East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 6, No. 2, Spring 1998, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

Evangelical Denominations in Post-Communist Romania

Danut Manastireanu

The Romanian Revolution in December 1989 brought about a series of major changes in Evangelical denominations in our country. By Evangelicals, we mean, in this context, the Baptist, Pentecostal, and Brethren denominations. We exclude Seventh-day Adventists for theological reasons, even though official Romanian documents would classify them as Evangelicals or "neo-Protestants."  A description of the situation since December 1989 for each of the denominations mentioned above is followed by general conclusions concerning Evangelicals as a group.

The Baptists are the oldest Evangelical denomination in Romania. The first Romanian Baptist communities were formed in Transylvania, the result of missionary work based mainly in Hungary.  At the end of 1989 the Baptist denomination had approximately 100,000 baptized members and an additional 200,000 adherents.  Three hundred pastors, some with no formal theological training, served 1,400 local churches.  Six months later, by the middle of 1990, the number of churches had increased by more than 50 percent, without significant growth in membership. The explanation is that under the old regime many groups of believers did not receive the right to be constituted as a legal local church and were worshiping with groups of believers in other places. In many cities church buildings were crowded, so as soon as the external conditions allowed, believers formed new churches. In other places, dogmatic, practical, or personal differences among believers resulted in the unnecessary fragmentation of existing communities.

This was not possible before the Revolution because of the strict control exercised by the communist authorities through the local inspector for religious activities. He was required to report regularly on the number of Protestant congregations and growth was considered unacceptable. Therefore, when the formation of a new congregation could not be prevented, the new church received authorization at the expense of a smaller community, thus keeping the total number of authorizations unchanged.

Addressing the Pastoral Shortage
Immediately after 1989, contrary to expectations, the Baptist denomination experienced no major changes in leadership. First, elected leaders had been in their positions for too short a time to have lost their credibility through obvious compromise with the former authorities (a long-standing practice during the communist era in all East-bloc religious denominations). Second, the more radical Baptist leaders, based mainly in Oradea and Bucharest, believed that an institutional change at the top was not the priority of the moment. They left it for later, when the denominational structures would be free from the scars of difficult years under communism. For them, the most important problem to be solved was the shortage of qualified pastors.  A number of solutions to this problem have been proposed.

Via Ordination of Lay Pastors?
Ordained lay pastors without formal theological training were the main and almost only possible option under the communist regime.  Unfortunately, with just a few significant exceptions, the leaders promoted were incompetent theologically and without an obvious calling for full-time ministry. They were somewhat easy to ordain and set in place, but difficult, if not impossible, to remove if they proved unfit for the job. This was, in my opinion, a failed experiment in most cases.

Via Strengthened Seminaries?
Today seminaries, with the possibility of larger enrollments, should provide the needed theological training for future pastors, but this cannot be taken for granted. The Baptist Seminary in Bucharest (at best, a college-level school before 1989) has been confronted with a critical lack of qualified teachers. One possible solution to this new problem has been to import theology teachers from the West. However, this can have important disadvantages, which I will deal with later. The Baptist Institute in Oradea established in 1990 was then just a hopeful promise. In time it became established as a serious theological school.  Later, many other Bible schools emerged throughout the country, usually with Western help. Unfortunately, most of these schools do not have serious academic standards and have very little chance to become officially accredited.

Via Study Abroad?
Another approach is to send promising young people to study theology in the West, particularly to the United States and the United Kingdom. This, in time, could solve the problem of a lack of teachers, but it has its own risks. Some students, attracted by the affluence of the West, never come back. To a certain extent this is understandable, given Romania's social and economic instability. Others have been influenced by liberal theology or have been sidetracked by irrelevant Western theological debates.

Pentecostals (Assemblies of God and Church of God) have approximately 300,000 baptized members and 200,000 additional adherents in 2,000 churches served by 300 pastors, most without formal theological training. The events in December 1989 triggered a revolution in official Pentecostal leadership. Younger leaders who have the trust of believers finally replaced the president of the Pentecostal Union, Pavel Boghian, distinguished by his obedient attitude toward communist authorities.

One of the most difficult problems confronting Pentecostals is the need for adequate theological training for pastors. The Pentecostal Seminary in Bucharest, opened in the late seventies, can hardly meet the need for leaders in one of the most dynamic denominations in Romania. What we have already said about the Baptists in this respect generally holds true for Pentecostals as well. However, Pentecostal believers are more hesitant to accept pastors who are theologically trained and paid by the congregation. The first graduates from the seminary were received with great difficulty, especially by the older generation of Pentecostals.  A side effect of the lower level of theological training, which is characteristic of most Pentecostal leaders, is the theological fragmentation of the denomination.  In general, as always, the younger generation is more open to change, and there is much reason for hope.

A specific aspect of the Romanian Pentecostal environment is the presence in its midst of a group called the "universals" (illegal under the old regime), who emphasized charismatic manifestations to a larger extent than classic Pentecostals. They strongly resisted any official church authority structures. Sometimes they refused army service, leading to lengthy imprisonment.

Pentecostals are recruiting the majority of their members from the countryside and from workers who have recently moved to the cities. As a consequence, they prefer worship that is similar to folk music. However, the younger generation seems to be more open to modern music, especially that of Western origin.

Neither the law nor officially recognized denominations favor new charismatic and other independent Evangelical churches founded since 1989. Nevertheless, these churches, with their more relaxed attitude toward the Evangelical tradition, are challenging established denominations. They often respond to the specific needs of postmodern people in a better manner than more traditional churches. At the same time, they increase the fragmentation of the church.

Brethren assemblies (Brethren prefer this term over churches) include approximately 50,000 baptized members and about 100,000 additional adherents, served by about 100 workers. (The title pastor is not used.) They are especially concentrated in Moldavia, in the center of the southern province of Wallachia, and in southern Transylvania, where Germans used to live. Before the 1989 Revolution the denomination contained two branches.  About 70 percent of Romanian Brethren are closely related to the so-called "large brothers" in the West, the outgrowth of work begun in the early 1920s by missionaries coming from Switzerland, Norway, Germany, and England.  The second branch of Brethren formed about the same time, following a revival in the Orthodox Church led by Fr. Tudor Popescu, hence, the designation Tudorists. Fr. Popescu converted to Evangelical faith under the influence of literature produced by British Plymouth Brethren.  (Tudorists are sometimes called Darbyists after the Plymouth Brethren founder, Charles Darby.)  His new preaching distressed the Orthodox hierarchy and some of his fellow priests who accused him--probably rightly so--of Protestant faith and practical deviance from Orthodoxy.  He ultimately was excommunicated and formed his own denomination. These Brethren, like the so-called "narrow brothers" in the West, adhere to a strict lifestyle and are exclusive in their attitude towards other denominations, including other Romanian Evangelicals. Unlike Baptists and Pentecostals, they practice infant baptism. Communists forced the merger of the two Brethren churches, but after 1989 they separated. Tudorists, officially known as the Evangelical Church in Romania, number approximately 40,000 members and adherents and are located mainly near Bucharest and to the north.

Most Brethren come from the working class. Village assemblies, though numerous, have to deal with an aging membership, as young people move to the cities. Also, Brethren are confronted with a certain loss of vision and decline in spiritual life, compared with a few decades ago. Before the communists came to power in the mid-1940s, Romanian Brethren, who had no theologically educated or paid pastors, trained their leaders through a system of regular regional conferences. They were led by people with greater ministry experience and occasionally some with training acquired in theological schools of other denominations or abroad. The communists restricted these conferences, creating a crisis in pastoral training and unwanted theological diversity within assemblies.  The resulting fragmentation and disunity led younger and more open-minded leaders to found their first denominational Bible school in Bucharest. One very important difficulty in establishing Brethren theological education is the lack of any indigenous faculty with formal theological training.  A number of Brethren are now studying abroad, and it is possible that in time they will be able to teach in the new Brethren Bible school. Until then, reestablishing regional training conferences could offer a viable, temporary solution.

After eliminating leadership compromised by cooperation with the communists, Brethren have been faced with tension between older, traditionalist leaders and more radical and dynamic younger leaders. The future impact of the denomination in the country depends to a large extent upon the outcome of this confrontation.

Editor's note:  The conclusion of this article will appear in the next issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

Danut Manastireanu is a lecturer in theology at Emmanuel Bible College, Oradea, Romania.

Source:  Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from a revised English translation of the author's original article published in Korunk (no. 10, October 1990), a Hungarian-language cultural magazine published in Cluj, Romania.

Danut Manastireanu, "Evangelical Denominations in Post-Communist Romania," East-West Church & Ministry Report 6 (Spring 1998), 1-3.

Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

1998 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

EWC&M Report | Contents | Search Back Issues | From Our Readers | Subscribe