The Problematics in Evangelical Baptist Convention Church
Suanmuanlian Tonsing, Research Scholar
For my Mother, who stands for the truth On her special Birthday
10th October 2019
Emile Durkheim argues religion is an instrument for attaining social solidarity. It is that social force which binds the society together. Karl Marx has another view on religion, for him, “it is the opium of the society”. Max Weber theorised that it was religion which invented the idea of capitalism. How one understands, perceives and accepts religion may differ from another group of people. But one thing always has to be kept in mind. Religion is changing its forms and functions today, despite how one may have perceived or understood it. Examining the contemporary local church called Evangelical Baptist Convention Church in Lamka, if one look at its historicity, it was the efforts of missionaries like Dr. Peter Fraser and Watkin Roberts who made their first entrance in the district of Churachandpur from the neighbouring Mizoram state in and around 1900s together with the role of Savama, Thangchhingpuia and Vanzika who came to Manipur South as missionaries on 7th May 1910 which lead to the introduction of christianity and its continued existence in this small and ethnic conscious town today. The early believers of Christ during that time were sincere devotees, who were spiritually lit and obedient to this new founded religion. Thanks to the missionaries, well and good, we are what we are now today. They also brought with them forces of modernisation and the promise of social structural emancipation from traditional tribal social structure.
Why do I ague upon the changing functions of the Church? Does it essentially change in its functions? Does it change overtime? Is it not still in possession of its religious essence? What sort of changes am I talking about? No individual will be required to dig very deep to find answer to these questions. The Church is you. The Church is me. ‘You’ and ‘I’ make up the Church. So long as the ‘Us’ experience changes, the Church is in a state of fluctuation. And this simply implies existence of change within the Church.
Hence, this is what we are attempting in this article: to provide the reader brief insights into what the church is now, today (referring to the church specifically to Evangelical Baptist Convention Church on account of my first hand experiences).
One essence of christianity is spirituality. When Christianity was introduced in early 20th century in Lamka, the devotees were spiritual, sacred loving and God fearing. They sacrificed to the extent of being persecuted from the village by the village headmen supported by members of the council of elders in many cases. By 1948, after decades of acceptance of Christ, several churches parted away from NEIGM (North East India General Mission) to set up its own religious establishment. This was a major impact of NEIGM to provide each tribes in Southern Manipur the opportunity to worship the Almighty in their own dialects, by means of translating the Bible. Gradually, many new churches came up which were basically based on ethnic identities inclining to follow their own religious conventions. During those times, to be a leader in the church, to occupy important platform in the church, to lead and to attain an important position in the church can be argued to be in terms of one’s spirituality or that particular individual’s connection to God (which was also very much in proximity with the disciples of Jesus after his death on the cross). As time goes on, things changed. Today, the function of the church invites problematic questions. What are the qualifications of an individual to fill eminent space or to occupy important positions in the church? Is the spiritual negotiable today? Does spirituality loses its accountability in the church? To understand this, I would like to further give premises and inference based example.
It is significant to understand that nowhere in the world a single doctrine of any church is ‘comprehensively’ derived from the Bible. It is all partially derived from the bible and partially constructed by human ethics (or can also be claimed to be part of Biblical ethics). For instance, qualifications of elders are listed explicitly in 1 Timothy 3: 8-13. But these qualifications are further modified or enhanced in Church doctrines so as to suit the scenario of existing society. As any individual beings are not alike, hence, the ways or forms of interpretation of the bible obviously differs from individual to individual, from church to church. The very existence of over 20 Church denominations in Lamka is an imperative instance. Hence, all these doctrines are partly social construct. For instance, socially constructed functions in the church as maintained in Baptist doctrines are church elders elections (if not all), youth leaders election, dorcas leaders election and so on. Think now, observe and reason carefully. Who occupy the positions and places in (any) church committee? Does the members of such committee possess social networks or social capital beyond the remaining laymen’s capabilities? Or making it simple, are those persons socially and economically sound? To this day, I insist that it overwhelmingly is those socially and economically sound individuals with networks and social capital who qualify to be part of the church administration. Then, the question is why do those persons occupy such spaces in the church, and where are those persons who are spiritually sound in such spaces? Are networks and social capital gaining significance over spirituality? I doubt then, one cannot answer as to why some spiritually lit individuals sat quietly in some corners of the church watching the network and social capital rich individuals take over the church. As far as the condition of spirituality is losing its significance, then the essence of church may slowly deter away. Do we not long for the spiritual anymore?
Sanctity of the church
Every church has its own flaws and own reputation. None have, so far, obtained that official ‘confirmatory seal’ from the Almighty to overtly proclaim that this particular doctrine or denomination is the rightful denomination. This is a topic that invites debates and arguments or exchange of discourse. But I am no expert theologian to open this debate in publicity and it is not of my interest to do so. But my concern is something else. Something beyond the materialistic, something that people would call me an orthodox for my proclaimed discourse. Where is the sanctity of the church (the physical and material structure) today? If I may exaggerate further, does our worship and usage of platforms in the church justify the sanctity of the Almighty? Because in the scripture it says, “ You shall love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:7). As a first person observer of the functionality of Evangelical Baptist Church in Lamka, the spaces within the church four walls are becoming spaces for entertainment, as a space for protagonist agendas to conduct their own conducts of interest, far away from preserving its sanctity (with dignity and holiness), spaces for determining socially high and socially low individuality, which negates several kinds of teachings towards the love of God. It is becoming that space which entertains the believers, thus detaching away from that space which is supposedly meant for during its early inception: to gather the believers to worship and connect to God. The question is whether the functionality of the churches is for entertainment of the self or for proclamation of God’s unconditional love? Remember, the words of God cannot be compromised according to the interests of humanity.Therefore, a sanctified church at the general sense could mean a sanctified conviction towards God, so that the church programs are less about the ‘I’ but more about God.
Church as a platform to determine one’s social position
As a child, I never believed the church to be that entity which will become an instrument for men to invite inequality in the social realm. Neither do I believe it as the space where decisions or judgements against members of church are made, whether an individual is to be socially accepted or socially rejected through the religious institution of the church. It is significant to understand that the church is also part of the whole social system, and whatever happens within the functionality of the church implies some kinds of reactions to the social also. The church is not independent. It is connected to the social. It forms a part of the whole social structure. This is where the contradiction of the church arises. The early church was not incepted to outcast people, but to bring people in. The church is loving, caring and it should extend its arms towards needy and the suffering people both spiritually and physically. That is the true essence of the church.
The reality, then, is completely disheartening. It runs in an opposite direction in concrete contemporary today. For instance, staggering increase of eloping transcends Christian’s so called traditional Holy matrimony. Mind you, nowhere in the Bible will you come across the normalization of wedding in the church. For instance, the Catholic Church did not require marriage to be officiated by a priest until 1563, and the Anglican Church did not get around to making this requirement until 1753. People prefer eloping possibly due to the financial cost and the social expectation that they have to deal with if marriage is conducted at the ‘normal’. But the normal was a construction, partly social and party biblical. And the normal social specificity is not economy friendly, yet the biblical part can be argued as economy friendly. The deviants’ activities (eloping) reflect more proximity to the teachings of the bible, instead if one properly looks at the historicity of the church. In this situation, elopers are now ready to face sanctions from the church by breaking the constructed rules where these sanctions become the instrument through which these individuals are stigmatised in the society (But mind you, I am not trying to promote any ideologue of eloping among the church members). Yes, to repeat our argument from the previous section, the church is not an independent body, it is part of the whole social system and what happens to an individual in the church effects the outcome of that person’s social position or prestige in the society. Now, turn the perspective around a little bit and ask this question who holds the position in the church functionaries and who have the sole authority to condemn some particular individuals who are considered to deviate from the constructed laws of the church? There is an interesting construction of a relationship here. The framers of the by-laws and the people in possession of such power to utilise the laws are converted into the ‘good guys’. And this very idea of transformation of the law makers into ‘good guys’ is only possible when there is deviance among the members. The ‘good guys’ condemning the ‘bad guys’. For some people, becoming the good guys in the church is a way to attain higher social prestige, status and position outside the church spaces. However, like any government entity where its constitution, ideologies, provisions and so on, are adopted for the general good and welfare, the problem, however, lies with its implementation of the promised scholarships. Likewise, Christian churches are also sacred, a spiritual space sufficiently and enormously trying hard to do ‘moral good’ towards the members. Its constitution is almost free of complaint. But the
members and leaders in their human form, who runs the errands for the functionality of the church, problematises the idea of church today. If one can do a trajectory analysis of the church from its inception to what it is today, then, my argument will create some sense, hopefully, to the reader.
My standpoint here should be made clear. I am a true believer in Christ, a believer in the Holy Bible yet not a believer in human construct. I am a believer in the Almighty, but not a believer in exploitative church conducts. The reformation movement led by Martin Luther was a result of drastic exploitation of the masses. It does not imply that history will not repeat itself. Neither does it mean that history will repeat itself. Reflectivity towards one’s conduct is a significant manifesto for any church entity to function properly. And when this fails, it is the beginning of the era of question against the church. But mind you, questioning the church is not equivalent to questioning the Almighty.
*The author is a Research Scholar in Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics under University of Delhi.
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