In Search of a new Ecclesiology for India today

In Search of a new Ecclesiology for India today


The ecclesiological structures were a particular way to serve Christ’s Spirit at a definite period of time in a concrete cultural ethos and milieu. Mostly Indian church experienced transplanted cultural milieu during the period of western/white/Latin Rite supremacy and colonialism. Here the most complex questions are how do we pass from our inherited Christian traditions or from our individual historic churches and Rites to a new Indian ecclesial tradition? and Indian ecclesiology vs. a plurality of Indian ecclesiologies? An ecclesiology properly developed and based on this complex socio-religious and politico-economic context in therefore the primary requirement of the hour; a theology formulated and expressed in the Greco-Roman concepts and terminology needs to find new forms of expression in the new cultural and linguistic situations of India.

New Ecclesiology for India and it’s meaning

Ecclesiology is not merely about churches constitution, ordinances, programs, and activities. Ecclesiology can be defined as a community which claims to derive its existence from the unique event that is Jesus Christ and, prior to him, from the events making up the history of Israel. The gathering of the people for the worship of God was designated in Hebrew by the word qahal, which the Greek Septuagint (LXX) translates eighty-one times as ekklesia.[1] Ekklesia, which had been used to translate qahal and which in the Greek world meant the convoked assembly of citizens, occurs sixty-one times in the writings of Paul. In the Book of Acts the word is used twenty-three times for the local community. The letters of Paul are addressed to various churches, for example, to "the church of God which is sojourning on its pilgrimage" at Corinth. These words make three basic points about the community in question. First, it is a community in a particular place. Second, this community is the church of God, just as other communities in other places are the same church of God. There is only one church, just as there is but one God, one faith, one baptism, one hope. The churches are in communion among themselves because they are in communion with the same spiritual realities. And third, these realities are heavenly. Even though already possessed in part, they are still an object of hope. In the Indian context we have numerous Christian denominations and traditions which claim its doctrinal and traditional root all the way to Jesus and apostles. We have so many ecclesiological and theological traditions. The question is how to develop a unique new ecclesiology suitable keeping in mind the contextual realities.

Towards an Ecclesiology in the Indian Context

The relation between preaching (Kerugma), teaching (didache), fellowship (koinonia), and service (diakonia) justifies the search of the Indian theologians for an Indian ecclesiology, that is, for the approaches and forms most relevant for the life and mission of the universal church in the Indian context.[2]

Many who are eager for an indigenous Indian church would emphasize rooting the church in the traditional religious and cultural life of India. But since the traditional cultures of India are themselves in different stages of transformation under the impact of traditionalism, modernity, and post modernity. There is a strong case for affirming that it is necessary to know India’s traditional past to understand the contemporary culture and society. However the diakonia of the church has to be aimed not only at putting down indigenous cultural roots but also at a reformation of the contemporary culture with a view to make the life of the people more human.

This is basic to the statement of Aloysius Picris, that "the church to become Asian requires that it becomes humble enough to be baptized by its precursors in the Jordan of Asian religions and bold enough to be baptized by oppressive systems on the cross of Asian poverty.[3] This have been affected by the process of modernization which the impact of the modern secular and Christian west initiated and the indigenous national leadership continues. It is the modernizing India the church’s diakonia has to deal with. Mary Tanner says: Koinonia is not primarily about the church. It is the gift of God’s own life that God offers to the whole of humanity.[4]

Evaluation of different ecclesiologies in India

In India we can see different ecclesiologies. The major ecclesiological traditions in India like Roman Catholic, Syrian and protestant will enrich together for the formation of an Indian ecclesiology. In the pluralistic setting different ecclesiologies are mutually enriching. A major question is how to overcome the different ecclesial traditions and to work for an ecclesiology that is acceptable to all concerned. The birth of a typical Indian church will not happen all of a sudden; it will emerge only gradually as the result of a historical and cultural process.[5]

Hurdles for Indian Ecclesiology

Only the self understanding of the church will fulfill its responsibility. The church is not an abstract being outside the world. It does not exist in void. It is very much a human reality, subject to the contingencies, limitations and conditioning influence of the society in which it lives.[6] One of the greatest criticisms against the nature of the church in India has been its alienated existence apart from the ethos and struggles of our people and the unquestionable alliance of Indian church with the dogmatic western traditions and doctrines. M.M. Thomas brings out the necessity of the contextual nature of the church as follows: “The present situation is one in which the church is a world-wide reality with its base no more in the west, but in the different nations in which it sojourns”.[7]

Then the theology of the Indian church is largely borrowed from Abroad. This has been done without much critical reflection. Russel Chandran says, “The problem is not peculiar to any one particular tradition. Both the Roman catholic and the Protestant showed the same kind of spirit with regard to the authority of the Western doctrinal formulations as well as other aspects of the christian tradition”.[8] The ever growing church structures have become a great problem to the Indian ecclesiology. The common people understood the church as an organization with the hierarchy at the top dispensing faith and sacraments. Today the rapid institutionalization has crippled our institutions. The rampant politicization has empty monolithic structures catering mostly to the elite in society. Jurgan Moltmann reminds us: the church is an institution within (this world) having a critical liberating task in regard to it.[9] Moltmann’s major trilogy is completed by The Church in the Power of the Spirit (London, 1977), in which he develops an ecclesiology in the context of a doctrine of the Spirit as working out the dialectic of cross and resurrection in a process leading to the eschatological kingdom. The church is seen as an open society of friends, a charismatic community of committed disciples, in fellowship with the poor and oppressed.[10]

Here the greatest question before Indian ecclesiology is how far the institutions can be made to create a new ethos that is conductive to the liberation of the people. Today like never before Indians are set against one anther in the scandalous name of nobility of origin, caste, position and possessions. The majority consciousness the powerlessness of the Christians brought in us an excuse for our love for the status-quo and for our preference for conformation. The Indian church need to come out of the Institutionalized structures, western dogmas and develop its on native origins in experiencing Christ through incarnating into the Indian cultural ethos and religious milieu.

The Church as the agent of Westernization

As the missionaries planted the church in the likeness of their churches in the west, we can, without any hesitation, say that the church in India is the extension of the western church. In this ecclesiology, the God, Creator of all and the Holy Spirit who is at work in every culture are either negated or misunderstood and Jesus Christ, the head of the church is equated with the savior of the white culture with colonial power. This implies that in order to become Christians, the local people need to accept even the culture of the missionaries. This is what Bernard Lonergan called the risk in evangelization: In so far as one preaches the gospel as it has been developed in one’s own culture, one is preaching not only the gospel but also one’s own culture. In so far as one is preaching one’s own culture, one is asking others not only to accept the gospel but also to renounce their own culture and accept one’s own.[11] Having embraced Christianity, they, though without fully convinced, had to renounce even those cultural elements, which are very essential for their existence. It is very sad that the legacy of this Western ecclesiology is reflected even in the mission approach of churches, particularly their approach to other cultures.

Revival Ecclesiology as a holistic ecclesiology

Revivals had brought tremendous changes in theology in general and ecclesiology in particular. It is interesting to note that the revival ecclesiology is more holistic than Missionary ecclesiology in term of its theology. For instance, Revivals give stress on all-important issues in Christian theology like, theological anthropology, Christology, pnematology, eschatology and ecclesiology. Revivals taught that the church is the people of God who need God’s continuous liberating acts in their lives. And revivals always consider the person and work of Christ and the Holy Spirit at work as the driving force of the church here on earth. We may say that Revival ecclesiology as Biblical or Trinitarian ecclesiology. In fact, it is only revivals that could bring the people together irrespective of sex and denomination. The missionary ecclesiology scatters the people into different denominations, whereas the revivals broke down all the barriers between them. With one spirit people sing together, dance together and feel oneness in Christ and experience the joy of communion. Revival ecclesiology worked as an agent of Indigenization. The spiritual thirst of the people, and probably the feeling of insecurity in the process of cultural alienation compelled them to critique the existing ecclesiology. It seemed that the interest of the leaders of these indigenous groups, in the beginning, was simply critiquing rather than forming new sects. However, due to the counter-revival ecclesiology or the stern response from the existing church (missionaries), it was inevitable for the emergence of new groups or quasi denominations. Theologically, the intent of these indigenous groups was to worship God in their own culture. Moreover, it is good to remember that politically it was the time when Independence movement of India was in full swing when the revival movements penetrated to the Indian soil.

Indian ecclesiological Issues

The church in India is a replica of the west. The country is dominated by a minority of elites, who drive the country to poverty, unemployment and unequal distribution of wealth. Even though the Indian church is not large numerically it has tremendous influence and energy institutionally. Gerwin Van Leeuwen says that: ‘The church in India appears as an organization planted on the Indian soil from the outside, over burned with institutions, often exclusively serving those in power; its source of originally, creativity and life itself is located far away, controlled by invisible hands’.[12] K.C. Abraham in one of his article comments as follows: “We transplanted all the denominational divisions without giving any thought about their cultural and historical antecedents which were relevant to the European context. The church thus became a potted plant, refusing to strike its root in the Indian soil”.[13]

The church in India has inherited the western ecclesiology. According to T.V. Philip there are no serious attempts for developing an Indian ecclesiology due to the church received limited attention as they criticized the Indian church in relation to its foreign structure and base. The ecclesiological rethinking was first initiated by the Madras rethinking group. R.H.S. Boyd mentions about P. Chenchiah as follows about Indian ecclesiology: “He found it oppressively alien and Western, introspective and quarrelsome, more interested in administration than in the Christian life”.[14] The church administration, the hierarchy, property, ritual, fixed dogmas and doctrines all those were features which he felt should be alimented in order that men might be able to secure that direct contact with the living Christ which for him was the basis of the faith.[15]

An attempt for developing an Indian Ecclesiology

T.V. Philip says that there was no evidence or even serious attempts for developing an Indian ecclesiology.[16] The reasons are pointed out by him is that the early converts to Christianity were from upper class of the society in small numbers. At the same time, the converts were also from the lower poor mass of the Indian society and they were in large numbers. The Indian converts from the upper class were interested in the development of Indian Christian theology focusing their attention on interpreting God manifested in the person of Jesus Christ, and so they did not pay attention for developing an Indian ecclesiology. Then the Indian Christian theologians had a critical attitude towards the foreign ecclesiological institutionalized structures, creed and confessions.

In the Christian ecclesiological field, the issue no longer seems to be one of, say, ‘indianizing Roman Catholicism’ but of re-enacting the incarnational act of Christ in time and space. Incarnation means turning a myth into history. It speaks to the dehumanizing situation to transform and transcend them. The problem is not merely one of sociological change, rather it is entirely a question of a basic Christo- pneumatic approach, and is ultimately a mystical issue. Ecclesiology is neither more sociology nor pure exegesis. It is a creative theological activity which requires an undimmed theological charisma.[17]

Towards incarnating Christ in to the Indian society Robert de Nobili under took the challenging task. Realizing the importance of radical disassociation of Christianity from Portuguese rule he decisively followed an ideal of ‘accommodation’ of Christianity to the local context.[18]

Reflecting on the methodology for resolving the problems of the church today, we arrive at the following elements that should be operative in a new ecclesiology. Faith experience: the experience of the risen lord and his spirit forms the core of the Christian faith. A similar saving experience of the Spirit is also to be recognized in the people of other faiths. The human reality: the liberating and recreating power of the Risen Lord implies us to the restructuring and reshaping of the fragmented humanity that characterizes our Indian situation, wherein the kingdom has to become a reality.[19]

The search for an ecclesiology that adequately responds to the challenges of a religiously pluralistic India is a sign of a deep crisis. This has affected every aspect of Christian theology and practice. Churches are awakening the need of enculturation of dialogue with the world religions, addressing the issues of justice and human rights, of self-determination and other issues. Here Gandhi: Satyagraha program based on truth, driven by truth, and moving towards truth. He says: As long us I have not realized this absolute Truth so long must I hold by the relative truth. That relative truth must meanwhile be my beacon, my shield and buckler.[20]

The search for Indian ecclesiology in the context of conversion and religious fundamentalism is anther major need to be addressed. Indian has an unfortunate history of considering conversion sometimes as an act of changing the society. The question is should a convert leave his or her religion of his pervious adherence when he becomes a disciple of Christ? [21]

Relevance and characteristic for Indian ecclesiology

L. Boff emphasizes that the church should be recognized as the people of God where there is no distinction of labour or status and there is no distinction between Bishop, clergy and Laity. All are equal in the sight of God. In the classical ecclesiology people had no participation in the ministries such as preaching, teaching, sanctifying and evangelism. ‘The church is the royal priesthood of believers. All its members have direct access to God and share in the commission and authority of whole church’[22].

Where there is a struggle for justice and freedom, and when there are genuine attempts to have fraternity, attempts to remove social barriers and inequality there is God’s church, the church of Christ, a church that should be ours on emerging church, because every people’s liberation is God’s act of love and justice.[23] First of all its should be prophetic and liberating. Ecclesiology, prophetic in the sense the church should fight for justice in the midst of oppressive and unjustful structures, church becomes a living sign of God’s liberating action today. Openness to other ideologies and faiths are another important aspect of the emerging ecclesiology.

The Indian Church and the future of an Indian ecclesiology

In his earlier days as a Christian Brahmabandhab Upadhyaya accepted the discipline of the Roman Catholic Church gladly but later he had many conflicts with the authority of the church. He recognizes the need for a visible, organized church for the regular ministry of the Word and sacraments. But he vehemently attacks the Western trappings of the Christian faith in India. For him it is the Western clothes of the church which prevented the indigenous people to receive Christian faith. So the Indian church should be dressed in Hindu garments. In his thinking he made a division between the cultural Hinduism and religious Hinduism.[24]

Indian secularism plays a vital role in the context of various cultures, religions, languages and ethnic identities. Secularism her does not mean irreligion or atheism or even stress on material comforts. It proclaims, it lays stress on the universality of spiritual values which may be attained in a variety of ways.[25] Nehru says ‘A secular State does not mean an irreligious State; it only means that we respect and honor all religions giving them freedom to function’[26]. The Indian-ness of the church unfortunately identified them with the Jewish Christians of Palestine than with the Judeo-Hellenistic Christians of the first century. There should be co-existence of different cultural traditions just like the co-habitation of the Jewish and Gentile Christians in the early church. The Gentiles were accommodated by abandoning circumcision a Jewish tradition of about thousand years.

Suggestions and Concluding Remarks

1. Our ecclesiology should depend on Christology. The cosmic dimension of Christ than a sectarian deity of Christian alone.

2. Ecclesiology should have a diaconal (service) approach. The relation between Kerugma, didache, koinonia, and diakonia justifies the search of the Indian ecclesiology which is relevant to the church in the Indian context.

3. We should free the church from the Roman, Syrian and western European imperialism. And in the modern context from the bureaucrats of structuralism and institutionalism. Thus the Christian in India can free themselves identifying not as foreign in their home country.

4. The aspects of secularism, Indian-ness and the experience of incarnation to the caste, origin, creed, tradition, position, possessions and religions of India fulfill the search for an appropriate model than the attempt to impose European or Syrian models upon the tribes of India who join the church.

A contextual relevant ecclesiology, a synthesis of the past and present, the universal and particular or the global and local is the challenge for today. However, it is not easy to find the middle way between the unthinking protection of a dead past, which is unconcerned about the new demands of a new present, and the careless rejection of the living past, an attitude which is all too concerned with the transitory novelties of the present. An ecclesiology which takes a traditionalist view, which sees itself as something permanent and unchanged from the beginning of time and uncritically allows itself to be enslaved by a particular age or culture now past, misunderstands what historicity is. Historicity is also misrepresented by an ecclesiology, which, taking a modernist view adapts itself and becomes enslaved by the present age or culture, and so abandons itself equally uncritically to the disasters of total changeability. Ecclesiology, which is the church’s expression of its self-understanding, must not be enslaved by any particular situation, be its past, present or future.

[1] Yves Congar, O.P., ‘Ecclesiology’, Translated from French by Matthew J. O'Connell, Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol.3, 480.

[2] M.M.Thomas: A diaconal approach to Indian Ecclesiology,(Banglore: CIIS/CSS, 1995),10.

[3] M.M.Thomas: A diaconal approach to Indian Ecclesiology, (Banglore: CIIS/CSS, 1995),12. Citied in (Quoted in Faith and Order 1985-89, Budapest 1989,232).

[4] M.M.Thomas: A diaconal approach to Indian Ecclesiology, (Banglore: CIIS/CSS, 1995),13.

[5] Kuncheria Pathil, “Introduction – The Indian Theological Association and its Nagpur meeting”, in Gerwin Van leeuwen ed. Searching for an Indian Ecclesiology, (Banglore: Asian Trading Corporation, 1984), 7.

[6] Alwyn D’ Souza, “ An Ecclesiology in the Socio-Economic context of India”, NCCR, Vol.CIII, No.12, December, 1983, 642.

[7] M.M. Thomas, “The open Church”, in The church a people’s movement, Mathai Zachariah (ed), (Mysore: Study Department of the NCCI, 1975), 66.

[8] Russel Chandran, “The theological task of the church in India”, in Indian voices in Today’s Theological debate, Horst Burkle and Wolfgangm MW. Ruth (eds), (Lucknow: 1972),115.

[9] Jurgan Moltmann, The church and social justice, (Banglore:NP,1979),20.

[10] R.J. Bauchham, ‘Jurgan Moltman’, Ferguson, Sinclair B. and David F. Wright, New Dictionary of Theology, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 1988.

[11] Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York, NY: Herder and Herder, 1972), 362-363.

[12] Gerwin Van leeuwen ed. Searching for an Indian Ecclesiology, (Banglore: Asian Trading Corporation, 1984), pp.10-13.

[13] K.C. Abraham: “C.S.I, Ecclesiology- Some issues and challenges,” in Jeevadhara, Vol. XIX (No.112, July 1989), p.250. cited in. A. Vincent Thomas, The Relevance of Latin American church to Indian Ecclesiology, (Calcutta: R.N. Bhattacharya,2000),p.69.

[14] R.H.S. Boyd, Introduction to Indian Christian Theology, (Madras: CLS, 1975),p.159, cited in A. Vincent Thomas, The Relevance of Latin American Church to Indian Ecclesiology, Calcutta: R.N. Bhattacharya, 2000, P.88.

[15] D.A. Thangasamy, “Views of Some Christian Thinkers in India on Conversion and Baptism” in Religion and Society, The first Twenty five years, (1953-1978), ed. by Richard Taylor, (Madras: C.L.S., 1982), p. 273ff.

[16] T.V. Philip: “Ecclesiological Discussions in India during the last Twenty Five years” in Indian Journal of Theology (1952-1976), Vol.25, No. 3&4, (July-December, 1976): p.176.

[17] Raymond Panikkar, ‘The dream of an Indian Ecclesiology’, Gerwin van Leeuwen (ed.), Searching for an Indian Ecclesiology, Banglore: Asian Trading Corporation, 1984, P.27.

[18] Evelyn Monteiro, S.C. Church and Culture communion in pluralism, (Delhi: ISPCK, 2004), 127.

[19] ‘Searching for an Indian Ecclesiology statement of the meeting’, Gerwin van Leeuwen (ed.), Searching for an Indian Ecclesiology, Banglore: Asian Trading Corporation, 1984, P.19.

[20] Joan V. Bondurant, Conquest of Violence, Oxford University Press, 1959, p.17, cited in. T K. John, ‘An ecclesiology in a religiously pluralistic India’, Gerwin van Leeuwen (ed.), Searching for an Indian Ecclesiology, (Banglore: Asian Trading Corporation, 1984), 218.

[21] Gerwin van Leeuwen (ed.), Searching for an Indian Ecclesiology, (Banglore: Asian Trading Corporation, 1984), 258.

[22] Amendments to the CSI Constitution, Chapter IV, V&VI, p.1, cited in. A. Vincent Thomas, The Relevance of Latin American church to Indian Ecclesiology, (Calcutta: R.N. Bhattacharya, 2000), 69.

[23] M.M. Thomas, Faith and Ideology in the struggle for justice, (Bombay: Build Publication, 1984), 21.

[24] Robin Boyd, Indian Christian Theology (Delhi: ISPCK, 2005),82, 83.

[25] George Ninan. Church and Society, challenges and response in the 21st century, New Delhi: BUILD, 2001, 172.

[26] George Ninan. Church and Society, challenges and response in the 21st century, 172.


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