The Church in Bali


Church in Blimbing Sari, a village about 3 hours drive from Dempasar. Courtesty of Julie Grieg from the United Church in Australia

The King of Klungkung was satisfied with the letter written on the lontar, a dried and pressed palm leaf which served as paper for both writing and drawing among the Balinese. The year was 1635, and the palmleaf letter was addressed to the Vatican. It’s message was simple: “I would very much like for us to be close allies and would be happy to receive your representatives here to facilitate the conversion to Christianity of those Balinese people who so desire.”

The Vatican was quick to respond, dispatching two priests stationed in the Moluccas to immediately head to Bali. While the records note their arrival, there is no evidence that any missionary work was performed, or to be more precise, there is Temple Besakih on Mount Agung is described as the “center of the world” for Balinese people. Balinese churches often incorporate Hindu architectural evidence of any missionary results. That would not come until Jacob de Vroom, a Dutch Re-formed missionary, arrived in 1867. Klungkung was on the southeast coast of the island of Bali, but it was in the north that the first conversion was recorded when Gusti Wayan Karangasem was baptized.

Gusti’s baptism would mark the beginning of a long era of sporadic growth and increasingly onerous persecution for the fledgling church. Under mysterious circumstances, Jacob de Vroom was found murdered. His death would mark the end of outside missionary work for a generation. It was not until 1929 that the British Bible Society would send Salam Watias from East Java to Bali. While Indonesia was and remains overwhelmingly Muslim, Bali was (and remains) just as overwhelmingly Hindu. Balinese Hinduism is a syncretistic blend of traditional Hinduism and the native animism that predated the Hindu’s 16th Century arrival when they fled the mainland following the Muslim take-over of the rest of Indonesia. Watias was permitted to work as a colporteur, i.e. a distributor and seller of Bibles and religious tracts. One of those who received a Bible was a local mystic and teacher by the name of Pan Loting. Loting had already become dissatisfied with Hinduism and so became fascinated with the book and its stories of the man Jesus, who being a man, was yet God.

Indonesia, and hence Bali, were under Dutch control. With the British Bible Society active in Bali, the Dutch gave permission to the Christian and Missionary Alliance to begin sending missionaries, as well. They chose an ethnically Chinese pastor named Tsang-To Hang for the task, but restricted his labors to the Chinese community in the southern city of Denpasar. The Christian message spread, however, and it was Pan Loting and 11 of his followers who were the first to be baptized in this new work. The baptisms were administered by the leader of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Rev. Dr. R.A. Jaffray on November 12, 1931. By 1935, 82 additional baptisms were recorded and by 1955, there were 579 Christian families, four pastors, thirteen lay preachers, sixteen buildings and seventeen congregations. It was this work that became the Bali Christian Church.

The church today maintains ties with Reformed and other evangelical denominations, but years of persecution have left their marks. Church leaders today speak disparagingly of the Christian and Missionary Alliance methods adopted by the missionaries. Those methods included a requirement that Balinese destroy their temples before being baptized. Any modern visitor to Bali is at once struck by the abundance of idols. One can drive for miles through Denpasar, as the author hasInside the Blimbing Sari Church. Courtesy of Julie Grieg from the United Church in Australia. done, and see home after home, each with a backyard shrine full of statues of various Hindu gods. Hindu temples abound. The C&MA missionaries are quoted as saying that “it is better to give the offerings to the dogs than to the temple.” Since St. Paul would surely have made the same demands, the Balinese disdain for their church’s founders is understandably difficult for other Christian groups to understand, particularly those who have undergone similar persecutions and yet have drawn a finer point defining where orthodoxy must trump culture.
That the Balinese Christians were persecuted for their original zeal is abundantly clear. The Hindu leaders decided that contact between Hindus and Christians would henceforth be forbidden. The shops of Christian merchants were boycotted. Christian family members were disinherited, their farms denied water, their children ostracized. To realize why the conflict was so sharp, one needs to understand how the land and people are inextricably united in Balinese Hinduism. This was explained to the author by a representative of the Balinese church who described it this way:

“In Hindu philosophy three principles exist: TRI HITA KARANA which means God People Land: the spiritual world, the world of human beings and the natural world around them. These three principles are connected and overlap each other; the Balinese believe that it is the responsibility of human beings to make sure that this interaction is balanced and harmonious. The Balinese accomplish this through ritual expressed in the form of religious offerings. This philosophy is of great influence on the life of the people and also of great influence on the struggle between Hindu and Christian population. One cannot talk about God without connection to people and land.

“The Temple Besakih on Mount Agung symbolizes the principle of God, people, land. For the Balinese this is the centre of the world. In the villages there are always village temples, families have their family temple, poor people make their small offerings in the rice fields or cemetery. In other words, if people leave the religion and convert to other gods, they are no longer part of Tri Hita Karana and lose their right to be part of the community or to own land.”

The situation became dramatically worse when the Dutch government chose to preserve Bali as a cultural “museum of the world” and forbade further mission work by outsiders. The gap was filled by Javanese Christians who reached out to their Sunday School at the Blimbing Sari Church. Courtesy of Julie Grieg from the United Church in Australia.Balinese neighbors and sent Dr. Hendrik Kraemer, a Dutch Reformed minister in the church in Java, to minister in Bali. This relationship lasted until the occupation of Indonesia by the Japanese during the Second World War. Following the war, Dutch missionaries returned only to find that anti-colonial sentiment made the Balinese Christian association with the Dutch problematic. The Balinese churches decided the best course of action was to ask the Dutch to leave, which they did.

The next challenge to the Church came with the communist revolution in 1965 in Indonesia. The post-war development of political parties had embroiled the church in politics as different leaders aligned with different parties across a broad span of differing ideologies, ranging from Christian parties to the communist party. During the 1960’s, politics was very much a contact sport in Indonesia and the church had Dr. Hendrik Kraemerdifficulty in separating its identity from that of church leaders who also help political party office. In the political tumults that swept across Indonesia, thousands were killed, including a number of Balinese Christians.

The Challenge of Contextualization
Many indigenous churches struggle with the problems associated with stripping away Western cultural traditions that inhibit the advancement of the Gospel. While outsiders see the logic of building open, airy buildings more suitable for the climate, they are less comfortable with church architecture which self-consciously appeals to what are fundamentally Hindu principles of sunlight (Brahma), water (Vishnu) and air (Visnu). There are many fascinating stories of how the Lord has brought the true Light of Lights to the peoples of the world, but few have walked a path so often visited with persecution, abandonment and revival as the gentle brethren of Bali.