Indian Brethren FAQ

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Frequently Asked Questions About The Brethren Assemblies In India

  1. Who Are The Indian Brethren
  2. Why Do You Call Yourself Brethren
  3. What Is The Need For A FAQ
  4. Is The Brethren Movement In India The Daughter Of The Plymouth Brethren Assemblies
  5. Then What Was The Origin Of Brethren Assemblies In India
  6. Who Were The People Who Came Out And From Where
  7. Exactly What Kinds Of Hardships Did They Have To Suffer
    7b. Can You Be More Specific About The Hardships
  8. . What Happened After The Beginning
  9. What About The Growth
  10. What Is The Estimated Brethren Population
  11. What Kind Of Church Government Do They Practice
  12. What Is The Strength Of Evangelists
  13. How Are The Brethren Evangelists Supported
  14. How Do Evangelists Report About Their Work
  15. Have The Indian Brethren Produced Any Writers Of Substance
  16. What Is Their Doctrinal Position
  17. Are Indian Assemblies Open Or Closed
  18. What Were The Major Schisms In The Indian Assemblies
  19. What Were The Major Doctrinal Controversies
  20. Why Are The Indian Brethren So Anti Intellectual
  21. Why Are Brethren Churches So Boring
  22. What Was The Role Of Foreign Missionaries In The Founding Of Indian Brethren Movement
  23. What Was The Role Of Foreign Missionaries In Nurturing The Early Brethren Movement
  24. What Has Been The Role Of Foreign Missionaries In The Mature Brethren Movement
  25. What Role Is Played By Foreign Itinerant Preachers Among Indian Assemblies
  26. What Is The Contribution Of Non Indian Brethren Missionary Agencies
  27. What Are The Burning Issues Among The Indian Assemblies
  28. In What Direction Will The Indian Assemblies Go

1. Who Are The Indian Brethren: Indian Brethren are a group of New Testament Pattern separatists whom the Lord raised indigenously through the ministries of certain non-brethren Indian revival preachers. In doctrine and practice they are quite similar to the group commonly called Plymouth Brethren. Thus the Indian Brethren are not averse to the title Plymouth Brethren when it is applied to them symbolically.

2. Why Do You Call Yourself Brethren, Aren't All Of Us Brothers: The Brethren emphasize the brotherhood of all believers in Christ, and this name does not exclude others. Actually the group today known as the Brethren NEVER took this name upon themselves. On the contrary, this name was imposed upon this group the same way the name Christians was imposed in Antioch. Others gave this name to this group when they saw the unusual brotherhood, and the name has stuck so nobody can undo it. At the same time most people belonging to these Brethren churches do not like to use this as a denominational name, and therefore a large number of their churches go by names like Gospel Hall, Bible Chapel, Prayer Hall, etc. This is sufficient to show that the Brethren do no generally use this name to exclude others or as a denominational identity.

3. What Is The Need For A FAQ: The Brethren movement in India has been a vigorous, fast-growing, and evangelism-centered movement that has found theological and practical bonds with the Plymouth Brethren movement. Today there are in excess of 2200 assemblies in India, and more than 100 assemblies overseas of Indian origin. The total number of Indian evangelists is greater than the combined number of evangelists sent overseas by the assemblies in UK, USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Yet these things are known to only few Indian Brethren, let alone the non Indian Brethren. Ignorance enslaves while knowledge liberates, and that is why publishing this FAQ has become necessary.

4. Is The Brethren Movement In India The Daughter Of The Plymouth Brethren Assemblies: Because Indian Brethren often used the title Plymouth Brethren they are often erroneously identified as the fruits of people from Plymouth who laboured in India. This is a false identification. The Brethren movement in India came up quite independently of the movement in Plymouth, and both movements recognized each other as a counterpart mainly because of identical doctrines and practices and not because one gave birth to the other.

5. Then What Was The Origin Of Brethren Assemblies In India: A substantial Christian witness existed in the southernmost state of Kerala for 2000 years (since the arrival of St. Thomas). This group experienced a number of revivals and reformations over these millennia. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were a period of great reformation among these people. At this time the Lord raised many from the nominal churches here to study the word, discover biblical truths and preach it to their people. Some German missionaries, such as V. Nagal, also helped in this discovery. Finally the forthright preaching of repentance and salvation by Tamil David, and Indian, resulted in a large number of conversions. A few of these converts were baptized by a priest who had abandoned his ecclesiastical position. And that was the beginning of the Indian Brethren Assemblies in 1897.

6. Who Were The People Who Came Out And From Where: At that time Kerala had three main Christian groups: Eastern Orthodox Church (now split up into at least three groups), Mar Thoma Church, and Roman Catholics, in addition to the smaller Chaldean Syrian Church. Together they had close to 2000 churches in Kerala. The first batch of Brethren Believers came out from them. Most of them had to pay a heavy cost for their faith as they were excommunicated from church, society, and their families. Many of them were mercilessly beaten and humiliated throughout their life. Others were thrown out of their houses when too young to take up a job, but they all persevered. There are no known cases at that time of people going back to what they abandoned -- though many of them were invited back to positions of comfort in their ancestral families and churches.

7. Exactly What Kinds Of Hardships Did They Have To Suffer: Today we live in a society so vastly different from the society of a century ago that for most of us it is difficult to understand their agonies. They lived in a close-knit community-based society where one's family and society was one's identity. Without it one was socially dead. Thus excommunication meant virtual death, with no food, no prospect for jobs, marriages, plots of lands, or even respectability. It was common for people in the mainstream to spit upon them, strip them of clothes, or throw animal excreta upon them -- all in public. Nobody would come to the rescue of these "heretics" and "prodigals" who had abandoned the ways of their forefathers.

7b. Can You Be More Specific About The Hardships: Yes, I can tell of many specific instances. The first is the case of my own great grandfather Koshy Mathunni. His Eastern Orthodox family kicked him and his young wife out because of his faith. When his wife died in her thirties, there was NO place to bury her. The Brethren did not have graveyards, and they were not welcome to use graveyards that were strictly under the control of nominal churches. There were no common or government-controlled graveyards -- and even today these do not exist in India. Thus finally he had to bury her in his own compound at the back of the house, adjacent to his bedroom. This was a sensation because nobody had ever done that in that region. Another example is that of Lonappan Upadeshi in Angamally (Kerala). Amidst all kinds of tortures he had to face the untimely death of his daughter who was barely 12. She was buried, but then next morning the family was traumatized when they discovered the coffin placed back by enemies in their courtyard. Anyone could have asked why God (apparently) failed to protect these children who had abandoned all what they had to follow Jesus. Of course Lonappan Upadeshi did not ask that question, and he went on to become one of the greatest leaders among the Brethren, but we should try to understand the trauma of this young man who did not have the benefit of hindsight that we have today when we study Brethren History of India.

8. What Happened After The Beginning: As it happens in any new movement, it took some time for the new believers to understand what all is involved in the New Testament Pattern. In about 3 to 5 years time they firmly understood and declared the autonomy of local assemblies, the need for believers to observe the Lord's Table, and the need to emphasize the priesthood of all believers. There was also a maturing in their understanding of many fundamental and practical issues. Interestingly the oral and written ministry of several non Brethren Indian and European writers also helped in some areas.

9. What About The Growth: The Indian Brethren movement was a missionary-minded movement right from the beginning. Men committed themselves to share the gospel everywhere, and women and children joined in it at great personal inconvenience and even starvation. Consequently there was an explosive increase in the number of new believers and new churches. Today (2001) there are in excess of 2200 churches in India and 100 abroad of Indian origin. This is more assemblies that the total number of assemblies in UK, USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand put together.

10. What Is The Estimated Indian Brethren Population: Since the Brethren do not have a central hierarchy, all numbers are only reasonable estimates and not concrete statements. Surveys have been conducted by Gospel Literature Service, Stewards Association, Insight India ([email protected]) and others and a compilation of the data shows in excess of 2200 churches, 50,000 baptized members and 120,000 total members. There are over 100 Brethren assemblies of Indian origin in the Gulf, USA, Canada, and some other countries with an estimated 5000 baptized believers.

11. What Kind Of Church Government Do They Practice: except for a minority, the Indian Brethren emphasize the autonomy of local churches, and practice it rigorously. Each church is overseen by a plurality of mostly self-appointed (and in some cases, elected) elders. A few churches have deacons too. There is a strong aversion to the perceived one-man ministry of other churches including the Pentecostals. The setup is mostly democratic with Christ as the head, but at the same time they are substantially different from the setup seen in democratic countries. A minority of churches (Less than 100 among the 2200) are controlled by people who are "outsiders" to the churches. The unbiblical control has developed over the years through some individuals who have preferred to run these churches as they pleased so as to be able to "report" them as "their" work.

12. What Is The Strength Of Evangelists: It is difficult to give an exact number because there are at least three kinds of evangelists in India: the commended ones, the non commended ones, and the tentmakers. Of these the first two together will have in excess of 1500 evangelists. (This is more than the combined number of foreign missionaries sent by the assemblies in UK, USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) There is no record of Tentmakers and their number might exceed the number of those who are in full-time ministry, though they are often not identified as Tentmakers. Also, there is no systematic emphasis as yet on the role and importance of Tentmakers in modern India, though some have begun to speak out.

13. How Are The Brethren Evangelists Supported: right from the start of the movement the Brethren have emphasized the need for evangelists and people in full-time Christian ministry to depend upon the Lord for their financial support, which is often called "living by faith". They are supported by the freewill gifts of people, which usually has no predictable frequency. This a system difficult for non-Brethren to comprehend, but it has worked well in the last one century, and even today in excess of 1500 men and their families continue to live and labour under this system, which is the largest indigenous missionary force in India. There are some indigenous missionary-funds run by assembly believers, and they render a valuable service to the evangelists, the total quantum of support received through them usually does not exceed 20% of the yearly financial needs. These missionary funds have no supervisory role over the evangelists, and the evangelists have no official obligation to these funds. The handbooks released by these funds, often at an yearly basis, are used by many churches to pray systematically for the evangelists. Some assemblies and many individuals use these lists to pray for and support evangelists. Not all funds support all evangelists, and there are many who because of one reason or other are supported only by one or even by none of the missionary funds. The uncertainty about financial support (humanly speaking) has been exploited by some Indian and many foreign believers into manipulating about ten percent of evangelists and churches to do as these believers dictate from outside. They have been able to exercise this control by providing a steady financial support, but with strings attached. This has caused not a small amount of damage to the assemblies in India.

14. How Do Evangelists Report About Their Work: there has always been an opposition among Indian Brethren to ministry-reports through private media such as personal newsletters, and the feeling became deep-seated due to many historical reasons. So there are only a handfuls of evangelists who produce some kind or other of private prayer-letters for their prayer partners. The rest publish an occasional report in assembly periodicals that carry news items. However, such news tends to be too brief and stereotyped and does not give deep insight into the needs and challenges of the individuals ministry. There are many who have either no access to such publications or who simply are not in the habit of sending such news. Thus the church at large is deprived of news about their spiritual contribution.

15. Have The Indian Brethren Produced Any Writers Of Substance: the Indian Brethren were committed bibliophiles right from the beginning, and has produced hundreds of outstanding writers over the last one century. So much so that in the Malayalam language (over 50% of Indian Christians speak this language) books written by Brethren writers are accepted authoritative by all the other Protestant groups, and the majority of buyers tend to be non Brethren. A majority of the best bible teachers, apologists, and theologians in India have their roots in the Brethren Assemblies. What is more, most of them had their training only within India, and thus are able to communicate effectively in the contemporary Indian idiom.

16. What Is Their Doctrinal Position: there is some diversity in minor subjects, but there is overall agreement in almost all the major subjects. They are conservatives, dedicated to inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible. All the Indian Brethren accept the four cardinal doctrines of reformation: Bible Alone (Sola Scriptura), Faith Alone (Sola Fide), Grace Alone (Sola Gratia), and Christ Alone (Solus Chistus). None questioning these can be considered a Brethren in any sense. The Brethren in India also tend to be premillennial and pretribulationist dispensationalists. A microscopic minority that advocated post tribulationism are now losing strength and becoming practically extinct. At the practical level they strongly emphasize the priesthood of all believers, and the need for active involvement in evangelizing the lost. These emphases have produced a large number of men and women who are outstanding Bible teachers and evangelists. (Women minister only among women and children).

17. Are Indian Assemblies Open Or Closed: the open/closed is a distinction born outside India, but it has definitely left deep mark over the Indian Brethren. In principle the assemblies in India are open, and each assembly is autonomous, but in practice they have adopted some restrictions practiced by the closed Brethren. For example, many of them do not allow a non Brethren visitor to partake of the Lord's Table even if he/she happens to be a born-again and baptized believer in good standing.

18. What Were The Major Schisms In The Indian Assemblies: there were several major schisms. The first was about the role of foreign missionaries in controlling Indian trusts. The second was about the funds brought by, what was called as, India Gospel Mission for distribution among Indian evangelists. The third related to the active cooperation of some prominent brethren with Baptists, some of whom were avowed anti-brethren. After much heartache a few moved to the Baptist fold, while the majority cut off their relation with the Baptists. The fourth schism was related to an association formed by certain evangelists predominantly in North India and called Brethren Assembly Workers Fellowship (BAWF). The organizers soon discovered that many in the committee were only opportunists, and thus the fellowship was soon dismantled, and along with that many Brethren who were only fence-sitters left the fold of the assemblies -- mostly into Baptist fellowships.

19. What Were The Major Doctrinal Controversies: in the initial years there were many discussions but no major controversies. However, the last one third of the twentieth century saw several major controversies in which almost the entire community got involved. The first one was the uprise of Post Tribulationalists. The second one was rise of Occult healers among the assemblies. And third one was the uprise of paganizers of gospel in the assemblies who claimed special revelation in holy books of all religions. In between there was a small controversy over whether Christ could sin or not, motivated by Zac Poonen, who eventually moved away and formed his own heretical cult. The situation always resembled a battle with the radicals on the minority side and conservatives on the majority side. However, initially the radicals were able to win the upper hand in every debate because they used all the worldly propaganda tactics that were available. However, in the end the conservative side was always able to silence the dissenters and heretics.

20. Why Are The Indian Brethren So Anti Intellectual: this question has been raised from time to time by many non Brethren as well by some Brethren. However, only a person totally ignorant of the Brethren movement in India and its great leaders can make such a statement. The Brethren have produced men of learning in all secular and spiritual fields, and there not an area that has been left untouched. Scientists, scholars, writers, businessmen, journalists, pioneer missionaries, missionary-statesmen, medical doctors, you name it and you will find them here. And that also, of the highest ranks. Only thing, in keeping with their New Testament creed they do not make much noise about it all, but it does not mean that they are not there. Also, the Brethren assemblies in India happens to be the group that has proportionately the most qualified and trained evangelists. While a mere school education is deemed sufficient to become an evangelist in most groups, these days the Brethren encourage evangelists to have at least a college education. And it is their commitment to intellectual pursuits that today the Brethren dominate the fields of theology, publishing, writing, teaching, and others.

21. Why Are Brethren Churches So Boring: well, if anyone expects the church to be a place of fleshly entertainment and drama, he will be sorely disappointed and bored in most Assemblies. Also if he expects the Assemblies to move with the spirit of times and introduce one way or other of emotional manipulation or ecstasy- inducement, he will be disappointed by most Assemblies. Many denominations and churches have in the recent decades transformed them with the secular current to resemble the best that the world can offer in terms of titillation, emotional stimulation, and ecstasy. The Assemblies have not tried this gimmick, and therefore they might look boring to people who are looking only for entertainment. On the other hand if a person is looking for a place where he can use his both body and intellect to worship the Lord without any kind of man-made restraint, a Brethren Assembly is the place for him. This is not to say that today the Assemblies in India are perfect. On the contrary, many assemblies have surely lost fervor in their meetings, and there is much room for improvement. All fervor has emotions attached to it, but those desiring a change in the Assemblies should not confuse fervor with mere emotionalism. Bringing empty emotionalism might give an outer appearance of fervor, but it will only do further damage. Assemblies will be revived only when people who want change in the Assemblies abandon their fascination with worldly gimmicks to create an emotional sense of well-being, and resort to biblical methods. And biblical methods begin with self examination, confession, repentance, and consecration -- by those who want a change. People in many Assemblies have begun doing this, and the changes are very much visible.

22. What Was The Role Of Foreign Missionaries In The Founding Of Indian Brethren Movement: God definitely used certain non Brethren missionaries to open the eyes of Indians to biblical truths, and many of these Indians became part of the first batch of Brethren believers. These missionaries came from Baptist, Presbyterian, and Basel Mission backgrounds. None of them had an Assembly background. Missionaries from Assembly background became associated with Indian Brethren only AFTER the indigenous assembly movement started attracting a large number of new converts.

23. What Was The Role Of Foreign Missionaries In Nurturing The Early Brethren Movement: Once the indigenous Brethren movement began to grow explosively, many foreign missionaries from the Assemblies outside came to India and began working in supportive ministries. The majority of rendered great assistance to the infant church, helping this movement to grow, consolidate, and become self-sustaining in everything. A minority of them, however, sowed seeds of discord, indulged in politicking, and imposed their imperial attitude on the local population. This resulted in some notable problems and damages, but can be written off as human frailty in the light of the quantity and quality of the great service they rendered to the Indian church. Names like V. Nagal, E. H. Noel, and Handly Bird are household names among Indian Brethren even today.

24. What Has Been The Role Of Foreign Missionaries In The Mature Brethren Movement: Assemblies in India would not have been what they are today were it not for the contributions of the first generation of foreign missionaries who often suffered great hardships and spent all what they had to nurture the new believers. However, things began to change with the arrival of the second generation of foreign missionaries (after about three decades). Once the assemblies in India became mature and self- sustaining (post 1940) there was a curious change in the ratio of what can be called benevolent versus self-serving missionaries. The number of men and women who came to India not to serve, but to make people serve them began to increase. Much damage was done to Indian assemblies by some of these people in the last quarter of the twentieth century, but their declining numbers and government's refusal to give them entry into the country saved the Assemblies from more serious damages. Since people often see all foreigners through the same glasses, these people have caused much damage to those non-Indians who till the last moment of their ministry here, and even after that, were benevolent to Indians.

25. What Role Is Played By Foreign Itinerant Preachers Among Indian Assemblies: it varies. A number of them have a very acceptable ministry of teaching and exhortation. They have contributed much to the edification of Indian believers. For the Brethren Centenary Meeting in 1997 one of them was even invited to and paid his air-fare to come to India and be one of the main speakers. However, a number of itinerant preachers, especially from the UK, have caused much damage to the Indian church by indulging in church-politics, especially by using large amounts of money which is used in India without transparency. Rather than handing it over to a group of men to handle, this money is handed over to individuals who toe their line, creating much internal rift and rivalry. One of these non India itinerant missionary even published a book depicting a lot of work done by Indian pioneers as his own. Fortunately many have started exposing these people and it is expected that sooner of later they will have to refrain from manipulating Indians against fellow Indians.

26. What Is The Contribution Of Non Indian Brethren Missionary Agencies: Several Non Indian Brethren agencies have shown an ongoing interest in financially helping the Lord's work and people in India, and they have been doing a commendable job. Perhaps because of the plurality of their leadership (which is the New Testament pattern) they have been quite objective in assessing the needs, liberal in funding, and do not indulge in any kind of manipulation in India. Also, rather that giving away money to individuals, they prefer to entrust these to Indian agencies that are controlled by plural leadership. This includes agencies like MSC, CMML, Laing Trust, and many others. Several ministries in India, even today, are sent a good share of their support by non Indian trusts and these trusts also have taken a non-interference attitude after entrusting the money to committees made up of leaders of Integrity. The Lord's work in India would not have been what it is without their timely and ongoing help and support.

27. What Are The Burning Issues Among The Indian Assemblies: Since the Indian assemblies are functioning in the real world, and since they are not isolated from the world, many of the popular ideologies, issues, movements, and fads have been (through people) placing many kinds of demands upon the Assemblies. These have given rise to many issues on which more or less animated discussion is going on, and as yet no consensus seems to be near. This is to be expected in a system that is not bound by rigid ecclesiastical systems. Some of the issues discussed right now are:

  • Seeing the apparent success of pastor-oriented churches, should Assemblies being appointing full-time pastors (or whatever they might be called).
  • Should some elders resign from their jobs and become full- time, church-funded, elders.
  • Like other groups, should the Assemblies guarantee salaries to evangelists and pastors (if pastors are appointed).
  • Seeing that others are now even "ordaining" women as pastors, should the Assemblies stick to "let women keep silence" or should we now find a way around it.
  • Should we allow or forbid from Lord's Supper non Brethren visitors who are born-again and in good standing with their church. More so because now many Brethren enter into marriage alliance with people from these Churches (Pentecostals, Baptists).
  • What is the role of musical instruments, and contemporary Christian music in Sunday gatherings.
  • What stand should the Assemblies take about inter denomination involvement, specially in those places where the non Brethren readily attend special Assembly programs, or send their children to attend Assembly sponsored VBS., CEF, and other programs.
  • Should the Indian assemblies take up a hierarchical form for the sake of internal unity and protection from the destructive external forces.

28. In What Direction Will The Indian Assemblies Go: only the Lord knows the future comprehensively, and for sure. We can only guess some of the possible trends, which can in no way be comprehensive. Based on these guesses, it seems that in spite of 100 years of growth and stagnation in some areas, Indian Assemblies will continue to grow for few more decades without reaching a plateau. There is a remnant everywhere, both young and old, educated and illiterate. There is a visible young remnant, intelligent, well-educated, well-trained in secular fields, and discipled mostly by non Brethren. This remnant is theologically conservative, and desires a revival in the assemblies. Since they have been discipled by non Brethren they have seen the wider world, and tend to avoid narrow sectarian biases which have no scriptural basis. Thus the outlook for the assemblies in general is optimistic.