Responses to New Missionary Code of Conduct
Editor’s note: The cover article of the previous issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 20 (Winter 2012), 1-3, summarized and critiqued a path-breaking new code of conduct for missionaries developed by the World Evangelical Alliance, the World Council of Churches, and the Roman Catholic Church. Find below responses to the code of conduct article received from Russia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Austria, and the United States.
Next Steps for the Code of Conduct
It is heartening that such diverse bodies as the Roman Catholic Pontifical Council, the World Council of Churches, and the World Evangelical Alliance have developed a new Code of Conduct for Christian Witness. The way we Christians proclaim God’s Word and exhibit Christ’s presence has always been essential as to whether the gospel will be heard and seen. Now, in our globalized, interactive, interdependent world, respect and civil conduct among Christians—or the lack thereof—becomes ever more apparent. Increasingly, religious conflicts are rising and reshaping the world. For us Christians to conduct ourselves in courteous, civil ways, consistent with our biblical beliefs, would probably be one of the most powerful ways to promote Christian witness.
The summary of the four pillars of the Code, and Mark Elliott’s perspicuous commentary, not only provide general principles but also more specifically suggest how these may be lived out. The code recommendations for distinguishing appropriate acts of compassion from inappropriate allurements may prove to be especially challenging, as Christian confessions often have differing definitions of evangelism and proselytism. With the solid foundation that the Code provides, it will be important to promote widespread awareness of its existence and build on this foundation—especially encouraging ongoing dialogue within and among Christian confessions about specific issues that will arise with implementation of the Code. ♦
Anita Deyneka, Coordinator, Home for Every Orphan Partnership, Russian Ministries, Wheaton, Illinois
The Benefit of Minority Christian Confessions
I applaud the delegates of the WEA, the WCC, and the RC Church for articulating agreed-on standards for relations between different Christian confessions, as well as between Christians and people of other faiths. It is noteworthy that these three groups were willing to do anything together, and the fact that they have agreed on a substantial code of conduct is both significant and heartening. Moreover, I stand in agreement with Mark Elliott’s commentary on the joint declaration, “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct.” I would like to comment further on one point, the call for tolerance and respect among different groups of Christians.
One thing that all Christians must recognize is that our mission and witness are designed to foster the building of God’s kingdom, not the advance of one particular tradition or another. Yet far too often, we consciously or unconsciously assume that God is at work primarily (or even exclusively) through our tradition. Of course, theological differences dividing the different Christian traditions are significant, and we have every right to believe that God works in great ways through our tradition, fueled by our theology. But it is in no way true that he works only through one tradition or one Christian theology, to the exclusion of others. In fact, one could persuasively argue that in any region, the dominant version of Christianity will be the most comfortable, the most apathetic, the least vibrant. In any region, the dominant version of Christianity may well slide into the trap of caring more about its own hegemony than about the actual spiritual condition of its flock. Its leaders may be more concerned that people not leave the fold than they are that people actually follow Christ deeply and vibrantly. Such an attitude does little to advance God’s kingdom, however good the theology of those who hold that attitude may be. And such an attitude is potentially present among leaders of the dominant version of Christianity in any region, whatever that dominant strand may be. Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians in the American South may be, and often are, just as spiritually apathetic as Orthodox in Russia or Roman Catholics in Italy, and their leaders may turn just as blind an eye to the spiritual state of their flock in all three places.
Because of the prevalence of this scenario, I suggest another reason for Christians of one stripe to be respectful of Christians from a different tradition. Not only should such respect be rooted in the dignity of every human being (and especially of every Christian), but such respect should also grow out of the recognition that in any given region, the majority Christian tradition needs the various minority Christian traditions. They bring an honesty, vibrancy, and earnestness to the Christian faith that can help to re-invigorate the majority Christian tradition. Orthodoxy in Russia needs evangelicalism to call it forth from its complacent nationalism to a more Christ-centered, vibrant Christianity among its own parishioners. But in precisely the same way, evangelicalism in America needs the excitement that the small Orthodox contingent in America (or the larger, but still minority, Roman Catholic contingent) brings, in order to spur it on to a more robust devotion to Christ.
There will come a day when all true believers will worship together around the throne of God and before the crucified and risen Lamb. We all know that this vast throng of believers will come from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. What we admit less often—but what is still true—is that the throng will come from various Christian traditions as well. If that day of worship is what we really long for and strive to foster, then we will necessarily respect people from other Christian traditions even though we disagree with them on significant points of doctrine, because differences aside, all true believers are working toward the same goal. ♦
Donald Fairbairn, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina
Freedom of Faith and the Great Commission
It would be a real and demonstrative act of Christian love and respect if the Orthodox Church would grant Protestants in Russia the same freedom to exercise their faith as the Orthodox Church is granted in the United States. The Orthodox Church may still claim that it has the majority since it considers all local residents as its prikhozhani (parishioners), but the fact is that after 70 years of atheistic, Soviet influence, much of the population is quite secular. Christ in the Great Commission exhorts His followers to reach out to them. Protestant Christians feel compelled to follow the biblical injunction to meet the physical, as well as the spiritual, needs of people (Isaiah 58: 6-9; Matthew 25: 34-49; Luke 10: 31-32). ♦
Andrew Semenchuk, Slavic Gospel Association, Loves Park, Illinois
The Value of a Code of Conduct for Protestant Relations with Protestants
For many Evangelicals I know in Ukraine (this is true in North America as well), a Christian testimony is considered effective if it is verbal, fast, and conclusive. To “witness” means to deliver the whole gospel and elicit a response. This document suggests a less defined and more principled approach, which I think is well worth discussing in seminary classrooms. I wonder what it might mean for relationships between some Ukrainian Baptists and Pentecostals. Other world religions and Christian confessions aside, these guidelines could be profitably applied to relationships among Baptist churches in Odessa, and even among individual Christians. ♦
Mary Raber, Mennonite Mission Network, Odessa, Ukraine
Inter-Church Cooperation—By Fits and Starts
I am not yet very sure how the New Code of Conduct will impact the local mission field in Romania and other post-Soviet states. I wonder if such a document will be translated, studied, understood, distributed to all areas, and, of course, applied practically and contextually.
While I was at Asbury Theological Seminary, I attended Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, and accompanied the church’s missionary teams to Romania for several years. During one such trip we went to a local village in eastern Romania and met the local Orthodox priest. I told him I was a Romanian Baptist, my colleagues were American Baptists, and we came to tell locals about salvation through faith in Christ. I asked him to help us, but he was reluctant. He told me that a year prior other missionaries had come, and he had incited the locals against them and had driven them out. Next, he went to Bucharest to a national meeting of the Orthodox Church where the Patriarch instructed them to collaborate with evangelical missionaries if they ever came to their villages. Of course, the Patriarch had just come from a WCC meeting. The priest went back and when another missionary team came, he hosted them and called locals to listen to the gospel being preached. The villagers became violent, threatened the missionaries, and accused their own priest of collaborating with “sectarians and heretics.” He almost lost his job.
Of course, this is one isolated incident, but it makes me believe that inter-church cooperation should be contextual, and it should begin with local churches and their leaders engaging in ministries of help and compassion toward the suffering and needy. This is how the code should be expanded, namely by encouraging Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant church leaders to work together in helping the poor and marginalized, praying together first.
This issue of ecumenical cooperation between local churches is too complex to be solved by one document which states some vague principles, but I believe church leaders at the national level could at least translate, explain, and distribute it to local priests and church leaders asking them to pray about it and try to contextualize it. On the other hand, it is encouraging that WCC, WEA, and the Catholic Church met for so long, addressed these real issues, and negotiated this code. I pray and hope their efforts will continue and will bear fruit. ♦
Paul Botica, Senior Pastor, Cedarcrest Community Church, LaGrange, Georgia
The biggest issue for me is the definition of proselytism and the issue of Christian ministry to those with various degrees of connection to an existing Christian denomination. In a Russian context the issue is evangelistic work by Evangelicals among those once baptized but with no formal connection to the Russian Orthodox Church. This is a major issue of controversy. This is not treated symmetrically, as Orthodox ecclesiology (one true church) justifies the Orthodox even targeting active members of Evangelical churches. Sometimes one feels that the Orthodox are projecting their own approach onto us, not realizing that we do not share this exclusive ecclesiology. I don’t know a single Baptist who thinks that it is only Baptists who will be saved. While I support the Code of Conduct being proposed, I would like to see the commitment by conscientious Evangelicals to act within certain boundaries (which for the most part they are doing already) reciprocated by Orthodox.
On the issue of statistics I think it should be made very clear that the numbers prove only a greater or comparable number of Protestant churches/communities. Orthodox [in Siberia] still demographically represent a larger community in the number of adherents, even if we compare the lowest Orthodox figure (2 percent active church involvement) and the highest Evangelical/Protestant figure (1+ percent). ♦
Russell Phillips, Pastor, Novosibirsk, Siberia
Overcoming Our Mistakes
Over the last ten years more and more Christian ministries and religious bodies have adopted “best practices” policies. “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct” is a welcome addition. It provides a helpful paradigm for continued dialog and general accountability on the part of the major participants in Christian witness. While any adherence to the ideas set forth in this document is voluntary, there is now a common code and some standards and values to aim for.
Mark Elliott’s analysis of this code of conduct in the context of church life in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe displays many helpful examples, both positive and negative. Those of us who have worked in Eastern Europe over the past two decades could probably add many of our own. Unfortunately, we sometimes spend so much time criticizing the mistakes of others that we fail to examine our own motives and experience. Pragmatically, we should have the power to control our own actions and words. However, if we’re honest, we all make mistakes in mission ministry. We made mistakes when we first started in missions and we’ll continue to make mistakes throughout our lives. Of course, we hope that we’ve matured and now make fewer faux-pas than previously.
The result of our self-awareness is to ask several important questions of ourselves: How do we rectify our mistakes such that broken relationships with other church traditions are healed? How do we learn so as not to repeat them? How can we teach others to avoid making the same mistakes we’ve made? How do we present positive examples of respecting each other without compromising our own theological and missiological beliefs? One way to accomplish these things is to show respect for Christian traditions other than our own by following the guidelines put forth in this important document. Imagine where an undivided Christian witness could take the Body of Christ in reaching the former Soviet Union with the Gospel and the kingdom of God. ♦
Charley Warner, International Assistant, Euro-Asian Accrediting Association, Vienna, Austria
Strains in Inter-Church Relations
[The Code of Conduct] is a two-way street, and religious freedom means both the freedom to stay with the majority or move to the minority. The role of the outsider in assisting the historical churches with care for the sick, poor, orphaned, and marginalized has been a touchy issue for many. How do the minority Christian groups care for the marginalized in areas that are controlled by a state church that is not being Christ to the marginalized? Typically it is done under cover of an NGO to avoid conflicts. But why do we have to do that? Why are they [state churches] protective of their turf even when it is clear to everyone that there is room for other Christians to help with the marginalized? They might be too proud to acknowledge their lack of resources, yet when resources are made available from minority Christian groups, they are either absorbed without thanks or pushed out of the country by local bureaucrats who want to please the state church. ♦
Gregory Nichols, International Baptist Theological Seminary, Prague
The Need for Orthodox-Protestant Dialogue and Cooperation
I see this Code as an important step toward a more meaningful inter-denominational dialogue, although it contains only basic principles, without including all the issues that might stem from theological, canonical, and cultural differences. When it comes to discussion of interdenominational dialogue in Russia, one of the big factors is the lack of uniformity among Russian Protestants – and even within the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) itself. Russian Protestants include a wide spectrum of denominations which at times misunderstand and criticize each other. The ROC, with seeming unity in hierarchy and organization, also suffers from lack of unity. It has its own conservatives and its own liberals who range from radical to moderate with everything in between. Attitudes toward interdenominational dialogue and collaboration for both Protestants and Orthodox vary from open animosity to full cooperation. Therefore, a discussion of interdenominational dialogue in Russia – especially when it comes to facts, and not theories – sometimes sounds more like a series of case studies rather than a meaningful dialogue with clearly defined arguments.
For instance, the idea of the ROC receiving a great deal of government support and cooperation and the idea of the Russian government showing partiality is not unjustified; however, with over one thousand years of Orthodoxy in Russia and 71 percent of Russians identifying themselves as Orthodox Christians, this should not be surprising (Recent Levada Center poll, http://www.scribd.com/levadacenter/d/, p.66-). Yet the idea that this favoritism inevitably results in an “ever-increasing legislative discrimination against Christians outside of the Moscow Patriarchate” may be a bit far-fetched. Let us consider a 2011 attempt to make amendments to the 1997 law on religion intended to outlaw the so-called “religious group” status (not officially registered religious communities). This change could have affected both Protestants and Orthodox and was, therefore, firmly opposed by both religious bodies (Interview with V. Lebedev, head of the Orthodox Citizens’ Union, http://www.scribd.com/levadacenter/d/). Partiality toward ROC – or lack thereof – most often comes from local officials and common people who are generally more open toward the ROC than any other religious group. And as for the Orthodox lobby – yes, it exists, but its main purpose is not to outlaw all other denominations; on the contrary, it promotes issues and concerns that may be shared by the Christian community at large, such as pro-life initiatives, chaplaincy, and educational programs.
However, the lack of unity is only part of the problem. I have been part of a Russian Protestant community since 1997, and I am painfully aware of the cultural insensitivity prevalent among Russian Protestants when it comes to adapting the message and church practices to an Orthodox context. As a professor of an interdenominational Evangelical seminary, I observe that nearly 100 percent of Protestant students (ages 17 to 40) are either totally ignorant of Orthodox Christianity or share a common biased view of Orthodoxy as a weird, dubious mix of paganism (icons, saints, and relics). Quite often I hear comments about “these Orthodox” who “have no clue what salvation by faith is all about” and who “do not want to recognize us, Protestants, as Christians.” Quite often, when there is talk about the need for unity among Christians in Russia and the need for interdenominational dialogue, it implies only unity and dialogue among Protestant denominations. Serious attempts at meaningful and effective dialogue with the Orthodox Church are almost non-existent. While the ROC has already stated a clear theological position toward Protestants and Catholics and has made several attempts at dialogue, Protestant denominations are still struggling to accept and cooperate with each other, let alone cooperate with Orthodox or Catholics (“Basic Principles of Attitude to the Non-Orthodox,” http://mospat.ru/en/documents/attitude-to-the-non-orthodox/; Reports of meetings of the ROC Department of External Church Relations with Protestants, 12 April 2005 and 10 May 2009; http://churchofgodportal.ru/content/view/121/2/; http://www.youtube.com/watch?y=ZzOksfTnVzc). In Protestant churches and schools discussion of Orthodox Christianity is non-existent or marginal. This omission is surprising when one considers the historical and cultural context in which these schools and churches operate and the growing influence of the ROC in Russian society. So far, the only serious and fair theological study has been Donald Fairbairn’s Eastern Orthodoxy Through Western Eyes, only recently translated into Russian.
So in many respects the fact that “respect, tolerance, and interreligious dialogue are extremely rare commodities” in Russia is sad but true. However, it is not easy – nor useful – to point fingers and decide which side, Protestant or Orthodox, is to blame for the lack of dialogue and cooperation. A better, more detailed code of conduct for Russia will only be produced if and when both sides become more open and willing to listen and study each other’s positions. Perhaps Protestants, who may have more flexibility and less hierarchy, could more easily take some steps toward making dialogue possible. ♦
Sergei Koryakin, Academic Dean, Moscow Evangelical Christian Theological Seminary