Chapter 21: The Church – The Fellowship of the Baptised and the Unbaptised

The Church’s Mission and Post-Modern Humanism
by M. M. Thomas

Chapter 21: The Church – The Fellowship of the Baptised and the Unbaptised

A paper written for the Festschrift of Dr. K.Rajaratnam "Liberating Witness” published in August 1995.

In the Light of Life Feb. 1995 (Face to Face, pp. 31-34) “An Interview with Mr.R.K.Karanjia, editor, Blitz Bombay” has been published. In it Karanjia speaks of his experiences which helped move him to the living reality of Jesus and the fellowship with the disciples of Jesus as mediating God to his life. He goes on to point out how he has been able to assimilate the new spirituality in which he continues to live.

In 1989, Karanjia went to Russia to receive the Vorvosky Award. He saw Stalin’s man who had demolished the Christian cathedral of the Czars “down own his knees worshipping the Cross of Jesus Christ”. Later he had a long talk with him which was “the first blow which moved me from Karl Marx and the rest of the commies to Jesus Christ and his disciples” and which finally led his own evolution into “a Jesus-bhakt”. Jesus was experienced as a “helping avatar” of the Breach Candy Hospital. It was an elderly nursing sister who had come to know Jesus through a deep personal tragedy who helped him experience the spiritual power of physical strength and healing in God through Jesus. After that, Karanjia says, he went ahead experimenting with little or big miracles on behalf of himself and others. He relates one experience where faced with the tragedy of a baby with meningitis, he talked to the grandmother about “Jesus and his healing power, and got her family’s consent for prayers. I spoke to a Christian group about him and they too began to pray for his quick and complete recovery”. The baby was cured. The interviewer asked him whether he was “converted to Christianity” and he answered, “No. I am not converted to Christianity. I am not a Christian. I continue to be a Zoroastrian. All I have done is to accept Jesus Christ in my heart. Nobody has tried to persuade me into anything like a conversion. Nobody has hinted at such an attempt.” He added, “When I first received Jesus in my heart, as I was asked to, I felt my inside transforming itself into the hall of the Cathedral of His Holy Name with angels singing Hallelujah”. And his heart was filled with joy and a “stupendous faith” took hold of him. “It was a moment when I felt as if I were overlooking and piloting the universe.”

How do we evaluate the case of Karanjia’s conversion to faith in Christ and his fellowship with believers in Christ without conversion from Zoroastrian to the Christian community from the point of the theology of evangelism and ecclesiology?

It reminds me of the statement from an NCC Consultation in the sixties on “Renewal in Mission” held in Nagpur. “In the perspective of the Bible, conversion is turning from idols to serve a living and true God and not moving from one culture to another and from one community to another as it is understood in the communal sense in India today”, and further that so long as baptism remains a transference of cultural or communal allegiance, “we cannot judge those who while confessing faith in Jesus, are unwilling to be baptised”(Renewal in. Mission p.220). In fact, the nature of the church as fellowship-in-Christ envisaged in this statement transcends all religious communities including the Christian as understood in the communal sense in India and is compatible with the membership of the Christ-bhakt in any religious or secular communal formation.

“As understood in the communal sense in India” is crucial here. In the setting of the Indian legal system in which each religious community is recognized as having its own personal law of civil relations, change from one community to another is a legal act, and baptism is a transfer from one legal community to another rather than a sacramental act expressing personal faith. Further, since religious minorities have legal entity in the political framework through reservations and other safeguards, change of a person from one religious community to another is seen as enhancing the political strength of one community and weakening of another. Therefore the meaning of conversion gets perverted. Still further, each religion in India is generally associated with one cultural stream. Therefore conversion to Christianity has been seen as change from one cultural tradition to another. Conversion to Christianity is largely seen as weakening the indigenous national culture of the person converted.

There have been many instances in modern Indian history of people distinguishing between Christian faith from Christian religion and religious community and of accepting the former without the latter. Christ not Christianity or Western culture, has been the slogan of many leaders of the Neo-Hindu movements in the 19th century, even as Christian Missions insisted on the three as one package. Of course the approach of the western Christian mission and national churches have changed their attitude in this respect, though they would make a distinction between the centrality of the person of Christ and a general devotion to the ethical teaching of Christ in saving faith. The question is, what is the nature of the fellowship of those who acknowledge Jesus Christ as in some sense central to and decisive in mediating God to human persons? And what should the evangelist aim in this respect?

In a survey the Gurukul research Centre made, it came to light that there were many persons in the city of Madras who had accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour but had chosen to continue in their own religious cultural and caste communities without conversion to the Christian community. Some of them maintain close spiritual fellowship with disciples of Christ minus the sacramental aspects but others pursue their devotion to Christ without such support.

This is not a new phenomenon in India. In the history of the modern neo-Hindu movements the person of Jesus was a strong component as my study of The Acknowledged Christ of the Indian Renaissance had shown. In the case of Kesub Chandra Sen and P.C.Majumdar, Jesus Christ as the revelation of the Divine Humanity of Sonship was decisive for their faith and ethics and sought to redefine traditional Hinduism both religion and community in the light of Jesus. They even formed a Neo-Hindu Church of Christ with its own sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. In this century, O. Kandasamy Chetty of the Madras Christian College was a disciple of Christ and kept himself in spiritual fellowship with the fellow-disciples without joining the church by baptism. In his personal statement to the Missionary Conference on “Why I am not a Christian?” he said, he believed in Christ as the One Saviour of humankind. He added, “nothing would give me deeper satisfaction than to feel that I belong to his Body. I am not sure that I remain outside the Christian Church. It is true that I have never felt any inward call that I could recognize as divine in its inspiration to join the Christian Church in the narrow sense in which some evidently use the term. Nor do I believe that while every believer is called upon to let his light shine before all the world, he is also called upon to join the church in the narrower sense of the term. There is nothing essentially sinful in Hindu society any more than there is anything essentially pure in the Christian society-for that is what the church amounts to- so that one should hasten from the one to the other...So long as the believer’s testimony for Christ is open and as long as his attitude towards Hindu society in general is critical, and towards social and religious practices inconsistent with the spirit of Christ is protestant and practically protestant, I would allow him to struggle his way to the light with failure here and failure there, but with progress and success on the whole. The spirit of Christ is a peace-destroying spirit, I may assure you. If you cooperate with that spirit, your Christian believer in Hindu society will come out all right in the end. He may not join your church but he will prepare the way for the movement from within Hindu society towards Christ who shall fulfill India’s highest aspirations and impart that life of freedom for which she has been panting for ages... “(Kaj Baago, Pioneers of Indigenous Christianity pp. 207-214). There have been Hindu groups like that of Subba Rao of Andhra Pradesh, committed to spirituality and religious rites centred in the Crucified Christ as Saviour and Healer but deciding to stay outside the main stream of the church communities of the baptized believers.

There were others like Manilal C. Parekh who took baptism which he considered “ a purely spiritual sacrament signifying the dedication of the new disciple to Christ” conferring the privilege to make known the name of Christ. But he strongly felt that “the new disciple should remain within his own community witnessing from there”(ed. Boyd. Manual C Parekh p.13f). Parekh’s complaint was that “the Christian church had become a civic community instead of a spiritual fellowship” (Carl Binslev, L.P.Larsen p.69).

The poet Narayana Vamana Tilak was baptised and worked from within the organized Mission for a time, but in the end “visualized an Indian pattern of discipleship of Christ and a church of Christ transcending the community of the baptised. In 1917 he resigned from the Missionary society to launch the movement of God’s Durbar...a brotherhood of the baptised and the unbaptised”(Acknowledged Christ. . 1991 edition. p. 281).

In view of the ambiguity of the meaning of baptism in the Indian inter-religious and political context referred above, the question of giving to the unbaptised Christ-bhakts in other religious communities a sense of full belonging to the spiritual fellowship of the church including participation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper needs exploration. Principal Larsen of the United Theological College, Bangalore is reported to have invited O Kandasamy Chetty to the Lord’s Table at a conference violating the existing rule that only baptised Christians should be so invited. The question is whether that existing rule which the organized churches observe has any particular theological validity. If baptism is the mark of leaving one’s religious community to join the Christian religious community, cannot those persons who refuse to take that step for reasons of conscience be permitted to join the fellowship of the Lord’s Table.

The Religion and Society of March 1972 has a discussion on the subject, based on a correspondence between Bishop Newbigin and myself in which many theologians in India and abroad participated. The Debate on Mission Issues From the Indian Context (edited by Herbert E. Hoefer, Gurukul, Madras 1079) has a whole collection of essays discussing “issues of Baptism in the Indian Mission Context” which carries the debate forward (pp.403f.). T.M.Philip’s essay in it on “A History of Baptismal Practices and Theologies” points to a wide variety of practice and understanding that existed in the churches from NT times and says that the historical perspective would help us “to maintain a certain flexibility and openness in the light of the new questions and challenges presented by our present historical situation”. He asks for a new understanding of the baptismal rite in India today which meets the problem raised here. That problem is that “the rite has become a legal condition of entry into the church which functions as a religious communal group” and therefore fails to convey its full meaning and purpose as “the expression of our solidarity to the new humanity in Christ which transcends all communal or caste solidarities”(p.321). “A report of the Seminar on the Relationship of the Church to Non-baptised believers in Christ” is particularly illuminating because it took up issues raised by the unbaptised Christ-bhaktas some of whom were present along with evangelists who were alive to these issues in their evangelistic work.

The Seminar started with three questions which T.A.Khareem, an unbaptised Muslim believer in Christ, asked: “1. Is baptism necessary for one’s salvation? 2. How am I to witness and minister to my family and community if I am cut off through taking baptism? 3. Is there a fellowship to receive me if I leave my Muslim community?”(p.398). The Seminar also faced the challenge of the Subba Rao movement from Andhra Pradesh. Subba Rao in his conversation with Principal Devasahayam of the Rajahmundry Institute had claimed that “Christ has been imprisoned in the church” and his aim was to “lift Christ, above religion and make him available to all”. For him the traditional rites and practices of the church are “optional”. He claims that “hundreds of caste Hindus and government officials have found Subba Rao’s decultured approach to Christ a releasing experience; now they can ally themselves with Christ without identifying themselves with a different social community and way of life”(p.400). The report has many insights. Its critique of the church of the baptised is the most crucial. It says, “In many subtle ways Christians have communalised the gospel and Christ himself. Christians have become, according to their practical self-understanding, a self-centred caste among castes (or better a religious sub-caste among the castes). Many evangelists seriously hesitate to expose their new converts to the disappointing life of the organized church...Baptism has always been into the fellowship of the church. Yet the church must self-critically ask itself if it has a nurturing fellowship for converts from different castes or from Islam”. The report ends by suggesting that keeping up intimate contacts with each other would help lead the baptised and unbaptised “into the true repentance of Baptism” and adds, “The Spirit of God blows where it wills. We are called to try to keep up with Him”(pp. 402-3).