East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 3, No. 1, Winter 1995, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe


Theological Education After Communism: The Mixed Blessing of Western Assistance

Mark Elliott

This past June on a visit to St. Petersburg Christian University, which in fact is a seminary, I observed staff sifting through literally tons of books donated from the West, ferreting out the occasional title relevant for a theological library. On the one hand, the task required time-consuming sorting through mountains of boxes for the relatively rare gems in the rough. On the other hand, the shipping had been donated, several thousand useful titles were being gleaned from the heap, and seminarians would make use of a fair portion of the rest that the school would pass over. And so it is with Western assistance to theological education in the East, writ large: a mixed blessing.

How Western help is managed--or mismanaged--will make a major difference in the ability--or inability--of new schools to strengthen the church in the East and to assist the church as it seeks to witness to an enormous number of nonbelievers in its midst.

"We do not want ready-made Western Christianity to be dumped on us," a Russian theological educator reported in 1992. "We would love to have the tools, and then we will work it out for ourselves." While such sentiments abound among post-Soviet bloc seminary administrators, paradoxically, Ralph Alexander of Biblical Education by Extension rightly characterizes the present fixation of these same leaders on Western accreditation as an "obsession."

Western standards may be desirable in terms of required instructional facilities, faculty with earned doctorates, libraries of sufficient size and quality, and a broad curriculum. But for the foreseeable future such criteria are prohibitively expensive and would unquestionably doom theological education in former East-bloc countries to abject economic dependence upon the West, and with it, de facto foreign control.

The Danger of Theological Brain Drain

The lure of the West already is spelling more and more post-Soviet seminarians opting for golden opportunities abroad. Borrowing from an American folk song, we might ask, "Will they ever return?" Past performance suggests another brain drain could be in the making. According to Jack Graves of Overseas Council for Theological Education, 75 percent of Colombian theological students who have studied abroad never have gone home, the same for 85 percent of seminarians from the Caribbean, and 90 percent of seminarians from India. Is there any reason to believe it will be otherwise with former East-bloc seminarians?

Wilson Chow, president of Hong Kong's China Graduate School of Theology, just returned from former Yugoslavia, already reports a "brain drain of the theologically trained because of internal ethnic conflicts, the unstable political situation, [and] the attraction from seminaries in the West." The present priority of North America's Association of Theological Schools upon globalization provides a perfect example of a Western academic standard being unhealthy, even counterproductive, for theological education elsewhere. In the name of diversity and globalization, too many Western seminaries, as we meet, are luring to their campuses rare, theologically trained seminary educators from abroad, often draining the life blood of struggling institutions. How ironic that Western seminaries could be so insensitive to the damage they may inflict upon schools outside the North Atlantic community--all in the name of a better understanding of the rest of the world!

More Reasons To Be Wary

Even if every theological student in the West did return home, unhealthy side effects still might cause the church in the East to question the advisability of study abroad. As Ralph Alexander points out, when seminarians study in another country, "training is removed from the normal ministry context." In addition, seminarians' introduction to Western living standards and Western cultural values make going home a difficult adjustment. The negative influences of narcissistic materialism and individualism are self-evident. But even defensible Western mores, such as the high premium placed on efficiency, productivity, and punctuality, pose problems for graduates attempting to reenter societies that frequently value the building of relationships more highly than the completion of tasks by a set date. Also, modern higher criticism of the Scriptures, a staple of Western theological education--even in evangelical institutions reacting to it--will not be a welcome import in the eyes of a great many church leaders east of the old Iron Curtain.

A final reason indiscriminate emulation of Western theological education would be unwise is that the West itself is increasingly unsure of the validity of its own approach, which one detractor has described as the "trained incapacity to deal with the real problems of actual living persons in their daily lives."

From a distance few can detect the disarray to be found in many Western churches and seminaries, especially through the rich camouflage of institutional endowments, bricks and mortar, and the flood of Christian books, videos, conferences, and the like. On the other hand, the global commitment and material prosperity of many Western evangelical churches, missions, and seminaries have translated into an extraordinary, perhaps unprecedented, outpouring of assistance for fledgling seminaries and Bible institutes all across East Central Europe and the former Soviet Union. In most institutions Western assistance is welcome. The question is what kind of assistance is beneficial and who should make that decision.

Western Help That Will Work

If the case has been made that the Western connection to Christian leadership development in the East is a mixed blessing, what recommendations might contribute to more enlightened Western assistance?

  1. Theological educators in East Central Europe and the former Soviet Union should be encouraged to develop culture-specific criteria for evaluating the effectiveness of leadership-training programs. They should be creative and judicious in adapting, rather than submitting to the wholesale adoption of, Western accrediting standards.
  2. Theological educators should stress close institutional, faculty, and student interaction with the local church. Churches do not exist in order to support seminaries. But seminaries should exist in order to support churches.
  3. Theological educators should stress the importance of theological training in-country, for all the previously discussed cultural, theological, and economic reasons. To that end they should:
    1. encourage study abroad only for especially talented, mature, and dedicated pastors targeted for teaching positions;
    2. utilize extension programs and competency tests and encourage completion of M.A. programs, rather than longer M.Div. or doctoral programs, to shorten the length of Western instruction;
    3. encourage Western and indigenous churches, missions, and seminaries to work together in a few in-country advanced-degree programs;
    4. encourage Western partners to invest more resources in Western faculty teaching in the East, especially those with relevant language skills, and less in video talking heads and student scholarships for study in the West.
    5. Also, before opting for West European or North American theological education, students from East Central Europe and the former Soviet Union should consider alternatives in non-Western nations that would entail much less culture shock and theological dissonance, at a fraction of the cost. For example, the South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies, Bangalore, India, would welcome students from East Central Europe and the former Soviet Union in its fully accredited programs for pastoral training or advanced degrees for future theological educators. (Box 7747, Kothanur, Bangalore 560077 India; tel: 0091-80-8465235; fax: 0091-80-5565547.)
  4. Regarding curriculum, evangelical seminaries in former communist countries would do well to introduce:
    1. courses on Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism which delineate common ground and irreconcilable differences; and
    2. courses on biblical principles of conflict management. Unseemly strife abounds and demands serious attention within and between congregations, within and between denominations, within and between Christian confessions, and between Christians and persons of other faiths and no faith. Western Christian arbitration and conflict resolution services could be consulted for advice in developing instruction in this vital area.
  5. Above all, evangelicals, East and West, must foster and practice greater cooperation, especially in so expensive and labor-intensive an endeavor as theological education.
Mark Elliott, director of Wheaton College's Institute for East-West Christian Studies, is coeditor of the EWC&M Report. The present text is an edited excerpt of a longer, documented article forthcoming in Asbury Theological Journal. Used with permission.


Mark Elliott, "Theological Education After Communism: The Mixed Blessing of Western Assistance," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 3 (Winter 1995), 11-12.

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1995 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664


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