Vol. 16, No. 1
Ukrainian Baptists: Coping with Change
Naomi Ludeman Smith
East-West Church Partnership
In 1992, shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian Evangelical-Christian Baptist churches welcomed the assistance of Minnesota General Conference Baptist churches in the work of re-establishing Protestant churches in Ukraine, mostly in the Cherkassy Region south of the capital of Kyiv. The majority of East-West partnership activities have focused on jointly conducted Bible, drama, sports, and English-language day camps that reached nearly 16,000 children and youth in the summer of 2007. American ministry teams of mostly lay people live for two weeks in the homes of Ukrainian Baptist church members. U.S. sister churches partner with a variety of Ukrainian local community services in health care, agriculture, business, social work, and education. Orphanages and prisons also have been common places of ministry partnership. Today, fruits of common labor are increasingly evident and involvement has spread beyond Minnesota and the Cherkassy Region.
Participating churches from both cultures have learned a great deal about cross-cultural relations and the similarities and differences in theology, practices, and worldview. While all participants are Bible-believing Protestant Christians, they recognize at the same time that differences exist which are best respectfully accepted. Much of the experience has been one of embracing, rather than excluding, one another because of differences. As one Ukrainian interviewee noted: American pastors never pressed us to believe in things that were different from what we believed. They protected us from these differences. We’ve noticed many beliefs that are not acceptable in our culture. For example, we have strict rules about marriage and divorce. Americans have solved these problems very diplomatically. They are wise not to press us, just to support their belief with Scripture. [They] come to us for our advice and our opinion before they begin a project. This is good.
Still, both sides seem to hold some critical judgments of the other’s beliefs and practices and, perhaps, hope that the other eventually will “see the light.”
Field research for this study took place in August 2004, primarily in the Cherkassy Region of Ukraine. This author interviewed 14 Ukrainian pastors concerning church discipleship, leadership, practices, and beliefs
Defining and Describing Salvation
Western Baptists emphasize faith and grace in understanding salvation. Ukrainian Baptists, in contrast, emphasize faith lived out in action, maintained through church discipline and tested for its authenticity. It is the responsibility of the pastor and elders to test believers’ true repentance through the lives they lead. The consequence for those who fail the test is excommunication.
Interviews indicate that for Ukrainian pastors surveyed, repentance is action-oriented. As Table 1 documents, these pastors consider public profession of faith a significant component of repentance.
While Ukrainian pastors who were interviewed clearly believed that salvation is God’s work alone, they also affirmed that salvation must be expressed publicly to begin testing its authenticity. “Public repentance is not required, although preferred, for authentic salvation,” explained one pastor.
In Ukraine, the greatest obligation of the local body of believers is to disciple new believers in an understanding of Scripture and, under the leadership of their pastor, to monitor necessary changes in lifestyle. Consistently, interviewees asserted that sincere repentance can be recognized by one’s fruits (Matthew 7:16). One interviewee went so far as to use the word “surveillance” when describing the activity of the local church pastor as he is watching a new convert for a 180-degree change in lifestyle.
In Ukraine, fruits demonstrated through a believer’s lifestyle include what Western Baptists view as legalized salvation controlled by the local church. Answers to the interview question, “How do we know that a person experienced a sincere repentance?” (Table Two), are very telling and a
source of tensions between East-West cross-cultural partners. Western Baptists would agree with Christians from both cultures on the first few attributes, but differences become more apparent lower down the list. For Ukrainian Baptists, words are not enough. Consistent righteous action, as partially defined in Table 2, is the sign of the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation.
What is the role of the body of believers in another’s salvation? All interviewees agreed that it is significant. As one interviewee explained, “Every person is responsible for his or her salvation, but every believer should have good relations with others. We should bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2).
What the interviews make clear is that one of the most powerful forces in Ukrainian Baptist culture, at least in the Cherkassy Region, is the church’s perceived need to judge the authenticity of an individual’s conversion prior to membership in a local church. In order to stay alive, church members in the Soviet era literally had to insist on such screening of new members because of the prevailing distrust, deception, persecution, and secrecy.
In general, the range of acceptable lifestyle behavior is much wider for U.S. Evangelical Baptists than is true for Ukrainian Baptists. One Ukrainian pastor carefully summarizes the process of church discipline, specifically the decision to excommunicate a member, which, in his congregation, occurs an average of once per year: If a church member is living in sin, church brothers confront this person. If the person repents, the person is instructed in love. It is also a warning. If change is evident, the person’s membership in the church is renewed. If no change is evident, the person is excommunicated. The person can still attend church and participate and is welcomed, but may not take part in communion or represent the church. It does not mean that we do not forgive the person’s sin. Our attitude toward this person is still to bring the person to repentance. Excommunication is a testimony to the community to show that the church takes its words and beliefs seriously. We do not want to be hypocrites.
The Pastor’s Strong Hand
Generally speaking, the local pastor holds the final say in decisions and is not required, for example, to give an explanation to a candidate for the denial of church membership. This authoritarian leadership style clearly goes back, as one respondent remarked, to “Orthodoxy, Communism, and the Russian Empire.” While the Ukrainian Baptist church might hesitate to admit that it holds similar values and practices to that of the Orthodox Church or former Communist collectivist ideology, Ukrainian Baptist church practice is clearly aligned more with Orthodox than with Western Evangelical church practice. One Ukrainian pastor remarked, “In Slavic culture, the church is a special place. It is a place of mystery, calm, and spiritual holiness. This atmosphere that we want to maintain comes from the Orthodox tradition.”
One pastor seemed to see clearly the connection and influence of the collectivist influence of Communism, the theology of the Orthodox Church, and the new influence of the West. He readily admitted the influence of Orthodox theology on Baptist beliefs and practice.
How can we as humans truly describe God? This understanding is mystical and so an emphasis and inclination has been toward mysticism and superstition. This is also simply a characteristic of old traditional Ukrainian culture. Even in the Baptist and Protestant churches there is no systematic theology to speak of. Why? This is due to the influence of Orthodox beliefs but also to our closed and limited circumstances for opportunities and resources. But this is changing now that we are free and able to do more. It is also due to our exchange with the West and our sister churches.
A Taste for Democracy . . .
This East-West exchange has also given Ukrainians a taste for democratic and participatory decision-making in the life of the church. Ukrainian political developments, though turbulent, affirm this democratic approach. The fall 2004 Orange Revolution demonstrated this growing confidence as hundreds of thousands of people camped out in the center of Kyiv and other city centers. For the first time, Ukrainians of secular persuasion and members of diverse churches took a joint stand in favor of a democratic national vote.
. . . Versus Strict Discipline
In many cases, Ukrainian Baptists stayed alive as a result of their emphasis upon church discipleship and discipline. Otherwise, the church would not have survived the many decades of persecution. Yet, Western Baptists see strict discipline as legalistic and a hindrance to welcoming potential believers into the church. What happens when Western ministry partners suggest that Ukrainians change these traditions in favor of more emphasis on the doctrine of “salvation through faith and grace”? Could the result of this teaching decrease or minimize the emphasis on righteous and authentic Christian living?
Some of the most faithful Baptists who endured years of persecution, find the Western emphasis unsettling and even offensive. They are the ones who carried the candle during the dark Communist years and who still have a difficult time showing joy during worship. They know first-hand the contrast between the suffering they endured and the new freedom of public worship. Ukrainian Baptists believe church discipline has proven itself through time. Perhaps more importantly, if a Christian sister is not wearing a head covering, or a brother takes a job in an establishment that serves alcohol, or sisters perform in public concert halls, then church members will not be able to tell authentic believers from pretenders.
New Church Practices
Many Ukrainian Baptists ask why they should experiment with new church practices or adjust their theology to replicate Western ways. Yet other Ukrainian believers have made changes and see the fruits of these changes. Christian women may wear jewelry and make-up in church without the genuineness of their faith being questioned. Contemporary praise choruses are being sung, and it is acceptable to clap to the music. People from all walks of life, especially young people, are accepted into church services, regardless of dress or lifestyle. Support groups for alcoholics and drug addicts are offered through the local church. And in some churches, converts are accepted into membership without public repentance, while others are baptized without a formal probation period or the approval of church elders. A few of these churches are rapidly planting daughter and even granddaughter churches. The pressing question is whether these new Ukrainian believers will be as faithful and strong as those Ukrainian church members who handed down the traditions that are the foundation for Ukrainian Baptists today.
Balancing Tradition and Innovation
When asked, “What is your greatest concern for the church of Ukraine in the next years?,”
Baptist pastors acknowledged the need for change, despite the tension between past and present church practices.
• I’m dreaming about a more attractive Christianity, not legalistic, but still proper and careful. Not so sullen. So, if Christianity were more attractive, more people would become Christians. Then we have a dilemma because we must also show church discipline so that we are not known as hypocrites.
• We have new people in the churches, so we have new ideas. Now the youth and future pastors are from non-Christian families. Some hold on very tightly to traditions as a way to be careful. But I believe that there must be development. At the same time we must be careful. I am afraid of liberal theology, theology that teaches that only part of the Bible is a revelation of God and some is not. We must teach our churches to believe in the Bible, in its authority and revelation.
During discussions on grace and forgiveness, a number of respondents described the pastor’s role as judge. Neither Ukrainian nor American churches are free from this tendency. However, in Ukraine it seems to be a more common experience, respondents noted, because of the Communist model of leadership. Ukrainian history also gives evidence of a relatively low value for human rights. While Ukrainian Baptists clearly abhor these abuses and consider them sinful, a pastor’s abuse of the role of judge often goes unchecked. “Some pastors clearly see themselves as judges of people,” one pastor said. “They suffer from a ‘Moses complex’ thinking they are the only ones who see the deepest and judge the wisest.” This respondent believes, however, that as more leaders gain theological training and see the fruits of accountability, this abuse of leadership will decrease.
Ukrainian Baptists have to carefully evaluate the deluge of Western ways and values to translate them into their own context. They have to be careful not to compromise the church discipline practices that have kept them strong. Their challenge is to continue their emphasis on integrity and, at the same time, to strengthen their message of grace and forgiveness. Those in leadership also have to recognize the growing voice of democratic and participatory decision-making and accountability. Facing these challenges with encouragement and support from Western partners may be the most productive way to protect and nurture the health and longevity of the Christian church in Ukraine.
“We need you to share with us,” said one Ukrainian pastor, “what you have learned from your centuries of experience so that we can consider how that might translate into our situation.” In turn, Western Evangelicals are forced to consider the integrity of their proclaimed state of grace as they observe the lives of their Ukrainian brothers and sisters. These mutually beneficial fruits are what nurture and strengthen this East-West partnership. F
Naomi Ludeman Smith is associate professor of general studies, Bethel University, St. Paul, Minnesota.