Message by Mr S Dhanabalan at the GCF Annual Thanksgiving Dinner

On 5 September 2003, Friday.

I want to thank the GCF for giving me this opportunity to make a few broad brush points on why I think the evangelical Christian churches in Singapore should distance themselves from their counterparts in the West, if they want to be effective witnesses for Christ in this nation.

I know some of you will be disturbed and disagree strongly with what I have to say but if I can start you thinking on the subject I think I would have succeeded in what I want to do this evening.

I don’t think it will surprise most of you that the common perception of Christianity among the non-Christians in Singapore, and Asia as a whole, is that it is a Western religion. It is seen as a European religion whose belief and practices are basically alien to the culture, and lifestyle and values of the people of Asia. This is almost the universally held view of non-Christians in Singapore with whom I’ve interacted. With very few exceptions, all the Christian denominations in Singapore and even the so-called independent churches trace their origins to the non-scriptural traditions that identify them with the churches in the West.

I would like to call all these denominations “the church in Singapore” to cover all the various denominations including the many who may consider themselves as having no formal organizational links to churches in the West.

This misperception of Christianity as a Western religion is largely the doing of the Church in Singapore itself, and perhaps in Asia, and we cannot really blame the non-Christians for this perception.

Apart from the Evangelical doctrine which is the basis of our Faith and which we derive from the Bible, almost everything about us portrays us as a Western institution. The way we celebrate the special days in the Christian calendar, our rites of passage, our rituals and practices in the church have not much to do with the Bible but more to do with the cultural setting of the people who brought the Gospel to us. The core of our faith is Biblical but we present it in a very elaborate wrapping or packaging which is European or American in culture and tradition.

If we do not make a conscious attempt to discard this wrapping, the people to whom we want to present the Gospel may never get past their antipathy to the wrapping and may never get to the point of answering the question that Jesus poses to all of us: “Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16: 15)

This aversion to the Western dress or garb of Christianity will only get worse which is my reason for trying to press this argument that we should unravel the organizational connections we have with the western churches.

There are three reasons why I think that the association with western church systems will become more negative for Gospel witness in Singapore.

The first set of reasons has to do with geopolitical developments.

The trends in the current geopolitical scene should cause us to make a serious attempt to correct the misperception that Christianity is a Western faith and that the church in Singapore is an extension of Western churches. We now live in a unipolar world with one overwhelmingly dominant power, which is the United States of America. With the collapse of Communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, there is no other power that can even remotely counterbalance America. When there are two or more powers, contending for influence and domination, the powers themselves feel the need for rules and laws which should govern themselves as well as others, because it is in their interest to have such rule of law. When there is no contending power and only one power dominates, as is the current situation, there is no pressure to abide by the rule of law. Therefore the USA no longer considers itself bound by any international law that is not in its own interests. This has been amply demonstrated for the last two to three years on economic, environmental and security issues. The USA used to pride itself that its policies were shaped by values and not interests. This is no longer the case. Interests override values.

The leaders of most non-American countries will concede that the USA, as a power, is the most benign of powers. They also know that Americans are instinctively isolationist, not internationalist. This has been proven many times in the Second World War, for example. They never entered the war until Pearl Harbour was bombed. And most national leaders fear an America that isolates itself from the world, because that will have dire consequences for international peace and stability. Most world leaders would like the USA to be internationalist but they know that they have little influence, especially now, in shaping the role of the USA in the international arena. As America pursues its national interest without regard to the sensitivities or interests of other nations, suspicion and resentment of things American will grow. Among the Islamic populations of the world, this is already the case. I can see that this will be an inevitable trend in SE Asia, East Asia as well as South Asia.

Globalization, while increasing interaction between nations and peoples, has quite ironically also heightened a sense of one’s own culture, language, history and people. The church in Singapore should be very conscious of this trend. While the US dominates, it is clear that there are also other emerging powers. China is a clear example of a power that is emerging both in economic and military terms. While it is far behind the USA, there is no doubt that if the Lord tarries, in the next 50 years or so, China will be a power to contend with. Even if China takes a long time to become an international power, it will certainly be a regional power to be reckoned with in our part of the world. There will be pulls on the sentiments, sympathies, loyalties and support from the people in this part of the world in this contest for influence between America and China. This will intensify. Ask yourself, how the church in Singapore can be effective in appealing to our people if in the context of this geopolitical development, the church here is seen as an extension of the church in the West, in terms of system and organization.

The second reason for being concerned with this issue is the Church and Politics.

This issue that I’ve been thinking about becomes more relevant when we see that Christian groups and some churches in America are becoming deeply involved in the political process in America and in shaping American domestic and foreign policy.

Despite the oft stated principle of separation of church and state, the fact is the history of the church in the West is very deeply entwined with the fortunes and developments of secular and political powers.

In the first three hundred years of the Church, believers looked to the Holy Spirit for the existence and growth of the church. The Church set itself apart from secular powers. It was different. Christians were penalized for being different and for not being part of the political establishment. The corruption of the church began in the year 312 when the Roman Emperor Constantine professed to have become a Christian and Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Instead of the convicted believer, the church now attracted the politically ambitious and the opportunists. As one historian described it: “By 380 AD, penalties for Christians had given way to rewards for Christians which in turn gave way to penalties for non-Christians.”

It was the start of the Christian empire and the growth and development of the church became closely aligned with the power struggle of political leaders. Church interests became aligned with political interests. Thus we find, for example, that in spite of all the reforming zeal that Martin Luther had, he basically worked with the political powers of the day. The support of the German rulers (the dukes, princes and knights) for his doctrinal challenge to the Pope was driven as much by political factors as by theological convictions. Yes, some of them had the conviction that what Martin Luther was saying was right, but many others also saw it as an opportunity to free themselves from the power and yoke of Rome.

We also find, for example that Calvin resorted to forcing people to be Christians by taking over civil powers. People had to attend church and communion because the civil law said so. He had no compunction in pursuing and executing those who did not believe with his theology. But what is interesting is that he used the civil laws which he controlled to do so. Luther insisted that people followed the faith chosen by the ruler of the state. Neither Luther nor Calvin recognized freedom of conscience. The sad fate of the Anabaptists who were often executed for teaching and practicing adult baptism is a notorious example of this approach.

The close nexus between religion and politics in the Western church is also illustrated in the way the Church of England was established. Henry VIII broke away from Rome because the Pope refused to allow him to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon and marry Ann Boleyn. But the reason why he wanted to do so was a political reason. He wanted a male successor to the throne.  Therefore he appealed to the Pope to allow the marriage to be annulled and the Pope did not sanction this, not because of Scriptural or moral reasons, but for political reasons because Catherine was the aunt of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain.

So Henry VIII sought a way to break with Rome and did so on the basis of a 14th Century English law that prohibited English subjects from dealing with foreign powers. He used this law to insist that English clergy stopped dealing with the Pope. I think some of you will immediately recognize this as the same reason that PRC uses for not allowing the Roman Catholic Church in China to owe allegiance to Rome. This was exactly what Henry VIII did – use the law to forbid the clergy from dealing with Rome and thus break with Rome.

 He established the Church of England in 1533 with himself as the head. The fact that there was the wind of reformation blowing from Europe to England made it easier to make this break. But he never actually disagreed with any of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, one of the titles that the current monarch since Henry VIII carries is called “Defender of the Faith”. That honor was bestowed by the Pope on Henry VIII for condemning Martin Luther as “a wolf from hell”. The “Defender of the Faith” that we see today among the titles of the English monarch is not as the defender of the Church of England but of the Roman Catholic Church. When he broke away from Rome, he kept to the doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. The changes in the Anglican Church only really took place about 100 years later with the Puritan Revolution.

The tradition of the church in the West to compromise and pursue political interests and allow special leeway for the powerful and the rich to carry on their lifestyle, however immoral they may be, is a very common feature in church history. It is a feature that is found both in the Roman Catholic and the Protestant Church.

These things are not mere historical curiosities for us to note. The reason why I’m telling you this is that this nexus between some elements of the Church and the political powers of the day in the West has continued through the ages and even today. American religious groups are exerting pressure to shape domestic and foreign policies. US policy towards Israel and it’s policy towards Palestine are shaped as much by the Israeli lobby as by sections of the Christian church. US policies therefore, as they impact other countries, can easily be portrayed as church policy, or church-influenced or Christian-influenced policy. The resentment and reaction against the US and US policy can easily be directed against Christians. Christian churches outside the USA, if they are perceived to be part of or an extension of the church in the US or UK, will of course have to face the same accusation, that they are responsible for US policy.

Whether we are Brethren, Methodists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Assemblies of God or whatever, we know that we are not under some central authority in the West like the Roman Catholic Church. But as long as we carry the same names and identify ourselves by participating in the councils, conferences, conventions or synods, we will be seen to be part of the church in the West. This also applies incidentally to the para-church organizations. I have been concerned for some time at the many new para-church organizations in Singapore which are established by American parent organizations and are shaped by American concerns and values and adopt American methods and have a US-centric view of the world. All of us, if we continue to maintain this close nexus and continue to identify with Western churches and organizations, will suffer the consequences.

The third reason why we need to re-examine this issue is that the church in the West has ceased being a light to the world and  become a flickering light.

This is I think the most important reason for us to distance ourselves from the church system in the West because they are increasingly deviating from Scripture in their doctrines and practices – in UK, in US and in Europe.

The catchword that guides their doctrines and practices is that the Church must reflect the changing social norms and philosophical trends in the world. It is feared that otherwise the Church would lose its influence and become irrelevant in the world and irrelevant to society.

Contrast this approach with what characterized the church in the first two centuries of its history. Christians are described in the New Testament as “saints” which is a translation of the Greek “hagios”. It is often translated as “the holy one”. Its root meaning is the word “different”, “separate” – not conformism but being different. Christians are to be different from others in their life, values, work, leisure and in everything. That is why Christians in the early church were viewed with suspicion and were persecuted. If Christians had conformed, they would have been trouble-free. But they were different, not by what they said, but by what they were, and that is why the genuine seeker was attracted to Christ and the Church.

Compare this with today’s church in the West. Even when these churches have formal statements of faith which are consistent with Scripture and which obviously are different from the world’s view and philosophy, they dare not emphasize or draw attention to the fact that their statements of faith are different from what is fashionable in the world.

So you find that in all denominations in the West, there is no attempt to discipline church leaders or members who do not subscribe or believe in the fundamental doctrines of the Gospel. A very wide spectrum of views from complete unbelief in the deity of Christ to various other distortions of fundamental doctrines are condoned. Even though the formal Statement of Faith of the Church may be evangelical and true to Scripture, there is no attempt made to ensure that the leaders in the Church and members, abide by these doctrines. In many of the conventions and conferences whether it is the Methodist conference or the Episcopal conference or the Baptist conference in the US, attempts are made to change some fundamental doctrines or make some immoral practices acceptable. These attempts are usually not successful because the majority of the people who attend the conferences and the churches represented in these conferences are against it. So they go away thinking they have succeeded because they have stopped a change but this attempt to change is not an intellectual debate. The attempt to change arise from sections in the church which practice this immorality or hold these beliefs. So merely defeating an attempt to change is not sufficient. They never take the next step of disciplining or expelling them.

There is also an almost total lack of discipline of believers whose moral life is in complete contradiction to Scriptural standards. Whether it is homosexuality, adultery, promiscuity, swindling the church, the state, the company, there is reluctance to discipline and demand repentance and restitution of the church leaders and members who are guilty of such things.

Not only is there no discipline, but immorality and perversion like homosexuality is raised as a banner of enlightenment and a banner of tolerance to attract society. Truly, “if the light within them is darkness, how great is the darkness.”

The tragedy is that the majority who reject these deviations do nothing to expel those who hold such beliefs or practice such perversions. They thus signal that they condone such beliefs and practices.

“What do righteousness and wickedness have in common? What fellowship can light have with darkness?”

What Paul said of the unbeliever is even more true of those who claim to be followers of Christ but who do not follow His teachings. We should heed His call to “come out from them and be separate”.

How do you convince the non-Christian Singaporean that the churches in Singapore do not subscribe to such beliefs and standards? How do we differentiate ourselves whether we are Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists or any other denominations, that we are different from the church in the West when we in fact carry the same name? How do you explain, how often do you explain, and how widely do you explain to the non-Christians in Singapore?

Isn’t it time for the churches in Singapore to examine how to separate and distance ourselves from these churches in the West so that the Singapore churches are not seen as the counterparts of the Church in the West?

Today the Protestant Church in Singapore is almost entirely evangelical in belief and teaching. This certainly was not the case in the fifties and sixties. When I became a Christian in 1956, many churches in Singapore were modernist in their theology, liberal, denying some of the very fundamentals of the faith. In fact the Varsity Christian Fellowship was started by a group of Christians from these churches as well as other churches in order to ensure the evangelical witness in Singapore continued and was strengthened. The other organizations that grew out of the VCF, the GCF, the FES and all the other affiliated bodies came about because they were a group of people who felt that they needed to make a stand.

We thank God that today almost every church in Singapore follows the Evangelical tenets, holding to Scripture as the only final authority of faith and life, with the doctrines centered on Jesus only, Grace only, Faith only. This happy situation is the work of God using many agents in Singapore.

I believe that the leadership provided by the generations who were influenced by the VCF, the GCF and the FES is one of the key agents that God has used to bring this about.

To move from our present comfort zone is always unsettling. We GCF members should ask ourselves whether the witness for Christ and the Gospel can be effective if we continue with the present church system in Singapore and we should consider what we need to do if we think that continuing with this system of affiliation or identification with the churches in the West is not helpful for the Gospel.

I would like to just conclude by making two points clear.

  1. I am not advocating that we cut off fellowship with the believers in the West. At our individual level, those who have committed themselves to Jesus are our brothers and sisters, and we ought to love them and fellowship with them and show that we are one with them. My concern is with the affiliation and identification with their church systems and their organizations.

  1. We cherish our historical traditions. But we must never make or allow our traditions to be put on the same footing as Scriptures. Some of you will know that I am a member of a church that is classified as a Brethren church. The Brethren can be just as much prisoners of tradition as any other denomination. That is why I studiously avoid any project that seeks to celebrate the Brethren tradition. This has been my stand all these years. My daughter is a baptized believer in a Methodist church. My son is a baptized believer in the Church of Christ.

All born-again evangelical Christians are my brothers and sisters. If my brother who is an Anglican or a Methodist or a Baptist, is maligned or disgraced by the actions of their affiliated church in the West, I feel the pain. So I am not speaking as an outsider but as a fellow believer – as an insider.