Not Finished Off Yet: Conversation with a Baptist pastor in Moscow.
S m o l e n s k – „It’s gotten lonely among us.“ That was the conclusion of a conversation punctuated by air hammers and howling motorcycles at the Moscow subway station “Okhotny Ryad” near the entrance to Red Square on 2 June. My Russian partner was a Baptist pastor involved in the dealings of his church and country over the past 40 years.
According to him, developments on Kiev’s Maidan in February 2014 have ushered in a new era; contacts with the West have gone into a steep decline. “Now we are truly alone.“ Now we’re cut off from the much greater church resources in Ukraine and our ties to there will be decreasing further. We remain in fellowship with many brothers and sisters there – leading theologians for ex. But we are often not welcome and our government frowns if we keep showing up there. We no longer can serve as a backyard for Ukrainian Protestants, but they have retained the West as their source of goods and spiritual strength.
He continued: We are now receiving few funds from the West; more forced than voluntarily, we are again becoming self-reliant. The number of our educational institutions continues to shrink. A party in a Moscow park, held to celebrate the 140th anniversary of the Russian Synodal Bible, was paid out of our own pockets. The general crisis has strengthened the sense among Russian Christians of all sitting in the same boat. “We feel closer to other Russian Christians – including the Orthodox — than we do to Baptists in the USA.” We are much weaker than our sister churches in Ukraine, but we are not finished off by a long shot.
The Baptist pastor conceded that a „totalitarian current” was present among them, “but they will not be able to divide us”. He was referring to a US-based Calvinist and fundamentalist movement. Already during the Soviet period, the – at that time – vast and multi-confessional Baptist union had learned to keep various movements united under a common umbrella. So Baptists have experience in that realm.
Simultaneously, my partner regretted the division of the “Protestant front” into a Baptist and a Pentecostal branch. “That did not need to be”, he assured. Since 23 September 2015, the Baptist Union no longer belongs to the “Advisory Council for the Heads of the Protestant Churches of Russia“. Its unofficial head, Sergey Ryakhovsky, leading bishop for the “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” (ROSKhVE), is now attempting to go it alone as motor of the Advisory Council. The denomination of Evangelical Christians (the former Baptist Alexander Semchenko for ex.) are doing what they can to support him. Lutherans and Adventists though are concerned about remaining on good terms with both sides; the same is true for the Russian Evangelical Alliance. According to my conversational partner, the sharpest difference is apparent between the Baptist Union (Alexey Smirnov) and the Charismatics (Sergey Ryakhovsky).
The pastor also spoke of three free-church models for relating to a secular society. Two models, “sectarianism” (withdrawal from society) and “underground” (a preference for illegality) have been around for many decades. A third, new model calls for offensively approaching state and society as practiced today by Pentecostals and Charismatics. Yes this model has been imported and inserted by the West. “We Baptists don’t know how to proceed on from this point”, he concluded. “Our leadership is still largely without higher education and they have no concept for a public, church-wide presence.”
That reminded me of the fact the Russia’s Baptist Union has been through a great deal in the course of the past 40 years. The long period of isolation was followed immediately by a flood of Western influence and wares. The issue now is to develop new models between the extremes of separatism and extensive societal involvement.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Berlin, 20 June 2016