This paper looks at problems that have occurred in Church of Christ missions by focusing on a case study in India called the Arise Shine Church of Christ Mission. The paper argues that paternalism in a cappella church missions has led to a “time capsule effect” wherein churches in India have become stultified. Indian Church of Christ members have developed a hybrid identity. They try to be faithful to the sending churches—in this case Canada’s valiant missionary J. C. Bailey—but they have to balance it with faithfulness to their own culture. Several issues are brought forth such as Bible translations (especially the use of the King James Version), contextualization and indigenization, and the unfortunate dependency that often arises in Church of Christ missions efforts.
To begin, I will share a quotation from the person described by Christianity Today as “the most important person you don’t know.” Andrew Walls is the dean of the relatively new discipline that I work in, known as world Christianity, or global Christianity. Walls is a Scottish, Oxbridge educated scholar who went to Sierra Leone in 1957 to serve as a church history professor in a colonial college. What he witnessed in Africa changed his understanding of Christianity and gave birth to a new academic discipline. While “happily pontificating” on early Christianity, Walls came to realize he “was actually living in a second-century church.” Africans were rapidly turning to Christ, and he was a front-row observer. He began to see that the Christianity his British compatriots had established was becoming translated and assimilated to the local context in creative, unpredictable ways. Africa was becoming the Christian heartland of the world, but it was complex, uncontrolled, vibrantly new, and unsettled.
Walls has made a career out of analyzing how Christianity gets translated and indigenized in new cultures. In his view, this is the genius of Christianity; its “translatability.” Walls’s ideas overhauled the field of church history to the point that most classic models are now obsolete. His work has impacted the discipline to the point that no longer can the history of Christians be told in an exclusively Western framework: Acts to Augustine to Aquinas to Luther to Wesley to Barth. Now, church history should be told in all its manifold greatness and extreme diversity. At Pepperdine I advertise my World Christianity course as a study of Christianity that moves from South Korea to South America, from South Africa to South Carolina.
Andrew Walls has globalized the discipline of church history by making us think globally, even when dealing with our own personal, local faith traditions. In his watershed essay, “Eusebius Tries Again: Reconceiving the Study of Christian History” he writes:
The church that is the subject of church history is implicitly defined as the church we ourselves know—our tradition as it has developed. In principle, there is no harm in this focus, provided we know what we are doing, and provided also we do more than this. It is natural and right to seek to understand one’s own tradition; it means to know who one’s ancestors are.
But there are lurking dangers, both historical and theological. One is that we think by the study of our own tradition we are doing church history. We are not—we are doing our church history. If this is the only lens through which we study Christian history, we have bypassed the story of the whole people of God in favor of clan history. Such an approach reduces the area in which we look for the works of God, whereas the promises of God are to all who trust them. The Lord of Hosts is not to be treated as a territorial Baal.
Walls’s recommendation is a “Reconception of the Syllabus.” I am only one of many in a new generation who have taken Walls’s advice seriously, and most of the “history” that I write, I like to believe, respects the “whole history of the people of God.”
As a result, this article is a hybrid of local and global. It is “local” in the sense that it is indeed “clan history.” It is global in the sense that it is looking at how my form of Christianity managed to make its way to the other side of the planet. While not explicit, it has a practical dimension to it as well. It analyzes a small moment in time in the Churches of Christ missionary experience.
I am sensitive to the fact that these events took place within my clan, among my people. Telling stories such as these are important, but must be done carefully. I certainly hope that by looking at the mistakes and triumphs of our forebears, we learn to improve. It is my goal to be sensitive to whatever tradition I study, be it a different form of Christianity or a different religion altogether. We must treat other traditions with respect and dignity when telling their story. However, the same should apply when telling our own story. In this article, I try to handle my Restoration history with great care since it is the tradition that nourished me, and it is the tradition wherein I encounter the Risen Christ as Savior and Lord.
Due partly to paternalism in the church, the non-instrumental—or a cappella— Churches of Christ in India have become a time capsule wherein members show great loyalty to the form of Christianity brought to them decades earlier by deeply convicted missionaries. A hybrid identity develops, and it is fraught with ambivalence, resulting in social dislocation. Members become increasingly isolated on two fronts: (1) their own culture views them as insular and sectarian, while (2) their supporting congregations in the Western world see them as out of touch with newer developments in the faith, sometimes legalistically holding on to teachings long considered obsolete in the home church, or, the sending church. This article examines issues in cross-cultural missions, focusing on paternalism and the continued use of the King James Version of the Bible in a Church of Christ network in South India. I use the KJV as a touchstone for investigating complex issues that arise when Christianity is planted from one culture into another, very different one.
In 2003 I traveled to India for the first time to do my doctoral research. I needed to access archives and conduct interviews in several places, but it was crucial that I travel to the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu. In preparation for my trip I did a Google search for “India Church of Christ” and the first hit was http://indiachurchofchrist.com.
I had a good feeling about the website, particularly since it had many hallmarks of the Church of Christ tradition, notably the ubiquitous use of the King James Version of the Bible. At the top of the homepage it read “I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness (John 12:46).” When combining this website’s “C of C” jargon, its strong emphasis on immersion for the forgiveness of sins, and the use of the KJV, it was a dead giveaway: I was dealing with old school, died-in-the-wool, bona fide Church of Christ folk.
I immediately sent an email to that church, which happened to be based in Chennai. I had never been to India, I had no idea who these people were, and I knew not one person in the entire nation of India. The next day I had a reply in my inbox. They claimed to be faithful Church of Christ members, they were happy to pick me up at the airport, they offered to feed and house me during my stay, and they promised to provide any kind of support that I might need for as long as I needed it. Such is the nature of membership in the Church of Christ; there is immediate trust and rapport, even amongst strangers.
The Church of Christ
The Church of Christ is a loosely organized fellowship of over three million members worldwide. They refuse to call themselves a denomination since they have no hierarchy, creed, or central organization. Rooted in the Scottish independence church movements of the eighteenth century, they matured under the leadership of Thomas (1763–1854) and Alexander Campbell (1788–1866) and Barton W. Stone (1772–1844) in the nineteenth century. All three of these men began their careers as Presbyterian ministers. The Campbells were immigrants from Scotland while Stone was born near Port Tobacco, Maryland. Their early careers coincided with a very fractious time in the Presbyterian Church on both sides of the Atlantic. Discouraged, all three of them broke away from their Presbyterian affiliations in order to pursue a more ecumenical approach that emphasized the reasonableness of the Bible in determining right Christian doctrine and practice. With great confidence, they proclaimed their system and approach as a true “Restoration,” meaning they believed the ancient practices of the early church as portrayed in the New Testament were finally being restored.
The movement was attractive, and it mushroomed. It was a major player in the ecclesial context of early America, especially in the Second Great Awakening of the nineteenth century. This “Stone-Campbell” tradition grew and fragmented several times. It is estimated today that there are approximately 14 million people in 180 countries who associate themselves with the larger Restoration Movement. To be clear, the specific wing of the tradition that I am associated with—and the tradition dealt with in this article—is the non-instrumental Church of Christ. Without unpacking the nuances and distinctions between the various streams of the Restoration movement, it will suffice to point out that the most distinctive feature of the “Church of Christ” is the lack of instruments in worship. Thus this specific movement is generally referred to as the a cappella wing of the Stone-Campbell tradition, or the “non-instrumental Churches of Christ.” As the Restoration tradition splintered in the late-nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, the a cappella group made its mark as the most theologically conservative strand of the movement, and it still carries that reputation.
The Church of Christ in India and the KJV
The United States has the largest national Church of Christ population with around 1.6 million members. India also has a significant Church of Christ presence with estimates ranging from 600,000 to over a million. The story of how the Church of Christ tradition developed in India reflects fascinating cross-cultural dynamics and brings up numerous issues in missions and the indigenization of faith. The persistent use of the KJV in India is one of those issues, and is timely considering the 400-year anniversary of the translation. It is also an area rather unexplored.
It is important to point out that the Church of Christ was never beholden to the King James Version. Indeed Alexander Campbell edited a translation of the New Testament called The Living Oracles in 1826. While “extremely popular” in Restoration circles, it was “severely criticized by other church bodies” during its day. Nevertheless, due largely to Campbell’s influence, his movement had a very strong “back to the Bible” emphasis. Restoration scholars were at the vanguard of Bible translation throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, pressing for the most precise translations using the oldest and most respected manuscripts available. And the King James Version was insufficient on two fronts: (1) the Elizabethan dialect no longer reflected the spoken English of the day, and (2) the manuscripts used in 1611 had been surpassed by superior, more ancient ones.
It might come as a surprise, then, to learn that until the mid-twentieth century, the KJV’s dominant status in the Church of Christ was never in question. The Scopes Trial in 1925 had the effect of drawing a line in the sand between liberals and conservatives in the United States, and certain individuals in the Church of Christ began “championing the sole use of the KJV.” With the publication of the Revised Standard Version in 1946, more conservative elements in the Church of Christ reacted. Led by Foy E. Wallace (1896–1979), a polarizing preacher and influential editor of Church of Christ journals, the KJV enjoyed renewed privilege. During the last decade of Wallace’s life, he “continued to speak about errors he saw in ‘the new versions’ in almost every sermon.” That was in the late 1960s and early 1970s—the very years that the Church of Christ presence was beginning to grow in India.
In general, the Church of Christ missionaries to India planted a faith strikingly similar to the one they knew back home. There was little regard for the unique cultural context of South Asia. Cultural intricacies were scarcely taken into account as the gospel was disseminated along the eastern coast from Shillong in the tribal northeast to Madras in the south. And the gospel as understood by those pioneering preachers was plain and simple. As Jesus announced in Matthew 7:14, “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (kjv).
Indeed, North American a cappella Churches of Christ in the mid-twentieth century had an exclusivist soteriology that was transported overseas through mission work. This is clearly evinced in an annual Church of Christ missions report entitled The Harvest Field. In 1947, in the chapter on India, the author Bill Phillips deplored the status of religion in that country. He wrote, “The Hindu religion is one of the most iniquitous systems ever devised by man. Surely Satan must have had a direct hand in riveting the shackles of such bondage upon a helpless people.” For the year 1947, that perspective was not unique to Churches of Christ. What is surprising, however, is the blatant censure of other Christians conducting mission work there. Phillips continues:
And what shall we say of those who in their search for Christ have turned to the denominations? They have not the truth, for the denominations have not the truth, and only the truth can save them.
Phillips laments that, to his knowledge, there is not a single Church of Christ missionary in all of India. He then provides very curious advice for the prospective Church of Christ missionary who might venture into the Indian mission field: “I am inclined to recommend ‘invading’ the territory of the Christian Church . . . but others might not consider this the best policy.”
This was a very strange perspective because, theologically, the Christian Church is the closest relative to the Church of Christ. The major difference is that the Christian Church chose to use instruments in worship whereas the Church of Christ did not. Phillips reasoned that the most logical targets for evangelism were actually those closest to the Church of Christ because they could be won with the least resistance. Hindus could not be effectively evangelized unless one was to go through the rigors of learning local Indian dialects. “Mohammedans”—or, Muslims—were considered too tenacious in their beliefs and were therefore not a good place to start. Other Christians, however, were fair game, especially those who shared the Restoration heritage. I shall return to this point later.
Arise Shine Mission History
The case study for this article is a Church of Christ network based in Chennai, south India. They go by the name Arise Shine Church of Christ Mission, or, ASCOCM. They are a registered charity in India and do all kinds of relief and benevolent work ranging from orphan homes to disaster relief. They have around 60 village churches involved with “the mission” as they call it, and they employ preachers in most of these. Their work is concentrated in the states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and is overseen by a group of elders. The real authority, however, is the director of the charity, a young preacher named Jasuran Roy Knight. I know Roy Knight personally and have spent considerable time with him in India and in the US. He was born in 1979 to Indian Church of Christ parents. In 1995 he was baptized at the age of 16. After considering various occupations, he chose to become a preacher.
Roy’s personal faith testimony revolves around two important biblical passages: the Great Commission of Matthew 28, and Isaiah 60:1, “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee.” Disgusted by what he deems the “idol worship” of his birth country, he vowed to rise up and bring Christ to his countrymen. He claims to have experienced severe resistance in his ministry. People have spit at him, used witchcraft against him, thrown poisonous snakes at him, and even attacked him—in one case with a knife that left gruesome scars on his arms. He even claims that one of his coworkers was murdered in 2008 for preaching the gospel in a hostile village. Over the last decade, Roy has assembled a ragtag team of evangelists who preach the gospel against the odds. They are poorly paid and rely on Roy’s fundraising to make ends meet. These men take charge of one or two village churches and Roy makes his rounds to each of them, usually over the course of a month. One of the first preachers he recruited to the work was an untouchable Hindu man with leprosy who accepted the gospel in 1999 and began ministering almost immediately.
While the Arise Shine Church of Christ Mission is only about a decade old, its antecedents go back to the 1920s when Roy’s great grandfather, a Hindu man, converted to Christianity after being persuaded by North American missionaries. These missionaries were not from the Church of Christ, however. While there were a few scattered Church of Christ elements in India by that time, this family was evangelized by J. C. Bailey, a Canadian missionary who, in their words, “trained many 1000s of preachers and workers and faithful Christians.” A humble training school was soon developed and Roy’s maternal grandfather, G. D. Yesudin, took a leading role in the indigenization of the faith, planting churches and conducting an impressive ministry in rural villages.
Yesudin died in 1977 and his daughter and son-in-law—Roy’s parents—began taking the reins of leadership in the church. Roy’s father, Dayalan, is a gentle and quiet man. He spent his working life employed by the Swiss elevator and escalator company KONE, earning a good salary. He started a house congregation in 1978 and remained committed to the Church of Christ even when they moved to new towns because of his employment. Roy’s parents were doggedly committed to raising their children in the Church of Christ, in spite of the cultural baggage it entailed. They conducted church services in their home and from time to time gathered with like-minded Church of Christ people from other towns. Occasionally, North American missionaries would come, although these visits became less frequent through the years. While Roy’s father Dayalan remained loyal to the Church of Christ tradition, his docile personality prevented him from being an effective evangelist. His role was to keep the Church of Christ beliefs and traditions alive, which he did.
Roy Knight is Dayalan’s oldest son. He has a personality completely different from his father. He is charismatic and outgoing. He has worked for over a decade to expand his family’s church and mission. A highly entrepreneurial minister, Roy organized their ministry into a government-registered charity. He has had great success raising funds in several countries including Singapore, Britain, Germany, Canada, and the US. The daily workload he carries is exhausting, consisting of regular travels to remote villages on dilapidated roads, preaching in several languages, arranging marriages for young couples, sorting out church conflicts, running an orphanage, and managing church finances. He claims to have baptized around two thousand people.
Arise Shine and the KJV
The vast majority of Arise Shine’s 60-odd churches function in the vernacular, which is usually Tamil or Telugu, the languages of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Most of the members are poor, uneducated village folk and do not speak English. However, a few of their city churches are English-speaking. In my interactions with Roy, I began noticing that when preaching in English or studying an English-language Bible, he and his cohorts use the KJV. I thought this was odd because the merits of using a more updated version of the Bible are obvious; the KJV’s English is difficult enough for Americans, hence its dwindling popularity. Furthermore, Indians who speak English normally do so as a second or third language after their vernacular and Hindi, and the antiquated KJV would seem even less comprehensible for them. However, when citing the KJV, I noticed Roy evincing a bizarre fluency.
After repeated conversations I came to realize that the language of the KJV was not the primary issue here; it was much more complex than that. Loyalty to the KJV is directly linked to loyalty to the tradition that had been taught to them in years past by highly committed missionaries. These American missionaries are heroic in the collective memory of this Church of Christ community. They propagated their faith with great confidence. Their version of Christian truth is still canonical in this network. And visiting Roy’s group of churches is like witnessing the opening of a time capsule, like stepping back in time to the Church of Christ of my grandparents. Their teachings and practices have not evolved or indigenized like I had expected. Within 24 hours of my first arrival to Chennai I found myself entangled in long discussions about why instruments in the worship setting could jeopardize a person’s soul, why non-Church of Christ Christians are theologically suspect, why drinking alcohol is a sin, and why women must take no leadership role whatsoever in public worship. Furthermore, I had heard the same arguments laid out in the same ways in the United States. I recognized these teachings as a part of the conservative strands of the Church of Christ heritage, but to witness them being propagated boldly in twenty-first century India hinted at two things: (1) this network probably received support from the most conservative Churches of Christ in North America; and (2) loyalty to the old ways of the missionaries took precedence over cultural relevance in this ministry.
When I arrived to India, I was given a hero’s welcome due to a strange twist of irony. While Indians are famously hospitable, and the Church of Christ connection certainly deepened the immediate level of trust between this community and me, there was something else going on. At the Chennai airport, an SUV full of Church of Christ preachers received me like a long-lost relative, with enthusiastic cheers. I found out later, after lengthy discussions, that they thought I was associated with the missionaries who had brought the gospel to them decades before. I, however, was clueless to all that.
Canadian Missionary J. C. Bailey
When I first traveled to India in 2003 I was actually working on my PhD at the University of Calgary, Canada. This was significant because upon arrival to India, I was surprised to find that this work was actually founded by a legendary Church of Christ missionary from Canada. His name was J. C. Bailey (1903–2001). In 1963, at the age of 59, Bailey moved to India as a missionary after many years working in ministry, education, and publishing. His towering stature in the Canadian Church of Christ scene is well known and is the subject of at least one master’s thesis. I never met J. C. Bailey but I did talk with his brother Cecil by phone once; he called me in 1999 to warmly welcome me to Calgary right before I moved there from Texas. Cecil explained that he would not greet me personally since he was soon to retire to Saskatchewan—at the age of 95. Like his brother J. C., Cecil was a missionary to India for many years.
When these Tamil Christians in Chennai found out I was coming from Canada, they figured I was associated with J. C. Bailey—a very logical assumption—and were very excited to receive me. I burst their bubble by telling them I did not know Bailey and knew almost nothing about his missionary work in India. In their minds, I had been sent to India to “check-up” on the status of the mission and rekindle the connection to the Canadian churches—a connection that had faded through the years. They were disappointed to learn that I merely wanted a place to stay while I did my research. And my dissertation had nothing to do with the Church of Christ movement. I was happy to meet their preachers, visit the orphanage, and even speak in some churches, but my focus was on research. I was clear: I intended to spend my time not out on the front lines of evangelism but in dusty archives at theologically questionable institutions. I was scarcely a shadow of my predecessor, the valorous J. C. Bailey.
In India as well as in Canada, J. C. Bailey is as much myth as man. In his obituary from 2001, one realizes the venerable status reserved only for the most elite “soldiers of the cross”:
Bailey’s influence on people was powerful. . . . He preached his first sermon when he was 17. . . . Bailey was always pushing into new frontiers in an unrelenting quest to seek and save the lost. Whether preaching in a schoolhouse in south Saskatchewan or in the scorching heat of an Indian marketplace, he was ever moving and ever pressing the battle for truth in the kingdom of God. . . . Nothing else seemed to be important except preaching the word and persuading men and women to obey the Lord. . . . As Gandhi stirred the heart of India’s people politically, so brother Bailey stirred their hearts in spiritual things. . . . His love for God encouraged people to change their lives. . . . If there ever was a man whose physical appearance, manner, and movement was that of a great Army General, it was J. C. Bailey. But this tall, straight man with long strides and brisk walk . . . was truly a STALWART SOLDIER OF JESUS CHRIST. Most of us who knew him thought he accomplished more in his fight for the right than any man we had ever known. . . . Like Stonewall Jackson, he had a tremendous ability to inspire his fellow soldiers to fight faithfully and stand valiantly!
On April 25, 1963, J. C. Bailey and his crew arrived to northeast India to evangelize the people of what is now Meghalaya and Assam. However, within a few short months of arrival, in September, he moved south to Madras. Eventually he set up his mission base at Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh, where he found “South India was a riper field than North India.” His co-missionaries in the north of India were devastated. David Hallett, one of the members of the team, recounted that moment in his memoirs:
Then in September of 1963, such a short time after arrival in Shillong, J. C. decided that he and his family would go to Southern India. Of course he offered such to us, but we all knew he was the one going. Ray and I had been promised support of two hundred dollars per month, each, by J. C. We came on one-way tickets. Then the bomb dropped: J. C. would go south and take all the money with him. His promises to the Perrys, Ray and me failed. We were without money support. Talk about being left “high and dry!” We were half way around the world and now what? J. C. had the money. . . . All other monies also went with him. J. C. took little interest in the Northeast and the three small congregations and us. He was what I call a trail blazer, always being lured on by a greener pasture in the venture for souls. During this time, if I had a return ticket I would have left.
Although various Church of Christ missionaries preceded him, Bailey is described as “lighting a spark for the evangelization of India.” What was meant by this, however, was that Bailey lit the spark for a distinctly Church of Christ evangelization in India. When Bailey arrived in 1963, he actually found three a cappella congregations totaling approximately 80 members.
Bailey worked as a missionary to India for twenty-five years, from 1963 to 1988. During the first nine years he took residence in India. In 1972 he moved back to Canada. Between 1972 and 1988 he made twenty more evangelistic trips. It is estimated that over 100,000 faithful Church of Christ members resulted from his ministry there. However, statistics in India are rarely taken at face value. For example, Bailey’s first convert in the state of Andhra Pradesh, Joshua Gootam, claims, “There are now estimated to be more than 2 million members of the church [meaning Church of Christ] in this state alone.” Nevertheless, the point should not be missed: prior to J. C. Bailey’s arrival in 1963, there were scant traces of the a cappella Church of Christ in India. By the end of his ministry in that nation, there were hundreds of thousands of members—and many of them could trace their origins to Bailey’s work.
Bailey’s great successes and conviction have not been forgotten. This was the great heyday of the non-instrumental Church of Christ in India, and Bailey’s impressive work fostered extreme loyalty to him. Faithfulness and loyalty to this strong leader has resulted in what I am calling a “time capsule effect.” The continued use of the KJV is one aspect of a much larger issue that has historically been identified as “paternalism” in the church. Paternalism is a concept that has been denounced by missionaries and church historians for decades, but Christian leaders even still continue to battle it.
Ideally, missionaries plant churches that evolve and indigenize, and one day become independent. However, the opposite often happens: churches become stunted in their development, becoming ever more dependent on the supporting churches in the West. This loyalty to the parent church is reinforced in various ways: (1) through the memory of the heroic missionaries and preservation of their theology, (2) through continued financial support, and (3) through an unspoken division of authority wherein the missionary remains a father figure, even long after his death.
The phenomenon of missionary paternalism has received considerable scholarly attention in recent years. Boston University historian Dana Robert writes of the many and serious problems it can cause. It prevents the sending and receiving churches from developing authentic friendships. It thwarts collegiality by perpetuating unbalanced relationships between foreigners and indigenous. The sending church holds the power. It is able to superimpose everything from the leadership of the church to the formulation of its doctrines, no matter how out of synch they may be with the local culture. Robert defines paternalism as a “father-like relationship between the missionary and the people.” This dependency is very difficult to overcome. She argues that “unreflective paternalism” can prove dangerous since it has often “lacked the equality assumed by modern ideals of friendship.”
Another historian, University of Edinburgh’s Brian Stanley, writes that while, theoretically, Indian and Western Christians should work shoulder to shoulder as equals, there are often fault lines—racial and otherwise—that prevent “real, intimate, brotherly and sisterly fellowship.” This imbalance of power is “the most fundamental of all missionary failures,” which is why it touches a “raw nerve in the western Christian conscience.”
Paternalism in the church is not at all unique to Restoration churches. It has long been an Achilles heel for Christian missionaries of other denominations as well, notably the Church of England, which firmly established itself on the Indian subcontinent during the age of empire. Anglican Michael Hollis, Bishop of Madras from 1942 to 1954, bemoaned this situation in his 1962 book entitled Paternalism and the Church. Hollis argued that a strong paternalism developed in the nineteenth century as the template for doing mission work in South India. Decrying the “general subordination of Indian Christians to the missionary,” he advocated strongly for indigenization, claiming, “It is not the business of the foreigner to tell Indians what God wants them to do.” In Hollis’s view, paternalism in the Indian context proved disastrous. Christianity’s natural development in the subcontinent was stunted because of this dependence on the West. He writes:
Broadly speaking, the mission pattern has been too much concerned to ensure that Indian Christians accepted the right formulations of belief, as developed in the West, and followed the right patterns of behavior, again largely in the Western expressions, of what was believed to be the law of God.
Hollis urged Christians in both East and West to wake up to the vast cultural differences between them, and to allow a “more truly Indian and more truly Christian Church” to develop. There is blame on both sides for this continued “white man’s burden” mentality. Indian reliance on Western funds, for example, is unhealthy. It stifles indigenization and prevents the mission church from reaching out in local ways. There is a sense everything has to be approved by a governing body in the West. The Indian Church becomes a misshapen attempt to replicate the pristine gospel as first transplanted by admirable but imperfect missionaries. As the churches in the West evolve theologically and culturally, the missionary church stultifies, becoming less and less relevant to the culture in which it was planted.
The time capsule effect I witnessed in the Indian Church of Christ is not unusual in the larger history of Christian missions. The New Testament itself shows Paul holding sway over the churches he established and the ministers he shaped. On one level, paternalism in the church manifests just how deeply missionaries are loved by the people they convert. Quite understandably, that admiration can last for generations.
However, when I arrived to India and realized they were dealing with the hot-button issues of my grandparents’ generation, I became curious why they had not evolved along a similar trajectory as in the United States. In North America, Churches of Christ currently discuss matters such as whether to have women preachers, what to do about the instrumental music question, and how many millions of dollars can justifiably be spent on a church building. These issues are not even on the radar in India. They talk about why instruments are flatly wrong, why salvation belongs exclusively to the a cappella Church of Christ, and, crucially for this article, why the king’s English is best for the Tamil tongue.
In preparing this piece, I communicated with Roy Knight, the leader of the Arise Shine Church of Christ network, and inquired specifically about his use of the KJV. His reply came almost immediately, “Brother J. C. Bailey used the King James Version.” However, unbeknownst to Roy, J. C. Bailey actually preferred the American Standard Version (ASV), but he used the KJV interchangeably with it. This was not uncommon in North America. Many Church of Christ people actually preferred the literalness of the 1901 ASV because of their “back to the Bible” convictions. In the first half of the twentieth century there was no major controversy over whether the Church of Christ should use the KJV or the ASV. It was not until the second half of the twentieth century that this issue escalated. It was the fiery sermons of Foy E. Wallace that made this issue explosive in North America. These debates played out in the Indian Church of Christ context as well, just more subtly.
I contacted Ray McMillan—one of the missionaries who joined Bailey in 1963—to understand how the KJV came to be normative in many of the English-speaking Churches of Christ in India. Ray outlined a complex story that illustrates the fact that while the KJV and ASV were both accepted, it was the RSV, published around 1950, that was considered by some to be pernicious. Both J. C. Bailey and Ray McMillan arrived to India with the 1901 American Standard Version. However, the third missionary in their group, a former sailor and recent convert named David Hallett, was a KJV-only man.
Ray McMillan was only 21 years old when he began working with J. C. Bailey in 1963. In his ministry, he soon began to realize that the 1901 ASV—like the KJV—was difficult for English-speaking Indians to understand. So shortly before leaving on his first furlough to America, Ray put the controversial—but far more readable—RSV (Revised Standard Version) into the church pews, unaware of the sensitivity of the matter. His colleague, David Hallett, found out about this and took action. When Ray returned to India, he discovered that the RSVs were gone and KJV Bibles had been installed in the pews. He did not cause a fuss about it since he was quite a bit younger than Hallett.
The residual effect is that some English-speaking Church of Christ groups in India still insist on using the KJV. What translation is used generally has to do with the missionary held in the highest regard. For example, in northeast India, the churches under the influence of Ray McMillan are actually using the New International Version now, probably due to his theological influence. After all, he has been involved in their work continuously since 1963. They trust the translation he uses. Other Church of Christ networks, like Arise Shine, have tried to remain loyal to J. C. Bailey and the earlier, more conservative missionaries. The English-speaking churches associated with David Hallett’s ministry—both in India and America—still use the KJV.
A final issue that comes to the fore has to do with hybridity, or, the blended identity that many Indian Christians deal with today. Tamil fealty to the king’s English is part of a much broader phenomenon of living in India with a faith that is perceived as being Western. There is a considerable body of scholarship dealing with religious and cultural hybridity in the context of Indian Christianity. Historian Robert Frykenberg’s work is perhaps the most important. With an unparalleled breadth of understanding, including his own missionary upbringing in India, he speaks of the suffering that many Indians have endured because of this “dual identity.” This hybridity plays out in various ways. For instance, in the nineteenth century there was a “Hindu Christian” movement that became a precursor to Indian independence movements. Describing themselves as “ ‘Hindu’ in culture, Christian in faith,” they upheld Hindu traditions that were objectionable to Europeans. For example, some Hindu Christians directly opposed missionary efforts to dispose of caste-ism in the church. He writes, “Among converts to Christianity . . . what was notable was the tenacity with which they preserved traditional culture and avoided, or even spurned, ways of the West.” Another example was the famous Indian Christian convert Sadhu Sundar Singh who declared “Indians need the Water of Life, but not the European cup.”
In spite of indigenization movements, there were—and are—problems stemming from the hybrid identity of being an Indian and a Christian, especially when caste is involved. A change in religion does not translate to a change in caste. Buddhism, Janism, Sikhism, and Christianity have all—at one point or another—served as vehicles of hope for low-caste people trying to escape the albatross of social stigmatization. And in more cases than not, those attempts have failed. In most cases, caste is more fundamental to Indian identity than is religion. It is much easier for one to change his or her religion than it is to change caste.
In the Indian Churches of Christ, there is definitely a sense of having a foot in two worlds, of living a hybrid existence. Their religion came from North America. However, the majority of them know little of North America outside of media influences, stories, and the occasional missionary visit. For most of the Church of Christ members however, particularly in the village, North America is that Christian land from whence their heroes in the faith came.
Living as a Church of Christ Christian in a sea of non-Church of Christ people requires a certain duality that allows the Christian to function as a member of Indian society without compromising the Christian ideals that have become sacred to the community. There are many tensions in living this way, however. Church of Christ identity in modern India is a rather insular affiliation, perhaps best exemplified in an old, self-deprecating Church of Christ joke: A man dies and goes to heaven. The apostle Peter welcomes him and gives him a tour of heaven. As they walk they notice Christians of all stripes—Methodists, Baptists, and Catholics. But then the man asks Peter, “Who are those people in that room by themselves?” Peter responds, “Shhhh . . . those are members of the Church of Christ; they think they’re the only ones here.” Here again we encounter another one of those issues that was central a few generations ago in the Church of Christ, but today is considered rather backward and outdated. Today, very few American Church of Christ members under the age of 40 argue theirs is the only group with a heavenly passport. But in India, this teaching is still common, even assumed. I know from personal experience because I questioned it once . . . and should not have.
To return to Andrew Walls, and his experiences in Sierra Leone, he described the amazing situation he was observing as “a symbiosis, very carefully fused.” He recognized the indigenous forms of faith as being Christian, of course, but with a profoundly African bent. He discusses how when he first arrived to Africa, he was depressed by what he saw. Christianity there was uncontrolled, unrestrained, and in many ways foreign to his conservatively tamed Methodist background. However, after ruminating on the implications of a truly African revival taking place, Walls experienced a “very definite movement from depression to hope.” During Walls’s ministry in Sierra Leone, the days of European control over African politics were grinding to a halt—Sierra Leone itself gained independence from Britain in 1961. The Christian faith that the missionaries had brought, however, would remain. It was almost as if Britain handed the baton of faith to Africa. Britain is largely secular now while Africa is home to 500 million Christians and growing. Christianity is now the largest religion on the continent of Africa—a statistic unimaginable a century ago.
The Church of Christ in India, however, has not turned into the fused symbiosis that Walls witnessed in Africa. Rather, the time capsule would be a more fitting analogy. And major challenges loom because of this theological and cultural stagnation. Members remain deeply loyal to the form of Christianity brought to them decades earlier by stalwart missionaries. This hybrid identity is fraught with ambivalence, resulting in a form of social dislocation. Members become increasingly isolated—they appear insular and sectarian in their own culture, yet remain somehow different and distant from the Churches of Christ in the West. To borrow a concept from prominent sociologist Peter Berger, these Christians become “homeless minds”—unable to call either culture home, yet marginally affiliated with both.
It appears to me that the Indian Churches of Christ with which I am associated have made a decision. They have chosen the faith of the zealous evangelists who first came to them half a century ago. And it appears that faithfulness to the traditions of those missionaries has become necessary for ecclesial survival. Challenging the faith of the missionaries could prove disruptive on a number of levels. For instance, it could destabilize conviction in a setting where religious commitments must be sheltered from the religious cacophony in the surrounding culture. The case of the KJV illustrates why loyalty to the old paths must be maintained. If confidence in the Bible can be eroded, then the solid faith that was built on a “back to the Bible” worldview could become crippled. Moreover, if one aspect of the missionaries can be critiqued, then where does the scrutinizing end? Thus, it has become taboo to question the founding fathers.
So far, the Arise Shine Church of Christ members have made the collective decision to resist the larger culture and live a rather insular existence. Forsaking all others they hold on tightly to their image of J. C. Bailey. Conversion has always come with benefits as well as challenges. The risks of being persecuted, marginalized, or cast out must be weighed against spiritual liberation, social mobility, or other opportunities that might otherwise not exist. The benefits can be palpable, but there is a gamble. Indians are faced with a balancing act between how to be Church of Christ without abandoning their Indian identity. The stakes are high, the situation complex.
I conclude with a story relayed to me by Ray McMillan, one of the two missionaries who went to India with Bailey’s family. Ray told me that on his first Sunday in India, J. C. Bailey took him to a community near Shillong, Meghalaya, to preach publicly using a microphone and a portable amplifier. Bailey preached about the evils of instruments in the church. He scorned the concept of missionary societies, arguing they were unbiblical. He took issue with church names, arguing that “Church of Christ” was the only acceptable name for a church. He unpacked the subtleties of why the Church of Christ is distinct from the independent Christian Church. Ray thought the sermon to be awkward and irrelevant to these people who had no knowledge of these esoteric debates that went on in the North American context.
The two missionaries split shortly after that, due mainly to Bailey’s move to south India. Nevertheless, Bailey remained convinced that Ray was far too liberal to work as a missionary in the foreign field. In his memoirs, Bailey wrote that Ray McMillan had proven himself to be “unfaithful” to the gospel. Fifty years later, however, Ray continues his missionary work in India. When Ray told me that story, he tried to chuckle and gloss it over. I sensed, however, that those words still hurt him deep down.
Dyron Daughrity is Associate Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. He is the author of numerous academic publications, including his most recent book Church History: Five Approaches to a Global Discipline (New York: Peter Lang, 2012). He can be reached at: email@example.com.
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