In 1906 Sergei Bulgakov warned the Moscow theological establishment that the greatest problem facing the church was not administrative restructuring, or philosophical disputes about the existence of God, but whether or not the church had any social relevance in a rapidly industrializing, secular Russia. Largely unheeded at the time, Bulgakov’s challenge has a contemporary ring. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s churches have attempted to redefine themselves socially within a fluid, ambiguous state legal order. Recent social statements by the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian Evangelicals reveal the extent to which this maneuvering has led to serious reflection on the character of their social ministry and even the basic mission of the churches at this critical time in Russia’s history. Osnovy sotsial’noi kontseptsii Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi [Bases of the Social Conception of the Russian Orthodox Church], completed in 2000, was the work of a 26-member commission of clergy and laity formed in 1997. (An English translation can be found on the Moscow Patriarchate’s website: http://www.mospat.ru/chapters/e_conception.) Metropolitan Kyrill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s External Relations Department, chaired the commission. The 2003 Russian Evangelical response, Sotsialnaia pozitsiia Protestantskikh Tserkvei Rossii [Social Position of the Protestant Churches of Russia], nearly two years in the making, was drafted by Adventists, Evangelical Christians-Baptists, and Pentecostals—a considerable, though not all-inclusive segment, of Russia’s Protestant churches. The two documents possess a similar structure and some common ground, but fundamentally they (and recent joint meetings) reveal two divergent confessional traditions coming to grips with a shared sense of social and demographic crisis. The statements will be compared below under four headings: church, nation, and state; freedom of conscience and human rights; Christian ethics and secular law; and economics, labor, and globalization.
Church, Nation, and State
In both statements Christians are seen as having a dual earthly and heavenly citizenship that confers social responsibility. This responsibility is rooted in theology—ecclesiology in the Russian Orthodox tradition, soteriology in Evangelical thought. The documents affirm that the church is universal and national, understood in the Russian Orthodox statement as national autocephaly within ecumenical Orthodoxy. The Evangelical statement, on the other hand, focuses on the church’s mission within a community of nation states. Patriotism is applauded, aggressive nationalism condemned, but the Russian Orthodox national conception leads it to assert that when a nation represents “predominantly a mono-confessional Orthodox community, it can in a certain sense be regarded as an Orthodox nation” (II.3).
This conception of “Orthodox nation” is the basis for a lengthy set piece on church-state relations in which Western models are critiqued in favor of Orthodox “symphony.” With the synodal period of Russian history in view, the document terms the established or “territorial” church model “an evident distortion.” At the same time, the document affirms that the church may “urge the government to exercise power in particular cases,” and can expect “the state, in building its relations with religious bodies, [to] take into account the number of their followers and the place the[y] occupy in forming the historical, cultural, and spiritual image of the people” (III.3, III.6). Why the church did not use this context to craft even a few carefully worded lines about its predicament during the Soviet period baffles this writer. Both documents do, however, maintain the separation of church and state, the inadmissibility of claims of one over the other, the political neutrality of the clergy, the crucial political and social role of the laity, and qualified Christian support of the state during war. Both statements also outline about 15 areas of church-state cooperation, ranging from charity and initiatives to strengthen the nation’s (particularly the family’s) moral fiber to collaboration in education, scientific research, and the mass media. The Evangelical conception of its relationship to the state is grounded in freedom of conscience, perhaps the single greatest divide between the two statements.
Freedom of Conscience and Human Rights
Freedom of conscience occupies a central place in the Evangelical social statement. It is placed at the top of the statement’s agenda, just under theological presuppositions, and it is discussed well over a dozen times throughout the 72-page document. “At the basis of the church’s mission lies the firm conviction that freedom of conscience should be guaranteed to all people,” the statement opens. It continues that the churches are prepared to defend “freedom of conscience and religious freedom as a basic human right as consonant with biblical teaching and international human rights documents” (7). Again, in the context of an appeal to several international human rights conventions, “[w]e believe that freedom of thought, conscience, and religion are basic and inalienable personal rights” (8).
The Russian Orthodox statement views freedom of conscience with ambivalence. As a product of the Enlightenment, it resulted in some measure of religious freedom in a “non-religious world.” At the same time, it possesses a threat of egoistic assertion, its necessity in fact proving that society has “become massively apostate and actually indifferent to the task[s] of the Church.” The document also laments that people “in a society which affirms freedom of conscience no longer aspire for salvation” (III.6). The statement is thus hesitant to sanction the concept of human rights per se, and rather than acquiescing to individualism or the “protection of self-will,” it maintains that “the idea of human freedom and rights is bound up with the idea of service” (IV.7). This service means confronting several thorny social issues.
Christian Ethics and Secular Law
For both, civil disobedience is contemplated only when man’s law contravenes God’s. Stress is on being law-abiding and socially active. This is especially true of the Evangelical statement as the churches have been viewed as foreign imports—an impression this document takes pains to correct. Several particular social issues are discussed. In both documents, the social role of women and their reproductive rights are considered integral to current concerns about the deterioration of the family. With regard to the social role of women, the Russian Orthodox position is expressed traditionally: “the desire to remove or minimize the natural differences [between the sexes] is alien to the church mind” (X.5). In the Evangelical statement, the primary tasks are to restore “the respect accorded to a woman as wife and mother” (26). Larger families are encouraged in both statements, thus abortion and abortifacients are explicitly condemned. Contraception is left to a couple’s discretion. Reproductive technologies are considered admissible and surrogate motherhood discouraged. Homosexuality and transsexuality are viewed by both as perversions of the created order.
As for experimental medical technologies, the Russian Orthodox statement is more specific than its Evangelical counterpart in forbidding the cloning of human beings, but suggesting cautious optimism about the prospects of cloning organic cells and tissues. Organ transplants are advocated in suitable cases and their commercialization discouraged. Physician-assisted suicide is equated with murder in both documents.
Issues of crime and punishment are addressed with a focus on rehabilitation, particularly in the Evangelical statement, which advocates setting up formal rehabilitation centers. The Russian Orthodox position on the death penalty is that there is no provision in Scripture or tradition that would obviate it, though “mercy … is always preferable to revenge,” and steps to this effect by state authorities are welcomed by the church (IX.3).
In general, personal and national health and well-being are considered primary concerns. Indeed, running through both documents is a deep anxiety about Russia’s current demographic and ecological problems. “Russia is experiencing a situation of demographic crisis,” the Evangelical document states, and this “great disaster” is the churches’ business, particularly its effects on children (33). In what is perhaps the most lucid section of the Russian Orthodox statement, Russia’s demographic crisis is attributed to “sharply decreased” birth and average life expectancy rates, the scourge of alcoholism and drug-addiction, and longer-term factors such as “wars, revolution, hunger, and massive repression, the consequences of which have aggravated the social crisis” (XI.4, 6). Both documents advocate appropriate government legislation and relief measures, and in particular medical research and social programs “intended to protect motherhood and childhood.”
Economy, Labor, and Globalization
Neither document advocates a particular economic system. The Russian Orthodox position is that labor in itself is “not an absolute value,” but is driven by two motives: self-sufficiency and concern for the well-being of others (VI.4). Passages from Scripture and the church fathers are quoted to support the dignity and necessity of work from a Christian perspective. The Evangelical position is expressed in faintly schematic terms: “in labor the human personality is formed and developed” (42). Adoption of the Protestant work ethic is seen as meeting a particularly urgent need in today’s Russian business environment: “The enterprising Christian conceives of work as a special form of worship, as a calling, a means of realizing the divine plan in life” (44). Both documents view the ownership and use of property as a personal right to be exercised for the common good. Expropriation of property for any reason is rejected.
The Russian Orthodox Church’s reservations about the process of economic and cultural globalization go hand-in-hand with her concerns about secularization and the mass media. The primary concern is that international organizations will ride roughshod over popular will and “may become instruments for the unfair domination of strong over weak countries, rich over poor, and technologically … developed over the rest” (XVI.2). The concern is also confessional. “This process … has been accompanied by attempts to establish the dominion of the rich elite over… some cultures and worldviews … which is especially intolerable in the religious field” (XVI.3). Something of the Church’s frustration with Russia’s increasing religious pluralism is evident in such passages. Viewed by Evangelicals as requiring real discretion, the mass media is seen by Russian Orthodoxy as the recent instigator of “more profound and principled conflicts,” some involving “systematic” distortion of perceptions about “the Church and her servants” (XV.3).
These documents are significant because they are the first of their kind, especially in their comprehensiveness, and they demonstrate different methods. The Russian Orthodox statement is canonical in format, drawing on both Scripture and church tradition. (Its English translation needs some editing.) It could well have been more conservative or more liberal. The Evangelical counterpart’s prose is more relaxed, its conceptions supported exclusively by Scripture. More substantively, the documents demonstrate some common ground on moral issues, as well as some basic differences in political and economic philosophy. The Evangelical statement’s insistence on freedom of conscience and freedom of religion can be viewed as a declaration that Russia’s restrictive religious and political order, past or present, is unacceptable and counterproductive. Indeed, one of the intriguing features of the Evangelical document is its brief appendix, “From the History of the Russian Protestant Churches,” which serves as a brief apology for the social role of Russian Evangelicals. The common ground, however, is the shared task to address critical social needs in the complex arena between people and state.
Scott Lingenfelter is a doctoral candidate in Russian history at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
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© 2004 East-West Church and Ministry Report