Special Theme Edition on the Current Ukrainian Crisis:   Volume 22, No. 3  (Summer 2014)

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Pentecostal and Charismatic Denominations in Russia

Torsten Lőfstedt

The Pentecostal and Charismatic movement is the third largest religious movement in Russia, after the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and Islam, and it is growing rapidly. Russia is home to three large Pentecostal denominations. The largest is the Russian Church of Christians of the Evangelical Faith (RCCEF), sometimes referred to as the Russian Church of Evangelical Christians, with approximately 300,000 members, if children are counted, and some 1,300 congregations. It is headed by Eduard Grabovenko (www.hve.ru). It is followed by the Russian Association of Christians of the Evangelical Faith (RACEFP), led by Sergei Ryakhovsky (cef.ru). The third largest Pentecostal church is the unregistered United Church of Christians of the Evangelical Faith (UCCEF) led by Ivan Fedotov.

Differences among these three denominations today are rather small. All three are Trinitarian, all practice believers’ baptism, all believe in healing in response to prayer, and all value speaking in tongues. Grabovenko’s RCCEF has its roots in traditional Russian Pentecostalism and has had close ties to the Assemblies of God, but it also includes more Charismatic congregations. Ryakhovsky’s RACEFP is an umbrella organization including groups of churches associated with various Neocharismatic missions, including the Churches of Faith, but it also includes more traditional congregations.

Elusive Numbers

Individual congregations in these denominations have considerable freedom, and some congregations are registered with one denomination, but in practice show their allegiance to another. The most notable example is the New Testament Church in Perm. The congregation is officially part of Ryakhovsky’s union, but its head pastor, Grabovenko, is himself head of the RCCEF. This kind of overlap makes it very difficult to give accurate statistics for Russian Pentecostalism, as Roman Lunkin has pointed out. (“Pentecostal and Charismatic Statistics,” East-West Church and Ministry Report 13 [Winter 2005], 3).

Origins

The first truly Pentecostal congregation on Russian territory was established in 1911 as a result of the preaching of Lewi Pethrus and T.B. Barratt in Helsinki, Finland, which was then part of the Russian Empire. From there Alexander Ivanov and Nikolai Smorodin went to St. Petersburg to preach the Pentecostal message. As early as 1914 a congregation called the Society of Evangelical Christians in the Spirit of the Apostles was established in St. Petersburg. Ivanov and Smorodin eventually became Oneness or Jesus-Only Pentecostals, and their direct theological descendants are the Evangelical Christians in the Spirit of the Apostles, a union of about 70 Jesus-Only Pentecostal congregations.

The larger Pentecostal denominations trace their history primarily to the missionary work of Ivan Voronaev, another returning emigrant, who was sponsored in part by the Assemblies of God, and who in 1926 established the All-Ukrainian Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith in Odessa. The following year the National (or All-Union) Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith was established, showing that Voronaev’s ambition was to spread the Pentecostal movement throughout the Soviet Union. This union planted churches in both Russia and Ukraine, but was forced to close after Stalin’s promulgation of the Law on Religious Associations in 8 April 1929. Voronaev was arrested in 1930 and died in one of Stalin’s labor camps. Many other leading Pentecostals were repeatedly arrested, and some were killed by Soviet authorities. Soviet repression of Pentecostals continued up until the late 1980s, and the Pentecostal movement grew but slowly.

Strength in Ukraine and Western Borderlands

The leadership of Grabovenko’s RCCEF today is largely ethnically Ukrainian, with many Russian Pentecostal congregations having pastors of Ukrainian or Belorussian origin. The Pentecostal movement reached western Ukraine and Belorussia in the 1920s, in part through the ministry of Ukrainian and Belorussian emigrants returning from the United States. In addition, the work in Ukraine and Belorussia grew through the ministry of Gustav Schmidt, a Russian-German missionary with the Assemblies of God. He served in Poland from 1920 to 1925 and founded a Bible Institute in Danzig in 1930 that trained Pentecostal ministers from various parts of Eastern Europe. Many newly established Pentecostal churches primarily in eastern Poland joined together as the Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith of Poland in 1929. In 1939, when the Soviet Union annexed from Poland what are now the western parts of Belorussia, Ukraine, and eastern Lithuania, many Pentecostal congregations that had belonged to the Polish union now found themselves in the Soviet Union. While these congregations also suffered from Soviet repression, the Pentecostal movement was on the whole more firmly established in these western regions than in other parts of the Soviet Union.

During World War II parts of Belorussia and Ukraine were under Nazi control, and some Pentecostal groups were allowed to formally register with the Nazi occupation government. When these areas came under Soviet rule, they kept their legal status, but in August 1945 they were forcibly merged together with other Protestant denominations to form the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (UECB), which operated under state control. Many Pentecostal congregations were disbanded while others continued to operate in secret. Many Pentecostals in the UECB soon left, in part because they were not allowed to continue distinctively Pentecostal practices such as speaking in tongues. These Pentecostals preferred to operate without official sanction rather than conform to Baptist practice. In the years that followed, Pentecostals repeatedly sought to register their denomination with the state, but without success.

New Freedoms

Even before the new Soviet law “On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Organizations” was promulgated in 9 October 1990, Russian Pentecostals that had belonged to the UECB left that union en masse to form a Pentecostal Union, together with autonomous Pentecostal congregations. This first congress of the Union of Christians of the Evangelical Faith of the RSFSR was held 14-16 May 1990. In 2004 this denomination changed its name to Russian Church of Christians of the Evangelical Faith. Much of the initial growth of this denomination came about thanks to the efforts of thousands of missionaries sent by Pentecostal congregations in Ukraine and Belorussia in the late 1980s and the 1990s.

Missionaries from Abroad

After the promulgation of the new law in 1990, thousands of foreign missionaries (European, American, and Korean) also entered Russia and began planting new congregations. Many of these missionaries were associated with the Neo-Pentecostal or Charismatic movement, which now began to compete with traditional Pentecostals. Among these new movements were some that promoted prosperity gospel teachings. Among these were congregations affiliated with the Swedish-based Word of Life, New Generation (Riga), and the Embassy of God (Kyiv). Prosperity preachers teach that it is God’s will that those who believe should be blessed here and now with health and wealth; all that is required is faith. This gospel was attractive to many Russians raised under Communism, who desired the benefits of capitalism but lacked an understanding of the work involved.

New Restrictions and Responses

The 1997 law, “On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations,” forced many traditional and Neocharismatic churches in Russia to join forces because it stipulated that denominations that had existed in Russia for less than 15 years could not obtain legal status unless they affiliated with an officially recognized denomination. Thus, many congregations founded by European, American, and Asian missionaries chose to affiliate with the RCCEF in order to be legally registered. The result was rapid numerical growth within the RCCEF, but it also put the unity of the denomination at risk. In fact, some considered it more of an umbrella organization for various de facto independent congregations, rather than a true denomination.

In 1999 leaders of the RCCEF took steps to unify the teaching and practice of the congregations constituting the RCCEF. Several borrowings from Western Neo-Pentecostalism were rejected, including the prosperity gospel. RCCEF centralization has since continued. Leaders of some of the largest congregations who in the past tended to operate as leaders of their own denominations have been promoted to bishops of the RCCEF. In May 2000 President Vladimir Putin divided the country into seven (today eight) federal districts and appointed “presidential plenipotentiary envoys” responsible for each district. In similar fashion the leadership of the RCCEF has promoted certain bishops to the status of “bishop in the federal district,” who report to the executive bishop in Moscow about developments within their jurisdiction.

Not all Pentecostals, however, wished to join the RCCEF. Some congregations remain deeply distrustful of all forms of registration with the government. These are gathered into a loose organization called the United Church of Christians of the Evangelical Faith. Others, led by Sergei Ryakhovsky, formed an alternative union. Ryakhovsky, who had a background among unregistered Pentecostals, but developed ties with the Church of God, Cleveland, an American Pentecostal denomination, founded the umbrella organization RACEFP in 1997. Several Charismatic churches, among them Moscow’s Word of Life and its Russian sister churches, chose to affiliate with this group rather than with Grabovenko’s RCCEF, as Ryakhovsky’s RACEFP gave them greater freedom in organization, theology, and practice. Ryakhovsky’s RACEFP today includes a total of 20 smaller denominations and as a consequence is far less centralized than Grabovenko’s RCCEF.

Improving Relations between Pentecostal Unions

Relations between the two leading Pentecostal denominations in Russia were strained for some time, with traditional Pentecostals accusing Neocharismatics of stealing their sheep, but ties between the two have improved of late. I suspect that relations between the leading Pentecostal churches will continue to improve. Eduard Grabovenko was elected executive bishop of RCCEF in 2009; as was mentioned, the megachurch he founded, the New Testament Church in Perm, is officially part of RACEFP. Grabovenko’s own preaching resembles that of RACEFP’s Neocharismatic preachers. His congregation has an impressive record of planting new churches (400 by one count), and in November 2010 he was invited to give a sermon at a conference for the Churches of Faith, a sub-denomination within RACEFP, to which the Word of Life congregations belong. On a more sombre note, on 15 July 2010, Artur Suleimanov, RCCEF’s bishop in Dagestan, was murdered. One of the first to offer condolences was Artur Simonian, head pastor of the Word of Life congregation in Yerevan, Armenia. Sergei Ryakhovsky (RACEFP) attended the funeral together with leaders of RCCEF, again showing solidarity among the leadership of the largest Pentecostal unions.

Latest Developments in Prosperity Gospel Teaching

The two movements have continued to come closer together in both worship and theology. Charismatic forms of worship have become commonplace in many RCCEF churches, and the Word of Life congregation in Moscow, like its mother church in Uppsala, Sweden, has downplayed prosperity teaching, developing a more mature theology. Some congregations strongly associated with the prosperity gospel have been tainted with scandal, most notably Sunday Adelaja’s Embassy of God Church in Kyiv, Ukraine, and Alexei Ledyaev’s New Generation Church in Riga, Latvia. This problem may have led to serious soul searching on the part of some prosperity gospel congregations. But Word of Life still teaches a form of prosperity theology, as is evident from the statement of faith of the Association of Christians of the Evangelical Faith Churches of Faith, the sub-denomination headed by Word of Life Moscow. It still speaks of polnoe protsvetanie, that is, full prosperity or complete well-being:

By his life, death and resurrection Jesus showed that God wants to save the individual in his spirit, soul and body, and that God’s will is this, that every person in his life walk in divine health, divine prosperity, [and] by means of faith be a victor in all areas of life: spiritually, in his soul, physically, economically, socially. (www.wolrus.org)

But Ulf Ekman, founder of the Word of Life movement in Sweden and Russia, now contends that one is not to seek after wealth for its own sake. Rather, wealth that is given in answer to prayer is to be used in the service of the kingdom, to help the poor and spread the Gospel.

On the other hand, it is worth noting that Grabovenko’s RCCEF has lately taken a more positive view of wealth, similar to the position of Word of Life. Pavel Bak, formerly the second-ranking bishop in RCCEF, now head of the denomination’s legal division, gave the following explanation of RCCEF’s view of wealth in an interview on 3 September 2010:

If wealth is the highest form of self-expression for a person, then it witnesses to the presence of sin in that person’s heart. If property is seen as means given by God for the realization of the Divine vision, then it is pleasing to God and will bring great fruit, both for the person himself and for people around him. (www.hve.ru)

Word of Life Moscow’s head pastor, Mats-Ola Ishoel, a Norwegian who has been working in Moscow since 1998, is one of the highest leaders of Ryakhovsky’s RACEFP. At the same time, he is respected by leaders of Grabovenko’s RCCEF, and some pastors in RCCEF have studied in Word of Life’s Bible school in Moscow. In Moscow RCCEF youth are encouraged to participate in Word of Life activities, and one of Grabovenko’s first deputies, Vladimir Murza, recently travelled to Israel with Word of Life.

Pentecostals and Charismatics Drawing Closer

The leaders of RCCEF and RACEFP are both involved in the Consultative Council of Heads of Protestant Churches, together with Adventist and Evangelical Christian-Baptist leaders. This council has produced an approximately forty-page document entitled “Social Position of the Protestant Churches,” detailing these denominations’ stances on a number of controversial issues such as abortion and bio-medical research. Whereas Neocharismatics in the West have been characterized as self-absorbed, in Russia Pentecostal and Charismatic congregations alike are socially active. These congregations are involved in all kinds of social ministries including outreach to prisoners, alcoholics, drug addicts, and street children.

It may be that the two Pentecostal movements are coming closer together because what once seemed new and foreign has become normal. Russian Pentecostals are not always aware that many of their favorite worship songs are translations from English. Further, all evangelical denominations in the former Soviet Union are affected by a continuing emigration to the West, especially to the United States. In part because of this mass emigration, Russian Pentecostal churches are no longer growing as quickly as they did in the 1990s. As leading members of the congregations leave for America, Pentecostal and Charismatic congregations in Russia must work together to survive. The activity of foreign missionaries is also less noticeable today than in the 1990s, and after the financial crisis of 2007, they have less money to spend. This lack of funding may also contribute to the denominations growing closer, as in the past missionaries tended to polarize the various Pentecostal and Charismatic churches, as they often tried to create churches on the pattern of their home congregations, rather than working with existing denominations. F

Editor’s note: The author recommends Vladimir Franchuk, Prosila Rossiya Dozhdya i Gospoda (Kyiv: Izdatelstvo “Svitankova zoriya,” 2003), as the best source for Russian Pentecostal history.

Torsten Lőfstedt is a senior lecturer in religious studies at the University of Kalmar, Kalmar, Sweden