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Christianity and Folk Religions in Romania

Florin Paul Botica

Editor’s Note: The first half of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 19 (Fall 2011): 12-14.

III. Kathairo Discipleship

Churches in Romania, in their efforts to disciple their members, use several methods such as catechesis classes for the young and for new members, as well as Bible and topical studies dealing with a variety of issues. However, I discovered by interviewing church leaders that no specific discipleship ministries have been developed to address folk beliefs and practices. A solution I would propose may be called kathairo discipleship. The Greek word kathairo means to purge, clean, and wash. In non-biblical texts this word was used by farmers for washing grain (William McDonald and Arthur L. Farstad, The Believer’s Bible Commentary [Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999], 134). One biblical example may be found in John 15:1-2; “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, purges, and cleans, (kathairo) so that it will be even more fruitful.” Kathairo discipleship studies would help split-level Christians experience God’s cleansing from dependence upon folk beliefs and cures.

Romanian church leaders need to master biblical teachings that reject folk beliefs and practices. Scripture clearly condemns casting spells (Deuteronomy 18:11; Micah 5:12), witchcraft (Deuteronomy 18:10; Micah 5:12; II Kings 21:6), magic (Ezekiel 13:8; Acts 19:19), communing with the dead (Deuteronomy 18:11), mediums and spiritists (Leviticus 19:31, 20:6, and 20:27; Deuteronomy 18:11; I Chronicles 10:13; II Kings 21:6 and 23:24), divination (Leviticus 19:26; Deuteronomy 18:14; Isaiah 2:6; Nahum 3:4; Zachariah 10:2), and sorcery (Leviticus 19:26; Deuteronomy 18:10; II Kings 21:5-6; Nahum 3:4; Malachi 3:5; Acts 13:8-10; Galatians 5:19; Revelation 21:8 and 22:15). In addition to these Bible passages, Prayers for Overcoming Black Magic, Spells, Evil Eyes and Enemies by Nicolae State-Burlusi, and The Bible and the Occult: Witchcraft, Wizards, Sorcery, Spiritualism, Paganism, and Psychics by David E. Pratte, available at http://www.gospelway.com/religiousgroups/witchcraft, can serve as the basis for a detailed Bible study for discipling believers in overcoming folk practices and beliefs.

IV. Contextualized Worship and Mission

Romanian Orthodox Patriarch Daniel understands the need for change. A scholar educated in Switzerland as well as a church leader, he is very knowledgeable about the importance of critical contextualization as a tool for mission. In addition, renowned priest and scholar Ion Bria, who served as the Romanian Orthodox Church representative to the World Council of Churches, continuously challenged his church to initiate change in a relevant way. Several years before his death, Bria wrote:

A collection of prayers should be developed, keeping in mind the special needs of contemporary society. Beyond this, new forms of worship should be developed for mobile populations, travelers, children, and young people in industry, foreigners, refugees, and non-Christians in the vicinity of our congregations—all of whom have no permanent roots….To make parish worship more comprehensible and inviting to young people, special services or catechetical explanation could precede the liturgy (The Liturgy after the Liturgy [Geneva: WCC Publications, 1996]: 28-36).

Romanian churches that will contextualize their worship services and their ministries will help many split-level Christians become genuine followers of Christ who will be dedicated and active members of their local churches.

V. Leadership Training

Another step necessary in addressing the issue of split-level Christianity in Romania is specific missiological training for local church leaders. In Romania 60 percent of pastors were trained during Communism when schools and seminaries were poorly equipped and lacked trained professors. This is especially true in the field of missiology and the contextualization of the gospel.

Since the collapse of Communism in 1989, priests, pastors, and other church leaders have had increased opportunities to update their training. For example, many evangelical ministers have studied in West European and North American seminaries. Many have obtained master’s and doctoral degrees in biblical and theological studies, but few have sought advanced training in missiology. One exception, Baptist pastor and leader Vasile Talos, received his doctoral degree from the E. Stanley Jones School of Mission and Evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is having a tremendous influence on other ministers and future leaders in Romania in the field of missiology, specifically in regard to leadership, church growth, and evangelism. The Good News Baptist Church that Pastor Talos planted in downtown Bucharest is an effective New Testament Christian community that can serve as a model for other Romanian churches.

Rev. Talos has taken major steps to help update training in the field of church growth and evangelism, teaching seminars in different regional churches and has invited scholars including George Hunter and Ron Crandall from Asbury Theological Seminary and Samuel Kamaleson from World Vision to hold training seminars for Romanian evangelical leaders. Due to these efforts, as well as the efforts of other pastors and leaders, Romanian church leaders are better trained and more effective in leading their churches to reach the unchurched.

Many Orthodox and Catholic priests have also studied abroad during the last decade or have received additional training in local conferences and seminars. For example, in June 2007 the Romanian Orthodox Church held a seminar in Arad in western Romania addressing “The Ministry of the Church in a Post-Modern Romania.” Romanian Orthodox Patriarch Daniel, who is very mission-minded, encourages priests to pursue additional training. The Patriarch has founded a mission institute called Trinitas in order to train priests in the field of mission and evangelism, and he has invited Samuel Kamaleson of World Vision on several occasions to lead training seminars for Orthodox priests in Moldova.

These various initiatives have been excellent. However, with a heavy heart I have to say that, unfortunately, they have not addressed the issue of split-level Christianity. Pastor Talos has shared with this author that no training conference or seminar he has attended has specifically addressed the need to overcome folk beliefs. Nor is he aware of discipleship studies being taught in local churches that relate Bible teachings regarding the occult and other folk beliefs (Talos, 15 June 2007).

Romanian translations of several essential English-language books would be helpful, including Paul Hiebert, R. Daniel Shaw, and Tite Tienou’s Understanding Folk Religion, three studies by Paul Hiebert: Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, Incarnational Ministry, and Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues. Translations of Robert Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies, Stephen Bevans, Model of Contextual Theology, and Dean Flemming, Contextualization in the New Testament, would also provide essential help for Romanian church leaders facing the challenge of Christian syncretism.

VI. Theological Education

Just as there is a specific need to train church leaders to deal with the issue of split-level Christianity and to address it biblically through critical contextualization, so there is a similar need in the field of theological education in schools preparing future priests and pastors. Romanian Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants all place heavy emphasis upon theological education in their colleges, seminaries, and universities. Unfortunately, no courses in the curricula of any of their institutions deal specifically with folk religions, the issue of split-level Christianity, the field of contextual theology, or even the larger field of missiology.

The strongest Romanian Baptist institution of higher education, Emmanuel University in Oradea, offers majors in pastoral theology, social work, music, management studies, theology, and social work. However, Emmanuel offers no course dealing with the issue of split-level Christianity or the importance of critical contextualization in mission and evangelism. This author’s brother, Aurelian Botica, an Old Testament languages professor at Emmanuel with a master’s in theology from Asbury Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Hebrew Union College, nevertheless sees the need for courses in missiology in Romanian theological seminaries: “I realize our students would benefit more if they could take courses dealing with the more missional aspects of Christian life and ministry” (28 July 2009).

Babes Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca is the most diversified institution of higher education in Romania. Enrolling over 12,000 students in 55 majors, it offers master’s and doctoral degrees in theology for priests and pastors in its School of Reformed Theology, School of Orthodox Theology, School of Romano-Catholic Theology, and School of Greco-Catholic Theology. However, only two courses in the curricula, biblical anthropology and theology and culture, seem to be related to the field of missiology. Romanian theological schools and seminaries need to provide specific courses dealing with folk religions, the issue of split-level Christianity, and the larger field of missiology in order to facilitate better contextualization of the Christian message.

VII. Ecumenical Cooperation

Another means of addressing split-level Christianity in Romania centers on improved ecumenical dialogue and cooperation among Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches. For centuries Catholic-Orthodox antagonism had a serious negative influence on the population. Many Romanians lost hope in the church, turning as a result to folk religions in times of need and hardship. Later, Catholic and Orthodox persecution of Protestants reinforced many Romanians’ lack of confidence in the church.

In contrast, in the first decade of the 21st century Romanian churches cooperated on several major projects, including prison, hospital, and orphanage outreach; help for the poor, homeless, and street children; and religious instruction in public schools. From time to time ecumenical conferences foster common understanding, dialogue, and further cooperation. For example, a seminar on “The Ecumenical Movement in the Twentieth Century: The Role of Theology in Ecumenical Thought and Life in Romania” was held in the city of Iasi in northeastern Romania, 27-30 April 1998.

In Summary

This study has identified the range of folk beliefs and practices present, not only within Romanian culture at large, but also as a component of a Romanian Christian-folk religion syncretism. Biblical injunctions against folk religion also are delineated. Based on interviews with over 80 Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant believers, the research suggests the considerable extent to which folk beliefs undermine Christian values and practice in Romania today.

Finally, the study provides recommendations for overcoming split-level Christian syncretism in the Romanian context: I. biblically based de-contextualization and re-contextualization of folk customs; II. comprehensive, holistic evangelism addressing material and emotional as well as spiritual needs; III. thorough-going discipleship; IV. contextualized worship and mission; V. leadership training; VI. theological education; and VII. ecumenical cooperation. ♦

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.