East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 7, No. 2, Spring 1999, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

Russian Orthodox and Evangelicals at Odds

Kaarina Ham

Protestants as Half Churches
The era of Communism, which led churches to practice mutual aid and support, is over.  Now traditional Orthodox piety views the Orthodox Church as the only true church and Protestant churches as half churches which have lost much of the truth and spirituality of the apostles.  Protestant traditionalists also have their claim:  They tend to believe theirs is the pure church, free from nonbiblical accretions.1

A 1995 Orthodox Consultation on Mission and Proselytism affirmed the need to accept some responsibility for current tensions in Eastern lands in which Orthodoxy has been the predominant Christian faith.  Members suggested that Orthodox churches should examine possible causes of proselytism "coming from our own weakness and negligence" and make every effort to remove them. Yet the tendency of Russian Orthodox prelates has been to lay responsibility for current hostilities primarily on Western missionaries. Metropolitan Kirill has summarized the hierarchy's attitude toward the influx of foreign religious groups in unmistakable terms:

Having survived "cultural and spiritual genocide," the church, exhausted and weak, must now confront "a multitude, an army of sects and cults" attempting to "convert" the Russian people, 80 percent of whom are baptized.2
Throughout the years of repression, ties with the World Council of Churches (WCC) were maintained.  Now, states the Metropolitan, instead of offering assistance, some WCC member churches sponsor mission work in Russia, in violation of ecumenical commitments:  "They 'come to destroy our cultural foundations, not even saying hello, as though there had been no 30 years of dialogue.'"3 Not only is Metropolitan Kirill mistaken in assuming that, after nearly seven decades of Marxist-Leninist inculcation, such a high percentage of the Russian people are baptized; his comments also reveal a lack of knowledge of the Protestant community.  Only a small percentage of Western Protestant missions now working in Russia are ecumenically minded.  The majority are either evangelicals with minimal connection to the WCC or fundamentalists with no connection to the WCC or other ecumenical forums.  If they are aware of ecumenical statements, they neither subscribe to them across the board nor consider them binding on their universal mandate to evangelize.

Spiritual Occupation of Russia
In a 1994 essay Andrei Kurayev, pro-rector of the Moscow Orthodox University, accused American Protestant missionaries of organizing the spiritual occupation of Russia.  He wrote that one of the missions calls itself a "Crusade" and asked, "Against whom is it fighting?  Against unbelief and lack of spirituality?  Or are they once again opposed to Orthodoxy?"  Missionary meetings he called "shows" where the Christian faith is "advertised like toothpaste."4  Foreigners' presumption that Russia is a vast spiritual wasteland, despite a millennium of Orthodox Christianity,5 is fueled by militant language which in turn reinforces hostility:

"'Russia is a Mission Field," proclaims one Campus Crusade news release.  "Yours in conquering the heartland of Russia with the irresistible love of Jesus," ends a newsletter.  These references are insensitive, uninformed, and easy to misconstrue.6
There appears to be a strong unwillingness on the part of Russian Orthodox leaders to concede that many other faiths, including Baptist, Seventh-day Adventist, and Pentecostal, were in Russia long before the Revolution.7 Despite affirmations of tolerance across ethnic borders, it appears to many religious minorities that Orthodox are interested in religious freedom for themselves, but eager to limit opportunities for non-Orthodox, and willing to cry proselytism (even unfoundedly) to stem the tide flooding in.8

Protests of Orthodox hierarchs over continuing "missionary intrusions" in Russia seem to overlook the impact of seventy years of Marxist-Leninist inculcation, argues Cecil M. Robeck.  On the basis of past Christianization, Orthodoxy claims entitlement to cultural hegemony.  Yet Orthodox have defined proselytism so broadly that any missionary or evangelistic activity undertaken by non-Orthodox is labeled illegitimate, and persons engaging in such activity are frequently described as thieves.9

Defining Proselytism
Many Western Protestants perceive a central problem in the failure of Russian Orthodoxy to rise to the post-Communist challenge of effective witness to its own nominal flock.10  Broadly speaking, evangelicals understand that those who have an active, living faith in Jesus Christ should not be treated as persons to be evangelized.  Most would agree that evangelization which is coercive, deceptive, or manipulative, is unworthy of the name and should be labeled as proselytism.  Yet disagreement comes when evangelization and proselytism are equated.  Proselytism should not be applied indiscriminately to all evangelistic activity; room must be left for legitimate evangelistic efforts toward individuals in other religious communities when their affiliation is nominal.11  Five observations may be made in this regard:

First, definitions and applications of the term "proselytism" differ....  Second, those who use the term have defined it for evangelicals rather than with evangelicals.  Third, when the term is defined for another group and then unilaterally applied to that group, the issue becomes one of ecclesial oppression.  Fourth, since those who most frequently invoke the charge of proselytism against younger churches were themselves in earlier times engaged in similar activities, the older churches may well run the risk of self-incrimination.  Fifth, it would be wrong to judge evangelicals as not having any sympathy for the inappropriateness of proselytism, for they have publicly recognized its evils.12
Kaarina Ham is a missionary with Youth for Christ serving in Samara, Russia.

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Kaarina Ann Ham, "The Interplay Between Orthodoxy and Protestantism in Russia 1905-1995," Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1998.

  1. David P. Teague, "Key Issues and Practical Advice" in Turning Over a New Leaf: Protestant Mission and the Orthodox Churches of the Middle East, ed. by David P. Teague (London: Interserve, 1992), 107-108.
  2. Donald W. Shriver and Peggy L. Shriver, "Russian Orthodoxy in a Time of Upheaval," Christian Century 112 (5 April 1995), 366.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Xenia Dennen, "Leading Orthodox Apologist Has Meeting With Protestants," Keston News Service 95 (January 1995), 16.
  5. Serge Schmemann, "Religion Returns to Russia, With a Vengeance," New York Times International, 28 July 1993, Sect. A, 8.
  6. R. Vito Nicastro, Jr., "Mission Volga:  A Case Study in the Tensions Between Evangelizing and Proselytizing," Journal of Ecumenical Studies 31 (Summer 1994), 241.
  7. Schmemann, "Religion Returns to Russia," 8.
  8. Nicastro, "Mission Volga," 229.
  9. Cecil M. Robeck, "Mission and the Issue of Proselytism," International Bulletin of Missionary Research 20 (January 1996), 4.
  10. Philip Walters, "Born Orthodox?," Frontier 11 (May-June, 1997), 6-7.
  11. Robeck, "Mission and the Issue of Proselytism," 6-7.
  12. Ibid., 7.

Kaarina Ham, "Russian Orthodox and Evangelicals at Odds," East-West Church & Ministry Report 7 (Spring 1999), 11-12.

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© 1999 East-West Church and Ministry Report
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