these bodies, since they desire to be based entirely in local contexts. A few notable ones are, or largely are; but it is clear when one sees them up close that most would collapse without international support.

These groups, which often have sharp disagreements with one another over leadership, tactics and basic theoretical orientation, are united only in that they have lost confidence in the leading churches -- and never had it in the more "evangelistic" missions. Sadly, the feeling is often mutual, and those few faithful members of the CSI who do believe strongly that social engagement and transformation constitute one very important dimension of the church’s mission have to struggle to get a hearing.

One of the problems is that, in spite of efforts by such ecumenical leaders as M. M. Thomas (the Reinhold Niebuhr of Asian Christianity) , who has been closely associated with the activist groups, most have not been able to, or have not been interested in, clarifying the theological bases of their action. At other times, their actions have been directed against the more established church leadership -- not always to reform it but sometimes to undercut and discredit it.

These sectarian as well as para- and extra- and occasionally anti-ecclesiastical developments have put a severe strain on a number of local congregations and church bodies. One could, of course, make the case that the more evangelical and enthusiastic wing of the new wave is reaching the less-educated portions of the population, within and beyond the church, which the CSI is not serving or not serving well. There is something to this argument, for those attracted to the more evangelistic movements frequently find the sermons in the CSI churches dull, the liturgy stodgy and the call to Christian commitment blown on an uncertain trumpet. They are not alone in their feelings. This same awareness among some segments of the clergy has begun to spark renewal movements within the church as well as reexaminations of Christian education, preaching style and liturgy.

One of the symptoms of the church’s internal strains is the enormous number of cases referred to the secular courts. Disputes are perhaps frequent in any organization that does not operate by means of coercion, provide pay for services or have a clear system of rewards and punishments in this life for actions taken. But the contentiousness here is compounded by forms of pietism and communitarianism that are incredibly complex and pervasive.

Several long-term observers have suggested that one of the key problems is constitutional. When the various mission churches came together, the governing polity was episcopal -- in a society that did not nave much experience in democracy at the congregational level, in presbyterial collegiality at the regional level, or in diaconal services to the neighbor anywhere. Hence, the episcopal system simply reinforced the deep cultural traditions of hierarchy in which each person who gains some prominence or influence is expected to drag everyone in his family and subcaste with him or be judged irresponsible and useless. It does appear that the Roman Catholics, whose orders carry out much of the evangelism and social action, and whose pastors and bishops are also celibate (breaking thereby some of the extraordinary power of kinship connections) , have fewer difficulties on these fronts.

Others attribute the CSI’s major difficulties to the intensification of communal consciousness now taking place in many regions of India, the case most familiar to the West being that of the Sikhs. Still others assign many of the difficulties to the Christians’ minority status, pointing out that minority groups everywhere tend to create internal elites who are not immune to wheeling and dealing with the powers that be -- for, of course, the good of the community (and "incidentally" the advancement of one’s family and supporters)

Whatever the causes of the problems, more and more church leaders are beginning to grapple with them. If they are successful, it is likely that internal changes will take place in the next decade with some rapidity. Next year’s celebrations of the CSI’s 40th anniversary may be somewhat muted, for good reason. But it may be that in the near future the church will find ways to include a new emphasis on both church growth and significant social engagement. It may also reinvigorate preaching and principled leadership, find ways to modulate the influence of caste, extend democratic participation and balance it with judicious episcopal oversight, while reducing the temptation to submit every intrachurch disagreement to the secular courts. The jubilee celebration could serve as a hopeful symbol for such a future.