East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 2, No. 4, Fall 1994, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

East of the Old Iron Curtain:  Can Christians Coexist?

"The most dangerous thing for Russia is religious and spiritual pluralism.  Moscow isn't a Babylon for second cults, for protestant congregations who resemble wild wolves rushing in here or Catholics like thieves using their billions to try to occupy new territory.  Democracy is an idol that will be broken like communism was."  So writes Russian Orthodox parish priest, Father Artyom.*

For two thousand years Christians of all confessions have struggled with the tension between respecting other cultures and sharing the gospel across cultures.  As early as the first century church (Acts 15) Christ's disciples debated whether or not to require circumcision of gentile Christians. Moving to a Slavic setting, Professor Nicholas Il'minski (1822-91) of the Kazan Theological Academy labored quite effectively to foster Orthodox missions that treated non-Slavic peoples with respect.  His advocacy for the Divine Liturgy and Orthodox popular schooling in the languages of the Volga Tatars and the peoples of Siberia and Central Asia had considerable success and had a major impact on tsarist policy in the late nineteenth century.

As this issue of appropriate witness relates to current Orthodox-Evangelical tensions, defenders of the Eastern Church deplore Evangelical activity in Russia today seeing it as a spiritual affront.  However, are Orthodox justified in their desire to exclude Western Evangelical ministries from the former Soviet Union on territorial grounds?  Before concluding that Russia should be spared non-Orthodox influences, Orthodox might imagine how comfortable they themselves would be if the argument were taken to its logical conclusion.  For instance, if a faith's legitimacy were to depend upon its being longstanding or first in a particular location, then what justification did Prince Vladimir have in suppressing an ancient pagan pantheon in favor of Orthodox Christianity?  And what justification did Orthodox missionaries in Siberia have in competing with native shamans, thereby interfering with the region's traditional religion?

Many Christians historically have argued that the proclamation of the gospel among nonbelievers is legitimate, even if in the process it alters a native culture.  But what should we make of the argument that one Christian confession's witness in a territory already the home of another Christian confession is illegitimate?  If one were to accept that a majority Christian confession by rights should have territorial prerogatives, then, for example:

  1. Saints Cyril and Methodius should not have begun their work in Moravia where missionaries from Rome were already in evidence;
  2. Orthodox conversions among Estonian and Latvian Lutherans in the 18th and 19th centuries should not have occurred; and
  3. Orthodox have been interlopers in every U.S. state except Alaska, and should not be mailing unsolicited packets of information on Orthodoxy to Episcopalian priests across the country.
What Russian Orthodox must decide is whether or not they prefer a democratic to an authoritarian government, keeping in mind that true democracies by definition include tolerance for minorities and minority opinions.  It has been said that how a majority treats its most despised minority is the best test of its commitment to democracy and human rights.  Vaclav Havel has said this about Czech treatment--or mistreatment--of Gypsies.  Today the question must be posed:  does the majority faith in Russia--Orthodoxy--have sufficient confidence in itself to tolerate religious dissent?  Or must it repeat history and retreat to dependence upon the state to provide it with a legislative advantage, if not a monopoly?  Based on Europe's sad experience with state churches, it would appear that nothing could be more deadening to Orthodox spiritual vitality than artificial, secular supports propping up a privileged church. 
Mark Elliott, editor

*Quoted in Kent Hill, "The Orthodox Church and a Pluralistic Society" in Russian Pluralism:  Now Irreversible, ed. by Uri Ra'anan et al.  (New York:  St. Martin's Press, 1992), 171.

Mark Elliott, "East of the Old Iron Curtain:  Can Christians Coexist?" East-West Church & Ministry Report, 2 (Fall 1994), 16.

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1994 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
ISSN 1069-5664

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