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Home > Volume 1 > Number 1: February 2002
Fifty Years On
In April 1952 the first fellowship of Protestant Christians in Nepal began to meet for worship. They were a ready-made congregation - a family actually - who had come to Christ through the efforts of Nepali-speaking evangelists in India. Buddhi Sagar Gautam and his wife Putali had joined the Nepal Evangelistic Band in the years leading up to the democratic movement of 1950/51. The revolution had now overthrown the Rana oligarchy, restored the king to the throne, and heralded the dawning of a new day for Nepal as the doors of the cloistered Himalayan kingdom were thrown open to the outside world. Buddhi Sagar and his family were the advance guard of the Band (later renamed the International Nepal Fellowship), the other members of which trekked over the hills to join them in Pokhara some months later .
Meanwhile, to the east, three young men of the South-Indian Mar Thoma church were making their way to Kathmandu, arriving in April 1953 to begin meetings in the house of Col. Nararaj Rana in Putali Sadak . That same month Barnabas Rai and his fellow Assemblies of God worker, John Singh, moved into the mid-Western region of the country and were busy establishing a congregation in the border town of Nepalganj .
Further churches were planted throughout the 1950s to include groups in Tansen, Bhaktapur and a second in Kathmandu. Other foreign missions were launched. By the end of the decade the nascent United Mission to Nepal had established projects in several far-flung hill villages and bazaars as well as in the capital . Other missions followed their footsteps.
From the outset profession of faith in Christ, expressed in baptism, led to tremendous hardships. Pastors and new believers alike were jailed. Others were beaten, many lost their land, most were ostracised from their communities. Their sufferings were the seeds that gave rise to the tremendous growth of the church from the 1970s to today. From humble beginnings it is now estimated that there are 452,286 Christians in the country with churches in every district . Dozens of agencies work in the country. Institutions have been established for further evangelism, Bible translation, theological education and socio-economic development.
The year 2002 marks the golden anniversary of the Protestant church in Nepal. What is there to celebrate? We have much to thank God for. The gospel has gone out into much of the country and many have turned to Christ. But the arrival at a milestone is also an important opportunity to take stock and evaluate the state of church and mission. In this article I want to suggest that mistakes that were made in India in the nineteenth century have had and will continue to have major repercussions for the progress of the gospel in the twenty-first.
The primary issue facing the Protestant missions that entered the subcontinent in the 18th and 19th centuries was that of caste. If caste is at base a system of prejudice, it was argued, then Christian missionaries have a duty to work for the abolition of caste. Renunciation of caste was a test of the new convert's sincerity. This policy had far-reaching consequences. When William Carey's first convert, Krishna Pal, came to Christ his relatives were outraged at his eating with the British missionaries . For the missionaries, on the one hand, it was a requirement of his new found faith. For the relatives, on the other, it was clear that their kinsman had now left their community to join another. Carey and his associates have long been heros of mine. But in this approach to caste I cannot but conclude that they were mistaken. Nor were they alone. This approach has been the standard position for the vast majority of missions among Hindus over the past two centuries. A Hindu comes to faith in Christ and is immediately faced with the dilemma of what to do with his caste loyalties. In traditional communities this policy has, for the most part, led to broken family relationships and the establishment of small communities of believers that have been able to make little impression on the societies from which they have been extracted.
William Macfarlane began the Eastern Himalayan Mission of the Church of Scotland in 1870. Among his priorities was the establishing of schools among the immigrant Nepali population who had come to the district to work in the new tea plantations . Macfarlane's work bore fruit with the conversion of a number of Nepali men and women and the formation of congregations. The Nepali movement to Christ had begun. Here we must note that the movement to Christ was established among a migrant community that had little social and cultural cohesion. The difference between this situation and that of the Serampore mission working among a community in their homeland is easy to discern. The Nepali migrants had no strong caste or tribal community to break off from. For them to adopt a new community was not a difficult decision. They had no strong social obligations to others. For the church in Darjeeling to become a community in itself, then, was not problematic. Christians married other Christians and a communal group was formed which came to define the social identity of its members.
It was from this community that the first evangelists to Nepal and most of the emerging churches' pastors were drawn. As the church was established in Nepal it is understandable that the prevailing approach to the issue of identity would be solved in the same manner as it had been in Darjeeling. Anyone who puts their faith in Christ must become socially as well as spiritually a member of the Christian community.
Fifty years later we can see the result of this approach. The movement to Christ in Nepal has largely become a communal one. It is the 'Christian society' (khischan samaj) as many are now happy to call to it. Those who are not in are 'Other Castes/Tribes' ('anya jati'). Entry to the community is obtained either by birth or by baptism. To be baptised you have to show you are willing to give up your culture and adopt the culture of the church. Spiritual qualification is not clear. There are many examples of how this is corrupting the church. I will give just one. Some time ago I heard that the son of some old Christian friends of mine had recently got married. The boy had eloped with a Hindu girl but to save the parents embarrassment the girl was baptised so that they could have a formal marriage in church. But when I talked with the woman personally she freely admitted that she knew nothing of the gospel at the time of her marriage. So a Hindu was baptised in order to make her a part of the Christian community even when, on her own admission, she knew nothing of spiritual life. And all so that they could go through a wedding ceremony to make their marriage socially acceptable in that community. The message is clear. Becoming a Christian is primarily a social, not a spiritual, process.
The highest value in the church today is that of social solidarity. In order to promote this solidarity the Christian community stresses cultural uniformity. Ethnic and social identity is reinforced by the adoption of cultural markers. So the church in Nepal is united in one area - outward behaviour. It hardly matters to many Christians that there is disagreement over doctrine so long as all Christians follow the same customs of dress, adornment and food. So long as all Christians are outwardly the same there is a feeling of security. Social and cultural issues are dealt with not as matters of conscience (Rom 14:1-15:13) but as matters of law. The gospel of grace has been trampled on. It is time for Christ's devotees in Nepal to learn from the mistakes of the past and reassert the spiritual character of true discipleship. This must surely result in the formation of fellowships that maintain both social and Biblical integrity, refusing to be extracted into some quasi-ethnic 'Christian' community . Major cultural issues will need to be faced - not least those of marriage and funeral. Without doubt there will be opposition from those who disagree with us. But at the very least we must seek to follow the apostle Paul who instructed that '? each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him' (1 Cor. 7:17).