East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 8, No. 4, Fall 2000, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Evangelism and Proselytism in Russia: Synonyms or Antonyms?

Mark Elliott

Editor's Note: The present article draws heavily upon and reacts to findings in two major studies on proselytism in the former Soviet Union (see endnote 1) produced by a Pew Charitable Trust grant project directed by Professor John Witte, Jr., Emory University Law School.

Protections and Limits on Religious Proclamation
Christianity strongly enjoins its adherents to give witness for the purpose of converting nonbelievers. Modern human rights covenants both aid and restrict this propagation.1 The 1966 European Covenant, for example, protects one's right to "impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers."2 But international human rights accords also have set limits on the expression and propagation of beliefs where they infringe on "the right of individuals to hold a belief of their choice without impairment."3 These covenants put limits on proselytism, the act of converting an individual from one faith or church to another, by specifically disallowing coercion, material inducement, violation of privacy, and preachments to captive audiences.4 But it is not easy to reconcile the freedom to manifest a religious belief and the sometimes contending freedom to maintain a religious belief.5 Some parties will insist on the existence of a legitimate right to unfettered religious expression for the purpose of persuasion and conversion. Others, conversely, will insist on the right to be free of all unwanted religious proclamation, not just that which is coercive, invasive, or manipulative. In such cases of rigid single-mindedness, no meeting of minds is possible, and juxtaposing advocates of such uncompromising positions produces diatribe instead of dialogue. But if one concedes both a right to free religious expression and the legitimacy of restrictions upon abuses of religious expression, then there is a basis for discussion.

The Issue of Material Inducements
The issue of inadmissible material inducements in evangelism and missions, what Israeli legal scholar Natan Lerner calls "evangelistic malpractice," deserves serious consideration.6 Keston Institute Director Lawrence Uzzell is correct to state categorically that "missionaries should not buy converts. Giving a provincial Russian a free Bible as an inducement to attend a religious lecture or worship service is the equivalent of paying an American fifty dollars or so for that purpose." And "offering brand-new converts or prospective converts . . . a free trip to America . . . can easily become just a holiday, shopping opportunity, or springboard for permanent emigration. . . . Conditioned by Madison Avenue, American missionaries too easily forget that Christ said, 'Take up thy cross and follow me,' not 'Take advantage of our new special offer.'"7 Still, Christian proclamation without concrete acts of compassion for the poor, the destitute, and the suffering rings hollow, a theme reiterated time and time again in the Book of James.

Longtime mission researcher and mission practitioner Anita Deyneka has written guidelines for Evangelical missionaries in Russia that underscore the necessity to "proclaim the Gospel in word and deed." At the same time, to avoid any hint of manipulation, Dr. Deyneka recommends that "Humanitarian aid as a part of the Christian mission should be given without coercion to convert to any religious confession."8 In the same vein Lawrence Uzzell explains, "There is nothing inherently wrong with giving away goods or services free of charge. But missionaries should make such items available to all who are in need, not just to participants in the missionaries' own programs. . . . Free soup kitchens or food parcels should be targeted to all who are hungry, not just those willing to sit through Protestant sermons."9 Sad to say, this writer attended a church in Moscow in July 2000 in which elderly women were provided tickets for a free meal in exchange for their presence in worship.

However, the increasingly xenophobic Russian Orthodox Church sees not only such manipulative charity, but all Western Protestant compassionate ministries and communications as "illegitimate material inducements." Moscow Patriarchate Department of External Relations representative Alexander Dvorkin, whose U.S. citizenship serves as a rather odd adornment for a fierce Russian nationalist, deplores all manner of Western Christian ministry in the former Soviet Union, including "the furnishing of humanitarian aid, English lessons, education, and employment . . . the use of television, newspapers, and other mass media to propagate the faith and the organization of loud and insensitive crusading carnivals."10 Similarly, throughout the 1990s Patriarch Alexis II decried the "massive influx" of "well-organized and well-financed" missions of "foreign proselytizing faiths,"11 "zealots" in search of "new markets."12

Missionary Practice versus Missionary Presence
Undoubtedly, it is hard to draw a clear, precise line between legitimate expressions of Christian compassion on the one hand and material enticements offered to effect what must be superficial conversions on the other. But such points of discernment do not concern the Russian Orthodox Church because, as Emory legal scholar John Witte notes, "The Patriarch is not only complaining about improper methods of evangelism--the bribery, blackmail, coercion, and material inducements used by some groups; the garish carnivals, billboards, and media blitzes used by others. The Patriarch is also complaining about the improper presence of missionaries."13

Patriarchs and archbishops of fourteen Orthodox Churches, including Alexis II, who met in Istanbul in March 1992 signed a joint message castigating new Catholic and Protestant initiatives in Eastern Europe. The assembled Orthodox heirarchs expressed consternation that Catholics and Protestants were treating their territories as terra missionis (missionary lands), whereas, they noted, "in these countries the Gospel has already been preached for many centuries."14 Since the long historical conditioning of the Byzantine and Russian Empires involved state privileges for established Orthodox churches and an absence of religious pluralism, and since Russian and Orthodox are taken as synonyms by conservative churchmen and nationalists, Western evangelism among any Russians is regarded as proselytism. Nevertheless, even as Evangelicals come to appreciate Orthodoxy, the exceptional achievements of Russian culture, and the remarkable perseverance of a long-suffering people, they need feel no constraint to abstain from, or feel apologetic for, sharing the good news in a Russia minus Marx.15 This is so because the former Soviet Union is home to many tens of millions of people who claim no religious allegiance or are nominal believers.16 Evangelicals have ample room to minister in this setting without engaging in proselytizing.17

Balancing the Great Commission and the Golden Rule
In closing, two seemingly contradictory propositions deserve consideration, one legal and one theological. Legally, freedom of conscience, to be genuine, must concede the possibility of culturally insensitive, even patently obnoxious propagation--short of the aforementioned coercion, material inducement, invasion of privacy, and preachments to captive audiences. However, theologically, legal scholar John Witte makes the telling point that a Christian must keep in balance the imperative of the Great Commission (Matthew 28: 19-20) and the imperative of restraint and respect for others that derives from the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12).18 Thus, paradoxically, genuine champions of religious liberty must even defend professions of faith they consider false and ingracious; and genuine followers of Christ must ever champion witness that is winsome and gracious. 

Mark Elliott is director of the Global Center, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, Birmingham, AL, and editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

Edited excerpt of a forthcoming article to appear in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research used with permission.

  1. T. Jeremy Gunn, "The Law of the Russian Federation on the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations From a Human Rights Perspective" in Proselytism and Orthodoxy in Russia, The New War for Souls ed.John Witte, Jr., and Michael Bourdeaux (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999), 241; Natan Lerner, "Proselytism, Change of Religion, and International Human Rights," Emory International Law Review 12 (Winter 1998), 497-98, 500, 519, 542.
  2. Lerner, "Proselytism," 485.
  3. Ibid., quoting Donna J. Sullivan, "Advancing the Freedom of Religion or Belief through the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Religious Intolerance and Discrimination," American Journal of International Law 82 (1988), 487.
  4. Ibid., 482-83, 486, 495-96, 526-27, 559.
  5. Ibid., 504.
  6. Ibid., 495.
  7. Lawrence Uzzell, "Guidelines for American Missionaries in Russia," in Witte and Bourdeaux, 326-27.
  8. Anita Deyneka, "Guidelines for Foreign Missionaries in the Former Soviet Union," in Witte and Bourdeaux, 335-36.
  9. Uzzell, "Guidelines," 326-27.
  10. John Witte, Jr., "Introduction" in Witte and Bourdeaux, 7.  See also Joel A. Nichols, "Mission, Evangelism, and Proselytism in Christianity: Mainline Conceptions as Reflected in Church Documents," Emory International Law Review 12 (Winter 1998), 639-40, 642.
  11. Witte, "Introduction," 7.
  12. Nichols, "Mission," 649.
  13. Witte, "Introduction," 22.
  14. Nichols, "Mission," 635.
  15. The previous two sentences originally appeared in Mark Elliott, "East of the Old Iron Curtain: Can Christians Coexist?," East-West Church & Ministry Report 2 (Fall 1994), 16, and Kent Hill and Mark Elliott, "Are Evangelicals Interlopers?," East-West Church & Ministry Report 1 (Summer 1993), 3.
  16. Susan Goodrich Lehmann, "Religious Revival in Russia: Significant or Superficial," paper presented at the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies, Washington, DC, 21 October 1996, Fig. 6.
  17. Mark Elliott and Sharyl Corrado, "The Protestant Missionary Presence in the Former Soviet Union," Religion, State and Society 24 (No. 4, 1997), 341-42; Nichols, "Mission," 646.
  18. Witte, "Introduction," 24.  See also Nichols, "Mission," 565-66.

Mark Elliott, "Evangelism and Proselytism in Russia: Synonyms or Antonyms?," East-West Church & Ministry Report 8 (Fall 2000), 1-3.

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© 2000 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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