|The Brethren Movement In India
Dr. Johnson C.
Outline (Revision 4.0)
Though the Brethren Assemblies -- at least by the reckoning of some -- in the places of origin are facing a decline of sorts, the situation is totally different in the Far East, including India. In fact the NT Pattern church in India is a vibrant one, having a large number of outreaches, with scores of new churches established every year, and this church history of Far East is incomplete without an account of the origin and growth of the Brethren Assemblies in India.
The Christian faith came to India in AD 50 when Saint Thomas the doubting disciples came here with the gospel. He received a warm welcome from Hindu kings and nobles and soon many professed faith in Christ, and an active community of Christians came into existence in India in the middle of the first century AD.
This community kept growing and soon there were churches all over the southern and western parts of India. This was an educated community of people, as opposed to the general illiteracy, and had business links with many countries. Many non Indian Christians also moved to India and merged into this mainstream, making it a culturally rich community.
In the first millennia the church in India kept faithful to biblical truths, but towards the close of it the Roman Catholic church treacherously (inducement, murder, politics, deception) took control of large segments of Non Catholic churches and established themselves firmly in the Indian soil. This admixture of error with truth led to more than one revival and several denominations oriented to the gospel came up, specially towards the second half of the second millennium. However, gradually ecclesiastical priesthood and religious rituals began sapping their strength and vigor. This coincided with the modern missionary movement in the west, and an increasing number of missionaries began coming to India. Gradually their work began replanting the seeds of gospel among Indians.
During this period the Lord raised many men from the decaying church in India who began studying and teaching the pure word of God, denying the spiritual efficacy of church rituals. This eventually led to a greater interest in studying the pure word of God, and many began to gather in homes to search the scriptures -- particularly in the tiny south Indian state of Kerala. With the establishment of a printing press, Bible was easily available (though costly) in this language. These investigations eventually lead them to the discovery of the doctrines of justification by faith, the priesthood of all believers, and the baptism of believers as opposed to infant baptism practices in their own churches.
The discovery led to action, and soon four men who accepted Christ as savior were baptized. Convinced of the need for believers to commemorate the death of the Lord in a non ritualistic manner, they celebrated the first Lord's Supper under a tree in 1887. This is reckoned by many to be technically the birth of the Brethren Assemblies in India. Just as the Lord raised a group of people for Himself in the West, He also raised a group unto Himself independently in the East.
Many churches were being established all over India by the efforts of foreign missionaries, and this helped create an atmosphere of great spiritual zeal and expectation in the older Indian churches. This atmosphere in turn helped this new movement to spread the gospel and gain a large number of believers. India being a extremely communal society, these conversions soon led to serious family and church problems.
In a communal society the community is the dictating agency as to how people live and conduct themselves, and the individual has no freedom of choice in most things related to spiritual life, marriage rituals, and even burial. The community in turn creates these strong stipulations through the family unit, where everyone is subject to the authority of the oldest male member of the family. If this member stipulates that everyone should go to a certain church, none dare disobey it lest he or she be punished or even be removed from the family. And once a person is removed from the family, he has no existence other than that of a vagabond in a communal society. Freedom of conscience, or freedom to choose according to personal desires is not existent in such societies, and such indeed was the society in Kerala (South India) when the Brethren movement began here.
Soon the young believers were warned by their churches and families to either renounce their newfound faith or face expulsion from the church, the family, and even the town -- and in those days once thrown out of one's house there was practically no dwelling place available in one's town. Houses were not available on rent, and it was impossible to fine anyone in that communal society having the courage to employ or even help these social outcasts. However, all of them preferred to live on the streets with their newfound faith rather than living in their cozy homes but without God.
Many were thrown out, others were beaten and abused mercilessly, and still others were mocked in inhuman ways. They used to throw the excreta of pigs upon believers in places like Angamally. It is the same place where an evangelist (Lonappan Upadeshi) was stripped naked while he was publicly preaching the gospel, and where those opposed to this new faith exhumed the dead-body of a young girl and threw it in the courtyard of her father (Lonappan Upadeshi) for his "crime" of embracing Christ, compounding the pain of parents who had not yet recovered from the pain of the untimely death of their beloved daughter. Finally believers had to sleep over the grave for many days after burying the child again. Down south Koshy Mathunny was unable to find a place to bury his young wife who was only in her thirties, and had to take the bold and unheard of step of burying her in his own compound, just a few feet behind his residence. Incidentally, he had purchased this pieces of land from some generous Hindus who gave him shelter when he was thrown out of his house because of his newfound faith.
The Lord honored the faith of the new believers, and the people added to the church kept increasing by the day. Soon there were churches all over the state of Kerala, Tamil Nadu (Madras), and Andhra Pradesh. Meanwhile some foreign missionaries who had come to India care of non Brethren missions were also won over the New Testament truths, and they also started laboring with the people of God in India. V. Nagal, E. H. Noel and Handly Bird being some of them.
Many dedicated themselves to serve the Lord, and soon there was a large group of evangelists spreading the gospel throughout the southern parts of India. The late M. E. Cheriyan became one of the first Indians to resign from a full-time secular job to enter full-time Christian ministry. Though it met with some resistance from some foreign missionaries (and particularly their wives) who felt it a threat that qualified local people are entering full-time ministry, Mr. Cheriyan was not deterred. He became sort of a pioneer when he left his native place and moved to another state for cross-cultural evangelism. He was followed by other pioneering young men like T. A. Kurian (Saugor), K. M. Mathai (Bhopal), V. T. John (Chandigarh), T. E. Easow (Patna) and Philip Abraham (Gwalior). These men became models of the Missionary Wave among the brethren, that depended only upon Indian resources and logistical support for expanding the work indigenously throughout the country, and even beyond.
The second generation of the Brethren had their paths cut out by the first, so they were able to advance much beyond their predecessors. This then became the time for establishing assemblies, para church ministries, schools, orphanages, and hospitals. The third generation spread the flame throughout the country because they now had a strong army of people to support them. The fourth generation brought a lot of career-seekers from other denominations, mostly castaways from there and uncommitted to the assemblies, and created quite some problem due mainly to hoard the massive but untapped social and financial resources that suddenly became available to them in this group. These men also became the leading voices that challenged the values, biblical practices, fundamental doctrines, and the esteemed leaders that the Brethren Assemblies had held dear in the first seven to eight decades before this migration. Under the influence of the fourth-generation migrants to the Assemblies, groups of people even moved into cultistic directions, but the trend was arrested soon due to a remnant who sensed the danger and sounded the alarm.
The fifth generation of leaders and evangelists brought a new era in leadership, teaching, disciple-making, and planning. A large number of them were trained under non Brethren teachers, and therefore they were able to fill in the blind spots to which the leadership in the earlier generation was oblivious. What's more, a large number of them were men of high caliber and high professional background. This resulted in many changes, two of which are notable. First, they successfully put a cap to the rivalry for resources that was seen in the earlier generation. Second, they began emphasizing quality along with quantity, resulting in a quantum leap in the overall quality of teaching from assembly-based pulpits. This also became the generation that began producing high quality theological and doctrinal books.
The sixth generation is yet to emerge at the time of this writing, and only time will tell what it will be like. However, most observers at present are quite optimistic about the immediate future.
Open Versus Closed: Since the Open/close divide is more of European origin, it does not have much relevance for the Indian Brethren Assemblies, who generally tend to be open in nature. However, in the last two decades of the twentieth century some brethren from England and other countries began visiting India to contact preexisting assemblies, and this had led to a situation similar to the Open/Close situation.
At present there are close to 2200 assemblies in India, almost all of which are Open Brethren in nature. Within them there is considerable variation in practices, some allowing non Brethren to participate in the Lord's Supper if they are born again and baptized, with others totally forbid such participation. This variation has more of historical reasons than Biblical, and has not created much problem with either the insiders of the outsiders.
Towards nineteen eighties, however, several closed brethren from outside India came in contact with Indian evangelists, and persuaded them to align themselves the Closed Brethren. At the same time certain financially well endowed brethren from the United Kingdom also were able to carve out some of the preexisting assemblies to themselves, and make them "closed" to the rest of the assemblies in India. Over the space of two decades these two groups have been able to take away about 20 assemblies of the formerly Open Brethren to the Closed fold.
While the Open Assemblies do not find it difficult to accommodate the brethren from the Closed fold, the brethren in the Closed assemblies exhibit marked animosity towards those in the Open group. What is more, it is common for brethren in the Closed group to speak contemptuously against the well respected leaders in the Open group. The basic reason is the imposition of separation by brethren who tend to control the strings from outside, mainly through financial incentives, with the aim to carve territories that they can presumably claim as their own in front of their people (the donors) in the West. It would be readily noticed that due to these historical reason the Closed assemblies are a minority in India, and also that they differ much from the Closed assemblies in West. Any kind of reconciliation between these groups seems to be difficult as long as the domination of the brethren from the outside continues.
Prominent Leaders: The Brethren in India were Bibliophiles right from the beginning, and this brought many of them into much prominence. In addition many of them were capable and outspoken leaders, organizers, and visionaries. Thus the Brethren Assemblies in India have never lacked leaders of substance and prominence.
The first generation produced men like P. E. Mammen, Varky Upadeshi, Lonappan Upadeshi, and many others. Mahakavi K. V. Simon also became part of this generation when he was persuaded by many to join the Brethren instead of the Baptists. The second generation produced Stalwarts like E. P. Varghese, C. T. Mathai, K. G. Kurian, V. T. Mathai, M. E. Cheriyan, T. K. Samuel, Y. Ezekiel, Mammen Kurian, M. P. John, T. G. Samuel, Dr. Justus Samuel, etc. Men committed unconditionally to the scriptures, they became able propagators and defenders of the New Testament truths. The second generation served as a link between the first and the rest of the generations so far, and in addition to providing many other benefits this produced a continuity in thoughts and practices among the brethren. The third generation of leaders includes men like M. M. Skaria, Prof. P. P. Skaria, K. Daniel Williams, E. J. Paily, E. V. John, E. J. Mathew, Thomas A. Itty, K. A. Philip, K. Paul Thomas, M. A. Joy, Silas Nair, K. P. Samuel, etc. Many of them were involved in secular jobs, and devoted a considerable amount of time, energy and personal finances to support the ongoing growth of the Brethren Assemblies. There are numerous other notable figures belonging to each of the groups above, and they will eventually be featured in the "People" section of BrethrenAssembly.Com.
Since the fourth generation was populated with a lot of people who were career seekers, it is difficult to identify anyone who stood steadfast either in faith or commitment up to an advanced age in their lives. The fifth generation of prominent leaders now includes a large number of highly qualified and trained men who, because of their secular training on one hand and spiritual commitment on the other, have brought in much spiritual quality and professionalism in the assemblies. These include men like A. John George, John Kurian, Dr. Alexander Kurian, Joy John, Jos Mathew, Abraham Thomas (Kochi), James Varghese, Varghese John, Dr. K. C. Johnson, Dr. Oommen Philip, John P. Thomas, Dr. Johnson C. Philip, Shalu T. Ninan, Billy P. Jacob, etc.
The fifth generation also saw the rise of specialized ministries and also more organized outreaches. People like Abraham Thomas (Pullad) and Thomas Mathew (Tiruvala) introduced an nurtured specialized ministry in India. Men like Rajan Thomas, PC Abraham pioneered similar work outside India. It is also in their period that Indian men like P. Jospeh Raju initiated outside India what was unthinkable a generation ago. Roji Varghese (USA) pioneered the use of Web for information-dissemination for the assemblies, and he was later joined by many enterprising assembly webmasters. John Sebastian pioneered Internet for evangelism, and many others followed.
In summary, the Brethren Assemblies in India never lacked leaders, visionaries, or pioneers, qualified in spiritual and secular fields. The greater the need, the larger tended to be the number of leaders the Lord raised.
Schisms And Conflicts: Just as the Brethren Movement in Plymouth suffered one or more schisms, the Assemblies in India also have passed through more than one schism, though this did not lead to a split of the type that took place in Plymouth. The first schism took place over the issue of Native or Foreign control over the assemblies in India.
As the number of assemblies grew in India, many foreign missionaries realized that using financial and other influences they can easily control and manipulate the local leadership, resulting presumably in portraying these assemblies as the direct fruit of their labors in this alien land. Thus it became necessary for them to marginalize the more able Indian brethren. At the same time, many of these brethren were able to lay hands upon reports circulated by these missionaries where they tended to label Indian evangelists and church leaders as their "workers" dependent upon their paid rolls.
Thus a struggle for power arose between the foreign missionaries and the Syrian Indians. The Syrians are Indian Christians who trace their ancestry as far back to the arrival in India of Saint Thomas. Having administered the church for two millennia without foreign support or intervention, they felt aggrieved at the way the foreign missionaries were trying to wrest control into their hands and also the way they were sending reports to the countries of their origin. After much heartache the churches divided into missionary and Indian camps, but the mutual fellowship among them was not affected due mainly to the strong communal ties that bound the Indian believers.
The second schism took place in the nineteen sixties over funds that were collected from the USA by K. G. Thomas an able Indian brother. The reports circulated by him among the US donors eventually fell into the hands of many responsible brethren here, and they objected against the way wrong reports were being used for fund collection. Eventually it led to a public confrontation between the brethren who had already split into two groups, but with that the problem came to an amicable settlement and the two groups continued in good fellowship with each other.
The third schism took place in late seventies and early eighties over the prophetic issue of Pre versus Post tribulation. Some men like E. V. Varghese and M. A. Thomas initially attracted a number of followers to Post Tribulation view, but eventually Dr. M. A. Thomas left both the brethren as well as the conservative fold and moved into a cultistic thinking which was an amalgamation of Charismatic and Roman Catholic heresies. E. V. Varghese also lost much of his following. Thus what once had flared up as a subject of intense debate all over India among the Brethren eventually died a well deserved death. Even today a few die hard Post tribulationists continue to spread their teachings, but this is ignored by the majority. Most of the followers of Post Tribulation have now become silent.
The fourth schism took place in the late nineteen nineties over the issue of whether there is revelation outside the Bible. Several brothers, argued through their books to the effect that almost all religious in general, and Hinduism in particular, contain Holy Spirit inspired revelation. Having substantial following among the doctrinally uninitiated, and being men of great eloquence, they were able to create quite a formidable wave in favor of "Revelation Outside The Bible" and against the fundamental doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Meanwhile a non-brethren man by the name of Koshy Abraham built a whole Super Cult around a Hindu god by the name of Prajapati. When certain apologists from the Brethren assemblies attacked the doctrines of this Super Cult, some of the above-mentioned brothers fought against the Brethren people lending support to the Super Cult doctrines. Some of them propagated all kinds of vicious lies to justify their alliance with heresy. A split between the proponents of revelation-outside and Sola Scriptura seemed imminent, but eventually the confrontation died out when the majority of believers discovered the issues at stake. They realized that many brethren had been lying deliberately to protect their heresy over against the Scriptural truths. Thus the majority chose to adhere to the received principle of Bible Alone, and the controversy died out without a final split.
Marks of another schism are becoming prominent as this essay is being revised and posted on the net. It is over the Brethren/Baptist identity of certain incoming funds and the brethren-baptist identity of certain men who claim to be Brethren but who raise funds from non-Brethren sources and use it for ministry among the Brethren. A number of Indian brethren have been raising funds to the tune of millions from baptist churches in USA, reporting dutifully back to those baptist donors, and also organizing programs in India using baptist financial support. They have also been hosting baptist speakers in these programs among the Brethren. After giving the impression to the local population that these are assembly-related activities, they have been reporting to their Baptist supervisors the very same activities as baptist-supported ministries. In other words, these are baptist-workers who are soliciting and collecting baptist money from USA, and reporting back to them, representing assembly-ministries to them as baptist-church-ministries. These men maintain a double-identity so as to gain Baptist financial support and Brethren appreciation. Never have the assemblies been politically so contaminated in the last one century.
Some of theeir invitees, such as David Mills (an American Baptist Pastor), an American Baptist Youth Pastor, and an American Baptist Deacon, when they visited Ranni, Kattappana, and Gujarat, became a source of intense contention among the Brethren Assemblies, particularly in Ranni region. Though the Baptist identity of these men was kept a secret, many things became obvious to the observant people when these visiting speakers were identified as "Reverend" this or that. Many believers from Ranni collectively even issued a warning about spiritual compromise, ecumenism, and other things done by so-called Brethren who are secretly working for and under baptist support.
In previous generations those brethren who decided to work under baptist support (Dr. K. C. Thomas, Dr. M. A. Thomas, Dr. Kunjumon Chacko, Dr. Paul Pillai, C. V. George, C. V. John) were honest men, and demonstrated spiritual integrity, in that they moved out of the assemblies, rather than trying to keep a deceptive dual identity. But the present group of people among the Assemblies is dishonest and unethical in this matter. They wish to raise funds from baptists, work under baptist support, report back to baptist churches in USA, represent brethren ministries as baptist work, yet at the same time they wish to cling to Brethren pulpits and Brethren identity. A caucus - like structure can be seen emerging, which does not hesitate to slander and even threaten Brethren-assembly believers with dire consequences and court-cases if the questionable activities of these people are questioned. This is an IGM kind of situation, and it is not expected to last much. Brethren have always stood for purity of doctrine and separation of identity.
When the schisms among the Brethren in Europe is compared with that in India, it becomes obvious that in spite of much bitterness and heat, the Indian church has better been able to handle schismatic issues. While some bitterness always remains, even after things are mended, it has not affected the overall unity and fellowship of the Brethren in India. This is a highly commendable quality of the church in India.
Doctrinal Stand: The brethren in India have been theologically conservative right from the beginning. Thus they found it easy to assimilate the works produced by conservative and fundamentalist scholars in the West. However, having no widely agreed-upon statement of doctrine, and also the standard evangelical creeds not being available in Indian language, the average person finds it difficult to state the exact boundaries of his theological belief. This did create some difficulty from time to time when individuals (mostly from the previously mentioned career-seeking fourth generation) tried to pass erroneous doctrines as part of the "received" doctrines.
The first major confusion arose when Zac Poonen a man at that time having some Brethren affiliation tried to spread the Smithist doctrines related to the person of Christ. His attempts were soon repulsed by concerned brethren, and eventually he left the Brethren fold to form his own False Cult. Even today he continues to enjoy some links and some sympathizers among the Brethren, but his overall influence upon the movement is negligible.
The second major doctrinal confusion is the Charismatic Confusion, and the chief reason is the large number of intermarriages between Brethren and Pentecostal people, the majority of which took place under the influence of the fourth-generation leaders. The Lord has raised some men who are at present systematically suppressing this error, but it will take much more time to undo the harm that has already been done.
Other confusions arose from time to time about the time of rapture (whether it is Pre or Post Tribulation), doctrine of Trinity, whether there is revelation outside the Bible. Almost all of them were dealt with effectively by brethren burdened for the church, and none of them had an impact wide enough to worry people who love the church of God. At the same time it must be emphasized that the lull that came in teaching during the dominance of the fourth generation has created wide ranging spiritual illiteracy, and it will take quite some time for the present generation teachers to fill in this gap.
Outreaches: Evangelism and church planting has always been a hallmark of the Brethren assemblies in India. This is the reason why the number grew from 0 to 2200 in just one century -- a growth probably unparalleled anywhere. Of this, the larger proportion of churches came into existence in the last 30 years when the foreign missionaries made an exit and the local leadership took the control and directing of the entire system into their hands.
Though there is a general resistance to the idea of para church organizations, the Brethren assemblies in India have given formed a large number of church-related movements that aid outreach and evangelism in one way or other. YMEF, or the Young Men's Evangelistic Fellowship is a pioneer in this. Today YMEF units are found throughout India and also in those countries where Indian brethren gather. Then there are regional bodies like Gospel Penetration Campaign, Bastar Evangelistic Fellowship, or Orissa Brethren Movement where the focus is evangelism of a specific region. The number of such regional bodies is now in hundreds, and it is impossible even to catalog them.
Literature ministries, radio ministries, open air preaching, and house to house visitation are quite common. Overall the Brethren in India are a group actively committed to evangelism, and the spirit of sharing the gospel continues to thrive. This is one reason that makes this writer optimistic about future of the Brethren Assemblies in India.
Institutions: Though there is a resistance against para church agencies, there are a large number of para church agencies in India, some of which work closely with the church while others do not have even a remote connection. Most of the Institutions that have come up indigenously and which are financed through contributions from Indian Brethren continue to maintain close ties with the assemblies. On the other hand, those organizations that were initiated by non Indians, and that continue to get support from non Indian sources tend to shy away from active fellowship with local assemblies. Part of the reason could be their desire not to become accountable to the Indian believers.
Institutions in India include, among others, orphanages, hospitals, schools, camp centers, literature ministries, radio ministries, bible schools, old age homes, etc. The net total result of such ministries has been greatly enriching to the church in India.
Publications: Right from the beginning the Brethren in India recognized the importance of the print media, and began publishing periodicals. The high level of literacy in the state of Kerala, the place where this movement had its origin, also helped. There never was a shortage of writers or subscribers. These publications helped foster a unity among diversity, and conserved the doctrinal orthodoxy and purity of believers. False teachings and false cults were attacked in the strongest possible words, creating in believers a desire for separation from all doctrinal evil.
The major publications currently popular are Suvisheshadhwani, Atmaprakashini, Suvisheshakan, Vedanadom, Pravachana Pradeepika, Kunjumanas, (all in Malayalam language), Masihi Gavahi (Hindi), Insight India, Steward News, Brethren News (all in English). There are some minor publications and one-man outfits, brought out mainly by individuals, and at times some of them have been quite divisive and indulge even in yellow journalism. But being of limited influence, they have not been able to do much damage.
Right from the first generation, the Brethren in India have produced a large number of publications with great breadth as well as depth in the subjects handled. So much so that even people from denominations antagonistic to the Brethren readily buy and read these books because of the unimpeachable scholarship and insight of the Brethren. This state of affairs continues to be the same today, even a hundred years after the beginning of the movement. The earlier writers included K. V. Simon, E. V. Varghese, Y. Ezekiel, K. G. Kurian, M. E. Cheriyan, A. M. Samuel, etc. The most widely distributed current writers include K. V. John (Pathanapuram), K. V. George, Silas Nair, Shibu K. Paul, K. A. Philip, Saneesh Cheriyan, Dr. Johnson C. Philip, Dr. Alexander Kurian, Jijo Angamally, M. V. Thomas, E. K. George, Vinoji Samuel, etc.
A notable development is the contributions of the Calvin Research Group, and informal fellowship of Bible-students. Begun originally as a collaboration between Dr. Johnson C. Philip and some of his students, who had a general Calvinistic orientation in theology, now the group includes a large number of writers, young and old with qualifications ranging from multiple masters degrees to multiple doctorates both in theology as well as in supportive secular subjects. This group has already contributed a number of massive volumes such as Systematic Theology (800 pages), Christian Apologetics (650+450 pages), Bible Encyclopedia (4 volumes), and many others. All books have been produced indigenously, and are original contributions by Indians. The group aims to produced books on all main branches of theology, apologetics, and doctrine by AD 2010.
So much ahead are the Brethren writers in the breadth and depth of their writings that their dominance in the field of theological books is expected to continue for decades.
The Brethren Assemblies in India are 100 years young, and all signs indicate that it is alive and active in spite of forces that are opposed to church growth. If the growth continues at this rate, then the present assembly strength would become double by 2025 and the present missionary strength would become three times as much. There will be growth in all areas of ministries. It would be many decades before the signs of death similar to what is seen in the west would set in, and that also only if some crucial changes take place in the outlook and overall composition of the assemblies. In all likelihood, Indian assemblies would become the focal point of evangelization of Far East by 2025, if the Lord tarries.
Johnson C. Philip, Ph.D(Physics), Th.D, the writer of this research paper, is the Emeritus Dean of Brethren Bible Institute and Principal of Rehoboth Theological Institute. An elder of Cochin Bible Chapel, he is the most widely published Christian commentator and news analyst in India. He can be reached at jcphilip@BrethrenAssembly.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
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Acknowledgements: We gratefully appreciate the feedback for revision/correction received from the following friends: John Benjamin (http://communities.msn.co.uk/BrethrenChristiansForum), Jacob Johns, Dr. P. C. Varky, Thomas A. Itty, and others.