Widyapranawa, S.H.

A Third World Perspective on Catholicity and Secession



XI. A Third World Perspective on Catholicity and Secession


In this Introduction the editor has pointed out the apparent dilemma of catholicity and church secession. It is a problem which needs serious and creative attention in church ecumenism in the world today, both in the older established churches as well as among younger churches in the Third World. The crucial problem is, How can catholicity, as taught by the Bible and the Reformed Confessions, be put into a proper balance with church secession on behalf of biblical truth? Many approaches have been adopted: doctrinal, confessional, biblical, hermeneutical, traditional, historical, to soften the tension between the two entities. Nevertheless, the tension remains without a generally satisfactory answer. To what extent should we be faithful to our „secessionist legacy” without neglecting the principle of reformata reformanda?

This tension is not unfamiliar to the younger churches in the Third World, although the legacy of secession is not a part of their church history: their own local theologies are relevant and responsive to their cultural situations and particular problems. This is surely true for the churches in Indonesia which are experiencing catholicity in a non-Christian country without being overly obsessed by Western church legacies, which, in one way or other, intentionally or not, were introduced by Western missionaries.

It must be granted that the reality of secession cannot be ignored and that much can be learned from the experiences of the established churches in the West. But besides being appreciative, we realize that many things have changed in the world and our own nation: national and cultural resurgence, social challenges, developments in theological reflection on the future of the country and the world. In this context churches in Indonesia are struggling for a better understanding of the Reformed heritage and their mission to the non-Christian world.


Living in a Javanese society and facing the dilemma of catholicity and church secession, I would first of all point to the spiritual climate and the spirit of ecumenism in Indonesia.


I. Cultural heritage

Indonesia, consisting of more than 13,000 islands, is the world’s largest archipelago, and presents a wide variety of cultural patterns. As a typical example, the Javanese cultural heritage shows features distinctive from Indonesian life in general. One such feature that touches all aspects of life is Javanese mysticism. To what extent have catholicity and church secession had their impact on the Javanese Christian?

First of all I would mention the Javanese worldview as an important background for their spirituality. Broto Semedi in his article in RES Theological Forum (vol. XV, nos. 2 and 3, April 1987, p. 50) pointed out that Javanese spirituality considers the cosmos as the only reality that exists on its own, a totality consisting of all that is. This may be called a cosmo-monistic view. Within this cosmic autonomy and totality-consciousness one is aware of being a part of that totality. According to Broto Semedi, this forms the basis of Javanese collectivism which empties itself into a social pattern of living together as one big family before the presence of God; however, this theistic idea arose only after being fused into the original Javanese mysticism. It considers all religions as essentially the same; an idea which promotes religious tolerance but does not necessarily imply syncretism.

The whole cosmic life is seen as a continuous battle between the opposing forces of chaos and order. This cosmic life is reflected in human life, as part of the cosmic totality. The forces of disorder are symbolized in man's outward and physical behavior that ties him to the phenomenal, material world, while the inner behavior, reflecting the forces of order, ties him to the ultimate cosmic meaning and morality.

In order to achieve deepest harmony with the cosmic purpose and unity, as the ultimate principle of existence, man should overcome his corporeal aspects, such as emotions, passions, worldly


drives and rationality, in order to free himself in the quest for reunification with his origin and so experience the oneness in his heart (N. Mulder 1978:13).

However, this mystical view does not in any way diminish man's function and responsibility, as Niels Mulder puts it:

Although cosmic conditions may explain the current situation in the here-and-now, it is ultimately man himself who has the power to influence these by his spiritual behavior, and this results in a rather anthropocentric view of world and cosmos (N. Mulder 1978:15).

Consequently, the world and its tangible manifestation is considered less important and human life on earth is seen as a temporary stop along the long road leading to the perfect and harmonious unity with The Ultimate Oneness (Uank Maha Esa).

This mystical worldview is reflected daily in the ethical values of social life in which harmony and unity should be demonstrated. On this spiritual basis, human life can prosper and be enjoyed together. Broto Semedi calls this cultural attitude inclusivism.

It includes all things, as parts of the one cosmic totality, in all its deliberations. „With this kind of attitude men think and act and live together without excluding anyone else . . . This finds its expression in the Javanese saying: ‘Let everyone find one another in mutual discussion’” (Semedi 1987:52). This Javanese spirituality (kebatinan) seeks to avoid all forms of disorder and disharmony which upset the equilibrium in human life, especially in social contact. Man’s emotions and ambitions should be well controlled for the sake of harmonious unity. In religious life one seeks to express and enjoy one’s relationship with God through mutual fellowship with other people, regardless of one’s religious persuasion.

To maintain a „good” and „harmonious” life in society, three main and closely interrelated ethical values are to be upheld, namely rukun, gotong royong and musyawarah. Rukun is the ideal of harmony in communal life, harmonious fellowship, an atmosphere of quietness and peacefulness. As Niels Mulder puts it:


Rukun is smoothing over differences, cooperation, mutual acceptance, quietness of heart and harmonious existence” (N. Mulder 1978:39). If this ideal cannot be perfectly achieved, rukun at least seeks to prevent all forms of conflict (cf. Franz Magnis-Suseno, 1985:52ff). In fact, according to Franz Magnis-Suseno, rukun does not necessarily denounce personal convictions or individual interest (Magnis-Suseno 1985:56).

Gotong Royong is the manifestation of rukun in daily life and work in the mutual existence and the sharing of burdens for the benefit of the community or society (N. Mulder 1987:45). This sharing of burdens is manifested spontaneously or deliberately, especially in the important events in one’s life, such as birth, circumcision, marriage, moving, harvests, house repairs, death and funerals. In the prevailing customs and social norms there is a principle of mutuality: help, so you may be helped when needs arise. All people, from close neighbors or friends to strangers, are expected to participate in this communal life; all men are considered brothers.

Musyawarah is the process of decision-making in mutual consultation and discussion to reach a full consensus. Each participant is free to express his/her opinion in a brotherly way, and each opinion should be heard and respected and considered to contain a measure of truth in some complementary way leading to a consensus acceptable for all participants. It requires much good-will for mutual understanding, self-control and a give-and-take willingness for the sake of humanity and the benefit of the community.

The impact of musyawarah on religious life is obvious. Among the vast variety of religious communities, cultural patterns and ethnic groups in the Archipelago, a peaceful climate of religious tolerance based on mutual understanding and respect is greatly appreciated. Self-control in one’s ambitions and interests abhors any form of religious fanaticism. The genuine Javanese spirituality vaguely acknowledges that all religions are ultimately the same, as many paths leading to the one big market place (Siman Widyatmanta, Siksap Hidup Kejawen dan Kristiani Selayang Pandang; in Indonesian, unpublished). However, this does not necessarily mean syncretism. This is especially true for the Javanese


Christian; Broto Semedi claims that „it is quite possible that a sharp distinction exists concerning principles of faith, such as God’s salvation in Jesus Christ . . . but this does not necessarily disturb common social life or even one’s religious life” (N. Mulder: 1978). In this way the Javanese tend to avoid polarization, i.e., the sharpening of conflicting differences.

In social and political life this cultural heritage finds its expression in the state ideology, called the Pancasila (the five principles): belief in the One God, civilized humanity, national unity, democracy through musyawarah, and social justice. These principles are closely interrelated and form a unity. The first principle guarantees freedom and mutual respect for one’s religion, harmony and peaceful relationship for the sake of national growth and development toward a just welfare society, spiritually and materially, based on the Pancasila. On this basis the government advocates a consultative body among the existing religious groups to promote dialogue, mutual respect and understanding.


II. Unity movement in Indonesia

1. Missionary problems in the past (from the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century)

It might be helpful for our study, after taking a brief glimpse at the cultural heritage, to look at the past missionary enterprise which in many ways influenced the shape and the thinking of the churches. According to Dr. Th. van den End there were three main problems:

a. The attitude of the colonial government toward the work of evangelism. The government was mainly interested in political security and permitted evangelism only in so far as it served political interest and promoted submissive obedience and order. This opportunistic and ambiguous attitude resulted in closing some areas for evangelism or putting limitations on missionary work (van den End 1982:277-82).

b. Missionary strategy faced the adaptation of the Christian faith to indigenous cultures or to cultural manifestations. To what


extent can the gospel brought by European missionaries be divested of the Western cultural cloak and adapted to the culture of the people to whom it was proclaimed? The „middle way solution” which sought to distinguish what is really incompatible and what is „neutral” was not always easy or satisfactory.

c. The initial establishment of church institutions and missionary calling, with the exception in Central Java (mission field of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands) and Tapanuli (North Sumatra), did not receive high priority. This was due, according to van den End, to the influence of a Pietist revivalism on the one hand and the paternalistic attitude of Western missionaries on the other. Only around the year 1930 and 1945, due to the growing cultural and nationalistic consciousness were more efforts undertaken (with good success) to establish independent/ indigenous church institutions. It was then that the desire for church unity, initially on the local level, arose among the ethnic groups.


2. The unity movement since 1945
Consciousness of self-reliance

The development of the indigenous church after 1945 has been marked by an increasing consciousness of independence and self-reliance along with the resurgence of indigenous cultures, nationalism and vigorous political thrust of the nation, now liberated from the shackles of colonialism. The churches became more aware and convinced of their missionary calling in the midst of a non-Christian society and the many challenges involved in all aspects of life. In this situation Christian people, being a small minority, came to realize the meaning of catholicity and the need of church unity as never before.

This development was preceded by an important historical event, namely the Japanese occupation in 1942-45 when all Western missionaries were confined to concentration camps. Church activities were hampered and sometimes made impossible; all communications with the outside world were cut off and all Western influence, including Christian, was widely suspected. And yet the church did survive in this „melting pot” and was even blessed


with a new spiritual vitality and the conviction of God’s presence and help in history. The experience resulted in greater self-reliance in faith to face a new era and future in Indonesian history.

Struggle for independence

The historic national struggle for independence (1945-50) was even more encouraging for church unity. Christians, regardless of their denominational affiliation, struggled together to oppose the colonial forces to achieve one national goal of freedom. A sense of belonging together and solidarity among Christian people, as it was fostered by common worship and witness, grew stronger as never before. What is more important, they found clear scriptural grounds for the catholicity of the Christian church, having experienced in an existential way the common faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, belief in the triune God and the Church universal as the Body of Christ. This made common worship possible with Christian personnel of the allied colonial forces in the occupied territories: Christian faith transcends nationalism and political controversies. After the war was over, the common thrust and calling to proclaim the gospel strengthened the sense of Christian unity. They are now more aware of being in the one flock of the Great Shepherd who has many sheep folds (Jn 10:16).

This awareness ripened the process and hastened the progress toward the formal establishment of the Council of Churches in Indonesia (DGI) in 1950. The Indonesian people have learned and are still learning the urgent need to unite and to build up the country. They have also learned in the Christian context to sense and formulate their own theological understanding of their Christian faith in the contemporary Indonesian context.

Catholicity and program for unity, the Fellowship of Churches in Indonesia (PGI).

The ideal of church unity, fostered by the Council of Churches in Indonesia (DGI) since its birth in 1950, has gone through many deliberations and struggles. It finally achieved concrete shape in 1984 at the General Assembly at Ambon. But even this is considered only an initial step towards the future formulation of a common confession of the member churches within what is now the Fellowship of Churches in Indonesia (PGI). Five historical


documents toward church unity, of which we shall give a brief description, have been adopted by the Ambon Assembly:

1. Principles of Our Common Calling (1984-89);
2. A Declaration Concerning the Common Understanding of Our Christian Faith in Indonesia;
3. A Charter on Mutual Acceptance and Acknowledgement of Member Churches within the PGI;
4. Constitution of the Fellowship of Churches in Indonesia; and
5. Towards self-reliance concerning Theology, Funds and Forces.

The document on principles, seen in the Indonesian present context (1984-89) and in line with the universal calling of the Church, mentions three principles:

1. UNITY: demonstrating the oneness of the Body of Christ which includes many gifts, but all from one Spirit (II Cor 12: 4).
2. WITNESS: proclaiming the gospel to all creatures (Mk 16: 15).
3. SERVICE: based on love for the sake of justice (Mk 10: 45; Lk 4: 18; 10: 26-37; John 15: 16).

These three principles are further elaborated in the following four tasks:

— unity means the renewal, upbuilding and unification of the Church (John 17: 21) towards the establishment of one Christian Church in Indonesia.
— renewal implies self-examination, conversion, changes for growth, testing the spirit of the times; all these should be done in the light of the Word and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
— upbuilding the church, in the light of Ephesians 4: 13-16, pays due attention to and employs wherever possible the positive values of cultural wealth and heritage, science, technical skills and experience.
— unification of the churches in Indonesia requires a solid scriptural basis as revealed in the trinitarian unity (John 17: 21-23); its pattern should not follow worldly patterns but must be based on Christian fellowship, love, service and witness in fulfilling its missionary calling in the world.


Indonesia, a nation with one national language, needs a spacious Lebensraum in which all diversities can express their distinctiveness with mutual respect, appreciation, humility and tolerance. All these differences should receive serious consideration and understanding in expressing the catholicity of the Church.

The renewal, upbuilding and unification of the Church, which are closely related to each other, are accepted as the common calling to demonstrate catholicity in Indonesia.

The document on a common understanding of the Christian faith is highly important for the basic understanding of catholicity. As a starting point it declares the acceptance of the Apostles’ Creed and the Niceno-Constantinople Creed, which manifest the true and full witness of the biblical Christian faith. It also accepts the confessions born in the historic struggle of the Reformation, as the Church’s legacy which enriches our present faith. Finally, it accepts the various church confessions born from the recent and present struggle of the member churches, as parts of our common Christian faith based on the Scriptures. This preliminary statement of our common Christian faith speaks of God, creation and preservation, man, salvation, church, kingdom of God and new life, and Scripture.

The Fellowship of Churches accepts the Bible, consisting of the Old and New Testaments, as the complete, and fully reliable witness of God who has manifested himself in Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God (John 1: 14). This witness comes through the Holy Spirit who moved and inspired the authors of the Holy Scriptures (II Pet 1: 21; II Tim 3: 16). This witness, which is conditioned by human, cultural and historical factors, transcends all these limitations in its message and is called the eternal Word of God (Isa 40: 8; Lk 21: 33). This truth can be apprehended only by the guidance of the Holy Spirit (John 16: 15; II Pet 1: 20-21). Therefore, the catholicity of the Church, according to the Scriptures, is a most precious and unique gift that should be upheld and struggled for, in obedience, humility and self-denial.

In order to experience this catholicity existentially, the third document calls for mutual acceptance and acknowledgement among the member churches of the Fellowship, for they form one


Body of Christ. This mutual acceptance and acknowledgement includes church membership, the ministry of the Word, the administration of baptism and Holy Communion, the administration of church discipline, education on principles of faith, the ministry of church marriages, ordination of offices, funeral ceremonies — all in accordance with the Scriptures.

Catholicity is understood therefore in a comprehensive and existential way, and is closely related to unity, service, witness, ecumenism and evangelism. It should be rooted, experienced and implemented by church people in their local situation, fermented by an unbiased willingness of the Christian community, without losing one’s own church identity. Differences may occur, but they need not necessarily result in open conflict and secession. A secession heritage/tradition, such as happened in the past in Western churches, is unacceptable to the younger churches in the Third World. At present the desire and serious endeavor for talks for reconciliation and church-mergers are growing stronger and finding greater support.

The Indonesian government is trying hard to maintain national unity and stability based on the Pancasila ideology and its cultural heritage. All religious groups in the country are required to engage in regular mutual consultations which are coordinated by the Ministry of Religion. The aim is to have fruitful dialogues which promote mutual understanding, respect and tolerance and ultimately to achieve peacefulness according to the principle of rukun. This requirement is not without influence on the church unity movement and the manifestation of the catholicity of the Church. According to government stipulation, religious peace should be realized through active participation of all groups to achieve:

— peace among the adherents of each religion or within their own circle;
— peace in relation to other religions (inter-religious peace); and
— peace between all religious groups and the government (political peace).


III. Catholicity and secession: a dilemma?

We have shown that the churches in Indonesia are not burdened by a secessionist legacy from the West; on the contrary, catholicity and unity are given high priority. The central message and the truth of the Bible are considered to be clear, straightforward and sufficient and do not, in general, elicit doctrinal doubts and debates. However, because of human sinful nature and limitations, improper praxis and misunderstanding can always appear, but in many cases people tend to solve and overcome them by prayerful and wise tolerance, love and patience as a part of church discipline, usually with encouraging results. Rationalistic and sophisticated debates on Scriptural texts do not generally appeal to the Christian community, since they often lead to the temptation of unfruitful discussion, confusion, sharp confrontation and secession, which is harmful for the peace of heart and mind of all concerned. But this does not mean that church discipline may be neglected or that intellectual theological studies should be shunned; on the contrary, they are greatly needed and appreciated in order to explore more profoundly the immeasurable wealth of God’s Word to enrich Christian life and understanding of God’s wonderful works and acts in history.

Therefore church secession, which has happened very sporadically in Indonesian church history, was usually motivated by non-theological factors, personal ambition or other interests and is deplorable. But whenever secession is unavoidable, it should be done in all honesty and deep humiliation before the presence of God and should aim at the upbuilding of the Church and the demonstration of the catholicity of the Body of Christ as an organic unity with its manifold richness. But in many cases, to build a separate secessionist church is not easy. After some cooling off period people who leave tend to rejoin the original church or to join another existing church.

Due to sectarian influences which sometimes infiltrate the church, some members fall into temptation and deviate from the sound teaching based on the Scriptures and the confessions. As this influence is limited to some individuals for some ambiguous reasons, it usually does not result in secession; on the contrary, after some intensive pastoral care (discipline), disappointments


and cooling off, in many cases those who err are willing to return to the right path.

A number of reasons can be given why church secession does not often occur among Indonesian churches:

— the cultural heritage which upholds harmonious unity and peacefulness through mutual discussion (musyawarah), tends to make people reluctant to ignite secession;
— the lack of strong motivated leadership, funds and forces;
— a convincing scriptural and confessional basis for secession is lacking;
— the government policy supports peace within the fellowship of churches;
— the reluctance to follow the Western secessionist legacy;
— a new attitude among Western missionaries fosters church unity and ecumenism rather than denominationalism; and
— the social consciousness of being a small Christian minority in a non-Christian country and the conviction that the Christian challenges should be faced in Christian solidarity.



Catholicity and church secession have not until now been felt and seen as a real dilemma in Indonesia. The problem lies rather in the right understanding and demonstration of catholicity, which is seen in an inclusive way that preserves organic unity. Church secession has not been a real problem and will not likely be in the near future because of the non-supportive factors mentioned above. In a very special case church secession might be a blessing ex eventu which does not really harm church catholicity. There is no controversy either between ecumenism and evangelism because these two are seen as vital complementary aspects of catholicity. This understanding of catholicity is being expressed by the Fellowship of Churches in Indonesia as it seeks to include as many churches and denominations as possible, without losing sight of the Truth and the central message of the Holy Scriptures.



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