Establishing Evangelical Credentials in a Russian Orthodox Context

Russell Phillips

Evangelicals in Russia live and minister in a predominantly Russian Orthodox culture. They live as Protestant Christians in a society that considers Russian Orthodoxy a component of Russian national identity. They also engage in evangelism among unchurched, nominally Russian Orthodox people, and, when possible, they enter into various forms of informal dialogue with Russian Orthodox believers.

Orthodox Allegiance Versus Practice

Surveys consistently place allegiance to the Russian Orthodox Church at just under 70 percent of the general population.1 This statistic does not relate to church attendance or involvement in church life, which is estimated at approximately four percent.2 Nor does the figure of 70 percent relate to lifestyle or ethics (as statistics on common-law marriage and alcohol abuse belie), but to religious identity, very closely related to national identity.

Orthodox Exclusivism

The Russian Orthodox Church understands itself to be the Body of Christ in an exclusive sense. This truth is held both spiritually (How could Christ have two bodies?) and patriotically (How could a true Russian countenance membership in another, foreign body?). In a similar vein, Russia, located precariously in the vast expanse that bridges Europe and Asia, has survived because its society has been unitary—ideologically united and uniform—rather than pluralistic—allowing for diversity of conviction and practice. Two of the most traumatic crises in Russian history came at moments of division: the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century and the Time of Troubles in the seventeenth century that witnessed multiple pretenders to the throne and a Polish invasion. During the Russian Revolutions at the beginning of the twentieth century it is said that the Bolsheviks’ greatest enemy was not the tsar, nor the Provisional Government, nor even similar movements such as the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), but Mensheviks who were members of a different branch of the same political party with only a slightly different view on the timing of the Revolution.3 How could there ever be two tsars or two vanguards of the revolution or two legitimate expressions of the Christian faith?

In this context a search for spiritual meaning is expressed not in the modernist “What is truth?” nor even the post-modernist “What is real?” but in a characteristically Russian question, “Who is right?” It is a question of identity, of finding one’s place in the right camp, the legitimate community of faith which is the sole custodian of truth. As people seek God and salvation in Russia, this question is never far from the surface. Many seekers and converts will confess to struggling to make up their minds as to whether Evangelicals, from whom they have heard the gospel, are members of a true church, the true church, or a sect.

Marginalized Evangelicals

Today, Russian Evangelicals find themselves marginalized outside the social mainstream. While Baptists, Adventists, not to mention Lutherans, rightly claim a longstanding, indigenous presence in Russia, they are perceived as foreign and alien. Moreover, in a culture that places enormous stress upon legitimacy and official recognition, Evangelicals are considered to lack both. The media feed this bias against all Christians outside the Orthodox fold.

Orthodox exclusivism raises important questions both in terms of evangelistic endeavor and inter-church dialogue. Both these activities require an adequate answer to the basic question, “Who are you?” Those hearing the gospel and those engaged in dialogue with Evangelicals need to know with whom they are speaking. In robust Russian style, one has to establish one’s credentials and win respect in order to gain a hearing.

“Who Are You?” −Three Evangelical Responses

In answering the question, “Who are you?,” various options present themselves. Evangelicals may be inclined to deflect attention from this issue and instead focus on the message of the gospel. (“Don’t worry about who I am, just listen to what God has to say to you in the Bible.”) Russians usually do not receive this approach well because they consider it evasive, as if Evangelicals have something to hide and therefore will not reveal their identity.

Another option may be to try to focus on the common ground between Orthodox and Evangelical Christians, effectively saying, “We are the same in essentials.” This argument, however, is not convincing theologically or sociologically. Much common ground does indeed exist between Orthodox and Evangelicals, as documented by such dialogues as that chaired by Spurgeon’s College church historian Tim Grass in the United Kingdom.4 It is conceivable that Evangelicals might well be able to communicate the gospel message in a Russian context along the lines of Orthodox theology. For example, they might explicate the fall and redemption using the analogy of sickness and health (the so-called iatric model of the incarnation and atonement), although a complete account of the gospel would be impossible without reference to our guilt before God, Christ’s death as a judicial substitution, and justification by faith. However, as already intimated, it is not about the message. The bottom line is that Evangelicals are not Eastern Orthodox, that is to say, Evangelicals are not in sacramental communion with the Orthodox Church. Just as Evangelicals insist on the saving necessity of rebirth (“You must be born again”), so Orthodox insist on the saving necessity of fellowship within their church communion. While some Orthodox might concede that by God’s exceptional grace one might be saved outside Orthodoxy, the question they might pose is: “Why take chances?”

A third option, potentially the most fruitful, is for Evangelicals to develop an apologetic for an Evangelical identity. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “We do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (II Corinthians 4:5). The Apostle Paul and his co-workers did not preach themselves as Lord, but they did preach themselves as servants. In other words, their own identity and status did have a place in their preaching, albeit subordinate, as witnessed by Paul’s various defenses of his ministry in I and II Corinthians.

So how might this third option be accomplished? Evangelicals might begin by answering the question “Who are we?” according to the teachings of the Bible. However, that answer bypasses 2,000 years of Christian discipleship and tradition, as if Evangelicals received the Christian faith directly from the Apostles. What about all those faithful people in-between? Like it or not, Evangelicals are the recipients of a particular tradition, a succession of Christians who have heard and believed, lived out, and passed on their faith. What were their names? When did they live? How did they come to verbalize the content of their faith? How did they organize their spiritual life – individual and corporate? What did they live out in terms of Christian lifestyle, and what experience did they accumulate along the way? Beside direct succession, Evangelicals have an affinity with other believers whose values and concerns they share, even though not connected by direct lines of descent. While questions of origin may appear irrelevant in some Western cultural contexts where history is considered “bunk” and relevance is all about reinventing oneself, Russians still consider questions of heritage important. Biography and church history affirm legitimacy, win trust, gain a hearing, and form the basis for an identity which Evangelicals can own and others, if they so choose, can embrace.

Strigolniki, Non-Possessors, and Others

Evangelicals base their identity objectively in people and events, rather than any subjective exercise in pick-and-mix self-invention. In the Russian context, Evangelicals trace several lines of succession. While the Protestant Reformation was indeed a Western phenomenon, Russian church history includes memorable reform movements that functioned in or emerged from Russian Orthodoxy, such as the fourteenth-century Strigolniki (opposed to clerical abuses and church ceremony) and the fifteenth-century Non-Possessors (opposed to wealth, coercion, and close ties with the state). Maxim the Greek (d. 1533), while by no means a Protestant, shared with Evangelicals opposition to liturgical formalism and superstitions which he argued had infiltrated Orthodoxy. Also during the sixteenth century, representatives of all social strata, such as the noble Matvei Bashkin, the serf Feodosy Kosoy, and the writer Ivan Peresvetov, voiced opposition to the religious and social status quo and were condemned by church and state as a result.

The Protestant Reformation

Russia also came into direct contact with the Protestant Reformation itself, not only in the form of Lutheran and Reformed churches on Russian soil (St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Moscow dates back to 1576), but also as a result of Russian territorial expansion into Eastern Europe. The 1570 dispute between Russian Orthodox Tsar Ivan the Terrible and Polish-based Protestant pastor Jan Rokita, touching on major differences between the two confessions, is an example of such interaction.

Old Believers

The most far-reaching challenge to the authority and prestige of the Russian Orthodox Church, at least until the 19th century, came, ironically, from its most earnest defenders. When Patriarch Nikon instituted changes in Orthodox liturgy and practice, in accordance with ancient Byzantine precedents, especially conservative Orthodox refused to comply. The Old Believer Schism this produced, beginning in 1666-67, significantly undermined the strength of the Russian Orthodox Church and cost it the loyalty of a substantial number of its most devoted adherents. For centuries these Raskolniki [Schismatics] served as the most significant example of home-grown religious non-conformism in the Russian Empire.5

Non-Orthodox Immigrants and the Russian Bible Society

In 1721 Tsar Peter the Great introduced a Protestant-style church structure (the Holy Synod) to the Orthodox Church, abolishing the Patriarchate (only restored in 1917). Tsarina Catherine the Great (late eighteenth century) invited German Mennonites, Lutherans, and Catholics to settle recently conquered, sparsely populated lands. The nineteenth century witnessed increasing Protestant influences. Tsar Alexander I came under the influence of European continental pietism which stressed personal spiritual commitment to Christ and regular reading of Scripture. His personal patronage permitted the founding of the Russian Bible Society despite the reservations of some Orthodox hierarchs. Although short-lived (1812-25), this offspring of the basically Protestant British and Foreign Bible Society succeeded in publishing the first modern Russian New Testament (1824) and laid the groundwork for the later completion of the Synodal Version of the modern Russian Bible (1876).

Dukhobors and Molokans

Around this same time various indigenous movements, such as the Dukhobors and Molokans, were rejecting the form and ceremony of Russian Orthodoxy in their search for spiritual answers. In turn, many members of these same groups joined the Russian Evangelical movement as it emerged in the mid- to late-1800s. Key influential Russian Evangelical leaders included Vasilii Pavlov (Russian Baptist), Colonel Vasilii Pashkov (aristocrat and disciple of Lord Radstock), and Ivan Prokhanov (dynamic leader of the Evangelical Christians). Lord Radstock, who in the 1870s preached Christ to St. Petersburg aristocracy, encouraged converts, possibly naively, not to leave Russian Orthodoxy – something which became impossible as opposition to his work and followers grew in official church circles.

Evangelicals in Soviet and Post-Soviet Times

In more recent times Russian Evangelicals managed to survive severe Soviet repression beginning in the late 1920s. In 1929, on the eve of this assault, Evangelicals represented a significant segment of society, between one and two million members and adherents.6 In Siberia at one point the combined strength of the Evangelical Christian and Baptist church youth movements (Evsomol and Bapsomol) exceeded that of the Communist Komsomol youth movement – a sore point subsequently “remedied” by state-sponsored persecution. In his semi-autobiographical One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn referred to a fellow gulag inmate, a Baptist, in favorable terms. Later, during the Cold War, Evangelicals became a pawn in super-power politics as the West pressed the case for Soviet compliance with international human rights accords Moscow had signed


are well-disposed toward Evangelicals, many other nominal, nationalistic, and ecclesiologically exclusivist Orthodox are quite belligerent toward Evangelicals. In such cases, an Evangelical apologia may well be met initially with incredulity and/or scorn. However, I would suggest it would be well for Russian Evangelicals to persevere, recognizing that in their understanding of the gospel they have a distinct contribution to make in spreading the gospel in Russia. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “We commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (II Corinthians 4:2).What is at stake is a full hearing for the gospel as lived out by Christians of diverse traditions. ♦


1 66.9 percent, Operation World, 2009.

2 Fond “Obshchestvennoe Mnenie,” January-February 2010.

3 I owe this particular insight to Andrey Chernyak of the Orthodox Parish of SS. Cosma and Damian, Moscow.

4 Evangelical Alliance (UK), Evangelicalism and the Orthodox Church (Carlisle, England: Paternoster, 2001).

5 Russian television recently broadcast a several-part drama on this subject entitled “Schism.”

6 Mark R. Elliott, “Persecution of Christians in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet and Post-Soviet Union” in Sorrow and Blood: Christian Mission in Contexts of Suffering, Persecution and Martyrdom, ed. by William Taylor et al. (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2012).

Russell Phillips is a British pastor serving under the leadership of Russian Evangelical Christian-Baptist churches, Novosibirsk, Russia.