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Madathilparampil Mammen Thomas (1916-1996)
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The Church in India

Although we think of Christianity as a Western religion, there are Christian churches in Asia that are older than most of those in Europe. One example is the Mar Thoma Church in India.

Even before the Roman Empire, extensive trade existed between India and the Mediterranean region. By the first century AD, Jewish merchants had founded communities in Malabar in India. According to tradition, in 52 AD, Thomas the Apostle traveled to India and evangelized this area. Thomas may have picked Malabar for his work because of the numerous Jewish communities there, or perhaps he was more successful in evangelizing the region because of those communities. Either way, he converted a significant number of people and appointed teachers and elders to lead them. He then moved on to Tamil Nadu, where he was martyred.

Around the third century, Syrian Christians from the Church of the East, which followed Nestorian doctrine,[i] immigrated into the Malabar area from the Persian Empire and heavily influenced the indigenous churches. Among other things, they brought the Syriac language with them, and that replaced Hebrew as the Church’s language. The Malankara Church, as it came to be called, formalized its place under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of the Church of the East in c.650 AD.

The Church of the East had an enormous and largely unrecognized impact on Asia, and was arguably the center of world Christianity for the first millennium. As time went on, however, it faced numerous problems. Distance, the expansion of Islam, and political unrest cut India off from the church’s center in Mesopotamia in the 11th century. Relations were not restored until 1301. Later that century, however, the Church of the East’s hierarchy in Asia largely collapsed, leaving India without a bishop until the Church of the East appointed two in the 1490s.

Such was the situation when the Portuguese arrived in 1498, looking to take control of the spice trade. The Malabar Christians were heavily involved in the spice trade themselves and so prospered economically, but they were under pressure from the various Indian states in the area. As a result, they initially welcomed the support of the Portuguese, who for their part saw an alliance with the Malabar Christians as an asset to their bid to take over the spice trade.

Over time, however, the Portuguese began to interfere with the Malankara Church. They blocked all connection with the Church of the East and with the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, even preventing new bishops from being appointed. When the last Metropolitan (senior bishop) died, the Portuguese pressured the church to convene the Synod of Diamper (1599). This synod placed the Malankara Church under the authority of the Portuguese Archbishop of Goa and forced it to adopt liturgical and structural reforms. Some of these, such as the abolition of caste distinctions, made sense theologically but hurt the Christians’ standing with their Hindu neighbors. Others, such as the burning of books including the Peshita (the Syriac translation of the Bible) were little more than a power play on the part of the Archbishop to force submission to Rome.

This action led to increasing tensions between the Indian Christians and the Portuguese, until in 1653 the native believers had had enough. They gathered together and took the Great Oath of the Bent Cross (so called because the crucifix on which it was sworn bent under the weight of the number of people laying hands on it) that cut the ties between the Malabar Christians and the Church of Rome. The church eventually became known as the Mar Thoma Church.

Reformation

When the British took over India, they generally did not interfere with Indian religious affairs. Possibly due to the influence of Anglican missionaries, the leader of the Mar Thoma Church established a committee in 1818 to propose reforms for the church. The Reformation formally began in 1836. It eliminated a number of practices (veneration of saints and icons, for example) that were not found in Scripture, and affirmed orthodox Christology, while at the same time maintaining traditional liturgies, though in the vernacular rather than in Syriac.

The reforms proved to be very controversial, but over time they were adopted. As the Church now sees it, just as the Anglican Church is a Western Reformed church, the Mar Thoma Church is an Eastern Reformed church.

Background

Madathilparampil Mammen (M.M.) Thomas was born to a Mar Thoma family in 1916. His father, a printer and social activist, was very involved in both the Mar Thoma reformation and the early phases of the Indian independence movement.

M.M. (as he was generally called) graduated with a gold medal in chemistry from Kerala University in 1935. He took a position teaching at a Mar Thoma high school in Perambavoor for two years. In 1937, he turned down high paying positions to start an orphanage in Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala. At the orphanage, he taught the students technological skills to make them useful and productive citizens.

Like his father, M.M. was involved in the Indian independence movement. He was particularly influenced by Gandhi at this point in his career. He was also influenced by Marxism. In fact, he applied for membership in the Communist party at the same time he applied for ordination in the Mar Thoma Church. The Communists turned him down because of his involvement with Christianity; the Church turned him down because of his involvement with the Communists. It turns out the Communists were closer to the truth: in all of his work, whether in the independence movement or in social and political activism, he was always guided by his faith.

With only a college degree in chemistry, M.M. began to teach himself theology. But for him, theology was not simply an academic discipline: it had personal, social, and political dimensions as well. One key turning point in his life came when his wife died of cancer. Rather than becoming bitter, he learned at this point in a profound way the importance of the sovereignty of God. Whenever his youngest brother, M.M. Ninan, faced struggles in his life, M.M. asked him, “Who is important? You or God?” Rather than focus on himself, M.M. saw God’s sovereignty as ultimately more important than his own difficulties and loss.

The Gospel of change

He was also concerned with the theological implications of the revolutions of the post-colonial era. He turned away from the Gandhism and Marxism of his youth, though he continued to appreciate the issues that motivated them. For M.M., the Gospel was not found in personal devotion or behind church walls, but in technology, in society, in working for justice and social change, indeed in revolution though not in revolutionary ideologies.

M.M. was also an important figure in the ecumenical movement. He was at the founding meeting of the World Council of Churches, was an active member of the World Conference of Church and Society, and from 1968-1975 was the moderator for Central Committee of the World Council of Churches.

In 1957, he formed the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society with P. D. Devanandan, India’s leading theologian. The Institute produced a tremendous body of literature on church and society in India, including works on social policy, cultural encounter, Christian-Hindu relations, political analysis, family problems, and ecumenical affairs. M.M. also wrote many works of his own in both Malayalam and English.

Later years

After his retirement from the Institute, M.M. became a visiting professor of ethics, mission, and ecumenics at Princeton Seminary. He taught one semester a year for six years between 1980 and 1987. This is especially remarkable in view of the fact that he was self-taught as a theologian and his only academic degree was his B.S. in chemistry.

He also continued his involvement in politics. He opposed Indira Gandhi’s suspension of democracy in 1976 at great personal risk; his courage in taking this stand eventually led to his appointment as governor of Nagaland, a largely Christian state in northeast India, in 1991. He resigned in 1993, however, in protest of the corruption of the Indian government.

M.M. passed away in 1996 at his home in Kerala.

The Mar Thoma Church and M.M. Thomas should remind us that Christianity is not an exclusively Western phenomenon. The church has a long history in Asia, and the impact of Asian Christians continues to the present. For all the influences of Marxism and liberal Christianity on M.M., he remains an example of a man thoroughly committed to the Christian faith of his youth, who sought to live it out in the world as a lay theologian, social activist, and political leader.


[i] The Nestorians distinguish the human and divine natures of Christ much more sharply than Western and Eastern Orthodox churches do. The split was caused by Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, arguing that the traditional title for Mary of Theotokos, God-bearer, was incorrect since she was only the mother of the human nature of Christ. He proposed instead Christotokos, or Christ-bearer. His ideas were rejected as heretical by the Councils of 1 Ephesus (431 AD) and Chalcedon (451 AD).

Next Steps

Can Christians learn anything from non-Christians about how to serve the Lord? Can you think of some examples? Talk with a few Christian fiends about these questions.

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