East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 1, No. 3, Summer 1993, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

Are Evangelicals Interlopers?

Kent Hill and Mark Elliott

Many Orthodox Christians believe that Protestants have no place in Russia.  In particular, they see recent evangelical activity from abroad as an unwelcome intrusion into a spiritual landscape nourished by a thousand years of Byzantine Christianity.  Western missionaries working in countries with long-standing Orthodox traditions definitely need to apply themselves to a study of history and culture in order to  understand this legacy.  However, even as Evangelicals come to appreciate Orthodoxy, the exceptional achievements of Russian culture, and the remarkable perseverance of a long-suffering people, they should not feel constrained to abstain from, or feel apologetic for, sharing the good news in a Russia minus Marx.

When survey researchers asked Russians, "Do you or do you not agree with the opinion that members of the Orthodox Church should have advantages compared to atheists and people of other religious beliefs?," 66 percent of respondents favored equal legal status for all faiths.1  In fact, Russians, whom scholars often have characterized as historically conditioned conformists, now favor far more diversity than some Western champions of Russian culture.  Ironically, Western criticism of evangelical outreach in Russia often comes from quarters which advocate cultural and religious pluralism for the West, but apparently not for the East.2

In contrast, Western Evangelicals naturally want to support a movement of some three million indigenous Protestants whose origins in the Russian Empire now date back well over a century.3   Also, Evangelicals by definition seek to evangelize nonbelievers, and recent survey data suggest that as many as 69 percent of Russian men and 46 percent of Russian women do not identify themselves as religious believers.  Thus, Evangelicals have ample room to minister to millions of Russians who are spiritually adrift, without ever engaging in proselytizing, that is, drawing adherents from one church to another.4

Opponents of  Western Protestant outreach in Russia sometimes argue as follows:

  1. It is true that Russian Orthodoxy today suffers from low rates of observance:  survey data indicate that 32 percent of Russians consider themselves Orthodox, but as few as six percent attend services as often as once a month.5
  2. But Orthodox nominalism today stems from many decades of state oppression and persecution.
  3. That being the case, the most civil and Christian response for Western Protestants would be to aid the Eastern Church in getting to its feet.
  4. Protestants should either help Orthodoxy recoup and recover, or stand aside and allow it time to regain its strength, rather than take spiritual advantage of its present weakened condition.
  5. Consequently, Orthodox should have either first or exclusive access to the Russian people.
Evangelicals, however, see a privileged status for Orthodoxy as a tsarist throwback that a clear majority of Russians have said they do not want.  Nevertheless, a charitable evangelical response would be to assist in strengthening the voice and witness of Orthodoxy in any way possible--even as Evangelicals maintain the position that no single Christian confession alone can reach all of Russia for Christ.  Protestants would do well to pray for a major Russian Orthodox revival and renewal that would permit it to serve wholeheartedly as an agent of God's healing and redemption.  Because Russian culture owes an enormous debt to Orthodoxy--in literature, music, and architecture, for example--many Russians likely will remain spiritually lost if a reinvigorated Orthodox Church does not reach them.

Parenthetically, one wonders in all sadness how realistic the current prospects are for an Orthodox institutional and spiritual rejuvenation, given the fact that the present leadership, vetted by the Soviet Council of Religious Affairs and the KGB, has yet to undergo anything approaching perestroika.6  The 1990 murder of the saintly, reform-minded Father Alexander Menn and the troubling responses of Orthodox officials--varying from muted, to quietly relieved at his passing--leaves little room for encouragement.  Those who compare Father Menn to G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis as a winsome Christian apologist, bemoan his loss and the pall his death seems to cast over the prospects for a revitalized Russian Orthodox Church.7

Even if the crippling legacy of state interference in Orthodox Church life disappeared tomorrow, and even if Orthodoxy instantaneously could marshal its best efforts in a mighty spiritual renewal, millions very likely still would remain untouched.  First of all, many Russians find it difficult to place trust in the Orthodox hierarchy, seeing the present patriarch and bishops as endemically susceptible to aligning themselves with, or succumbing to, secular power.8  Second, Reformation churches, more frequently than Orthodox, have considered intellect and learning as complimentary to faith.9  The Western tradition of struggling with the creative tension between faith and reason presently draws increasing numbers of  highly educated Russians in the direction of Protestantism and Catholicism.10  Whether or not substantial numbers of well-educated Russians make the pilgrimage from atheism and agnosticism to faith via Protestant or Catholic Christianity, such opportunities certainly would benefit the Kingdom.

Despite Soviet domination of the church in the twentieth century, Orthodoxy is, and probably will remain, the preeminent cultural and religious reality in Russia.  Still, Protestantism could render Orthodoxy a service in the same way that the Reformation stimulated genuine reform within Roman Catholicism.  In tsarist Russia Protestant growth in a given region often helped reenergize the Orthodox out of a complacency born of being a state church.   And today, for example, positive responses to contemporary evangelical Christian music have helped convince Orthodox clergy to support innovative musical ministries to reach Russian youth.

Finally, Western Protestants can contribute to Russian society by encouraging the development of religious tolerance, an absolute necessity for an aspiring democracy.  At a Moscow forum in the spring of 1992, Fr. Andrei Kyreev, secretary to the Patriarch; one of the present writers (Kent Hill); and ten other speakers addressed the issue of religious freedom.  Hardly anyone championed the rights of individuals outside their own tradition.  "Why is it," a member of the audience complained afterwards, "that the only person today who defended the religious freedom of atheists was an American evangelical?"  He had heard nothing from native speakers--Orthodox or Protestant--that gave him reason to hope for true religious liberty in the future.11

In conclusion, Western and indigenous Evangelicals in the former Soviet Union:

  1. can and should study seriously the Orthodox culture in which they seek to minister;
  2. can and should serve Orthodox ends both by assisting and challenging this longsuffering, but persevering church;
  3. can and should play a role in evangelizing secularized Russians; and
  4. can and should encourage the democratic virtue of religious tolerance. 

  1. Unpublished poll of May 1991 on the "Attitudes of the [ethnic Russian] Population to Religion, Politics, Law, etc.," conducted by the All-Union Polling Center for Socio-Economic Issues and the International Center for Human Values, both of Moscow.  Cited in Kent Hill, "The Orthodox Church and a Pluralistic Society," Russian Pluralism:  Now Irreversible?, ed. by Uri Ra'anan, Keith Armes, and Kate Martin (New York:  St. Martin's, 1992), 185.
  2. For examples, the National Council of Churches.
  3. Mark Elliott, "Growing Protestant Diversity in the Former Soviet Union" in Russian Pluralism, 205.
  4. Mark Rhodes, "Religious Believers in Russia," Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Research Report 1 (3 April 1992), 61.
  5. Unpublished poll data cited in Hill, "Orthodox," 184-85.
  6. Edward E. Roslof, "The Myth of Resurrection:  Orthodox Church in Postcommunist Russia," Christian Century 110 (17 March 1993), 290-93.
  7. Hill, Orthodox," 174, 185; David Remnick, "Lament for a Murdered Russian Priest," Washington Post, 18 October 1990, B1, B12; Mark Elliott, "Soviet Believers Question Rising Death Toll of Christian Activists," Special Report, News Network International, 9 April 1991, 6.
  8. Hill, "Orthodox," 168-69; Anthony Ugolik, The Orthodox Church and Contemporary Politics in the USSR (Washington, DC: National Council for Soviet and East European Research, 1991), 64.
  9. Carnegie Samuel Calian, for example, refers to the "greater tendency for intellectual concentration and abstraction in the West than in the East."  Icon and Pulpit, the Protestant-Orthodox Encounter (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1968), 159.
  10. Authors' observations; and Stan DeBoe, "Catholic-Orthodox Tensions and Russia's Emerging Church," World Perspectives, News Network International, 23 September 1992.
  11. Kent Hill, unpublished transcript of an address given at a consultation on "Christian Higher Education in the Former Soviet Union," Wheaton College, 16 April 1993, 3.
Kent Hill is president of Eastern Nazarene College, Quincy, MA, and Mark Elliott is director of the Institute for East-West Christian Studies, Wheaton College, and coeditor of the East-West Church and Ministry Report.

Kent Hill and Mark Elliott, "Are Evangelicals Interlopers?," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 1 (Summer 1993), 3-4.

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1993 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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