Church, State, and Culture: On the Complexities of Post-soviet Evangelical Social Involvement



Taking a lead from tragic experiences in Slavic-speaking immigrant communities in the United States, the authors take a closer look at the historical background and theological presuppositions underlying the social passivity of post-Soviet evangelicals. Its roots are found in the seclusion of their communal life under the suppression of religious communities by the Soviet government. Using insights from the theological tradition of the Radical Reformation, current attitudes and forms of Christian living of the evangelical communities in the former Soviet Union are defined in terms of convictions and beliefs. An attempt is made at a holistic assessment of the resources needed to change the existing attitude toward social involvement. The resources are sought in the wider Christian tradition, as well as in the practice of the Sermon on the Mount. Social involvement is understood by the authors as a wider set of practices including presence, involvement, and extension of fellowship to persons and communities outside the church.


Church; State; Culture; Post-soviet Evangelical Social Involvement

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“Grief Grips Sacramento’s Ukrainians.” On-line available. (February 1, 2002).

Here and further the term ‘baptistic’ is used as an umbrella term for a variety of believing communities practising believers’ baptism and demanding radical moral living, such as Baptists or Pentecostals. For an extended explanation of the term see James Wm. McClendon, Jr., “The Believers Church in Theological Perspective,” in Stanley Hauerwas et al, eds, The Wisdom of the Cross: Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), pp. 309-26. Cf. McClendon’s earlier account of the theological heritage of baptistic (or ‘baptist’) communities in Systematic Theology: Ethics, Vol. I, Revised Edition published posthumously (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), pp. 17-34 (originally published in 1986; see pp. 17-35). For a collection of baptistic writings see Curtis W Freeman et al, eds., Baptist Roots: A Reader in the Theology of a Christian People) Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1999).

“Grief Grips Sacramento’s Ukrainians.”

The church was not willing to accept him fully as a member because of the lack of proper recommendation from the church he previously belonged to. “Spotlight on Ukrainian-American community.” On-line available. (February 1, 2002).

Personal letter from G.B., an eyewitness report and reflections. (August 27th, 2001) Available through the author.

Konstantin Yuryev, “Why Did They Kill My Son?” («За что убили моего сына? ») (Вестник, 6 января 2002 года).

Interestingly, however, the Board of Directors of the Center consists of the pastors and leaders of the local churches. This is reflected in the composition of the editorial board of the Center periodical, Вестник, a sign of the major role that the church plays in the public life of this enclaved immigrant community. Personal letter from G.B., an eyewitness report and reflections (February 20th, 2002) Available through the author.

“An Appeal to the Slavic Community Center of Sacramento” («Обращение к славянскому общественному центру г. Сакраменто») (Диаспора, 6 января 2002 года), с. 7. (Translation ours)

An explanation of terms is due here. ‘Soviet evangelicals’ might be somewhat confusing since the word ‘evangelical’ is so broad that it typically requires some descriptive adjective — such as ‘fundamentalist,’ ‘mainline,’ or ‘radical.’ Here the definition of ‘Soviet evangelicals’ corresponds to the gathering church concept, a topic to be picked up in the last section of this work. In practical terms, these are mostly Baptists and Pentecostals, as in Walter Sawatsky’s usage of the same term in his work, Soviet Evangelicals Since World War II (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1981). The following discussion excludes the new churches that have sprung up under the influence of some Western movements after the fall of the Union. Their history and theology differs in significant ways and requires a separate study. For the difficulties in neatly defining Eastern and Central European Evangelical communities and, more generally, the development of European Protestantism in traditional Western theological terms, see Parush Parushev and Toivo Pilli, “Protestantism in Eastern Europe to the Present Day,” in Alister E. McGrath and Darren C. Marks, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Protestantism (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), pp. 155-60, and Alister E. McGrath and Darren C. Marks, “Introduction: Protestantism – the Problem of Identity,” ibid., pp. 1-19.

In this paper, we are continuing to explore some of the themes touched upon in our earlier works, that is, the life of evangelical churches in the post-soviet context. Ourselves being ‘insiders’ should account for some of the claims that would otherwise require some substantiation.

For a fuller picture of European Evangelicals’ social perceptions in general, one must take a serious note of the subversive appeal of the Marxist egalitarian social vision.

Glen H. Stassen, ‘Critical Variables in Christian Social Ethics,’ in Paul Simmons, ed., Issues in Christian Ethics (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1980), pp. 68-74. Recently Stassen elaborated on his earlier insights providing a more comprehensive account of the nature of moral discourse in Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), pp. 99-124.

We are using here ‘convictions’ theologically as suggested and defined by James Wm. McClendon, Jr., and James M. Smith, Understanding Religious Convictions (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975) (Revised Edition published as Convictions: Defusing Religious Relativism (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994), chap. 4. On the relation of Stassen’s critical variables of moral discourse and the concept of convictions, see Parush R. Parushev, “East and West: A Theological Conversation” (Journal of European Baptist Studies, Vol. 1 #1, 2000):31-44.

For a theological analysis of the results of such dichotomy, see Nancey Murphy, ‘Beyond Modern Dualism and Reductionism.’ IBTS Occasional Publications Series, Vol. III (Prague: International Baptist Theological Seminary, 2003), pp. 24-40.

Linas Andronovas, ‘Lithuanian Baptists: A Struggle For Identity In the Post-Communist Era’ (Unpublished thesis, Klaipėda: Lithuania Christian College, 2001), p. 21; Lina Andronovienė, ‘The Suffering Faith: Towards a Theology of Suffering in the Context of the Lithuanian Baptist Church’ (Unpublished thesis, Klaipėda: Lithuania Christian College, 2001), p. 51. Available through the authors.

Cf. Glenn E. Hinson, The Integrity of the Church (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1978), p. 80.

Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, p. 75.

Miroslav Volf, ‘After the Grave in the Air: True Reconciliation Through Unconditional Embrace.’ IBTS Nordenhaug Lecture Series, 2001. Journal of European Baptist Studies, Vol. 2, # 2 (January 2002):9. Volf observes that “one of the reasons why this is so is because our identities, our personal and collective identities, are not simply self-contained and internally determined; rather, they are always shaped by interaction with other people.”

McClendon and Smith, Convictions, pp.5-7

David Hilborn and Matt Bird, eds., God and the Generations: Youth, Age & Church Today (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2002), 151-2.

Cf. McClendon, Ethics (1986), pp. 172ff.

Alasdair MacIntyre, “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative, and the Philosophy of Science,” in Stanley Hauerwas and L. Gregory Jones, eds., Why Narrative: Readings in Narrative Theology (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), p. 138. Although the crisis of this sort is first of all of moral nature, it is epistemological because it is a discovery of the shattered formative convictions of the community.

Nancey Murphy and George F.R. Ellis, On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Theology, Cosmology, and Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), p. 242.

On ‘traditions’ and ‘Tradition’ see John Meyendorf, Living Tradition: Orthodox Witness in the Contemporary World (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978), p. 21ff.

“c,” “p,” and “b” here designate a church type, not a denomination. For the use of the term ‘gathering church’ see James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Systematic Theology: Doctrine, Volume II (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), p. 327ff. For an extended treatment of the term see Keith G Jones, A Believing Church: Learning from Some Contemporary Anabaptist and Baptist Perspectives (Didcot: The Baptist Union of Great Britain, 1998), and his article, ‘Towards a Model of Mission for Gathering, Intentional, Convictional Koinonia’ in the Journal of European Baptist Studies, Vol. 4 # 2 (January 2004), forthcoming.

Although it is still sometimes accounted, even by the representatives of the gathering churches themselves, as a part of Protestantism, there are enough differences that call for seeing the gathering church movement as a distinct tradition. Cf. Lesslie Newbigin’s “Pentecostals” in The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church (New York: Friendship, 1954) or James Wm. McClendon’s overview of the terminology used in respect to this tradition in his Ethics (1986), pp. 18-20; and McClendon, “The Believers’ Church in Theological Perspective,” in Stanley Hauerwas et al, eds., The Wisdom of the Cross: Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 309-226. Nigel Wright summarises the gathering church tradition as a distinct combination of convictions: “the doctrines of the sole headship of Christ over the church; the church as a fellowship of believers; believers' baptism; the competence of the local congregation; freedom of conscience; and the separation of the church from the state so that it might be self-governing. All of these are directly rooted in the New Testament as the normative and binding witness to God’s will for the church.” Wright, New Baptists, New Agenda, p.15. Cf. S V Sannikov, 20 Centuries of Christianity: 2nd Millenium (Двадцать веков христианства. Второе тысячелетие) (Odessa/St Petersburg: Bogomysliye, 2001), pp. 230-231.

Qtd. in Avery Dulles, Models of the Church, Second Edition (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988), p. 63.

John Meyendorff, Catholicity and the Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983), p. 7.

Meyendorff, Catholicity, p. 62.

Cf. John Howard Yoder, The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical, Michael G. Cartwright, ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), passim.

Cf. John Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985), passim. Speaking about the role of religion in society, even a secular political theorist Michael Walzer admits the need of religious communities to mediate divine grace as “a social good.” In Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (Basic Books, 1983), p. 243.

For an extensive treatment of the issue of common good and its relation to human rights, see, for example, a Catholic theologian David Hollenbach, Claims in Conflict: Retrieving and Renewing the Catholic Human Rights Tradition (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), and an Orthodox theologian Stanley Samuel Harakas, Living the Faith: the PRAXIS of Estern Ethics (Minneapolis, MN: Light and Life Publishing Company, 1993).

A thoughtful critical evaluation of the possibility of a fruitful Orthodox-Baptist dialogue is presented in Ian M. Randall, ed., Baptists and the Orthodox Church: On the Way to Understanding. IBTS Occasional Publications Series, Vol. I (Prague: International Baptist Theological Seminary, 2003).

See, for instance, Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development, Roy A. Harrisville, trans. and ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), p. 246.

Alister McGrath, ‘Calvin and the Christian Calling.’ On-line available. (February 15, 2002).

Cf. Douglas F. Ottati, “The Reformed Tradition in Theological Ethics,” in Lisa Sowle Cahill and James F. Childress, eds., Christian Ethics: Problems and Prospects (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1996), p. 52.

Cf. his Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York: Touchstone, published by Simon & Schuster, 1995 (First published 1932 by Charles Scribner’s Sons)); The Nature and Destiny of Man. Vols. I & II: Human Nature (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996 (First published 1941/1943 by Charles Scribner’s Sons)).

Ibid., p. 52.

On an extended critique of the Constantinian residue in church life from the evangelical perspective see Nigel G Wright, Disavowing Constantine: Mission, Church and the Social Order in the Theologies of John Howard Yoder and Jürgen Moltmann (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2000).

Cf. Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward A Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame: University of Nore Dame Press, 1986.), pp. 109-110.

James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Systematic Theology: Witness, Vol. III (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), p. 87.

Public visibility of the Baptists in Ukraine and Moldova is a prime example. Moreover, some local evangelical churches rise to prominence because of the personal relationships that develop between the church leaders and influential public personas.

Cf. McClendon, Ethics (1986), p. 237.

David E. Garland, ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ in Watson E. Mills, Gen.ed., Mercer Dictionary of the Bible (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1997 (1990), pp. 810-11; Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, pp.128-45.

The gathering churches in a way function as the voluntary monastic orders in Catholicism. But instead of being a ‘church within a church,’ they see themselves rather as surrounded by the world foreign to the Kingdom of God.

A short illustration may be fitting here: one of the authors recalls how the children of (registered Baptist) believers upon coming home from school would change their clothes, undo the red pioneer’s tie, and go to the church for a prayer meeting or a Bible study.

Parush R. Parushev, “European Baptist Considers Church-State Matters: Problem vs. Vision.” On-line available. Column on “News & Society” in (March 25, 2002).

Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), p. 74. Hauerwas and Willimon reflect one side of the ongoing debate concerning the role of communitarianism as it regards the social involvement of the gathering church. How much can the church expect to influence the society? Not much, they argue; hence the idea of a colony. Some other authors writing from the perspective of the gathering church, such as Glen Stassen or John Howard Yoder, hold this to be a wrong dualism. (Cf., for example, Glen Stassen’s Foreword in Duanne K. Friesen, Artists,Citizens, Philosophers: Seeking the Peace of the City: An Anabaptist Theology of Culture (Scottdale: Herald Press, 2000), p.8.) They are more optimistic in their proposals for the ways for the church to impact the larger society. (Cf. for example, Glen H. Stassen, D.M. Yeager, and John Howard Yoder, Authentic Transformation: A New Vision of Christ and Culture (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), passim.; Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, pp. 369-446.)

Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1994 (First published 1972)), 154.

Yoder, For the Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1997), 195.

McClendon, Ethics, pp. 31-35.

Cf. Hauerwas, A Community of Character, p. 105.

Yoder, For the Nations, p. 228.

Yoder, The Royal Priesthood, p. 104.

McClendon, Doctrine, p. 155.

McClendon, Ethics (1986), p. 106.

It is worth noticing that even liberal democracies with long history of charity and aid are using the church as the partner. For instance, several governments within the European Union have used ecumenical aid and development agencies in membership with the Association of Protestant Agencies (APRODEV) as channels of development assistance to countries in the Two-thirds world. The receiving agency in the developing country is generally an ecumenical agency of the indigenous churches. We are thankful to the Revd. Keith G. Jones for this helpful insight.

McClendon, Doctrine, pp. 336-337.

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