Christianity in India:
A Twenty-minute Glimpse into Twenty Centuries

This imaginary conversation brings together two Indian Christians, one a young member of a more sectarian Mennonite group and one a retired economics professor who belongs to the Church of South India. Formed in 1947, CSI combined Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists of India’s four southern states. The sectarian, feeling restless with limits of her denomination, heard the ecumenist lecture at the Henry Martyn Institute in Hyderabad and invited him to a local coffee shop to talk.


Sectarian: Thanks for meeting before you return to Tamil Nadu. Several of us Christians have been wishing for a more ecumenical church experience here in the city. Not an official with any religious group, I simply welcome background on broad issues related to Christian cooperation, from your experience, with and beyond CSI.
Ecumenist: Fine. I’m not here as a cleric or with any CSI ‘clout’ either. While I cannot address much spectrum of experience, I can highlight some ecumenical issues within this land of spiritual fervor.
Sectarian: I value the fact that your and my experience of the Indian church differs. You can help me understand broader ecumenical issues, while I will remind you of more partisan realities.
Ecumenist: First, let me confess that I know next to nothing about Mennonites.
Sectarian: Six Indian groups have ties to the radical Reformation wing of Anabaptism. We need to bridge more among ourselves before we can value ecumenical efforts like CSI or Church of North India (CNI). Hopefully, the Mennonite World Conference (MWC) held in Calcutta early in 1997strengthened that cause.
Ecumenist: Even there, the event was likely not limited to Mennonites.
Sectarian: Right. “Christians in Calcutta do things together,” reports Larry Miller, the MWC executive secretary in a video. The Assemblies of God have a strong presence in that city and of course Roman Catholics are known, in part through efforts linked to Mother Teresa’s name but carried out by hundreds of others. William Carey, the British Baptist, also put near-by Serampore on India’s Christian map two centuries ago.
Ecumenist: Ecumenical efforts always involve time and wisdom. The CNI began in 1970, a combination of denominations different from those forming the CSI fifty years ago. Seminaries also bridge between groups, some with a more evangelical thrust while others utilize the umbrella of Serampore Theological which grants up to five hundred degrees in a year. Intent to be faithful to Jesus’ message, Christians worldwide nevertheless exhibit diverse strands of the church.
Sectarian: We hear Jesus’ message through varied microphones. Some have a shrill ring; a few convey a sporadic sound—clarity mixed with clutter. Others present the Truth less deterred. I do wish that Christians would offer a more unified sound system alongside people loyal to other living faiths in this land. We cannot help but confuse onlookers. Why endorse six Mennonite groups, for example? Because they exist in western countries, each staked a territory in this land.
Ecumenist: I hear your discontent. Such replication hardly fits in India where Christians will always be a small minority. What denomination more ecumenical in approach is linked with Mennonites?
Sectarian: The Church of the Brethren which is part of CNI. A friend from the U.S. sent me an article that appeared in their Messenger. Two North Americans attended the CNI twenty-five-year celebration. The article states, “No longer gathered in cliques of former Brethren, Baptists, or Anglicans,” vital issues and needs prompted by the church’s commitment to witness absorbed the ten delegates from each of the twenty-three dioceses.
Ecumenist: Were issues raised similar to those you’ve discussed with Mennonites?
Sectarian: Of course—leadership, limited finances, and peace education. The tensions of our pluralistic culture prod all Christians to greater tolerance and understanding. While Mennonites historically emphasize peace, we often isolate ourselves from contributing to broader church agenda.
Ecumenist: What other CNI issues surfaced?
Sectarian: H. Lamar Gibble referred to the age-old mission question: does a holistic approach combine “personal and salvific aspects of the gospel” with Jesus’ call to or example of social duty?
Ecumenist: Poverty and justice always highlight the gospel.
Sectarian: Laura Sewell, a missionary in Gujarat from 1948-84, recalled the first CNI synod meeting with its debate about customs, language, and rules difference. The Silver Jubilee, which focused on sacred values rather than questions of control, refreshed her spirit.
Ecumenist: When were Indians first introduced to the Mennonite expression of Protestantism?
Sectarian: The group called Mennonite Brethren (MB) arrived with Abraham and Maria Friesen, from Russia in 1890; they first worked with American Baptists. MBs, the largest Mennonite group in India live mostly just south of here.
Ecumenist: So, you’re fairly young. Or should we say that your Hindu heritage is quite lengthy by comparison?
Sectarian: Three thousand years before Christ and nearly twenty centuries after. Such influence penetrates deeply.
Ecumenist: We’ll reflect on that later, but are you aware of Christianity’s longer presence in India’s south?
Sectarian: I know of the legend that after Christ’s ascension, the apostles scattered to different world locations. Assigned to India, Thomas arrived in 52 CE.
Ecumenist: The living tradition from the southwest, coastal, Malabar area identifies seven churches founded by St. Thomas in Kerala state. The miracles he wrought continue to be re-told through stories and songs. People believe that he is buried in Madras.
Sectarian: Do you southerners use the new name for Madras—Chennai? Or is it an original name re-validated? We make changes all the time, don’t we? Review for me the early Syrian history. Who writes about it?
Ecumenist: I value Susan Visvanathan’s book. After years away, she returned as an anthropologist to research her father’s ancestral village. Because sustained by the Churches of the Middle East, the group is named Syrian. Visvanathan explains that: “The Romo-Syrians are St. Thomas Christians following the Roman Catholic ritual form. The Mar Thoma is a Protestant-like denomination with Orthodox Church strains which broke away from the Jacobite Orthodox Church in the nineteenth century.”
Sectarian: I’d known of the Yakoba, which suggests the Jacobites, and Orthodox Syrians.
Ecumenist: Technically, the Yakoba are divided between two groups: “Those who follow the Patriarch of Antioch are called. . . Syrian Jacobites while those who follow the indigenous Bishop are called. . . Orthodox Syrians.”
Sectarian: Mennonites are painfully familiar with and can hardly critique group divisions among others.
Ecumenist: Anyway, Syrian Christians believe that they descend from brahmin (high caste) converts of Thomas. Accounts of the first follower of Jesus in India surround Thomas’ meeting a young boy returning from a temple. When asked if the gods heard his prayers, the lad said the gods are “carved out of stone, but he worshipped them because his father did, and if he didn’t go to the temple his mother wouldn’t give him his food.” After Thomas taught him about Jesus, the fellow became a disciple and was later ordained to carry on Thomas’ work.
Sectarian: Syrian Christians have thought of themselves as a sub-caste of Hinduism, right?
Ecumenist: Because of Hindu-like features—continuation of caste, faith in horoscopes, practices related to death—those Christians have been judged negatively by some other Indian Christians. However, during the era of Hindu kings, Syrian Christians were prosperous. They were hardworking traders and landowners.
Sectarian: Perhaps economic difference also left a residue of resentment?
To shift in time, we both know that ever since the mid-1800s, a high percentage of Indian Christians are of “out-caste” or Dalit people. We need to reflect on that fact.
Ecumenist: Yes. In the public eye many of us are of society’s lowest. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of us are Dalits, according to writer John C. B. Webster.
Sectarian: And Dalit literally means “oppressed” or “broken” people.
Ecumenist: Did you see the issue of Bangalore Theological Forum where George Oommen distinguishes between Dalit and caste consciousness? To yearn for relief from dominant human conditions and the powerlessness of oppression describes Dalit consciousness, while caste consciousness expresses the response of middle and upper low caste people to the “denial of material goods.”
Sectarian: I hear the distinction but need to think more about the fine line of mental despair implied. Does the Hindi word varna, meaning color, get lost in his focus on material deprivation for caste?
Ecumenist: Look up the article.
Sectarian: I suppose you’ve read Webster’s history of Dalit Christians?
Ecumenist: It’s quite good. The three stages of the broad Dalit movement to address oppression that also affected Dalit Christians make sense—mass conversion, the decades of the 1920s and 1930s, and since independence.
Sectarian: The second stage had a more political emphasis than the first with its Anglo-American evangelical view of salvation, individualism, and morality (206). But explain to me “compensatory discrimination,” the third.
Ecumenist: More nineteenth century mass conversions found Dalits joining the Christian endeavor. Then earlier in this century, communal politics divided Christian Dalits more from other Dalits. Our present Constitution, through differing actions of compensation toward oppressed religious groups, pushes them still farther apart.
Sectarian: How governments first fault and then pattern a scheme like “divide and rule” is remarkable.
Ecumenist: I particularly value a counter insight from theologian Arvind Nirmal. The liberation that Dalits experience in Christ “embraced their being Dalit instead of rejecting it as something to be completely left behind.” (xii)
Sectarian: Hopefully, that doesn’t impose an oughtness to remain oppressed or to become passive—a reminder of the biblical view of servant. However, to endorse aspects of one’s former experience lends a healthy component to conversion.
Ecumenist: Less than healthy has been caste division between Dalits and non-Dalits within churches. Not until the mid-1970s did churches take seriously Dalit grievances—lack of pastoral care and under-representation in decision-making.
Sectarian: To resent discrimination is hardly surprising.
Ecumenist: The problem has been more obvious here in the south, with caste replaced more by class within northern churches.
Sectarian: Protest led to more publicized court cases in the south too.
Ecumenist: Dalit Christian protest cites two-pronged oppression—caste within churches and the government’s treatment of caste between religions. A major Catholic convention in 1978 asked its churches to “clean house.” That call meant to end injustice within, be informed about the Dalit plight, and work to end oppression in society. A network of Christian Dalit groups formed some years later.
Sectarian: You likely knew some of the ten thousand Christians who rallied in Delhi on August 17, 1990.
Ecumenist: Webster calls that gathering “the most impressive demonstration of Christian unity in the history of India.” (194)
Sectarian: I’m sure you noted his comparison between eras of missionaries and Indian Christians—groups he calls “evangelists and nationalists.”
Ecumenist: You refer to the western stress on the message of salvation compared to the Indian focus on quality of community life. Or you suggest how evangelists presumed the gospel to be the only solution to Dalit conflict—the “price of Dalit progress”—whereas nationalists called for evangelical restraint in order to reconcile Dalits with caste Hindus. (224)
Sectarian: Yes. Webster’s theological reading of Dalit time periods was useful too. During the mass movement era, Dalits were first able to claim being loved of God. With reason to hope, both now and eternally, the contrast to the Hindu world-view that denied them either dignity or hope was remarkable. (244)
Ecumenist: The era of the 1920s and 1930s prompted even more optimism, as God seemed more imminent. Convinced that they were blessed by Jesus’ “spiritual dynamic,” Christian Dalits described other Dalits as “spiritually hungry” because they lived under the law of karma. Determined to destroy caste divisions, they valued each other as “servant people of God.” (244) The more current era expects Dalits to face the fact that although Christian, they remain Dalits. Injustice also lingers. But assured that God wills their full humanity, they know a measure of healing as they engage in the struggle for liberation. (245)
Sectarian: Our ancestors didn’t have such resources or experience with analysis. While Dalit Christians remain grateful for compassion extended by genuine missionaries, did new dignity come with a price—dependence? Do you understand my question?
Ecumenist: I hear you. Many foreigners also perceived our plight. I could name individuals as well as organizations, but doing so might only hurt the feelings of others. No doubt westerners thought that the caste system would collapse, once Christianity distinctly “arrived” with Roman Catholics in the sixteenth or Protestants in the last two centuries. They fail to comprehend the resilience of caste.
Sectarian: Paul Wiebe, in Mennonite Encyclopedia (V), writes that those who wish to perceive the “strengths, outlines, problems, and prospects of the church in India” will examine caste. Perhaps few western Christians know the plight of descendents of original North American inhabitants either. Or, they might judge the morality of inequality toward Dalits but fail to credit how caste provided a support base. Not all is evil or worthy about any social system—caste or church. Our Indian and Hindu heritage includes noble qualities which deserve honor even as we deplore that which discriminates. How might we Indians better incorporate those positives alongside redemption in Jesus?
Ecumenist: The Christian ideal stresses equity among believers. We know that to leave or be excluded from caste meant disaster, at least internal and external turmoil. For generations, caste, in its ideal and more fluid expression, offered brotherhood, moral discipline, interdependence, and economic support for the majority. For new Christians from within caste groups, the church needed to provide those basics, long-held to be part of sacred religious tradition.
Sectarian: And for new Christians formerly outside of caste, the only way for us was “up.” We came to believe that God cared for us, an insight that gave profound purpose to life. Not having thought of ourselves as worthy, we learned to trust.
Ecumenist: Few Dalits had likely thought of being a self, or how being a self would alter motivation.
Sectarian: Matters of caste remain to perplex us. For example, how does the Hindu concept of atman (self) enter into our discussion? If a person has little tradition of a sense of self, how can a concept of personal salvation exist, let alone grow? Also, is to change one’s faith loyalty an anti-national act? What problems follow from people’s forming a very strong communal bond at the expense of being an individual? Your body language tells me you’d like to respond!
Ecumenist: Are you aware of John Webster Grant’s book God’s People in India?
Sectarian: No. Does the title imply that only Christians are “God’s people”? That would trouble me, on behalf of good people of other living faiths here in India who also belong to God.
Ecumenist: Your sensitivity is valid. A Canadian, the author wrote this in 1959.
Sectarian: 1959? Where has it been?
Ecumenist: Look, the price quoted is Rs 2.75! The writer spent a year in India, plus he read extensively.
Sectarian: Does he comment on my questions?
Ecumenist: Perhaps we could talk about communalism and nationalism together. Grant told about a missionary who tore a “Gandhi cap” from an Indian Christian’s head, saying, “Christians have no right to be nationalists.”
Sectarian: That bluntly de-nationalizes. The quandary must have been real—to protect new believers from disdain for leaving the Hindu community, yet avoid negating Indian culture.
Ecumenist: We gain little from faulting the past. And yet if we fail to examine it, we may cause more awful blunders.
Sectarian: I recall the biblical text “being in but not of the world.”” Since walls can protect as well as exclude, is the practice of separating Christians into one segment of a village wise?
Ecumenist: Other questions occur: how does the Indian church today show sensitivity to the “pulse of national life”? How do we avoid being isolated or uninvolved? Aren’t we duty-bound to join other religious or secular causes to counter structures that breed poverty? Didn’t Jesus set an example?
Sectarian: But is our society based on Christian assumptions?
Ecumenist: Grant spoke to how westerners took their societal framework for granted over here.
Sectarian: That critique reminds me of the peace question. Mennonites hold different views about how to address internal situations of conflict—intrapersonal within the church community or involvement with personal rights.
Ecumenist: For example, protests related to the construction of dams and whether to advocate for the victims who wish to retain their property?
Sectarian: Right. I also recall distrust, perhaps influenced by British favor, among Mennonite missionaries toward Gandhi’s “nonviolent resistance” or Satyagraha. I’d like to read Weyburn Groff’s dissertation Nonviolence: A Comparative Study of Mohandas K. Gandhi and the Mennonite Church on the Subject of Nonviolence. He notes Gandhi’s efforts to practice the teachings of Jesus “whose non- resistance was also the most dangerous of resistance.”
Ecumenist: Perhaps we’ve turned too often to foreigners for cultural leadership, as with worship patterns.
Sectarian: Rather than turn to the practice of faith, we might look first at conversion. “Changing religions” offends the Hindu national tradition of loyalty; it always has. Fallout from narrow theological convictions about sin or baptism occurs too.
Ecumenist: Do Indian Mennonites face major theological questions?
Sectarian: I wonder if we expect disciplined enough theology from members. Perhaps our more rural, village context justifies simpler explanations. But, for example, we often avoid the rigor of Union Theological College or materials published by Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society and turn more toward the Indian evangelistic wing. I’m uncertain if that best prepares us for the century ahead and interfaith matters.
Ecumenist: You sound doubtful. The dichotomy you name has divided Christians for decades, in India and worldwide. Who has spoken for Mennonites in ecumenical circles?
Sectarian: I wish I knew. North American sociologist Paul Wiebe wrote Christians in Andhra Pradesh The Mennonites of Mahbubnagar, and P. J. Malagar earlier wrote The Mennonite Church in India, a volume of “the Churches in India series.” A book reviewer notes the useful chronology of events reported in the latter, but wishes that events had been interpreted. What relevant questions follow from the events? How did the denomination join with others in India to foster unity?
Ecumenist: You expect Indians to pursue deeper analysis?
Sectarian: In “The First Fifty Years of the Mennonite Church in India,” Malagar notes the difficult adjustments and socio-religious conflict for new believers. He calls for indigenous and autonomous churches but felt obligated to the church in America.
Ecumenist: Those issues mark other denominations too. A cleavage usually suggests that two perspectives need to be heard; Indian Christians perhaps need to engage psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar.
Sectarian: I don’t recognize the name.
Ecumenist: In addition to writing about religion and mysticism, he addresses conflicts. Christians have spoken more to salvation and survival while neglecting psychological realities.
Sectarian: The struggle causes anguish all around. I resent “big brother” North Americans who repeatedly associate us ‘fledglings’ with our conflicts. Yet, they too miss opportunity to be direct; they retreat from necessary and healthy conflict.
Some missionaries to India informed North American readers of commitment to evangelism or program directions. But they rarely took next steps—to prod readers to re-examine mission strategy or to expose western limits to appreciating Indian spirituality.
Ecumenist: Would their readers have understood? Don’t overestimate North American insight. Few people there interact deeply with adherents of other living faiths.
Sectarian: Years ago, a man by the name of Lapp informed his co-workers about Hinduism; he explained terms, identified deities and religious literature, and described elements of Hindu society. But whether such knowledge increased sensitivity to Hindus or endorsed new believers’ retaining cultural behaviors is less clear.
North American friends on occasion send me materials. I cringed on reading a title that referred to India: “Cultures Cruel without Gospel.” How will they temper their view of my culture? Although Christians wrote, is justice served by depicting my culture as “cruel”?
Ecumenist: The problem is broader than India, I predict. The title conveys Christian arrogance—if it also implies that Christian cultures are not cruel. The title raises a thorny question: Why do Christians negate other faiths in order to justify their own loyalty?
Sectarian: Might westerners resort more often to the critique because their experience with Hindu or other faith cultures is so limited? By contrast, Wiebe who I mentioned earlier, with decades of experience in India, explains how all religions in India must now be marketed.
Ecumenist: Religions challenge each other more than formerly. Have you seen the book edited by Aruna Gnanadason titled Future of the Church in India? All Indian Christians should read it.
Sectarian: Who are some of the writers?
Ecumenist: M. M. Thomas, Stanley Samartha, S. K. Parmar, Padma Gallup, and others. I’ll see that you get a copy.
Sectarian: Thanks. What else do you recall from Grant’s book?
Ecumenist: Your comment from Wiebe reminds me of how Christian practice and western views have prompted Hindu resurgence.
Grant also observed how people who have never thought of themselves as individuals can hardly be expected to quickly develop a sense of personal faith.
Sectarian: While some of us are more educated, we must enable faith and self-reliance among our people inhibited by the “system.”
Ecumenist: Grant raised other questions:
Why would Hindus be drawn to a religion that resists adapting features of authentic Indian culture? Is borrowing not inevitable? Why was borrowing from the west (with its prior Greek influence) not judged as compromise to faith in Jesus, if to borrow from ‘the best’ of Hindu rites or philosophy is ‘wrong’? Have leaders been less creative with worship because inherited patterns feel alien? Since most Hindu worship around us involves each person’s actions—offering mantras or flowers, creating designs on floors or walls, lighting the lamp—has the shift to a clergyman’s leading worship been too “foreign”?
Sectarian: Does he discuss how people who have experienced worship more as an effort to attain salvation through deeds (Hindu) make the shift to worship that celebrates God’s mighty acts (Christian)? Or, are my stereotypes unfair?
Ecumenist: If anything, he extends the stereotypes. Grant also discusses the missionary influence at length. Even if less pronounced now, we need to assess the traces—inherited patterns of assuming responsibility, a mode of dependence that limits intellectual rigor, thinking of ourselves as “products rather than as active agents.”
Sectarian: Oh, sorry to interrupt. Look at the time! You’d better get to the train station. Thanks for your help
Ecumenist: Of course. I trust we’ll meet again. Here’s my ID card; I’d be glad to hear from you. . .

Having ‘heard’ this dialogue, feel free to reflect on these quotes from S. J. Samartha, in Gnanadason’s book:


God of Christians in India,
God of Christians in North America,
Meld us.
Draw us to each others’ concerns.
Teach us to listen.
Enable our being in You through Jesus the Christ.
Enable us to relinquish fears, to avoid exclusive claims, to openly affirm our faith.
God of Hindus worldwide,
God of Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains,
Meld us with them—at points of integrity.
Draw us to their concerns.
Teach us to listen to them.
Enable their being in You, through Your Wisdom.
In You we trust. Guide us through mistrust to trust on the human level.



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Gnanadason, Aruna, ed. The Future of the Church in India. Platinum (75th) Jubilee of NCCI 1914-1989, Nagpur: NCCI, 1990.

Grant, John Webster. God’s People in India. Madras: Christian Literature Society, 1959.

Historical Committee, American Mennonite Mission, Dhamtari, C. P., India. The Love of Christ Hath Constrained Us. Scottdale, Pa: Mennonite Publishing House, 1949, 64 pp.

Lapp, John Allen. The Mennonite Church in India. Scottdale, Pa: Herald Pr., 1972.

Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities. Today in India. Elkhart, 1952, 48 pp.

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Webster, John C. B. The Dalit Christians, A History. Delhi: ISPCK (Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge), 1992.

Wiebe, Paul D. Christians in Andhra Pradesh The Mennonites of Mahbubnagar. Madras: CLS, 1988.

Wilson, H. S. Book review The Mennonite Church in India by P. J. Malagar. Nagpur: NCCI, 1981, in Religion and Society, xxix/2, June 1982, 88-89.

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_____. The Indian Church Identity and Fulfilment. Madras: CLS, 1971.