“Open up to the world,” was the advice religious scholars offered Russian Baptists at the conference commemorating 105 years of the legalization of the Russian Baptist Church, which took place April 5-7, 2011 at Moscow Theological Seminary. The conference brought together church historians, theologians, church leaders, religious scholars, and journalists.
At the opening session Alexei Smirnov, Head of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians – Baptists, reminded participants that the history of the Baptist church in Russia was written in blood, and called on today’s Russian Baptists to remain faithful to their history and continue it in a worthy manner.
While answering religious scholars’ questions on why Baptists don’t talk to the media more, Pastor Smirnov talked about the collision between the Church’s social outreach activities and government policy. “As soon as we tell the media about our good deeds, we get shut down by the government. In my home town our church spent over ten years serving the children in a local orphanage whom everyone else had forgotten. But when the local authorities learned of it through the media they forbade us from continuing our orphan ministry.”
Conference co-organizer Johannes Dyck, Director of the Institute of Russian-German Theology and History at Bibelseminar Bonn, called for re-thinking an “us and them” mentality and instead seeing the bigger picture and “acknowledging God’s hand” in both our small portion and in the big picture of history.
Former President of the Southern Baptist Historical Society Albert Wardin gave a talk that was significant for the modern historiography of the Baptist Church. Professor Wardin shared that his Lutheran great grandfather was baptized into the Baptist Church in Ukraine and became active in the Stundist movement. In his prolific writings, Professor Wardin came to the conclusion that the Protestant Revival in the Russian Empire was cross-cultural and went through a number of stages of development, from having a number of different influences to evolving its own unique character, therefore Russian Baptists are a hybrid, an interweaving of various traditions. Wardin lists the following defining characteristics of the Russian Baptist Church: separatism, congregational autonomy, theological ignorance, a negative socio-theological identity, anticalvinism, subcultural identification, a taste for extremes, constant divisions, and an accent on community.
The conference left many “why”s unadressed. Why does the history of Russian Baptists start in Ukraine? Why do many Russian Baptist leaders still have Soviet associations? Why do Baptists speak less about civil liberties and more about patriotism and loyalty to the government? Why, despite a 105-year history, is the Russian Baptist Church still marginalized in society?
Based on the main talks of the conference, one has to conclude that the Baptist faith was not a conscious choice of Ukrainian peasants and Russian laborers, but rather it was the most convenient form for the spiritual movements of the time, not a whole-hearted or permanent choice. Therefore, as representatives of the Russian Baptist Union made clear, it’s impossible to separate Evangelicals and Baptists. In other words, “Baptists” has become a general term for all Evangelical Christians outside the Orthodox Church. To this day all Protestants in the former Soviet Union are referred to as Baptists. The question facing Baptists is how ready Russian society is to accept the Baptist Church as a historical, native, homegrown faith. This, together with Wardin’s questions regarding the geopolitical influence of Germany on the expansion of the Stundists, suggests that if Russians still search for a hidden enemy and international influence in the Protestant Church, then the Baptist Church is doomed to always remain unaccepted and misunderstood.
In their journey towards society, Baptist churches may find an unexpected source of assistance in religious scholars. As the religious scholars who participated in the conference put it, “Academic research can help you validate your place in society and in history. But it’s hard for us to defend you without your help. Open up to the world.”