Press coverage of the Billy Graham visit to Moscow last May highlighted an ongoing cleavage among Protestants in the Soviet Union. Some favor submission to state regulation in order to enjoy legally a limited freedom of worship. Others repudiate state regulation so as to exercise freedom of religion illegally in a wider sphere. Those following the first option are largely affiliated with the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (AUCECB; there are also Seventh-day Adventist and, recently, Pentecostal groups recognized by the authorities). A number of those who choose the second option are affiliated with the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (CCECB).
Two Russian denominations, the Evangelical Christians and the Baptists, merged at the end of World War II to become the AUCECB, or registered church. The dissenting group, referred to as unregistered or reform, organized in 1961. Both groups include Mennonites and other Protestants, but are often referred to simply as Baptists, since they are numerically dominant.
CHRISTIANITY TODAY interviewed Denton Lotz of the Baptist World Alliance to obtain the registered church perspective, and Georgi Vins, exiled representative of the CCECB, to obtain the unregistered church perspective. Their summarized remarks follow.
Don’t Suffer, Settle for Some
The question that divides registered Baptists and other evangelicals in the Soviet Union is theological. Do I have to suffer unnecessarily in order to be a Christian or can I work in a society even though it is not the ideal Christian society? How can I work prophetically in that society?
Remember that freedom is relative in every society. Also, it must be gauged within one’s own national and cultural history. In the Soviet Union, the benchmark for comparison is the nineteenth-century period in which the czars banished Baptists and destroyed their houses of prayer. Because the Orthodox state church followed the contemporary European state church pattern, free churches were not tolerated. So the USSR has never known the democratic religious freedom of Western enlightenment.
Having worked there for the past 15 years, I would be the first to say that there are definite restrictions upon the church. But very often symbols describe the situation best. A pastor in one of the Baltic states explained it this way. “The church is a river. In our country the river runs deep and is contained by steep embankments; these are the restrictions. In the West,” he said, “your river has no banks and can flow wherever it chooses. As a result, it is shallow and broad.”
The distinction I make is between religious freedom and freedom of worship. Freedom of religion in the American context goes beyond the church building itself: freedom to have kindergartens, Sunday schools, printing presses, radio and television, colleges and seminaries; to hand out tracts; to hold public evangelistic meetings. All these expressions of institutional freedom beyond the bounds of the local church building we consider part of Western democracy. These freedoms they do not have.
The freedom they do have is the freedom of worship within their church buildings on certain days of the week. Within these bounds they are able to carry on an amazing amount of evangelistic activity—choirs, public prayers, preaching, Bible study, testimonies and so on. They try to include in their worship services everything that we would include in our separate organizations.
When I speak to Russians about the Sunday school, for instance, they often don’t know what I’m talking about, because they never had Sunday schools under the czar. The religious upbringing of children in the Soviet Union has always been a responsibility of the family. This is the main avenue of youth evangelism among the Baptists.
IN THE UKRAINE, in the Baltic countries, even in Moscow, I’ve seen these young people packed into the churches. Of course, to publicize the specifics may be detrimental. But the fact is that the youth are flooding the churches. Marxism has not met the deepest needs of the young people in Eastern Europe, just as capitalism has not met the deepest needs of young people in Western Europe and North America.
I would say that all Baptists in Russia would agree that one cannot be a Baptist and a member of the Communist party. AUCECB general secretary Alexei Bychkov has said this a number of times. As for cooperation with the Soviet authorities, I would distinguish between the elected leadership of the AUCECB and its international department, which is probably more responsive to government requests.
But the All-Union 1979 congress was probably one of the most democratic Baptist conventions I’ve been to. Delegates came from all over the country. They corrected their leaders, telling them that they didn’t like some things they were doing, that they ought to fight for more Bibles and for more church buildings, that they ought to visit the local authorities more and tell them they need permission to build, and so forth.
The Baptist churches in the Soviet Union are democratically governed, and the leadership of the Baptist union is affirmed by the people as strongly as is that of Baptist churches in our own country. I believe the Baptist leadership is representative of its people and that they are acknowledged as leaders. You can’t judge it all by Moscow. There are 50 church regions, and each of these regions has a superintendent. These superintendents are looked on as spiritual leaders and are accepted as such, much more than some of the dissident leaders.
As for AUCECB officials traveling abroad, any person away from his homeland becomes defensive about it. American evangelical leaders when abroad are very often unabashed in defense of American foreign policy. Look at the support our President often gets on issues from the evangelical community. If you’re looking for a prophetic voice against the government in America, it rarely comes from evangelical circles.
What you often have is not so much defensive of communism as of Russian nationalism. The Russian Baptists are proud when their athletes win and when their country achieves status. But on political issues they have to step very gingerly because statements they make could be to the detriment of the church. They’re very cautious about statements they make in the West lest they be misinterpreted by their own government.
One of the Major misapprehensions in the West (partly fostered by the so-called underground organizations) is that there are large numbers of unregistered congregations in the USSR, and that these comprise a majority of the churches. The All-Union Council is the dominant group. Its official membership stands at 550,000. But the total community, including children and sympathizers, is much larger. It has been estimated to be as high as three million. The CCECB is a very small splinter group, probably consisting of only 15 to 20 thousand believers.
Georgi Vins’s church in Kiev registered, much to the dismay, I understand, of his mother and of himself. It now enjoys a relative amount of freedom and, in fact, has some contact with the AUCECB congregation in Kiev.
I should think the fact that they are able to have their houses of worship legally would be an improvement. I couldn’t comment on who is said to be persecuted and how and why. There is always administrative persecution, if you want to call it that, of dissident groups.
Do American protests over infringements of religious freedom in the Soviet Union help believers in the registered churches? Yes. I think every group benefits from international public opinion being applied to any closed society. Through the international communications media, public opinion has become a force second only to the official pursuit of foreign policy. It is something most governments—not least the government of the USSR—are very concerned about. It’s important to them to have a good international image. I would say that exerting international public opinion is very helpful, and I suspect this works both ways. In this regard, I think all the registered Baptists feel that Graham’s visit was helpful. It has had tremendous positive effects, though I’m not free to say what those effects are.
A particular frustration is that the Soviet Union has never had a Baptist seminary. Alexei Bychkov hopes that the All-Union Council will be given permission to open one during the next 10 years. One of the problems is that they do not have theologically trained teachers right now. The Soviet government has allowed Baptist students to study at the Baptist seminary in Rüschlikon, Switzerland, at Spurgeon’s college in London, at the East German seminary at Buckow, as well as in Sweden and in other seminaries. So there is a young group of Baptist pastors being trained who will be equipped to teach. The Soviet Baptists are pressing their government, asking “Why is it that all the other countries in Eastern Europe are able to have seminaries and we are not?”
But some 200 pastors throughout the country are involved in theological training by correspondence. Twice a year they come to Moscow for a couple of weeks of instruction and for testing.
To obtain bibles, the All-Union Council leaders work through government channels and the United Bible Societies to get official permission to import or print them. I understand they were just given permission to print 10,000 each of Bibles, hymn books, and New Testaments. They aren’t satisfied with that, of course. Alexei Bychkov hopes for one million Bibles.
For perspective, it helps to remember that at one time the Orthodox patriarch ranked in Russia like the prime minister. Then suddenly the church no longer had this kind of access to the czar. The church has had to come to understand that it is a servant and not a master. It’s this rediscovery of servanthood that Christians are going through in Eastern Europe.
In spite of the restrictions in many totalitarian countries, we are amazed at the tremendous moving of God’s spirit. There is no Iron Curtain or capitalist curtain for the Holy Spirit. He is bringing into being a church that is faithful to biblical teaching, perhaps more so than many churches in the West, one that is evangelistic, that is concerned about the social aspects of the gospel in a genuine way. All this peace talk, for example, is not just propaganda. Some 20 million Russians were killed in World War II, and probably every Baptist family lost someone.
The real issue is, What does it mean to be a Christian in a Marxist state? Instead of focusing on the restrictions imposed we should focus on the Christian’s freedom of spirit in any state.
Obey God, Don’t Count the Cost
In 1929, 12 years after the Communist party came to power, it enacted legislation on cults (meaning religion). Over the next 12 years, 25,000 Baptist pastors were arrested; 22,000 of them died in concentration camps. All the Baptist churches were closed. Only four functioned throughout the period: one in Moscow, one in Leningrad, and a couple of others. But the Second World War German occupation in the West brought temporary freedom, and churches sprang up. As a result, even in the areas that weren’t occupied, the Soviets were more or less forced to give people limited freedom.
I lived in Siberia then, and even that far away great revivals occured among the young people. But after the war, in 1947, Stalin began another attack on the church. The churches were closed again, and he started to arrest the Christians.
Earlier, during the war, the government secretly decided to create an official religious center, and it chose certain people—those with some authority in the church who were willing to cooperate with the government program for the church. They talked with these people and ascertained who were willing to cooperate with the government program for the church. Then the government officially opened the All-Union Council in 1944.
At the time, most believers didn’t exactly understand what was happening. And many people thought it was good that there should be an All-Union center in Moscow. But it became evident that the council was just an instrument in the hands of the authorities, that it had no will, and that it had no direction of its own.
Then in I960 the AUCECB put out what it called an instructional letter, distributed to all of the registered churches. It forbade children to enter a church building. They weren’t allowed to be in worship services. There were no baptisms allowed under the age of 30. It forbade any type of charity, so that within the church they weren’t allowed to help each other. There was no type of invitation permitted at the end of the service. This letter divided the registered churches down the middle. Many congregations split, and those that left attached themselves to unregistered churches.
That was when the CCECB was formed, uniting the unregistered churches. That’s how the work began. Today it embraces about 2,000 congregations.
During the 1960s, we had many meetings with the leaders of the AUCECB. We approached them with the proposal that they relinquish their ties to the government. It wasn’t that we were telling them to speak out against the government, but we were against their relationship and the dependence they had on the government. We pointed out that we really needed ministers among our youth.
But they didn’t agree to this way of thinking or action. They wanted us to join them.
In 1969, ccecb President Gennady Kryuchkov and I had just been released from three-year terms of imprisonment. The AUCECB leaders called us to come and meet with them. They proposed that we become the officials, that Kryuchkov become the AUCECB president and that I become its secretary. But we perceived that it wasn’t actually them speaking but rather the government speaking through them, enticing us to rejoin the AUCECB. We replied that as long as the AUCECB remained dependent on the government we could not work with them because we would lose our independence and our relationship to God, as they have.
So we proposed to them that they join us, that they repent and join us in leading people to God, not in deceiving people and leading them away from God. We suggested that they begin to serve God as had the brothers who died in concentration camps. We said, “Let’s go back to their foundation, the way they lived, the way they worked, and build on that.” But they refused.
Even so, in the process of consulting with us they made some constitutional changes, returning some autonomy to local congregations, and the government became somewhat more lenient with them. But they don’t make use of that leniency as they could for the good of the church.
I’d like to point out our understanding of Romans 13. It says, “Let every soul be subject to the higher authorities …” We believe that this instruction to the soul, or person, is not referring to the church. So as citizens we are to obey civil government so long as its laws do not conflict with God’s laws. But in spiritual matters, only Jesus Christ is Lord of the church. The government has no right to instruct the church in spiritual matters, and the Bible-believing Christian has no responsibility to obey it in these areas.
But the leaders of the registered church say that all authority is of God, with themselves being the authorities of God in the religious sphere. Take the issue of the KGB. It is an arm of the government that wants to subject the church to itself. The registered church leaders say the KGB is also authority. And if it is authority, then it is from God. So they say they have to obey the KGB. We say that’s not true. The KGB [agents] are political police with no relationship to the church, no right over the church.
We don’t teach anything against our government. We just hold to the position that the church should be free, should be independent from the KGB and from any type of political coercion. That’s what Jesus Christ said: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Most baptists in the Soviet Union, regardless of whether they are registered or unregistered, believe in the absolute authority of the Word of God and in the deity of Jesus Christ. The only question that really divides the church in the Soviet Union—especially members in the registered church from their leaders—is their relationship to the government.
We don’t comment or have any type of official statement about government, whether it be communism, socialism, or capitalism: that’s our principle. We believe there should not be any attempt to tie Christianity to some type of economic theory. Christians living in a totalitarian state would never raise issues or questions such as that. We will speak out against atheism. The government won’t even allow us to do that, but we do.
The KGB has infiltrated all of life in the Soviet Union. Cultural, scientific, and youth programs. Of course, the religious sphere is too. The KGB tries to make every pastor an agent. Many refuse to cooperate. The Christians who are in prison are for the most part those who refuse to cooperate with the KGB. Many have been in prison for four or five terms because they won’t give in to the KGB. It would be impossible for the government to allow an independent Christian to be the secretary of the All-Union Council, impossible for him to be a person without contacts. And because of their cooperation, they are permitted to travel widely all over the West.
Let’s examine the government’s goals. They don’t want children or young people to come to church. Many Westerners who have visited the church in Moscow will affirm that there are almost no young people or children—almost all are old women. And it is true of the Leningrad church as well. These are the churches that have allowed the government to control, to take church matters into their hands.
By contrast, our independent churches are made up of about 50 percent youth. But the All-Union Council churches have agreed to government demands that they not tell children about God. Soviet law absolutely forbids any type of religious instruction to children—your own children—Sunday school, Awana, any type. The authorities and the pastors in the registered church even preach this: “Let the children grow up, and then when they grow up, let them make their own decision about God.”
Did you ever notice that when AUCECB secretary Alexei Bychkov or other leaders of the All-Union Council come to the West they never encourage people to pray for those who are suffering? They don’t ask people to pray for the children in Russia or for the work of the gospel. They always say everything is fine. “The government is giving us an opportunity to serve the Lord,” they say. But where are the children and the young people?
The registered church leaders are Christians, but they are starting to replace what God has done in their hearts with something else. It’s a process. First the KGB starts by courting someone, seducing him to have a part in it. Then they may try other tactics, maybe scaring him, educating him in their way. Finally, over time, this person starts thinking in the way he’s been trained, obeying without any question. I am personally well acquainted with several of these people. Yet they still get up and preach.
It’s easier to understand if you know the conditions under a totalitarian government. There was one old preacher in the unregistered church who had been imprisoned many times. Once, when we were young, he got up in front of all of us and said, “I’m scared, and I shake and tremble inside, but the Rock on which I stand will never move.” Right now there are about 300 Christians in prison in the Soviet Union, and of those, 160 are unregistered Baptists.
They are suffering because they are working, doing the Lord’s work. They are holding church services where none is permitted, they are training young pastoral candidates secretly, they are clandestinely printing and distributing Christian literature all over the country. And you must understand that we share these books and materials with the members in the registered churches—that which we have produced and obtained from outside contacts—because it is harder for the registered churches. They have even less literature than we do.
The church has to burst out beyond the officially sanctioned meeting places. Take Moscow, for example. About 60 years ago it contained 14 Baptist churches. At that time the Moscow population was 2 million. Now it is 8 million, and the government allows only one church. But there are more Baptists now than there were then. So the rest are forced to gather either in homes or in the forest.
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