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Christianity and Folk Religion in Romania

Florin Paul Botica

Romanian people claim to be Christian, attending church, praying to God, and observing other Christian rites and holy days. However, to deal with daily needs and issues, they also believe in and practice folk beliefs and customs, many of which are unbiblical. This occurs in spite of the fact that in the Bible God promises to save the sinner, heal the sick, lift up the demoralized, guide the lost, give hope to the hopeless, strengthen the weak, take care of widows and orphans, comfort those who mourn, help the poor, and reveal His will and plans for our lives.

This study identifies folk beliefs and practices forbidden in the Bible: casting spells, witchcraft, divination, mediums and spiritists, magic, communing with the dead, and sorcery. The study also examines how folk beliefs and Orthodox theology have become entangled and how local churches can best address this syncretistic Christianity.

Specific folk beliefs and practices were identified through participant observation and interviews with 80 residents of various Romanian regions. Sixty-four of 80 informants were Orthodox, six were Catholic, six Protestant, and four non-religious. Of the 64 Orthodox participants only eight attended church weekly. Of those interviewed 28 were between the ages of 18 and 30, 26 were between 30 and 60, and 26 were between 60 and 90 years old. Also, an equal number of women and men were interviewed. In addition, ten Orthodox priests, eight evangelical pastors, six Catholic priests, and several other church leaders were interviewed about current church ministries designed to address split-level Christianity.

In Romania witches, sorcerers, and fortune-tellers mix their beliefs and rituals with Christian elements. For example, they perform black magic but claim their power comes from God, Jesus, or a church saint. They use several major Christian elements and objects in their rituals and spells such as candles, a picture or statue of a Christian saint or biblical character, as well as recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

Romanians believe that certain people possess an evil eye whereby they have invisible powers that can harm others through looking at them. Often an illness or a child acting strangely will be blamed on the evil eye. It is very interesting that the recommended antidote is three recitations of the Lord’s Prayer.

Orthodox Efforts to Combat Folk Beliefs

Dr. Nicolaie D. Necula, dean of the Orthodox School of Theology, Bucharest State University, and a distinguished Orthodox leader and scholar who has trained several generations of priests, specifically addresses the issue of superstitions in his article, “Are True Christians Allowed to Believe in Superstitions?” He urges every priest to lead specific Bible studies in his parish related to Bible teachings about folk religions and how to distinguish between Christian faith and folk beliefs (“Priorities of Contemporary Pastoral Activities,” Almanah Bisericesc [2003], 11-14).

Another Orthodox priest, Nicolae State-Burlusi, gave me a small booklet which he makes available at his church: Prayers for Overcoming Black Magic, Spells, Evil Eyes and Enemies (Ramnicu-Valcea, Romania: Editura Buna Vestire, 2004), written by an Orthodox priest in Bucharest. It explains what the Bible says regarding the sin of witchcraft, how those in its bondage will be punished, why people seek the help of witches and sorcerers, and several steps to follow in order to be saved from the power and bondage of magic and spells. One such step is the power of a prayer said in faith. Believers are also encouraged to fast, pray daily, and attend church services and major holy days. In addition, the booklet offers several Psalms that can be used as prayers (37, 50, 53, 139), several relevant prayers by Basil the Great, one by Saint Cyprian, and a short admonition by John Chrysostom, explaining how to overcome temptations related to negative and evil folk beliefs and practices (State-Barlusi 2004:19).

Many Catholics in Romania are nominal Christians who do not attend church regularly. In times of crisis Catholics, especially in rural areas, still show a deep allegiance to local folk beliefs and rituals. Syncretism and split-level allegiance is lower among evangelical believers than among Orthodox or Catholic believers, and in many instances is completely absent.

In my interviews only two evangelical church leaders were aware of the need for church instruction on folk beliefs. One, Rev. Vasile Talos, pastor of Good News Baptist Church of Bucharest, said,

This is a critical issue we need to address nowadays in Romania. We need to learn how to do critical contextualization and do it. We need to address nominal Christianity and Christian syncretism as much as possible. I have been trying to do it in my church through my teaching and small groups in particular, where one is discipled. (Talos, 12 April 2004).

Recommendations for Better Addressing Romanian Split-Level Christianity

I. Biblically Based De-contextualization/Re-contextualization

Critical contextualization represents an appropriate tool for examining split-level Christian beliefs and practices and evaluating them in the light of biblical norms, as well as replacing them with contextualized Christian ministries. During my field research I participated in Pastele Blajinilor, the Easter of Dead Ancestors. It is celebrated on the Sunday of Saint Thomas, one week after Easter Sunday, commemorating Jesus’ appearance to the twelve disciples when Thomas was told to believe that Christ was risen. The Monday after Pastele Blajinilor Orthodox believers visit the cemeteries of their deceased relatives. Priests come to each grave and perform a commemoration liturgy, after which family members of the dead throw offerings of food and wine on the ground and give what remains to those gathered, including many poor people. Orthodox believers keep this custom because they believe their deceased need food in heaven.

In de-contextualizing Easter of Dead Ancestors, believers should keep the form and some of the meaning. The liturgy of commemoration should be performed because it is proper to remember family members and commemorate them for their faith and devotion to God. Food offerings should still be offered to participants and thrown on the ground, but the meaning at this point should be reinterpreted in light of scriptural teachings.

In re-contextualizing Easter of Dead Ancestors, Orthodox believers should be reminded that those who died in Christ do not need food in heaven. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) Jesus explained that the departed cannot influence the living. The same principle may be applied in reverse: we can do nothing for those who have died. Thus, after we commemorate the departed and learn from their life of faith, we partake of the food brought, knowing that they died in Christ, and that they are much better off now. Some of the food can still be thrown on the ground to feed the birds which are part of God’s creation. The goal, in summary, is to keep the main parts of the ritual but change the meaning according to scriptural teachings and doctrines. The same principle of contextualization/decontextualization can be applied to other split-level or syncretistic church customs and beliefs.

II. Sodzo Evangelism

In evangelization, churches in Romania tend to focus on the spiritual aspect of salvation (forgiveness of sin and eternal life), while neglecting the physical and emotional well-being that is part of God’s shalom. Many Romanians accept Jesus as savior, but apparently do not trust Him when they need physical or emotional healing. In times of crisis, they often rely upon folk beliefs and practices, many of which are forbidden in the Bible. Local church leaders should therefore engage their churches in what I call sodzo evangelism.

The Greek word sodzo, which occurs 102 times in the New Testament, describes salvation in spiritual terms such as forgiveness of sins, but also in physical terms such as healing, deliverance from evil and harm, recovery, remedy, rescue, and welfare (Matthew 1:21; Mark 6:56; Luke 8:36, 48, 50; John 3:17; Acts 4:9, 12, 27:34; Romans 5:9; Ephesians 2:5, 8: and Hebrews 5:7). Sodzo in Hebrew translates as shalom, which means wholeness, that is, spiritual, physical, emotional, and social well-being ( NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon at http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/sozo.html).

Romania’s present context is similar to that of 18th century England in which John Wesley successfully evangelized split-level and nominal Christians. Asbury Theological Seminary Professor George Hunter attributes the success of early Methodism to its preaching and its systematic pastoral care. Regarding the latter, Wesley designed ministries to fit human needs after careful study of the ills of the day. As Hunter writes, “Wesley visited, observed, interviewed, and corresponded….He visited persons who were possessed, obsessed, and oppressed. He visited persons in prison, persons who had seizures, prisoners on death row, sick persons, anxious persons, guilt-stricken persons, grieving persons, persons on their death beds…. In each situation, he was there to minister, but also gather data” (To Spread the Power: Church Growth in the Wesleyan Spirit [Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1987], 131-32). Based on his findings, Wesley sought to address all manner of problems.

In the same vein, Asbury Seminary theologian Howard Snyder explains, “Wesley set up loan funds for the poor….He opened a dispensary and gave medicines to the poor; worked to solve unemployment; sometimes set up small businesses. He personally raised and gave away considerable amounts of money to people in need” (Decoding the Church: Mapping the DNA of Christ’s Body [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002], 95-96). As the Wesleyan movement helped revive the Anglican Church, so the Lord’s Army became a successful renewal movement within the Romanian Orthodox Church. It originated in 1923 when Iosif Trifa, an Orthodox priest from Sibiu, experienced true conversion and began to preach the gospel, challenging people to have a true relationship with the crucified Lord. The Lord’s Army formed small groups for the purpose of worship, spiritual growth, and discipleship, and ministered to the felt needs of its members and those being evangelized (Vasile Talos, “Church in the Apostolic Spirit: A Strategy for Building Indigenous Apostolic Congregations in the Eastern Orthodox and Post-Communist Cultural Context of Romania’’ [Doctor of Missiology dissertation, Asbury Theological Seminary, 2007], 233-38).

In order to successfully evangelize split-level Christians, Romanian churches should take into consideration holistic, sodzo evangelism, as was the case with early Methodism and the Lord’s Army. In keeping with these models, I propose a range of evangelistic methods and outreach ministries.

Improvements for Worship Services

Through word and song, worship should stress both spiritual and physical aspects of salvation. In addition to preaching and performing the sacraments, Romanian church leaders should, like Wesley, focus more on discipling and “building up” believers in the faith.

Prayer Services for Healing and Deliverance

Many Assemblies of God churches in Romania practice a healing ministry. (I myself was healed of an illness in an Assemblies service.) Other evangelical churches, as well as Orthodox and Catholic, should practice this biblical ministry, as described in James 5:14-16.

Health Clinics

Several Romanian churches provide free medical consultations, usually conducted by doctors who are members of local churches and who donate one day of service a week. Often clinics, such as Koinonia Clinic run by the Baptist Church in Galati, provide free medicines donated by West European and U.S. churches, missions, and NGOs. Short-term medical missions from the West also form a component of sozdo outreach.

In several villages of Bacau County in southeastern Romania I have observed grateful people starting to attend churches after receiving free medical care. Many were nominal Christians who previously mixed their faith with folk beliefs and practices in order to find help for health problems.

Assistance with Employment

Local churches can be of assistance to many Romanians seeking employment. One Baptist minister in Bucharest learned of several job openings from a member of his church who was a factory worker. The minister shared this information with people he knew who were in need of work. The factory hired four of these workers as a result of the cooperation between the pastor and his church member. This minister is considering a formal employment service as a ministry of his church.

Christian Counseling and Guidance

Many people struggling physically or financially should be assisted by the church as they experience loneliness, stress, and depression. The church also has a role to play in ministering to those experiencing divorce, those mourning the death of loved ones, and those living alone. As Christians meet such needs, fewer Romanians will seek relief and answers from witches and sorcerers.

Professional Christian counselors, as well as pastors and priests, now provide advice and guidance to those in distress. A member of Golgotha Baptist Church of Bucharest (my home church), for example, is a professional counselor who offers her services at no charge at Holy Trinity Baptist Church one day a week.

Other Compassionate Ministries

Christians should be good Samaritans caring for people passing through difficult times. Churches in Romania should expand ministries providing basic food and clothing for those in need, help people struggling with financial crises by giving short-term help with utility bills, help fix a broken car, or start a small business. Other examples of care might include shopping for the elderly or infirm, painting or helping rebuild houses damaged by storm or fire, giving rides to people whose cars are being repaired, helping new mothers with household chores, and comforting those who have lost a family member and are grieving.F

Editor’s note: The second half of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 20 (Winter 2012).

Edited excerpts published with permission from Florin Paul Botica, “Toward Addressing Split-Level Christianity: A Study of the Interaction Between Christianity and Folk Religions in Romania,” Ph.D. dissertation, Asbury Theological Seminary, 2010.

Florin Paul Botica is senior pastor of Cedarcrest Community Church, LaGrange, Georgia, and a church ministry consultant for the National Association of Christian Congregational Churches

in America.