To our shame, the Russian Protestant Church remains very separate from contemporary life in our country today. We seem to care very little about politics, the economy, and even the needs of people. We are very certain that our theology is "basic and correct." But we shrink from even recognizing the role of the gospel in society. I am not saying that the final goal of the gospel is the explanation of deep theological issues or the creating of systematic theology. I think that the final goal of the gospel in Russia is to convert our people to a Christlike life. This transformation is possible only on the basis of teaching from God's Word. However, because we have not systematically organized what we believe and what we should hold as true, people who accept the good news know little about the wonderful riches of fullness of life in Christ.
A Lack of Systematic Teaching
This leads me to an overview of hindrances that impede the development of Russian Protestant theology. I will speak of four. First, there is the lack of systematic teaching in the Church. In the six or seven years since the end of outright persecution under the Communists, we have had the freedom to preach, to write, and to educate. But we have not been developing our theology. Our focus has been on the birthing of spiritual babies. In the early days of freedom, many people came to church, some with sincere interest, others out of curiosity. They came looking for answers to perplexing questions. Some received salvation, but did not grow. There was no one to show them how to continue. They were not systematically taught who God is, what He wants from us, how we can relate to Him, and what it means to be a part of the body of Christ. Many are already leaving the church today. We have never offered them solid teaching on doctrines and how to apply them in daily life. If we are to see the development of Protestant theology, we must teach our people systematically.
A Concentration on Forms, Not Beliefs
Second, we Protestants today are concentrating on forms, not on beliefs. When I discuss the development of theology in Russia, my mind immediately turns to the need for the development of sources, materials, and approaches to working with people so as to feed them efficiently. [However,] rather than proclaiming what we believe, we use what we know to fight with each other. Unfortunately, the fight is not over the content of theology, but merely over forms of Christian expression, forms of worship, and forms of Christian service. The most important discussions we engage in tend to revolve around issues such as how we should sing, pray, or preach in the church. This is a serious problem rooted in our lack of a developed theology.
Peace at Any Price
Third, Protestants attempt to keep peace and unity at any cost. While some churches experience disunity over forms, there are churches which seem to be at peace, living without any problems. But often underneath the supposed calm is a pastor's commitment to "peace at any cost." Too often theological error is not confronted, not because the Truth is not known, but because of a fear to confront. In one church, during a night of prayer, I heard a lady who stood up to speak actually defending Universalism. She blatantly proclaimed that because God is so merciful, everyone would be saved. Rather than directly and publicly addressing her error, the pastor's public response gave his listeners the impression that he agreed with her. She was a new Christian and did not know the Truth. For the sake of "peace" and a fear of offense, error was not confronted.
The Rule of the Pastor
A fourth hindrance is a little-recognized one, rooted in our ecclesiology. In the Protestant Church in Russia today, the rule of the pastor continues to be a more decisive factor than theology. The pastor's authority is not questioned. In the Orthodox Church, on the other hand, tradition is the decisive rule. That is to say, while the Russian Orthodox Church depends upon the theology of former leaders, the Russian Protestant Church depends upon the theology of a single leader. This actually means that today's Protestant leadership in Russia has a great opportunity to influence people because within this subculture, there is deep respect for pastors. Their word is heard. But the question remains, where are the writers of our theology?
Spontaneous Versus Systematic
In Russia, our approach to development in any realm has always been spontaneous. It is difficult for us to think of developing something systematic, even a systematic theology. We know so little about planning in our country. It is not part of our culture. It is reflected in our way of teaching people from the pulpit. On one Sunday there will be a message on one subject, on the next Sunday, a message on another. In another church, within one service there may be three messages which have absolutely no relationship to each other. And yet we acknowledge that our congregations need and want systematic feeding. In general, our thinking is not logically derived, as we perceive Western thought to be. We think more symbolically. Our theology is a theology of poetry and of story-telling. We neglect suggesting a theological point of view on many societal, ethical, and moral matters.
Preaching That Will Make a Difference
The challenge for theological schools which are developing in our country is to teach Russians to preach theological messages in a systematic manner. Graduates of these schools must be prepared to revitalize doctrinal issues for Russian Christians in modern society. In Russian churches the sermon is still the most acceptable way of teaching. Few churches have adult Sunday-school classes. Therefore, the sermon is the primary vehicle for communicating Truth. Today it is still the pastor's responsibility to feed his people. If our students were taught to preach theological sermons in our churches and contextualize them for contemporary life in our country, people would not go away hungry and unsatisfied.
Excerpted from a paper that will be published in full in Religion in Eastern Europe, edited by Paul Mojzes.
Alexander I. Negrov is Professor of New Testament and Exegesis at St. Petersburg Christian University, St. Petersburg, Russia.
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© 1997 Institute for East-West Christian Studies