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The history of the relationship between Romanian Orthodox and Romanian Baptists is particularly bitter. My husband, Geoff, an Anglican priest, and I went to Romania in 2001 as mission partners with the Anglican Church Mission Society to work ecumenically under the aegis of the Cross of Nails. This worldwide network of reconciliation projects based at Coventry Cathedral, United Kingdom, is committed to promoting understanding and friendship among denominations and encouraging them in mission. We started a unique initiative in Sibiu in the Transylvanian region of Romania to bring together Baptist pastors and Orthodox priests, encouraging them to discuss subjects in a non-controversial way in an effort to build more mutual understanding and respect.
Initial Experience of Romanian Orthodox: Acceptance and Friendship
Our experiences were mixed. At a personal level we met with much typically Romanian kindness and hospitality. We were always invited by Orthodox clergy to major church festivals and often hosted to meals. My husband was invited to the regular meetings held by the Protopop (Archdeacon) for the 80-plus clergy in the Sibiu ecclesiastical area. He was frequently asked to join Orthodox clergy behind the iconostasis and at times to preach or lead sections of the Holy Liturgy. His Anglican priesthood was respected.
Building personal friendships in Sibiu across denominations created a context in which we were able to bring Baptist pastors and Orthodox priests together for a series of discussions in the Cross of Nails Center. It was made clear from the start that these would focus on aspects of the Christian faith that all church traditions held in common. To our surprise the dean of Sibiu’s
Orthodox theological faculty attended, at which an Orthodox priest friend commented, “Where else is he able to meet neo-Protestants?” The dean’s attendance was illuminating in its suggestion that some Orthodox at least did not subscribe to the general condemnation of neo-Protestants. Editor’s note: Neo-Protestants are Protestant believers whose denominations came into being later than the historic 16th century Reformation churches.
Romanian Orthodox Leadership in Sibiu: Rejection and Suspicion
At the episcopal level of the Romanian Orthodox Church the story was different. Our work came under great suspicion by the then Orthodox Metropolitan, the Rt. Rev. Dr. Antonie Plămădeală. We went to meet him with a letter of introduction which took care to explain that our activities were in no way a form of proselytism. Having read it, the Metropolitan bange his fist on the table and said that he did not believe us and that we were certainly there to proselytize. We were unable to convince him otherwise and learned that he warned his priests not to support our work to the extent of forbidding them from taking English lessons from us. We learned that our lack of formal status, our representation of a parachurch mission organization rather than of an Anglican diocese, and the apparent absence of episcopal oversight for our work created a major problem in Orthodox minds which dogged our time in Sibiu.
Under Communism the state strictly controlled ecumenical cooperation that existed among the “historical” churches: Orthodox, Lutheran, Hungarian Catholic, and Reformed. Even then, Romanian Orthodox refused to have any dialogue with so-called “neo-Protestants”: Baptists, Brethren, and Pentecostals. Baptist pastor Beniamin Poplăcean considers that even under Communism his denomination had more trouble with the Orthodox than with the state. Orthodox still regard neo-Protestants as interlopers.
More openness existed in Transylvania immediately following the 1989 Revolution. Poplăcean initiated a regular prayer time for all clergy in the city of Sibiu which was attended by Orthodox as well as Lutherans, Hungarian Catholics, Reformed, Greek-Catholics, and Baptists. This prayer group continues, but Baptists no longer attend. Attitudes have deteriorated owing to the stance of the Orthodox toward neo-Protestants, and their response.
The National Church Issue
Mutual hostility hardened and became more entrenched over the national church issue, following a strong debate between Baptist and Orthodox churches concerning the phrasing of Article 29 of the Romanian Constitution concerning freedom of conscience and religious belief. Although the Baptist Church played a full part in these discussions in order to win a fair outcome for all denominations, the Romanian Orthodox Holy Synod began to insist that legislation should describe it as the national church because it considers all Romanians to be Orthodox by virtue of their ethnicity, not through choice as exercised in a pluralist society.
Minority churches thought a national church designation would give an unfair advantage to the Orthodox who already were receiving much state aid for new churches. New Orthodox worship places built between 1990 and 2004 numbered 2,000, with another 1,000 planned. Orthodox priests also receive a government stipend. The state offered this funding to clergy of other recognized denominations, but the Baptist Church decided not to accept it. Orthodox understand their insistence on being called the national church as a description of reality: The vast majority of Romanians consider themselves Orthodox. Orthodoxy is also inextricably linked with nationalism. The colors of the Romanian flag act as markers in church Bibles or are painted around the outside of church buildings. Both the historical Protestant churches and minority neo-Protestants united in strong opposition to Orthodox “national church” language in the constitution, and the argument had a very negative effect on ecumenical relations.
Orthodox Hostility Toward Baptists
Although the Romanian Orthodox Church is a member of the Conference of European Churches and has signed the 2001 Charta Oecumenica, which recognizes that “every person can freely choose his or her church affiliation as a matter of conscience” (Section 2, Paragraph 3: http://www.cec-kek.org/English/ChartafinE.htm), Orthodox and Baptists clearly drew opposing lines almost from the start of the post-Communist period. Neither the Orthodox nor the government recognize the Baptist church as a “confession” or “denomination.” Rather, both refer to Baptists and other neo-Protestants as members of cults. Orthodox also consider that evangelistic efforts of Baptists and other Evangelicals constitute proselytism, thus their vehement opposition to neo-Protestant efforts to build churches.
In many instances Evangelicals have been threatened by mobs encouraged by Orthodox clerics, and worship buildings have been destroyed. A 2007 report documents the experience of Pastor Corneliu Pealease, who organized a small group of Baptists in Slobozia de Arges (Patratosu, 30 May 2007:
http://partatosu.wordpress.com/2007/05/30/grava-incalcare-a-drepturilor-omului-la-slobozia-de-arges/, p. 4).When they reached 14 in number, he applied to local authorities for permission to build a place of worship on land donated by one of his church members. One local Orthodox priest, Rev. Jianu Ionel, who continually opposed Baptists, appeared on the day of the hearing at the town hall with a group of other priests and a vociferous crowd of 130-150 people. He was given priority at the hearing, accusing Baptists of being members of a pagan sect, trying to steal souls, and being traitors who had sold their souls for American dollars. An uproar ensued. When the mayor insisted that Baptists had a legal right to construct a church, the priest threatened the mayor with the loss of his job.
Fr. Ionel then incited his congregation to set fire to the Baptist congregation’s construction materials “because it was the church of Satan.” In May 2007 the Orthodox Bishop of Arges and Muscel sent representatives to pressure the mayor to withdraw the city building permit. When he refused, he was threatened but stood firm, insisting that the project was legal.
The issue came to a head with the death of the church member who had donated the land. She was refused burial in the Orthodox cemetery. The crisis escalated to the point that the Secretary-General of the Romanian government became involved. Only then did Fr. Ionel agree to a compromise, with the Baptist funeral rite being followed by the Orthodox rite in the church. He used this occasion to pray for the soul of the deceased who, he claimed, had died without the true light. The priest again launched a virulent attack on Baptists, saying he would fight with the cross against the “repenters,” and that no one would be buried in the cemetery without an Orthodox ritual. He claimed he would never have agreed to the burial if the Secretary-General had not become involved. The 1999 U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom adds:
In spring 1999, Emmanuel Baptist Church of Oradea tried to establish a sister church in Marginea and obtained all necessary building permits from government officials. However, the Romanian Orthodox Church was opposed to the construction of the new church and responded with sharply negative articles in the press and lawsuits against the church construction. In April 1999, 33 Orthodox clergy criticized Baptists in a
newspaper article, accusing them of “buying souls,” promoting pornography and homosexuality, and desecrating graves. In May 1999, a local court agreed with the Romanian Orthodox Church’s claim and prohibited the construction of the new Baptist church (Section 2: http://www.state.gov/www/global/human_rights/irf/irf_rpt/1999/irf_romania99.html).
Baptists in Sibiu: Suspicion and Outreach
Baptist pastors were not overly friendly when we arrived in Sibiu, uncertain about our theological stance. However, as time passed they became good friends, inviting us to their services and my husband to the monthly prayer meeting of evangelical pastors in the city.
Stories were legion of the ways Baptists felt persecuted by the Orthodox, the difficulties they had with them, the suspicion that each felt for the other, and the history of hurt, especially since the 1989 Revolution. No one was able to explain Orthodox hostility, apart from the Baptist belief that Orthodox are not truly Christian and that this accounts for their aggressive behavior. Baptists frequently expressed misgivings about the way of life of many Orthodox, particularly their priests. Alcoholism is widespread in Romanian society and many village priests abuse alcohol. The fact that we were trying to build relationships with Orthodox as well as Baptists was something Baptists could not understand, and of which they were suspicious.
Because of Orthodox hostility, Baptist churches and missionaries were determined to engage in evangelism as if Orthodox did not exist. Western evangelical missionaries running a children’s evangelism project based in Sibiu planned a mission in the nearby mountain village of Râul Sadului in the summer of 2004. We suggested that, out of courtesy, they meet with Father Adrian Dragusin, a young Orthodox parish priest whom we knew to be ecumenically minded. The evangelical mission agency refused on the grounds that Romanian Orthodox were not members of a true church.
Evangelical aggression takes other forms as well Father Dragusin faced a serious problem following the death of a member of the Brethren church in his village who had expressed a wish to be buried in the Orthodox cemetery. As he wished to be ecumenical, he asked for a meeting with the family so that he could explain Orthodox Church law, which forbids the burial of non-Orthodox in an Orthodox cemetery. His story is that this family mounted a strong campaign against him, which included going to the media where he was vilified.
The way more enterprising Baptist churches take seriously their social responsibilities can also become an issue. Their statement on mission makes it clear that service is understood to be part of the church’s life and witness. To this end Beni Seican’s church in Sibiu offers a kindergarten, guest accommodations, and a dental clinic. Poplăcean’s church also offers a kindergarten and runs a small pharmacy supplied from America. Orthodox see these efforts not as Christian service, but as attempts to lure people away from the true church by offering material benefits.
By contrast, almost no Orthodox churches in Sibiu Diocese had any kind of social work. One priest said that social welfare arose naturally from the liturgy of the church, with beggars being fed from food and wine provided at funerals. Expensive new Orthodox church buildings were being built all over the city, but only one priest in the diocese has a social project for disadvantaged children and the elderly poor, with funding a constant struggle. Baptists see Orthodoxy’s limited involvement in social ministry as a sign of a church more interested in visibility and power than in service.
Another divisive issue concerns Western influence. No doubt much Western evangelical missionary endeavor has been culturally and theologically insensitive in Romania. Missions and charities are set up with Western financing and boards of advisers who expect to control the work in Romania. At first Romania, struggling to emerge from the ruined economy left by Communism, welcomed such efforts. Only slowly did the government put in place legal requirements for such organizations. At the same time, as Romanian pastors gained more training and confidence, they came to resent Western missionary influence. Danut Manastireanu notes “a sort of Western theological aggressiveness, even a form of theological ‘imperialism,’ which can have very serious negative consequences” for Romanian Evangelicals (“Evangelical Denominations in Post-Communist Romania,” East-West Church and Ministry Report 6 [Summer 1998], 8).
Churches are often built with Western money, which also provides living allowances for pastors, as well as cars and other benefits. Orthodox consider this funding a threat. One Orthodox priest told us of evangelical pastor friends encouraging him to leave the hardship of trying to work within the Romanian Orthodox Church to become Evangelical instead, on the grounds that a Western church would provide him with a decent salary, help with building a house, and a car. Evangelicals are not above mounting great pressure on friends and neighbors to convert from Orthodoxy.
Among the several Baptist churches in Sibiu, the largest is Biserca Betania, where Beniamin Poplăcean is pastor. He is a former vice-president of the Romanian Baptist Union and is involved in its mission department. He is also involved with MIR, the International Mission of Romania, and with Radio Voice of the Gospel, as well as evangelistic television programs. American missionaries have worked in Betania for many years through Greater Europe Mission, and it is relevant to compare their mission practice with the experience of the present writer participating in Orthodox mission. It is normal practice for American missionaries to host teams of young people from the U.S. to participate in evangelistic summer camps, which take place throughout Romania and in all neo-Protestant church traditions. One American couple leads a very poor church in the hills near Sibiu and uses the opportunities afforded by personal visits to share the Gospel. They also work closely with Child Evangelism Fellowship in Sibiu and with other evangelical churches to run vacation Bible schools in villages.
Betania Church regularly runs evangelistic events, and Poplăcean always combines social projects and evangelistic outreach. In the autumn of 2008 he took a team to a village in the south of the country where they spent a day collecting rubbish. In the evening Poplăcean gave an evangelistic message in the courtyard of the village clinic, purchased and renovated by the church and staffed by a young woman doctor sent there to work as a medical missionary. Some Baptist missionaries are now working in a more holistic way, living among a host community, offering practical help, and teaching Bible studies and evangelism, by personal example seeking to “make disciples rather than converts.”
In summary, as Tim Prochnau notes, “Antagonism is not one-sided. Whatever church is predominant in an area, it slanders other denominations. Slander may be the worst element of Romanian society that has permeated the church and threatens to destroy its purity” (“The State of the Church in Romania: Divergent Views,” East-West Church and Ministry Report 13 [Spring 2005], 12). It is, unfortunately, impossible for any church, Orthodox or Protestant, to claim the moral high ground. F
Rev. Deacon Gillian Kimber, Paignton, Devon, England, is retired from Anglican parish and missionary ministry.
Edited excerpts published with permission from Gillian Kimber, “Mission Impossible: Developing an Understanding of the Task of Interconfessional Mission with Reference to the Romanian Orthodox Church and Romanian Evangelical and Baptist Churches in Transylvania,” master of philosophy thesis, University of Nottingham, 2010.
Editor’s note: The concluding portion of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 21 (Spring 2013).