Transition from Evangelical to Ecumenical
Successfully completing an eventful and fruitful life, Metropolitan Geevarghese Mar Osthathios has passed on to the other side of the veil. A close examination of his vision of life and the mission he accomplished based on it will certainly yield very valuable lessons for us.
Growing up as a teenager in the sixties and seventies in India, I had Fr. M. V. George (the previous name of the metropolitan) as an inspiration, a role model, and a guide. With the anxieties and uncertainties of the baby boom period, I was eagerly looking for a source of wisdom I could trust and follow. Fr. M.V. George was someone who could sense the pulse of the new generation and successfully communicate with them. His ability and willingness to communicate with the young people attracted hundreds of them to his camps and conferences, and I was fortunate to be among them. I eagerly read his books and tried to internalize bits and pieces of wisdom from him. Today when I look back I can see his tremendous influence in laying a foundation to my life.
The one primary characteristic of the vision of this great man is that it was dynamic. He began with an evangelical view of life, but eventually his view underwent a radical transition to become ecumenical. An open mind with a willingness to learn was the secret behind this transition. He remained a student willing to learn from others throughout his lifetime. He shared his thoughts with others through his books and his talks. He always had a thought-provoking idea to share with others. At the same time, he was willing to listen to anyone and learn from them. He kept his mind fresh like the good field in Jesus’ Parable, so he could be fruitful a hundred-fold.
The Evangelical Upbringing
Mar Osthathios writes in his autobiography that his father was from the Marthoma church, and he joined his mother in her family, which was in Orthodox Church, and he was brought up in the Orthodox faith. He further admits that he got the first knowledge of the Bible from a preacher in Marthoma Church, who used to visit his home weekly—Padikaleth Thomas Upadeshi. At the age of fourteen, he dropped out from school due to household financial difficulties, and joined a well-known revival preacher of that time, Aleyamma Oommen, as a preacher. A kind priest who heard his speech provided financial assistance to continue his studies. Thus he continued his studies and graduated from High school. He joined a teacher training course, and became a school teacher. During this time, he used to be a companion of Sadhu Kochukunju Upadeshi, a legendary preacher in Marthoma church. One day, hearing his speech in Othara, Abraham Marthoma Metropolitan encouraged him to join the Leonard Theological Seminary in Jabalpur and helped him to obtain scholarship. During his stay in Jabalpur from 1943 to 47, he witnessed so many events related to the Indian Independence struggle, and he participated in relief activities as a part of London Mission Society. In 1948 he was ordained as a deacon, and he went to the United States to continue his studies with a scholarship. He took Master degree from Drew University in Philosophy, and later he took another Master degree in Theology from Union Theological Seminary. His professors included Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Edwin Lewis. Coming back from there in 1951, he bought some land and built a Gospel Hall in Mavelikara, where he started summer classes and other religious educational activities. In 1952, he joined the Orthodox Theological Seminary as its vice principal. He started St. Paul’s Gospel team, and its parish-level units began to function. He became a preacher of high demand in Gospel conventions. In 1956 he became a priest. In 1965, he was chosen to become a bishop; however, due to the suspicion of his evangelical bend of mind, he was not ordained until 1975.
There was a bishop in the church who inspired him. It was none other than Pathros Mar Osthathios. With a deep sense of the mission of the church, he had founded an organization—Sleeba Dasa Samooham (Society for the servants of the cross). He exemplified Christ through his life and he gained a lot of converts for the church. Accepting him as a role model, Fr. M.V. George took the name Osthathios when he became a bishop.
An Orthodox Reform Movement
The Roman Catholic Church and the various Protestant churches had very strong mission movements all over the world, and they were aggressively converting people to their own fold. Compared to them, the Orthodox churches were inactive. They were accused of being dead. Their focus was primarily upon strictly keeping their inherited belief system and traditions and passing them on to their next generation. They claimed to be the direct descendents of the true apostolic faith, and they accused the Catholics and Protestants for deviating from the true faith. In spite of this claim, they painfully realized that day after day they were losing people, who joined some other church that appeared active and dynamic.
This realization led many people in the Orthodox Churches all over the world to start a reformation within their churches. There were several waves of reformation within the Orthodox Church of India too. One of the early movements, led by Abraham Malpan, led to the formation of the Marthoma Church. This experience made the Orthodox Church treat all reform movements with suspicion. When Pathros Mar Osthathios and later Geevarghese Mar Osthathios initiated powerful waves of reform movements in the church, they were viewed with suspicion that one day they would lead to the formation of new independent communities like Marthoma Church.
The leaders of the Orthodox Church such as Baselius Geevarghese II and Baselius Mathews I agreed that the church needs to become dynamic, but they wanted the church to keep its traditional identity without joining or becoming a Protestant Church. The theological seminary in Kottayam was started with the purpose of educating the church to keep its traditional Orthodox identity. There were also other movements such as Sunday school, Student Movement, Vanitha Samajam, and youth movement to educate the people. They wanted people to understand how the Orthodox Church is different from the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Churches. In order to understand this, they turned mainly to the church fathers—Greek and Syriac. The topic of the research chosen by Geevarghese Mar Osthathios in the Union Theological Seminary was the thought of a church father—St. Athanasius. The topic chosen by Paulos Mar Gregorios was the thought of another church father—Gregory of Nyssa. The topic of study chosen by Fr. K.M. George, the present principal of the theological seminary was the thought of Gregory of Nazians. Fr. V.C. Samuel also made substantial contribution to the field of Patristics.
The leaders of this Orthodox reform movement were treading a very narrow line. They wanted the dynamism of the Protestant Churches, but they didn’t want to adopt their views. It was a very risky path indeed. Pathros Mar Osthathios and Geevarghese Mar Osthathios were daring leaders who took the challenge of leading the church along this narrow path. They had to constantly face very strong opposition from those who could not share their positive and daring attitude.
The leaders of the reform movement drew inspiration and guidance primarily from the western universities and the ecumenical movement. Although the universities in Europe and USA were started to reinforce the views of the western Christian churches, eventually they developed programs of religious studies independent of the church affiliation. That is how our leaders could get education on our eastern Christian tradition in the western universities. This reminds us of our national leaders who got education from Britain in order to help us become independent from Britain. The emergence of ecumenical movement also helped the Orthodox Churches assert their identity at the global level. Although the World Council of Churches began as an association of Protestant Churches, eventually it expanded to include the Orthodox Churches. The Orthodox Church of India also became a member of WCC, and its representatives rose to the leadership positions in WCC. Just fifty years ago, Orthodox Christianity was not considered a part of the world Christianity; it was almost unknown. There was nothing in the history books, of the world or of Christianity, about Orthodox Christianity in those days. Today the voice of the Orthodox churches is loud enough to be noticed, and Orthodoxy has asserted its identity. Orthodoxy has gained a place in the history books.
Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios had a unique place in this reform movement. As the principal of the Orthodox Theological seminary and as a top leader of the World Council of Churches, he became the unquestioned leader of the reform movement. He was successful in clearly identifying how the eastern tradition of Christianity is different from the western traditions. When he came back from his studies in the west, first he joined Pathros Mar Osthathios. Soon he realized that he could not agree with Mar Osthathios in his understanding of Christian mission, and he left. He joined the theological seminary as its principal to lead a team of people with theological education. He developed a vision of church as the visible embodiment of the invisible Christ. Church has to do what Christ would do. It has to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God and stand with the oppressed. His participation in WCC and in the Council of Vatican II helped him develop this view.
Geevarghese Mar Osthathios grew up very much immersed in the views of the Protestant reform movement. It is evident from the fact that he was in the team of Sadhu Kochukunju Upadeshi, that he was educated in Jabalpur TheologicalCollege, and that he started a Gospel hall. His model and inspiration was Pathros Mar Osthathios, who believed that the mission of the church was to convert nonChristians to Christianity. Paulos Mar Gregorios realized early enough that converting people was not the mission of the church, and eventually Geevarghese Mar Osthathios also realized this. Toward the end, he was against converting people from one religion or community to another one. He began to affirm as stated in John’s epistle that love is the mark of true faith, and regardless of one’s religious affiliation, what matters is love. He called for a conversion from selfishness to love, not from one religion or church or community to another one.
Here are a few quotes from “A Centenary Message For M.G.O.C.S.M”
“Every church, religions and even secularists have the human right to believe in their own doctrine and practice their own worship or not to worship. Human right gives the freedom to belong to any religion or ideology. The secular humanists have no religion but they are also free to be atheists or rationalists or agnostics. This is the third millennium when democracy and human right have to be universally accepted.”
“The first millennium of the church was a period when the rulers had the human right to kill people and make them martyrs. Emperors from the time of Nero downwards killed thousands of saints calling them heretics. Second millennium was the time when the church was divided and cut -asunder with bleeding on both sides. This third millennium needs a new missiology of love and universal sharing of the resources of the Heavenly Father for all His children.
Not only individuals but also religions must love each other. Love is the magnet that can unite all human pieces of iron in to one global vessel. ‘Sheep stealing’ of any religion is not mission. Anyone has the human-right to stay in one’s own religion or ideology or change one religion and ideology. But forcible conversion impinges another’s freedom.”
Here is another quote from One Religion of Love
What is your answer to the Christian claim that Jesus Christ is the only Savior of the world (St. Jn. 14:6; Acts. 4:12, etc.) ?
Those who have read my books like Theology Of A Classless Society and Sharing God and A Sharing World know that my Christology is not low as of modern Protestantism, but is as high as the Biblical, Patristic Christology. I believe the Creedal claim that Jesus Christ is very God of Very God, of the same essence of God. The stress of my theology is that the essence of God is divine love (agape), as revealed by Jesus Himself. Hence, Christ is pre-existent Logos (Word) or sabdaBrahma, without whom there is no salvation. Jesus Christ, God incarnate is the same as Logos Pre Incarnate and Post-Incarnate, without whom there is no other savior. This is an all inclusive claim and not an exclusive superiority claim. Salvation through the visible Church or the invisible Church known only to God and in all religions and cultures are Christ’s as He is God and Man, at the same time. After all, only God can know who is saved and who is not saved. The tree is known by the fruit of divine love, expressed in life and example. God Triune, is Sat, Chit, Anand (Satchidananda), Compassionate Allah, Eternal Love in eternal sharing. Of course, such a claim is not to be enforced on anyone, but proclaimed only by those who have this holistic Christology (conviction).”
Evangelical versus Ecumenical
The primary mark of evangelical Christianity is its focus on converting people from other religions and churches to their fold. This is due to their other-worldliness. They care only for the world in the future or in the world above. They do not care for the world here and now. They believe that at the return of Christ, they will be taken away from this world, and this world will be burned along with all the unsaved people. That is why evangelical Christians spend all their time and effort to save as many people as possible for the other world. They do not care much for the poverty and suffering of people. Even if they help the poor or suffering people, it will be as a means to get them join their church.
The primary mark of ecumenical Christianity is its focus on God’s unconditional love for all people. If God loves everyone unconditionally as His children, the world is a family, and we should also love all people as our brothers and sisters. Jesus Christ lived on this earth as an embodiment of God’s unconditional love, and the church has to be the visible body of the invisible Christ in today’s world. Ecumenical Christianity is not other-worldly. It is not this-worldly either. It is one-worldly. It views the visible and invisible world as parts of one whole. There is only one world; only a part of it remains visible to us now.
The ecumenical leaders rejoice seeing any two nations or religious communities make peace with each other; whereas the evangelical leaders rejoice seeing two nations or communities break their relationship and fight with each other, for they see it as a fulfillment of the prophecy of the end times and as a sign of Christ’s return. Ecumenical Christianity strives to mend broken relationships and build bridges, whereas evangelical Christianity strives to break relationships. Evangelical Christianity sees in the World Council of Churches an agency of Satan.
Metropolitan Geevarghese Mar Osthathios started with an evangelical view, but when he saw the evil lurking behind it, he quit it and adopted the ecumenical view. His involvement in the ecumenical movement and his theological education helped him make this transition. His close association with Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios might have been a major influence. This ecumenical vision was behind his humanitarian activities, which include the orphanages he established throughout India, the relief work in Andhra Pradesh when the hurricane hit in 1976, and the various funds to help the poor.
The Way Forward
In the past few decades we witnessed a great reform movement in the Indian Orthodox Church led by such great leaders like Paulos Mar Gregorios and Geevarghese Mar Osthathios. Both have gone to the other side of the veil leaving us here to enjoy the fruits of their labor and to continue their great mission. It is up to us now to understand the meaning of what they achieved and to follow their path. They have left with us a wealth of literature to learn and internalize their vision. We need to read them and learn what it means to be Orthodox Christians in today’s world. We don’t want our community to stay inactive anymore; we want it to be dynamic. We also want our community to keep its own identity.