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There is little doubt that the gospel was first preached in India by the Apostle Thomas. Thomas and his disciples established “seven and a half churches” have a strong validity in history. Careful reformed scholars would share this belief. However, Christianity did not take root in the Indian subcontinent until much later.
The British Empire through the British East India Company that ruled India for some 400 years but against popular opinion the British discouraged Christianity in India and for many centuries Christianity was only allowed to exist among the expatriate population. Serious missionary work could not make any inroads into the vast Indian population until William Cary and even then his work was with limited success. Cary’s was significant and greatly used of God and his particular contribution of translating the Bible into Indian languages was extraordinary and in deeds the foundation for future evangelism of India.
Although the British East India Company was hostile to Christianity for the general Indian population, it did establish India as a democracy with a Westminster system of government with the separation of powers enshrined, the legislator and judiciary were established separately and the bureaucracy separate to the Armed Forces, which established the foundations of government that India enjoys even today. India is the largest democracy on the earth. English became a unifying language for India as it was used across the entire Indian subcontinent.
From the days of William Cary, the father of modern missions, good numbers of missionaries began work in India but with limited success. Largely educational institutions, hospitals and children’s homes were established to meet the great social needs of the Indian people and these institutions became extremely influential for good and for future gospel ministry in India. Churches were established but largely associated with these institutions and Christianity was generally viewed as a white man’s religion and never became a mass movement amongst the great population of India.
In the decades preceding independence converted Indians began evangelising amongst Indians and one of the significant Christian leaders in this period was brother Bakht Singh who was converted as a student in Canada and returned to India. He began to preach among the low caste street sweepers in Karachi, Pakistan, and in the fullness of time saw the conversion of thousands upon thousands in revival proportions. He noticed that many of his converts struggled because they were not cared for in Bible believing assemblies or congregations.
In and around the partition days and independents brother Bakht Singh gave leadership to Christian leaders to establish local churches or assemblies centring on Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh. These assemblies were distinctively Indian but strongly Bible believing and zealously evangelistic. They were simple, unadorned fellowships that were led by leading brothers that were in effect pastors and elders. These assemblies were spontaneously planted throughout India as a result of evangelism and literally hundreds of these fellowships or congregations were established without Western aid and yet in substantial compounds at times.
Although this work was unconsciously Arminian, it was conservative and non-charismatic. They were evangelical and conservative in an old style Baptist sense of the word but appeared in an Opened Brethren manner. This movement has suffered in the last 15 years with tensions of theological emphasis and has suffered from legalism as it has been reported. It is true that the vigorous growth of these assemblies has come to a standstill.
The missionary institutions and churches have suffered from the theological liberalism and ecumenicalism that have united into an ecumenical church, which in South India is called the Church of South India (CSI) and in North India called the Church of North India (CNI). With some marvelous exceptions to the rule this church is largely are a monolith and resemble the Uniting Church of Australia but is decidedly Episcopalian in government.
The gospel is basically buried. One positive thing can be said about these institutions is that if they had not formed themselves into the CSI and CNI the properties and the institutions would have been taken over by the Hindu government and completely dismantled by the rampant corruption and self-interest that can exist in India.
Emerging out of this, streams of independent Christian work also developed in much the same way as it has in the West. Baptists have continued an effective gospel ministry in various places. Methodists have also done a useful work for the Gospels sake. Brethren Assemblies in like manner have developed independent gospel ministries in various parts of India. As in the West there are worrying excesses of charismatic and Pentecostalism that is gaining greater currency in Indian church life.
However, for our purposes there is an encouraging and emerging work that is being performed by the Presbyterian and Reformed churches that did not unite with the CSI and the CNI. In the late 60s I can recall the exciting news that a Presbyterian Theological Seminary was being established in north India and this was a genuinely Reformed training institution for the future pastors across the Indian subcontinent. This work has been faithfully administering the reformed faith ever since and we are beginning to see the consolidation and unifying of reformed churches throughout India. 10 years ago this work was not as unified as it is today and there is an energy and strength of purpose being developed by the Holy Spirit among these congregations. These works are still continuing from the institutions that missionaries established but through the ministry of PTS they are being run entirely by Indians. Western missionaries have a limited involvement because being a missionary in India is nearly impossible to achieve because of the immigration and visa restrictions. The next stage is church planting and evangelism from these centres into the very fabric of Indian society.
Generally speaking the government has been hostile to Christianity but has valued its contribution in the fields of education, health and welfare.
This hostility has gained momentum from the days of independence in 1948 to last year when the very militant and even fascist right wing BJP government was suddenly voted out of power because of their entrenched hostility against the principle of freedom of religion with particular focus on Christianity. I can recall in the early 70s that we for months and even years were able to freely preach the gospel in the open air without any reprisals. This has now been forbidden and to preach the gospel in the streets is a carefully orchestrated and negotiated occasion.
The Lord intervened in 2004 during the elections when the BJP arrogantly believes that their right to rule India was a sure thing. Sonia Gandhi, of a Roman Catholic background, took the stage with a very effective media and publicly denounced the BJP. The people voted in a moderate but highly educated Muslim as President and although the prime ministership was Sonia Gandhi’s prerogative she humbly handed it over to a highly educated wise Hindu. Sonia Gandhi is one of the most highly res
pected politicians in all of India now and is known as “the power behind the throne”. This has given a window of opportunity for evangelical Christian’s to bear the testimony of the gospel with true freedom.
The missionaries of “Mission to the World” began PTS, which is the missionary arm of the Presbyterian Church in America. It is committed to the Westminster confession of faith and the Netherlands Reform Churches (liberated) also is heavily involved and the seminary therefore holds to the three forms of unity.
PTS is an accredited theological education institution that is registered to offer BTh and M.Div degrees. There is also a pre-theological certificate that is a prerequisite to BTh.
At any one time there is about 80 to 90 students studying at PTS and about 15 to 20 graduating from PTS each year.
The students come from all over the Indian subcontinent and are usually sponsored by the churches that they will return to. That is of course a good opportunity churches in Australia to sponsor students that are studying or may wish to study at PTS. The majority of students at PTS are preparing for the pastorate but there is also a large contingent of females that are preparing for Christian Ministry particularly in schools and other institutions.
Encouraging developments are being seen in the Reformed and Presbyterian witness in India.
Although a lot of the missionary work performed by Presbyterian and reformed missionaries was assumed into the Church of North India (CNI) there was a significant amount of work that remained independent and strongly evangelical.
Indian nationals that have been trained through PTS have successfully replaced the missionaries, which have allowed this work to continue and even flourish. The challenge now is that an extension to these centres of ministry the vision of church planting arising out of evangelism be aggressively followed.
There is a great sense of unity amongst Presbyterian and reformed ministers and congregations that did not exist 10 or 15 years ago. The formation of presbytery’s and regular conferences is now a feature of this group of churches. This unity is on the basis of solid and sound theological commitment.