Jesudas M Athyal

Identity And Mission: Towards A New Ecclesiology

Passion of the Christ of the Indian Road
From Permeation to Protest:
The Lost Tribes of Andaman
Conversion Debate in India
Metropolitan Chrysostom's Message
Ethical and Economic Challenges for Education in a Globalized Era
Identity And Mission: Towards A New Ecclesiology
Relevant Patterns Of Christian Witness In Pluralsitic Societies: An Indian Perspective
Religion, Marxism & Humanism In Dialogue
Gospel And Cultures: A Subaltern reading of the history of Christian Mission in India
Come Holy Spirit, Diagnose, Heal And Reconcile: Lingering Questions from Athens
Gospel and Cultures: An Indian Perspective
New Challenges for Dalit Theology
Diaconal Ministry of the Church
Public Mission of the Church
Witnessing Christ in a Pluralistic Society
The Return of the Sacred
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Identity And Mission: Towards A New Ecclesiology






I deem it a rare honour and privilege to have been invited to deliver this year’s Mission Lectures at the Mar Thoma Theological Seminary. At the outset itself, I must confess that it really requires a good sense of humour to invite a person who has never been a student in any seminary, to speak on such a crucial theological topic.  A sense of humour is vital for Christian ministry these days. On a more serious note, it is also possible that the theological community here wanted to listen to the perspective of a lay person on Christian mission. Whatever be the reason, I am glad to be here.


The authorities of the Seminary were kind enough to give me the freedom to choose the theme of the Lectures. I chose the subject of ‘Identity and Mission: Towards a New Ecclesiology’, for two reasons. One is that, the world over there is today a restlessness among people and communities who strive to relate their particular identities to their universal mission. Within the Christian world, this quest takes the form of an attempt to understand the missionary mandate of the church in relation to pluralistic contexts. We often use the term ‘identity’ to establish that we are different from the other people around us; identity on the other hand, should contribute to the well being of the whole community. The content of Christian mission is determined by the extent to which the identity of the church is inclusive or exclusive. This is especially relevant in the Indian context in which identity is often understood and practised in terms of cultural exclusivism. Secondly, I am also conscious of the particular context in which we are placed. This seminary is the premier theological institution of a Church, which, while retaining a distinct eastern identity in terms of heritage and liturgy, identifies as its number one priority, its evangelistic mission in the pluralistic context of India and outside. It is in this tension between identity and mission that we as a faith community seek our relevance today. I am aware that there are a few students here from other churches and from other parts of the country. It is my hope that they too will find these discussions useful.


The terms identity and mission as they are used here must be explained. Identity is a sociological term that denotes the self-understanding of an individual or a community. In traditional societies, the status and roles of people were determined, to a large extent, in relation to their communal groupings, which were based on religion, race, caste or gender. While at the level of intra-communal relations in these traditional communities, mobility to a certain extent was possible, the rigidity of the communal boundaries heavily restricted any significant inter-communal mobility.


One of the characteristics of the modern period, however, was the gradual break down of the traditional communal boundaries under the impact of modernisation. The renascent and humanist movements of the last two centuries have provided a sense of history and a consciousness of the rights to persons and peoples. Inter-communal mobility whereby the subaltern people could move upwards in the social and economic ladder – what M. N. Sreenivas calls Sanskritisation – at last became a reality. In traditional societies such as those in India, however, the communal boundaries, consolidated over several centuries, especially in the form of caste hierarchy and caste prejudice, continue to linger on though in different forms, side by side with the modern humanist values of equality and human dignity. While the co-existence of the traditional and the modern ensured a certain continuity with change, the rigidity of the old structures and the rapidity of the changes that took place threw up new challenges before modern communities. We call this, the identity crisis that the society is facing today.


The word ‘mission’ comes from the Latin missio, which means ‘to send’. The church as a faith community is called to participate in God’s mission. According to Russell Chandran, Christ’s coming and the gift of the Holy Spirit are for the fulfilment of God’s mission. The ministry of Jesus Christ is not only to save individual souls from their personal sins, but for the transformation of the personal and corporate life of all. Jesus is the supreme missionary of God and the establishment of God’s kingdom is the ultimate concern of God. What becomes crucial in such an understanding is the ‘Christo-centrality’ of God’s mission: the realisation that we need to listen to what Jesus says about God and God’s mission rather than what the church has been saying about Jesus’ ministry and mission. What is implied here is the recognition that there is a certain danger of the church becoming an obstacle to what God wants to accomplish through Jesus. The church must have no mission apart from God’s mission, and our obedience to God is in our openness to recognise and our vulnerability in responding to this wider mission of God.


This paper will discuss the challenges inherent in the tension between identity and mission in the context of the Indian church. What is argued here is that an understanding of Christian identity in terms of cultural and linguistic exclusivism runs counter to the universality of the Christian mission. It would be a misnomer for a culturally exclusive church to be evangelistic and mission oriented. Mission cannot be a one way process. There is also a serious ecclesiastical question here. The gospel that we preach to the outside world should also challenge us to review our own cultural prejudices, church structures and liturgy. The church will have to choose between being a socially and culturally exclusive forum and being a house wide open for all. In the realisation of this tension between identity and mission lies the most serious challenge before the Indian church today. The paper will conclude by identifying new patterns of ecclesiology without which the church as a faith community cannot proceed meaningfully with a missionary mandate. I must acknowledge that in the findings I arrive at in this paper, I am greatly indebted to the thoughts of two of the foremost theologians of the Mar Thoma Church – Metropolitan Philipose Mar Chrysostom and the late Dr. M. M. Thomas.










When we turn to the history of Christianity, we see that religious pluralism was the identity of the early church.  The mandate of the church was that, ‘you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1: 8). The early church understood this mandate in relation to Greco-Roman philosophies and cultures. During the early centuries, the church retained this organic link between the faith and the context. When however the church moved westward, the society of western Christianity was different and the church developed an imperial, expansionistic and crusading ethos. This was a detour from the more authentic tradition of Christian self- understanding.[i] The identity of the church as an arm of the crusading western culture has lingered on in most parts of the world, even long after the collapse of colonialism.


In India, the course Christianity took was a little more complex.  The St. Thomas Christians who were in Kerala from the early centuries were inherently a part of the larger social milieu here. The advent of the western missionaries - Catholic and Protestant – however, drastically altered the character and content of the Christian presence in Kerala. The sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries that saw the heyday of Portuguese power in India, were also periods of great missionary activity. The inward looking samudhayam (clan-community) consciousness of the largely upper class and upper caste Syrian Christian community was challenged by the missionaries. According to Mathias Mundadan, 'It is the coming of the Portuguese and the first contact with them in the early sixteenth century which helped the ancient Christians of India to break through their traditional pattern of life and enter into a meaningful communication with world Christianity. The initial encounter with western Christianity set the pace for their history in succeeding decades and centuries'.[ii]


Another historian, T.V. Philip, notes that the immediate background of the modern missionary movement was the radical changes in the protestant churches in the West during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The chief outcome of the evangelical awakening was the rise of the modern missionary movement. According to Philip,


The great passion of the Evangelicals was evangelism, both at home and to the ends of the earth. This resulted in the birth of a number of societies, voluntary movements and organisations in which Christians of different denominations and nations banded together to win the world for Christ. The evangelical awakening both caused, and decisively influenced, the character and course of the missionary movement.[iii]


A review of the modern missionary movement that became dominant in India during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is necessary in this context. What was the impact of the missionary era? Did it play a positive or a negative role in Christian witness in India and in ‘nation building’? What are its lessons for today? These are among the several questions being raised in the present times. At the outset itself, it must be clarified that any generalisation of the missionary impact would be simplistic and inaccurate. The contributions of the missionaries, especially in the areas of health care, education and social upliftment have been widely acknowledged, not only within the church, but even by secular society and the state. There are however critical voices that have been raised too. One major criticism, especially voiced today, is about the way in which the missionaries represented the western culture as an integral part of the Christian faith, grossly undermining the cultures of non-western societies. It has also been pointed out that the missionaries often colluded with the western colonial powers to have dominion over the local people. Jacob S. Dharmaraj notes that ‘colonizers and missionaries sailed on the same boat; gun and gospel were carried on the same ship’.[iv] This may be an extreme view, but there is a fair amount of consensus among church historians and ecumenical theologians, especially of the third world, that the missionaries in general supported the process of colonization of the non-western world.


The focus of the third world theologians, more sharply, is on the ‘devastating effects’ of the missionary movement on indigenous peoples and cultures. The World Council of Churches initiated a few years ago, a study process, to review, ‘how the gospel and culture discussions have been conducted within the history of the modern ecumenical movement, in order to uncover the different facets of the debates and the presuppositions that have governed the discussion’.[v] The ecumenical discussions on gospel and culture basically focus on a critique of the missionary impact on the non-western world, mainly from the perspective of the indigenous people.



The Subaltern Perspective



The ecumenical movement generally acknowledges the role of ‘individual missionaries’ who worked selflessly for the upliftment of people. It also concedes that there were at the same time missionaries who tried to work out the meaning of the gospel in specific cultures. According to mainline ecumenical thinking, these were however the exceptions. What is stated is that the missionary enterprise as a whole undermined the local cultures of the non-western world. Accordingly, one of the characteristics of the new self-confidence of the emerging churches in the third world, was the rejection of the missionary pattern. A good proportion of the current theological thinking on mission too promotes the concept that the missionary movement was little more than ‘imperialism at prayer’. It is thus obvious, that there is a fair amount of consensus among church historians and ecumenical theologians, that the missionary movement in general aided and abetted the process of the cultural and political conquest of the non-western world during the last two centuries.


The subaltern perspective today, however, questions the hegemonic reading of the missionary era. The contribution of the missionaries in translation, vernacular renewal and social change is a historical reality. Perhaps their most significant contribution in India was to break the spiritual sanction of caste. The spiritual fervour created by western education and the renaissance of traditional religions, both closely associated with the missionary period, contributed, perhaps more than any other factor, to social reform and the consequent awakening and humanisation of the marginalised communities.


While acknowledging the rich contributions of the missionaries, it is also significant that subaltern theologians do not consider the missionary era as an unmixed blessing. The general approach of the western missionary movement was to lead people to renounce their respective religious affiliations and to become Christian. It was assumed that the Christianity that had taken shape in the West was normative. The case of Kerala is important. In several instances, it was often when the upper castes and the Syrian Christians rejected the missionaries that they turned to the dalits and the other lower sections. These criticisms have enormous relevance in today’s context of neo-colonialism characterized by the process of globalisation and universalisation of the western culture.


The missionary era, like all other phases in the history of the church, will be scrutinized closely and judged for its contributions and shortcomings. Such a historical process, though inevitable, cannot be based on given history alone. Historians and theologians, like all others, are children of their times. As history extends to accommodate the subaltern people also, mission perspectives change too. In such a context, the missionary era needs to be reviewed not only from the perspective of the elite, upper caste and male nationalist, but also from the perspective of the dalits and the  tribals too. What is important however is not so much the intentions, as the consequence. As Lamin Sanneh puts it, ‘Western missionaries provided some of the most important categories for understanding intercultural encounter, whether or not such encounter conformed to their motives and intentions or in other ways was to their credit’. [vi]


The search for relevant patterns of Christian witness needs to be rooted firmly within the complexities of the Indian Church, Indian religions and cultures. There is also the need to raise questions about the ongoing ecumenical discussions on ‘gospel and culture’ (often used in the singular). There is today a fear that the complexities (or plurality) of societies like India are not sufficiently appreciated in these discussions. India is a land of diversities. Diversities in religion often tend to overlap with sociological divisions. There is therefore the need to understand the theological aspects of gospel and cultures in relation to the sociological realities. The perspective of the indigenous people that it is the Christian faith, brought to them by the western missionaries, that liberated them from their traditional bondage and exclusion, is significant in this context. Such insights also call for a re-appraisal of the role of missions and missionaries, from the perspective of the people. The debate on mission at this stage becomes elevated from the plane of a singular native ‘culture’ versus western mission, to the complexities within native cultures  (essentially plural) and their diverse responses to the impact of the Christian mission. It is equally important to distinguish the missions of the church in relation to the mission of the church. As D. T. Niles put it, ‘There is no task greater right now than that of re-defining the missions of the churches in terms of the mission of the church’. Indeed, the subaltern perspective of mission becomes the Indian contribution (or corrective) to the current ecumenical discussions on gospel and cultures.



Identity and Mission



Along with the critical notes on the missionary era however, equally important, is the missionary perception that a casteist society and Christianity can never go together. The first effective challenge to the caste - class hegemony of both the Indian church and society was posed by the missionaries. That also partly accounts for the stiff resistance to the efforts of the missionaries to bring the dalits and the tribals to the mainstream life of the church in India. Even the reformed churches were not immune to this resistance. Some historians maintain that at the time of Abraham Malpan’s reformation of the Eastern church in Kerala, he had two options before him: one was to join the missionaries with his reformed group; the other was to remain as a reformed eastern church. It is our accepted history now that the Malpan chose the latter course. Some scholars however feel that one reason why the pioneers of the Mar Thoma Church did not want to join the missionaries was that the missionaries were all set to work among the dalits. According to Metropolitan Chrysostom,


‘Our aversion was not so much to the missionaries as to the outcasts. We wanted to be independent of the missionaries not because we valued independence but so that we will not have to associate with the lower caste people. For the sake of not associating with the outcasts with whom the missionaries associated, we chose to be independent. The Syrian Christians and the Dalit Christians are indeed two unrelated communities that belong to the same church. We treated these as ‘social issues,’ unrelated to our evangelistic mission. Our ‘fervour’ was only for church planting, not for evangelism. The humanity of the human being– the new man in Christ – was not a part of our concern’.


Though the Dalits acknowledge the initiative of the missionaries in bringing the gospel and social transformation to them, their experience in the mainline, high caste dominated church continued to be bitter. The criticism of the subaltern sections is that the church has been trying to become ‘Indian’ in terms of the Sanskritic culture. While the desire of the Indian leaders for the church to take local roots was truly a reflection of the anti-imperialistic climate of that period, the virtual exclusion of the marginalised people from the leadership raises questions such as, whose concerns were the church leaders really representing?  M. M. Thomas says that for long years, traditional Christianity in India sanctified the tribal, caste, class and folk divisions without opening them up for transformation in the light of the New Humanity in Christ.


It is neither by endorsing entirely nor condemning the history of the missionary era, but through a critical review of the period, especially from the perspective of the victims of history alone, that a truly Indian Christian mission theology, representative of all Indians, can evolve. A reappraisal of the history of Christian witness in India in general and the role of the missionary era has enormous contemporary relevance. The socio-political context of India today is surcharged with the rise of religious fundamentalism and attacks on minority communities. Hindu fundamentalist forces, comprising largely of high caste people and landlords, have shed their inhibitions and have assumed centre-stage roles in re-defining the history of the land and threatening the very secular and social fabric of the country. The primary target of the fundamentalist forces is the Christian mission work, especially among the Dalits and the tribals. The underlying assumption is that the awakening of the marginalised sections will threaten the very social structure of the caste system and landlordism. In such a context, a generalized call for ‘Indian Christian theology’ or an‘Indian church’ would be futile. As long as caste and the ownership of land continue as the fundamental realities of the Indian social structure, the authenticity of the Christian community and the relevance of their theology will be judged by their sensitivity to the social context of the church.


The ‘Christian Mass Movements’ that brought the Dalits in large numbers to the church was a luminous instance of the universal and liberative character of the gospel. The most significant change perhaps was that the encounter with the foreigners compelled the Indian Church to redefine its cultural and religious identity as a caste-based community. At the theological level, it was accepted that the invitation of the gospel is open for all, but socially, the rigid caste structures continued to have their sway. In this sense, the identity of the churches in India is in their refusal to accept the dalits! This is understandable from a sociological point of view. The church did not bother about the caste phenomenon simply because those in authority, the policy makers and the theologians belonged entirely to the privileged ‘upper castes’ and it was convenient to ignore the contradictions of being a Christian and an ‘upper caste.’[vii] In response to the position of the Indian Christian theologians that the Indian church should identify itself with the local culture and community, Bishop V. Devasahaym says,


To me the church is a place where we celebrate our identities in Christ as the primary identity. If we still want to hold on to our social and cultural identities, I do not know how it will become a church of the Christ where the primary identities need be withdrawn in terms of our relations, in terms of our faith to Jesus Christ. So to me the sin of the church is not that it has isolated itself from the social and cultural community but precisely it has failed to isolate itself to come out of this cultural and social community and it has failed to evolve a new social order.[viii]


The fact is that the Indian Christians of ‘upper caste origin’ viewed with contempt the mass movements; they were reluctant to view the opening up of the gospel to the Dalits as the realization of, God ‘shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him (Acts 10: 34).


The history of Christianity in North East India testified to the opening up of the gospel to another subaltern section – the tribals. Within a short period of one hundred years, Christianity has emerged as the key religion in several parts of the North East. The church there, planted by the missionaries as in most other parts of the country, is today rooted in the local soil and has come to stay. As Renthy Keitzar, a prominent theologian from North East India, puts it,


‘The gospel seed was sown by the missionaries from abroad: it sprouted, took root and bore fruits. The different missions planted churches all over North East India and local (in its original linguistic sense) churches have been firmly established in our localities. These are no longer mission churches but they are all local (i.e. indigenous) churches.’[ix]


The evolution of the North East Indian church from an infant Christian community cradled by the missionary movement, to a self-governing, self -supporting and self-propagating indigenous church, is crucial to understanding the identity of the church in India. Though geographically separated, the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala and the North East Indian Christians share several common characteristics, significant among these is their cultural exclusivism. Paradoxically speaking, the evangelical thrust of most churches in Kerala and the North East took a new momentum during this period (the last quarter of the twentieth century), thereby marking missionary zeal as another common characteristic. Keitzar notes that the churches in North East India ‘have now moved from the mission (from such and such a mission) to become missionary sending churches.’[x] Several churches in fact place evangelisation top most in their priorities. Insensitive and aggressive evangelistic campaigns often characterise missionary zeal in several places. How the churches balance their culturally exclusive identity and rigid church structures back home with their evangelistic zeal and missionary spirit elsewhere would be the significant ecclesiological and missiological question in the twenty first century.







On the topic of reviewing the evangelistic mission of the church, there are striking parallels between the insights of two theologians of the Mar Thoma Church – Metropolitan Chrysostom and M. M. Thomas – such that a systematic study of their thoughts could lay the foundation for an authentic theology of mission for the Church in the twenty first century. Thomas notes about Wesley Ariarajah’s approach to Christian mission in pluralistic contexts: ‘His main point that the Christian task is to witness and not to convert is important.’ This perspective has strong parallels to the work of the Metropolitan as a missionary in the Karnataka area in the 1930s and 40s. He says: ‘When I was in Ankola, there were hardly any conversions to the church. In fact, I did not try to persuade anyone to convert. It would however be erroneous to judge that therefore our work was futile. There were several there who would join us in the church for our worship. But we did not make a conscious effort to convert people.  My primary concern was to be with the people. I understood my work with the people as a work of liberation. That was the time of the independence movement when, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and others, the freedom struggle was being waged. I understood such movements as liberation movements. I could see the liberating work of Christ in history’.


The Metropolitan’s point on permeation as the viable mode of evangelism too is important. Permeation, he feels, is the traditional pattern of Christian witness in the Indian church. ‘The Christian witness of our ancestors was not preaching but permeation. They went and lived with the people. That is the incarnation principle. The outside society will often say about our forefathers: ‘In business, he will be honest, because he is a Christian’. That was a form of witness. This was our missionary pattern till recently. Today, however, the missionary work follows an efficiency mode, where we have strategies and targets. The impression that mission is the programme of a specific department of the church assigned that task, is an understanding that followed this understanding of mission. Evangelism is possible only by permeation.



Indigenous Forms of Mission



There is a tradition in India of permeation at the deeply spiritual level of relating faith in Christ to the pluralistic context as well. In his article: ‘The Church – The Fellowship of the Baptised and the Unbaptised?’, M. M. Thomas says that in the history of the modern neo-Hindu movements, the person of Jesus was a strong component. There were many Hindus who kept themselves in spiritual fellowship with other Christians without joining the church by baptism. Kandasamy Chetty of the Madras Christian College, who was one such, stated: ‘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 Christian 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 the Hindu society in general is critical, and his attitude 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 some failure here and some failure there perhaps, but with progress and success on the whole’.[xi]


There were several other forms of Christian witness, by individuals and local worshipping and witnessing communities, outside the established churches. Sattampillai, a man of high intellectual calibre and extraordinary qualities, founded the Hindu-Christian Church of Lord Jesus at Prakasapuram near Tirunelveli in 1857. He evolved the agenda of the Hindu-Christian Church to negotiate the contradictory impacts of conversion by developing at one level a critique of western Christianity as practised by the missionaries, in the context raising questions such as “What is real Christianity”?[xii] In his recent book, Christianity is Indian: The Emergence of an Indigenous Community, Roger Hedlund of the Mylapore Institute for Indigenous Studies, identifies and describes several such “little traditions” of Indian Christianity – movements largely unstudied and unknown.


Within the framework of the mainline churches too, there were small, yet definite, forms of indigenous expressions of mission and witness in India. Much before dialogue was officially recognised as a form of Christian witness, several theologians and church leaders like Keshub Chandra Sen and Bishop Appasamy here practised a dialogical form of mission. The itinerant evangelist Sadhu Sunder Singh and organisations like the National Missionary Society too represent indigenous patterns of mission and evangelism. The grave situation in our country today might require a more rigorous articulation of a theology of mission in comparison to the earlier indigenous forms of mission, though as forms of mission rooted in our soil, these patterns will continue ‘to be challengingly relevant’ at all times.


Any attempt to identify and define viable patterns of mission and evangelism today need to be placed firmly within a definite historical context. The search for patterns of church and Christian witness sensitive to the cultural and religious settings of India is not only a theological discussion of the last generation but a pertinent question in our current context. M. M. Thomas says: ‘The crucial question for evangelistic mission today is how in a changed post-colonial situation the forms of church and its evangelistic proclamation of Christ, the call to conversion and invitation to join the fellowship of the church may take place within the context of the recognition of religious and cultural plurality and common participation in building a new just society and state’.[xiii]


Our societies today are experiencing changes that are unprecedented and historic. It is therefore important that the traditional patterns of mission and evangelism be drastically reviewed in a search for more relevant patterns. It has often been pointed out that the aggressive evangelistic campaigns of most churches do not adequately reflect the holistic mission of Christ and are often insensitive to the delicate pluralistic framework of our societies. While critically reviewing our existing structures, we however, also recognise the search by small Christ-inspired groups at various levels – within the churches as well as outside - for authentic and relevant patterns of Christian witness in today’s pluralistic context. Such groups are not however, always a rejection of our existing church structures. What is central to our discussion is that the challenge of the gospel demands us to repeatedly relate God’s mission to the context, which is central to our affirmation that, at the cutting edge of the mission, the church meets the world. The Church is defined by the necessity of proclaiming the saving activity of God through Christ in history. The central ecclesiological concern in pluralistic societies like India therefore, is the search for contextual forms of proclamation - evangelisation.






A New Ecclesiology



The link between the renewal of the church and her missionary mandate is crucial. T. V. Philip says that in the history of the Church, it has been the people engaged in mission in the world who have often raised fundamental questions about the nature of the church, its catholicity and unity.[xiv] In recent times, theologians have been re-interpreting the identity and function of the church not so much as a given and unchanging reality but as a movement of the Holy Spirit and in response to the major concerns of the period. Accordingly, Wesley Ariarajah, in his book, Not Without My Neighbour, outlines dialogue as a paradigm for ecclesiology. He asks the pertinent question: ‘Why are we in mission? Is it because God is present with our neighbour or because God is absent?’[xv] M. M. Thomas, in his Chavara Lectures (1994), on the other hand, discusses a diaconal approach to Indian Ecclesiology aimed at the re-structuring of the church of Christ in modern religiously and ideologically pluralistic India in ways more relevant to the discharging of its humanizing mission.[xvi] The underlying concern in these attempts to re-articulate the identity and role of the church, is the growing awareness that the traditional understanding of the functions of the church as teaching the Word of God and administering the sacraments, is in urgent need of revision. A serious challenge for the church today is the gulf between its life and mission. In the words of Abraham Kuruvilla, ‘When the liturgy itself was degraded to the level of a sacramental act, the character of the ordained ministry became significantly altered….The ministry of the Word of God was not merely a matter of preaching sermons; ‘it meant equipping the church to live in orthodoxy and orthopraxis. But preaching and the sacraments got divorced from witnessing to the marvelous acts of God and participating in God’s continuing work in history’.[xvii]


Mission does not happen in a vacuum, but is an integral part of the church – indeed, an authentic proclamation of the gospel would challenge us to re-build our own church structures. Thomas notes that the evangelistic witness cannot be isolated from the total life of the Church. According to him,


‘The proclamation of the kerygma is integrally related to the didache, the Church’s interpretation of the gospel in terms of the self-understanding of the hearers, the church’s diakonia, its service and social action and above all, the church’s koinonia, the quality of its fellowship. Hromadaka of Czechoslovakia used to speak of the credibility of the evangelistic mission of the church as dependent upon the total life of the church, that is to say, it depends upon the way in which the church makes its prophetic mission of defense of human personhood and peoplehood in society and state and the ability of the church to reconcile diversity within the fellowship of the divine forgiveness and become the source of reconciled diversity in the larger society’.[xviii]


In all our discussions on identity and mission, the fundamental question boils down to the search for new paradigms of ecclesiology. While affirming the lordship of Christ, Kandasamy Chetty questions the qualifications of the church in its present form to become the exclusive body of the followers of Christ. This is essentially a question of credibility. In the traditional Kerala church, though there was an organic relationship with the local community, in several ways, that was an unjust relationship and excluded the marginalised sections such as the dalits and the tribals. The inadequacy of our church structures to nurture genuine witnesses of Christ continues to this day. Taking a critical view of the evangelistic work under the church today, Metropolitan Chrysostom notes: ‘Evangelism should have been the sharing of one of my richest experience with my brothers and sisters. Instead evangelism today is only a mere programme for the church.’


It is in this context of a blurred and lop-sided track record that we seek new patterns of ecclesiology. Worldwide, there has been a rediscovery of the church as the authentic carrier of the gospel. The emerging understanding here is that the church exists for the community. In the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society (CISRS), there was an open discussion about a proposal that since Christ transcends not only cultures but also religions and ideologies, the fellowship of the confessors of faith in Christ as the messiah should not separate from their original religious or secular ideological community but should form a fellowship of Christian faith in those communities themselves, and that so long as the law sees baptism as transference from one religious community to another, it should not be made the condition of entry into the fellowship of the sacrament of the Lord’s supper but be made a sacramental privilege for a later time.[xix]


The search for relevant forms of ecclesiology would involve a critique of our present patterns of church, especially in the diaspora and the mission fields. This is especially true in the case of the Mar Thoma Church in which several of the early diaspora communities (Palghat, Ankola, Sihora etc.) were missionary communities. What should be the language, culture and ethos of the churches in the diaspora and the mission fields? Should they be an imitation of the church in the ‘home land’ or can they take local roots? Is the ethos of the church conducive for the evolution of local expressions of faith and witness? Will the diaspora and missionary communities ever become the local communities? It is in wrestling with these questions that we seek relevant patterns of Christian witness today. In the context of mission work, our sacraments too are exclusive today: the insistence on baptism as a pre-requisite for joining the church demands from the new believers a shift from their cultural and social communities to the rigidity of a church structure alien to their culture and language.


While analyzing the history of Asian Christianity, T. V. Philip says that, though the western mission boards that brought Christianity to several parts of Asia, originated as protestant groups against the established churches in Europe, as the mission work progressed in Asia, they slowly started becoming denominational and planted German Lutheran, British Anglican and such churches in the mission fields of Asia.  ‘Thus denominational churches arose in the mission field. In several instances, this slowed down the early co-operation in mission’.[xx] The question before us in India today is whether a similar situation is now emerging in the mission fields of India resulting from our own missionary work.


The crisis in mission and ecclesiology also raises a crucial challenge before the theological community of India. Historically, the mainline, church-related theological institutions of India have been reluctant to incorporate mission-evangelism concerns in the theological curriculum. There are perhaps valid reasons for this. Mission studies in India have been to a great extent associated with conservative evangelical centers, and there was a certain hesitation on the part of others towards promoting such studies. Also, the general impression that mission and evangelism are aimed at proselytizing too served as a deterrent. In an atmosphere surcharged with waves of communalism and fundamentalism, religious education, it was felt, needs to promote the spirit of tolerance, peace and harmony.


This situation is however changing today. It was found that there are several questions raised today in relation to mission that call for valid theological answers. For one, most Indian churches today identify ‘evangelisation’ as the primary programme of the church, raising serious questions about the theological direction of this zeal. It is generally conceded that it is theological education and articulation that provide a sense of direction to the programmes and priorities of the church. Without a clear theological direction, the evangelistic zeal of the church tends to become rudderless. It is therefore the integral relation between the church, her missionary mandate and theological direction that needs to be affirmed today.


In the final analysis, enabling various cultural expressions to be in dialogue with each other, thus bringing these diverse expressions into mutual accountability in Christ, becomes not only essential, but also our theological task today. The gospel that meets people of other faiths with the message of salvation needs also to challenge the church to transcend its narrow walls of cultural and linguistic prejudices. This is a process of double conversion. While bearing witness to the redemptive act of God through Christ in history, both the evangelist and the church that sends him/her, need to be open to the possibility of God’s presence and work among people of all religions and ideologies. The tension between our openness (vulnerability) in a pluralistic situation and our commitment to evangelise needs to be central to our discussions today. The tension is between our recognition and affirmation of God’s presence and work among people of all faiths and our own commitment to bear witness to the lordship of the Jesus of Nazareth.





Jesudas M. Athyal







(The references to Metropolitan Chrysostom’s thoughts included in this paper are taken from the forthcoming volume: ‘Metropolitan Chrysostom on the Identity and Mission of the Church)




[i] Turn Around (CCA Publication), 1994, p. 15

[ii] A. M. Mundadan, History of Christianity in India (Vol. 1), Church History Association of India, 1984,    p. 1

[iii] T. V. Philip, Edinburgh to Salvador (Twentieth Century Ecumenical Missiology): A Historical Study of the Ecumenical Discussions on Mission, CSS &ISPCK, 1999, p. 4

[iv] Jacob S. Dharmaraj, Colonialism and Christian Mission: Postcolonial Reflections, ISPCK, 1993, p. xvi

[v] S. Wesley Ariarajah, Gospel and Culture: An Ongoing Discussion within the Ecumenical Movement, WCC, 1995, p. viii

[vi] Lamin Sanneh, Encountering the West: Christianity and the Global Cultural Process: The African Dimension, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 1993, p. 152

[vii] Caste and Culture in India, p. 30

[viii] J. John, Religion, State and Communalism: A Post-Ayodhya Reflection, Christian Conference of Asia, 1995, p. 112

[ix] Emergence of a Local Christianity in North East India (Kunchala Rajaratnam Endowment Lecture, Chennai, 1996), Renthy Keitzar

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Prasanna Kumari, Liberating Witness, Gurukul, Chennai, pp. 11-12

[xii] Roger E. Hedlund (Ed.), Christianity is Indian: The Emergence of an Indigenous Community, MIIS & ISPCK, 2000, p. 6

[xiii] M. M. Thomas, Issues in the Evangelistic Mission in the Present Indian context (Notes for a talk at UTC, Bangalore on 19 August, 1993), p. 2

[xiv] T. V. Philip, op. cit., p. 14

[xv] S. Wesley Ariarajah, Not Without My Neighbour: Issues in Inter-Faith Relations, WCC, 1999, P. 129

[xvi] M. M. Thomas, A Diaconal Approach to Indian Ecclesiology, CIIS & CSS, 1995, p. 8

[xvii] Abraham Kuruvilla, Structures of the Church and Evangelism (Paper presented at the Kerala Regional Workshop/ MESP, Charal Kunnu, May, 1997)

[xviii] M. M. Thomas, UTC Notes, op. cit., pp. 3-4

[xix] Religion and Society, March 1972

[xx] T. V. Philip, op. cit., p. 13