An Identity Crisis – The Church From The East

Written By: on Jun 25th, 2009 and filed under Columns, Opinions.


My wife and I visited a local clinic the other day. The nurse was interested to know about us, probably noticing our skin color (we are brown-skinned as are most of us from India) and our names (which are distinctly Christian sounding). “Where are you from?” she asked. “From South India” I told her. “Hmm, the blessed missionaries,” she uttered under her breath, smiling knowingly. I knew what she was thinking and did not blame her. She, like many people in the West knew of Christianity in India as either the work of Roman Catholic or Anglican missionaries from the West. I wanted to tell her that assumption was wrong. I wanted to tell her about the church in India that is as old as any in Christendom, but I just sighed.

I once had a boss who told me, “Your name just cannot be Mathew Samuel. It’s got to have some middle name that I cannot pronounce.” He was referring to the names of Christians from India he had met who perhaps had their family names as their middle names. I told him my name was common in South India where I was born. I wanted to tell him about the Church of St. Thomas in India, but I just smiled.

The sad truth is that this identity crisis for the Christian church from the East is not just from outside. Ask a Malankara Orthodox Christian (Malankara refers to the place where St. Thomas, one of the 12 disciples, is believed to have landed in India from the sea) if he is Catholic or Protestant and you are likely to get answers like “I think Catholic because we are not liberals” or “I think Protestant because we do not have a pope.”

Over the centuries, Indian Christians were nurtured spiritually by traditions and clergy from various regions, including Persia and Syria. That the Malankara Church (or Indian Orthodox Church as it is now known) has a lineage starting from a time when the Roman Catholic Church was called the Church of Rome is news to most Christians.

While the Armenian and Russian churches were persecuted by their local rulers, Indian Church leaders were honored by Hindu kings. The Indian Church assimilated aspects of Hindu culture, such as the tying of a knot during the marriage ceremony, while maintaining an Oriental Orthodox Christian faith, similar to the Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian and Syrian churches. This unique blend of cross-bearing “Hindus” did not go unnoticed by the Western imperialists who followed Vasco da Gama in 1498 to the rich land of India, who saw them as “pagans” and vowed to bring them to the faith.

Thus began a sad part of Indian Orthodox Church history, which included links with the Catholic Church, links with Protestant missionaries and help from the Syrian Church. Sadly each encounter, with friend and foe, took its toll and there were breakaway groups that wounded the church. It found its footing around the turn of the 20th century with a realization of its roots dating to the beginning of Christianity and the establishment of a Catholicate, or headquarters, in Kerala, South India, in 1912.

Christianity in India today includes Roman Catholics, Protestants, and two factions claiming to be Orthodox Christians. (I belong to one of those.) Add to this the flow of missionaries and evangelists from the West who see India as a fertile land for implantation of their own versions of the Gospel. This tumultuous history of the original Indian Church has taken away its focus from the true priorities, which is to be the Church of India and of the East, to show the love of Christ to India. A bitter quarrel over control of church property lingers between the two factions.

Now in its second and third generations as an immigrant community in the United States, the Indian Orthodox Church faces the challenges of language barriers, cultural differences and the eternal balancing act to preserve its traditions while ensuring a meaningful Christian life to its children in American society. The church is tackling these new issues. But the original identity crisis remains and only awareness and education can help stem the rot, and enable the church to flourish in this country.

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7 Responses for “An Identity Crisis – The Church From The East”

  1. The confusion starts at the post’s title itself : The Church from the East is similar to ‘Church of the East’, which actually refers to the Chaldean church.

  2. bitukan mamo says:

    thanks to god b/c i don’t expect orthodox church in india god bless all indian orthodox belifer

  3. Tom says:

    As Mr. Mathew Samuel described about the above subject, there is another type of crisis is seen among the families of Marthomite and Jacobites/Orthodox as I was observed, I don’t know whether this exists in other churches also.

    Due to various reasons we are ignoring or sidelined these issues once we are searching for a bride or groom.

    I am not sure about the stand of our church about these issues.

    After the marriage, wives are supposed to accept the faith and belief of the church of the husband as commonly seen (also vice versa happens as per the understanding between both families)

    I have seen the children of Marthomite father and mother from Jacobite/Orthodox churches (before the marriage) are following as what orthodox/Jacobite follows such as Praying Hail Mary, Visiting Parumala and Manarcadu churches.

    Also I come across, Orthodox families where the wife is from a marthomite family feels difficult to adjust the customs of Orthodox church such as the prayer to departed, Prayer Hail Mary, Visiting of Parumala or Manarcadu or even confession to priest. In such cases the next generation of such couples may be Orthodox by birth but without any loyality to the church.

    There are many people now itself who in their Middle age still don’t know how to confess to priest, its important as now a days people come in the middle of worship and stand in queue while priest ask to come forward those who prepared for “hoosoyo” but it seems many don’t know how to prepare for hoosoyo. What are the differences of holy confession and hoosoyo?

    Many members of our churches are members just only because they born in orthodox Christian family. Some are Marthodox (children out of orthodox and marthoma couple.)

    So I think some thing to be done if the church is interested that its people have pure orthodox faith, as church cannot stop the marriages between people from different faith as I don’t think church will not think it need people just as members who is paying all the amounts in various names for the church. Church also should do some thing to stop the flow of our people to other churches, as Pentecost people in various names are active to increase their member ship. In the past many people (closely associated with all church activities) left to Pentecost churches.

    In many Pentecost congregations, they are utilizing some portion of the time only to speak and blame the Marthoma and Orthodox Church as many are from these two churches as propaganda to attract more people from this church, slowly due to this brainwash and due to the sweet words, by various types of help many people will join with them .

  4. Vilson says:

    Why we should bother about what others think about us. We ourself made this assumption the while coloured people from west and Middle East have some thing more than what we have. Colour is not the one make people closer to God.

    We indians especially Malayalee Christians in the past might have honoured (i am not sure ) may came from Middle East with their attire which resembles the attire of our priests and bishops as priest and bishops. Because by seeing painting of the so called bishops visited in past not looks like bishops if we compare their attire once we compare the commonly used attire in the middle east by common people (sorry if i am wrong).

    So, it is because of Mr mathew’s wrong assumption he felt he is having identity crisis or may be in US.

    Even regarding the church founded by St Thomas In India is wrong as Ambi says, shall i argue what proof any one have that Latin Catholics or greek or Syrians are preached christianity in India.

    This arguments are just like one ask whether there was Jesus, Why cant Bible be another story Book or why we need Christ why cant one universal God.

  5. Ambi says:

    There is no proof whatsoever that St. Thomas was in India. It is a theory based on belief. Assume that Thmas the Deciple of Jesus came to India his mission is to pass the docrines of jesus to the people of India. The limited time he had he will be focussing on the doctrines, not making churches. Jesus himself made no churches. There must be something wrong with St. Thomas for doing something that Jesus never did. People shuld focus more seriously on history
    like Knayi

  6. K.C. Thomas says:

    “Now in its second and third generations as an immigrant community in the United States, the Indian Orthodox Church faces the challenges of language barriers, cultural differences and the eternal balancing act to preserve its traditions while ensuring a meaningful Christian life to its children in American society. The church is tackling these new issues.”

    And if we are honest, can we say that the church is tackling it well ?
    From what I have seen I would have to say no, imo. It seems to be struggling
    with retention of 2nd generation kids once they reach adulthood. I don’t know if any statistics have been captured on that, but it would be well worth the effort to get some frank, and probably painful, answers. At present, unfortunately, the Indian Orthodix church in America appears to be sustained largely, if not solely, by 1st generation immigrants. That does not bode well for the spiritual well-being of the next generation as they get swept along and lost into the currents of an increasingly secular ethos. Those that are not, often gravitate to evangelical Protestant sects to meet their spiritual needs and the attraction of these churches must be recognized as powerful .
    The situation is more dire than the Orthodox church apparently realizes or is willing to to acknowledge. Is it not better to address these issues now rather than later ?

  7. David Mathew says:

    Identity crisis is a conflict between some cultures. The land America consists of various culture. But the people , specially from south seems some sort of skin complexion with respect to fair/white skins hails from Europe, and parts of the world. This type of ” Madamma -Sayippu” higher priority generates some inferior level of quality among brown / Dark skins. But the modern world of Media must project India as a land of cultures and to be proud of its heritage.

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