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Summer 2006

Vol. 14, No. 3

 

Western Assistance in Theological Training for Romanian Evangelicals to 1989

Daniel Manastireanu

Speaking Personally

I remember it well. It happened on 21 August1977, about five years after my disenchantment with idealistic Marxism and my becoming a Christian. I was baptized in a Baptist church and soon became enthusiastically involved in various church activities. In addition, I became involved in a series of dissident activities inspired by Rev. Josef Tson, the most prominent evangelical pastor in Romania He had returned to Romania in 1972, following theological studies at Regent’s Park College, Oxford University, England.

Tson started challenging Communist authorities in order to obtain more religious freedom for evangelical churches. His main thesis was that Communism failed to create the “new man.” Christian faith, however, was able to create this new kind of person. This is why, argued Tson, Christians could play a legitimate role in Communism. I was fascinated by Rev. Tson and followed him everywhere, like many evangelical young people of my generation. The Communist police were obsessed with our activities and followed our every move. (I discovered how literally true this was after 1989 when I obtained access to my secret police files.)In spite of my respect for Tson, I nevertheless felt closer to the more radical spirit of Rev. Pavel Nicolescu, who was in the process of establishing the Romanian Committee for the Defense of Religious and Conscience Rights. His was probably the only dissident initiative in Romania that did not try to accommodate the system, but dared to contest the philosophical grounds of Communism. It is in this context that I had a providential meeting which changed the course of my life. On that August day in 1977, a friend invited me to his home to meet with two missionaries working with the Navigators, an evangelical mission about which I knew nothing at the time. I found out later that they had begun working in Romania in 1975. Surprisingly, they had spent about two years meeting regularly with only one person, Beniamin Faragau, now a well-known Bible teacher and pastor of a Baptist church in Cluj.

When they decided to extend their ministry in Romania, they contacted a number of young evangelical leaders, including me. Two men, whose names I shamefully have forgotten, showed me “the process illustration,” a diagram summarizing Jesus ‘discipleship strategy. I had never seen such a clear presentation of Christian purpose. As a result, I was instantly convinced and became involved in the dogs, barking and stirring up the authorities. “Official evangelical leaders took pride in their(doubtful) wisdom which they believed helped them “save the church.” Obviously, these leaders who made accommodations with the state objected to the overt challenges to the Communist regime initiated by Josef Tyson and younger evangelical leaders. Some mission organizations, including the Navigators, attracted the criticism of many pastors, including Josef Tson, because they operated upon the basis of a low ecclesiology, with little regard for the lines of church authority. Others, like Campus Crusade, claimed that they were training leaders for local churches, but often preferred to establish their converts in discipleship groups meeting separately from existing evangelical churches. Similarly, Intervarsity groups were accused of promoting an elitist attitude, as they concentrated on working with students and allegedly separated them from the rest of the young people in churches.

Whether such evaluations are fair or not, one has to admit that these Western missions discipled, directly or indirectly, thousands of young Christians in Romania from all evangelical denominations, particularly Baptists, but also Pentecostals, and, to a lesser extent, Brethren. Moreover, these missions trained the majority of those who are now in leadership positions in evangelical churches and other types of Christian ministries in Romania, from Paul Negrut and Vasile Talos, the present and former presidents of the Baptist Union, to George Verzea, European Director of Evangelism Explosion, and Radu Gheorghita, a biblical scholar presently teaching at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City, Missouri.

A major difficulty facing many of these missionaries was their lack of contextual training. Reflecting on this over the years, one of my missionary friends avows: “Our team had little understanding for cultural differences or the impact and need for contextualization. We came over with the mentality that what worked in the U.S. would also work in Eastern Europe. “Another missionary confesses openly: “Our understanding of the local church was basically on-existent.”

If this is true, then what is the explanation for the obvious success of such missionary efforts? My friend quoted above suggests three explanations: Romanian receptivity; the high level of dedication of those receiving instruction; and, Romanian Evangelicals’ openness to the West. Another missionary discipler added: “Things went well because we did not live there.” What he meant was that since Western missionaries were not able to supervise the implementation of their teaching, Romanians were able to be creative in the process of contextualizing what they had learned.

Evangelical Theological Schools

No survey of leadership training in Romania under the Communist regime would be complete without mentioning the official theological training provided by evangelical denominations in Romania. The oldest of these programs is the Baptist Seminary in Bucharest, an undergraduate theological school established in 1921. Under the Communists its activity was heavily restricted. Thus, the school was not allowed to teach above the college level and for some time was allowed to register only four students per year! In spite of this, most of some 150 pastors who served the 1,300 Baptist churches that existed in Romania at the end of the Communist regime were trained in this school. This meant that some of them had to give pastoral oversight to more than ten churches. To the extent that Communist authorities allowed it, the seminary cooperated with other Baptist schools in the West, particularly with the International Baptist Seminary in Rushlikon, Switzerland. Such international connections also helped in providing some literature for the extremely poor library of the seminary.

In this context we need to add that some Baptist leaders received official approval to study theology in the West. Such approvals were never given without the recipients paying a certain price. What that price was precisely will be clarified only when we have access to secret police files of our denominational leaders. The Pentecostal denomination in Romania, which traditionally cooperated with both the Church of God, Cleveland, and the Assemblies of God, established its first college-level seminary in Bucharestin 1976. The first group of 15 students graduated in1980. Communist authorities allowed for only a very small number of students in this school: on average, three students per year.

The Communist Department for Religious Affairs, a specialized branch of the secret police, thoroughly scrutinized pastoral candidates in both Baptist and Pentecostal churches. Applicants suspected of being too radical did not receive the necessary approval to register as students or to serve as pastors. Brethren churches in Romania do not have ordained pastors and, consequently, did not feel the need to establish theological schools during the Communist period. However, they tried to meet the need of training for their lay leaders through regular teaching conferences led by mature leaders in various regional centers. The facilitators were usually older leaders who had had some form of theological training in other Christian traditions before joining the Brethren. The authorities heavily restricted this non formal training, which completely disappearedduring the last decades of Communist rule. Navigator ministry for the next 15 years.

After about a year of training, the Navigators challenged me to choose between discipleship and politics: their discipleship ministry (which was completely underground) or my political activities(which were more public and involved the perpetual danger of scrutiny by the secret police). After lengthy deliberations, I chose discipleship over politics. I am convinced now that this radical decision allowed me to enjoy the privilege of staying in Romania, while most of my dissident friends were forced to leave the country.

Navigators, Campus Crusade, and Intervarsity

The Navigators taught me how to study the Bible and gave me a passion for discipleship. For this and many other reasons, I am still grateful to them. What I, my friends, and the people in our discipleship ministries learned from the Navigators, others in Romania gained through several ministries including Intervarsity and Campus Crusade (invited to Romania by Josef Tson and Nick Gheorghita, medical doctor who later became pastor of the Second Baptist Church in Oradea).The leadership development efforts of these missions did not happen without pain. Given the unavoidable underground character of this sort of activities, pastors knew very little about the specifics and often complained that these para church organizations were stealing their most gifted young people. At the same time, some of the older church leaders felt threatened by their younger counterparts, who were more daring in their relationships with the Communist regime. Those in authority in churches feared that such dissident activities would compromise the delicate balance they had established with the authorities, by more or less legitimate means. One older leader joked that “during Communism there were two kinds of Christian leaders. Some were like donkeys, carrying the heavy loads of the congregations, while the dissidents, like Tson and Nicolescu, were like The leadership training promoted by different Christian missions focused mainly on building Bible study, ministry, and character skills, rather than on formal theological education. In contrast, a new type of leadership development for Romanian Evangelicals appeared in 1979 when Western missions cooperated in the formation of Biblical Education by Extension(BEE). Key figures included Nelson (Bud) Hinkson, European leader of Campus Crusade, and Josef Tson.

Starting from the Theological Education by Extension(TEE) model created in the 1960s in Guatemala, Campus Crusade and the Navigators, along with number of other organizations, came together to create a new conformal system of theological training. This was done in response to the growing needs of local evangelical churches in Romania and other countries in Eastern Europe. It was intended to compensate for the relative ineffectiveness or inadequacy of the established evangelical seminaries. This initiative had great success, and many evangelical leaders in Romania are grateful for the benefits of the training they received through it.

From the beginning BEE, now known as Entrust, promoted a dispensationalist theological perspective as taught by Dallas Theological Seminary, which somewhat restricted the exposure of Romanian leaders to the diversity of theological positions articulated within the world evangelical community. This dispensationalist collided with some official Baptist theological stances, such as the millennialism that is traditionally promoted by Romanian Baptists. It also reinforced the lack of social awareness that traditionally dominated Romanian Evangelicals. At the same time, it should be noted that while BEE’s leader, Jody Dillow, was dispensationalist, as were the textbooks, a large number of the staff did not hold to this theological position.

The greatest difficulty facing any effort towards building a theological education in Romania was the lack of adequate literature. Communist authorities were keenly aware of the power of the written word. They therefore strictly controlled the production of religious literature. BEE attempted to respond to this challenge by adapting and translating Western texts or producing a number of original training courses, which were then illegally smuggled into Romania by Open Doors, International Teams, and other organizations which specialized in this kind of ministry.

In 1981, Josef Tson left Romania again and became involved with the Romanian Missionary Society(RMS), based first in Chicago, later in Wheaton, Illinois. Following the suggestion of Nick Gheorghita,Tson engaged RMS in the preparation of theological literature in Romanian. As a result, in about eight years, RMS produced and smuggled into Romania thousands of copies of over 60 theology textbooks. To these sustained training efforts we should add a number of ad hoc initiatives. Wheaton College, for example, under the dedicated coordination of Coach.

The leadership training promoted by different Christian missions focused mainly on building Bible study, ministry, and character skills, rather than on formal theological education. In contrast, a new type of leadership development for Romanian Evangelicals appeared in 1979 when Western missions cooperated in the formation of Biblical Education by Extension(BEE). Key figures included Nelson (Bud) Hinkson, European leader of Campus Crusade, and Josef Tson. Starting from the Theological Education by Extension(TEE) model created in the 1960s in Guatemala, Campus Crusade and the Navigators, along with number of other organizations, came together to create a new conformal system of theological training. This was done in response to the growing needs of local evangelical churches in Romania and other countries in Eastern Europe. It was intended to compensate for the relative ineffectiveness or inadequacy of the established evangelical seminaries. This initiative had great success, and many evangelical leaders in Romania are grateful for the benefits of the training they received through it.

From the beginning BEE, now known as Entrust, promoted a dispensationalist theological perspective as taught by Dallas Theological Seminary, which somewhat restricted the exposure of Romanian leaders to the diversity of theological positions articulated within the world evangelical community. This dispensationalism collided with some official Baptist theological stances, such as the millennialism that is traditionally promoted by Romanian Baptists. It also reinforced the lack of social awareness that traditionally dominated Romanian Evangelicals. At the same time, it should be noted that while BEE’s leader, Jody Dillow, was dispensationalist, as were the textbooks, a large number of the staff did not hold to this theological position.

The greatest difficulty facing any effort towards building a theological education in Romania was the lack of adequate literature. Communist authorities were keenly aware of the power of the written word. They therefore strictly controlled the production of religious literature. BEE attempted to respond to this challenge by adapting and translating Western texts or producing a number of original training courses, which were then illegally smuggled into Romania by Open Doors, International Teams, and other organizations which specialized in this kind of ministry.

In 1981, Josef Tyson left Romania again and became involved with the Romanian Missionary Society(RMS), based first in Chicago, later in Wheaton, Illinois. Following the suggestion of Nick Gheorghita,Tson engaged RMS in the preparation of theological literature in Romanian. As a result, in about eight years, RMS produced and smuggled into Romania thousands of copies of over 60 theology textbooks.

To these sustained training efforts we should add number of ad hoc initiatives. Wheaton College, for example, under the dedicated coordination of Coach Don Church, arranged for a series of theologians to come to Romania to lecture on a variety of theological topics. Other groups and institutions in the U.S., Britain, and other countries, contributed to similar initiatives. Among them, Slavic Gospel UK and its president, Trevor Harris, deserve special mention because of their commitment to leadership training and support in Romania.

Also, the Second Baptist Church in Oradea established a so-called “school of prophets” in the early1980s. This unofficial theological training program for laymen sought to meet the great need for better teaching in the Baptist churches in Transylvania. It is in this context that respected evangelical personalities including Walter Kaiser, Carl F.H. Henry, and John Stott came to teach Romanian students.

Instruction usually took place in private homes, insecure rooms of certain church buildings, or in secret camps in the mountains, away from the eyes of the police. Participants were in most cases young lay leaders in evangelical churches. Men predominated, given the patriarchal tendencies among Romanian Evangelicals, but in rare cases some women also participated. During these training sessions we had the benefit of the teaching of such personalities as Mark Noll, Robert Yarbrough, Clinton Arnold, Gordon Fee, David Benner, James Hoffmeier, Vick Gordon, Herbert Jacobsen, Steven Franklin, and many others.

Training a New Generation of Evangelical Theologians

Towards the end of the Communist period, Josef Tson and British missionary Les Tidball initiated another innovative project. BEE could not offer its students the degrees they needed to give them credibility in the Romanian education system. Thus, Spurgeon College in London was contacted with the suggestion that lecturers from this theological institution launch a distance learning theological training program in Romania, with financial support from the UK branch of the Romanian Missionary Society. While this initial plan encountered difficulties, Tidball was able to make headway through London Bible College, under the competent academic coordination of Dr. Graham McFarlane. An informal network of pastors and lay leaders already involved with other mission organizations recruited students who were able to studying English. The 42 initial students were divided into seven smaller groups, meeting in different cities across the country.

The system was quite simple and very effective. Couriers smuggled into Romania a number of Englishlanguage theological textbooks where they were distributed to students prior to their meeting with the lecturer. They then met with their Western instructor for a few days, listening to lectures and discussing the topic of the course. In the next six weeks, students studied the texts and wrote essays on topics suggested byte lecturer. The essays had to be sent to the U.K. through the next lecturer. After the teacher corrected and graded the papers, they were returned to the students. Obviously, because of the Communist regime, all aspects of the program had to be conducted in a completely clandestine manner in order to avoid the inquisitive eye of the secret police. Finally, many of these secret conformal training efforts came to an end, not because of Communist opposition, but because of the collapse of Communism in 1989. A new generation of evangelical leaders, formed in difficult conditions under Communism, was confronted after 1989 with new, unanticipated challenges that will be the subject of my next article.

Danut Manastireanu, who lives in Iasi, Romania, holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Brunel University (London School of Theology). He currently is Director for Faith and Development for the Middle East and East European Region, World Vision International. Editor’s Note: The author’s evaluation of evangelical theological training in Romania since 1989 will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report