Long-simmering leadership conflicts in the Mennonite Brethren Church of India (MBCI) reached a crisis point in recent years, prompting the International Community of Mennonite Brethren (ICOMB) to declare in August that it no longer recognizes the India conference president’s leadership.
In September, ICOMB’s 22 conferences called on member churches to pray for healing and peaceful transition in India, where P.B. Arnold has been president of the conference of 212,000 people in about 1,000 churches since leadership transitioned from mission workers about 40 years ago.
Mennonite World Conference considers MBCI the world’s second-largest Anabaptist group, behind the Meserete Kristos Church in Ethiopia, which counts 310,877 members.
“This is a corrupted leadership situation which should grieve the heart of every Mennonite Brethren,” says Don Morris, USMB national director, in an email to Christian Leader. “I applaud the leadership of ICOMB for taking a strong stand against this corrupted leader. I also pray for ICOMB and those leaders who will need to continue to engage—that God would grant them wisdom and perseverance in seeing this through. I also pray for those Indian leaders who long for change and healing that they might be allowed to step in and lead without interference from the previous leader, Dr. Arnold. May God have his way in India and bring his restoration.”
ICOMB has been sending correspondence to Arnold for at least a year, expressing concerns about reports of unbiblical abuse of power and authority, misappropriation of resources, the use of judicial courts to resolve disagreements, wounded confidence among international agencies and institutions and a lack of transparent leadership elections.
Paul Gandham, secretary of an ad hoc committee that opposes Arnold’s leadership, says Arnold, who is 82 years old, should have stepped aside in 2004, when he allegedly began creating illegal documents to sell off conference properties and keep the funds.
Arnold is an accomplished surgeon who has contributed much to the medical field for several years. He did not respond to Anabaptist World’s attempts to contact him by email and phone.
“Arnold was selling properties of MB Mission in India, claiming he is the rightful owner of these properties,” says Gandham, who claims 90 percent to 95 percent of MB congregations support the opposition activities of his group. “He was playing mischief with the church documents. He made some illegal resolutions with a small group of leaders, and he has some clout with local politicians. . . .
“He enjoys the money. He spends it on his family. He has two apartments in London. He has a lot of property owned privately. He started a private trust, and he transfers this money to that trust to spend on his personal things. The Mennonite conference has no say in that.”
The ad hoc committee is based out of Mahabubnagar Mission Bungalow, which was built in 1888. The MB conference was officially registered in 1958, but the building fell into disrepair until 2017, when the committee refurbished it. Gandham says Arnold filed three lawsuits against the committee to leave the space, but police and courts did not accept the claims.
The building’s first floor is now occupied by Mennonite Brethren Development Organization. MBDO executive director David Jakkula says Arnold “has been ruling like a terrorist.”
“Unfortunately, he is also president of the MB property committee and has power of attorney,” he says, requesting prayer for improved leadership and ministry revival. “During his tenure, he has closed down three hospitals — one in 1979, one in 1985 and one in 2018. One nursing school closed down in 1995. One Bible seminary closed down in 2006.”
The ad hoc committee has tried to impede Arnold for about 12 years. Gandham and others have erected signs and painted on walls at mission compounds and Bible schools declaring the properties are not for sale.
When fasting prayers, marches or hunger strikes have been held at buildings where Arnold is present, Gandham says law enforcement officials are summoned to disperse protestors.
The committee began filing its own lawsuits against Arnold in 2008.
“In India legal things take a lot of time, and the legal system is extremely slow,” Gandham says. “It takes 20 to 30 years to solve things, so for 10 to 15 years this litigation is going on, and the whole time Arnold is trying to sell properties to get the money.”
The group estimates more than $4 million in property sales and rent has been taken. When Arnold allegedly attempted to lease Wanaparthy Mission Bungalow for use as an Islamic seminary, the committee held a march and burned an effigy of Arnold.
“We have taken extreme measures, but that is common in India,” Gandham says. “We are trying to get the attention of people who are buying these properties. They are not Christians, they are just businesspeople.”
ICOMB sent a letter to Arnold in August informing him all national conferences in ICOMB no longer recognized him, or any of his designees, as the president.
“While we appreciate the many good things that have happened during the transition from mission to church under your leadership over the past 40 years, there comes a time when all of us must step aside to allow for new leadership to arise,” the letter states. “That time has already passed for you.”
ICOMB requested action and a response from Arnold within 15 days but did not hear back from him, prompting the body to distribute a letter Sept. 13 informing the India conference’s churches of ICOMB’s declaration.
“There is legitimate concern about the future leadership of the MBCI. Suggestions for change are many,” ICOMB states. “Although these suggestions are important, we believe the most urgent concern should not be replacing the leadership of the MBCI within its current structure.
“We are convinced that the first priority should be recognizing the brokenness for the conference and seeking healing in the power of the Holy Spirit.”
In a Nov. 6, 2020, email to the Christian Leader, ICOMB executive director Rudi Plett says, “ICOMB has been invited by many leaders to walk along with the conference in their transition time. And this is what ICOMB is engaged to do, in spite of all restrictions related to COVID-19. The transition still faces great obstacles, but we believe that God is at work.”
This article was first published in the Nov. 6, 2020, issue of Anabaptist World and is reprinted with permission. Comments from USMB national director Don Morris and ICOMB executive director Rudi Plett have been added by CL staff.
Responses to the Anabaptist World story in the form of letters to the editor have been published in Anabaptist World and posted on its website. https://anabaptistworld.org/category/letters/page/2/
Tim Huber is associate editor of Anabaptist World, an independent journalistic ministry serving the global Anabaptist movement. He worked at Mennonite World Review, an independent newspaper, from 2011 until 2020 when MWR merged with The Mennonite, a 135-year-old denominational magazine, to form Anabaptist World. A graduate of Tabor College, he and his wife, Heidi, served with Mennonite Central Committee in Germany, where the first of their three children were born. His family attends Shalom Mennonite Church in Newton, Kansas.