The Church Among Other Communities Of Faith

Christianity arrived in Asia not only as a theological option but also as a sociological option. In other words, the proclamation of the good news of

4o V. Chakkarai, Jesus the Avatar (Madras: Christian Literature Society, 1932).

See Sugirtharajah (ed.), Asian Faces of Jesus; C. S. Song, Jesus the Crucified People (New York: Crossroad, 1990), Jesus and the Reign of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) and Jesus in the

Power of the Spirit (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994); M. M. Thomas, The Acknowledged Christ of the Indian Renaissance (London: SCM Press, 1969); S. J. Samartha, The Hindu Response to the Unbound Christ (Bangalore: CISRS, 1974); Thangaraj, The Crucified Guru.

Jesus Christ included an invitation to join a new community, a new voluntary association, called the church, in addition to one's vision of God. In most parts of Asia, a call to change one's religion was not a problem as long as it was accommodated within the given social order and arrangement. For example, there was a freedom to choose one's favourite God (ishatadeva) within the Hindu faith as long as one remained within the existing caste structure. The Eastern Orthodox tradition - the earliest to arrive in India - existed in peace and harmony with its Hindu neighbours mostly because it operated as a subcaste within the larger caste arrangement. The Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions faced an uphill task of creating a community of Christian disciples who transcended the boundaries of the caste system. The voluntary associational character of Christian faith was indeed a challenge to the close-knit, family-based and largely static (nonmobile) social arrangement of Asian societies. Moreover, the presence of western colonial rule in several parts of Asia created a situation in which the boundary lines between the church and the colonial political order were blurred. For example, the permission to engage in missionary work and the protection of Chinese Christians was an important part of the French Treaty with China.44 This called for the difficult task of articulating the need, the pattern and the significance of the church.

What are some of the more appropriate ways of talking about 'church' in Asia? What are the issues at stake in the development of ecclesiologies within Asia? Among many the two most important issues are the following. How may the church in Asia envision itself and order its life as a church that is not simply a western church that is implanted in the lands of Asia, but expresses itself truly as a church of Asia? How may the church in Asia function as a separate voluntary association within the larger society in Asia without losing sight of its modest role in the establishment of the reign of God in Asia - an inclusive community of justice and peace, comprising the whole people of Asia?

The construction of a truly Asian church has happened in three distinct ways. The first is what is generally called the process of inculturation. The very process of communicating the Christian message to the people of Asia involved the discovery and use of Asian languages, symbols, thought-forms and conceptual tools. The translation of the Bible in vernacular languages was itself an act of inculturation. With the Bible in their hands, Asian Christians were able to imagine themselves into a new community of faith. The corporate worship life of Asian Christians is

44 Wilfred, On the Banks of Ganges, p. 234.

another area in which the process of inculturation has been very active. To cite an example, the liturgical reforms within the churches in India are remarkable. Vatican II brought a significant change in the worship life of the Roman Catholic churches in India. These changes included the use of vernacular languages for liturgy, the employment of local musical traditions and the adoption of Indian architectural patterns in the building of churches. Protestants brought the worship patterns of the varying western Protestant denominations. Over the centuries, the Protestants themselves have gone through a liturgical renewal and now adopt local religio-cultural practices for Christian worship.

Apart from the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, Pentecostal and non-denominational churches have had their own modes and methods of inculturation of Christian worship. For example, Pentecostal churches were among the first to exploit the emerging light music tradition of India (a mixture of western and Indian musical traditions) for their worship and piety. What is common in these Christian churches is the conscious and intentional attempt to develop and practice the worship of the Christian community in local linguistic and cultural forms.

The ecclesial life of Asian Christians is shaped also by home-based religious practices. Asian Christians have adapted several local religious rites of passage into their religious life. These practices vary according to region and denominational affiliation. Indigenous elements are more conspicuously present in worship settings outside the church building. The prayer meetings held in people's homes, lyrical or musical preaching performed during festive occasions, prayer services at homes related to rites of passage such as puberty, marriages, funerals and other home-based worship services bear clear marks of indigenous elements and influence. All these point to a significant dialogue between Christianity and other religions of Asia that undergirds and promotes the emergence of a truly Asian church.

Another direction that Asian Christians have taken is to free themselves from western Christianity by imitating new movements or founding new churches. In India, the founding of indigenous churches began as early as the nineteenth century among Protestants. 'One remarkable Hindu believer in Christ at Madras was O. Kandaswamy Chetti, founder of the Fellowship of the Followers of Jesus, who openly confessed his faith in Christ as the only Saviour but declined baptism.'45 Arumainayagam Sattampillai of South Tamilnadu founded the Indian Church of the Only

45 Roger E. Hedlund, 'Indian Instituted Churches: Indigenous Christianity Indian Style', Mission Studies 16:1 (1999), 26—42.

Saviour (popularly known as the Hindu-Christian community) in 1857, in protest against western missionary domination.46 Hedlund mentions a few others such as: the Indian Pentecostal Church of God, founded by K. E. Abraham around 1930; the Apostolic Christian Assembly, founded by Pastor G. Sundaram; the movement around K. Subba Rao in Andhra Pradesh; the New Life Fellowship in Bombay; Agape Fellowship churches in the state of Punjab and the Isupanthi movement in North Gujarat.47 In Japan, for instance, Kanzo Uchimura (1861-1930) envisioned a Non-Church (Mu-Kyokai) which led to 'clash with missionaries and estrangement from the established churches'.48 The Three-Self Patriotic Movement in China was another example of a movement that attempted to release the Christian church in Asia from its captivity to western Christianity.49

Furthermore, the efforts at church union within Asia were directed towards establishing a church that was free from its dependency on the churches in the west and at the same time attuned to the multi-religious setting of Asia. For example, conversations toward unity emerged between the Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches in South India, ultimately leading to the formation, on 27 September 1947, of the Church of South India; an organic union of all four denominational traditions.50 Similar conversations took place between Protestant churches in North India, which led to the formation of the Church of North India in 1970. There are continuing conversations even today among the three churches - the Church of South India, the Church of North India and Mar Thoma Church - toward a Bharath Christian Church.

The relation between the church and the reign of God is another crucial issue in the religiously plural situation of Asia. Peter Phan is greatly sensitive to this issue and outlines a new way of being church in Asia. He suggests an ecclesiology that is undergirded by four features.51 The first feature is that of the church being 'a communion of communities'. Such a communion presupposes the equality of all and moves the church toward the reign of God. The second is that the church, in its

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