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From the March, 2000 issue of Touchstone


The Battle for Russia’s Souls by Kent R. Hill

The Battle for Russia’s Souls

Proselytism and Orthodoxy in Russia: The New War for Souls
John Witte, Jr., and Michael Bourdeaux, editors.
New York: Maryknoll, 1999.
(353 pages; $25.00, paper)

by Kent R. Hill

The end of the cold war was greeted with a mixture of surprise, relief, and anticipation both in the West and in the countries of the former Soviet bloc. Not only did the specter of nuclear war and totalitarian oppression perceptibly recede, but there were also widespread hopes that prosperous, free economies, democracy, and religious freedom would fill the vacuum left by failed Marxism.

History, however, is messy and complex. The hopes of ten years ago have been tempered by an unpleasant encounter with post-Soviet realities—economic, political, and spiritual. There is rarely, if ever, a smooth transition to a free and democratic society.

Initially, there were signs of great religious freedom in the former Soviet Union. New laws guaranteed full religious freedom in ways that fully met the highest international standards of human rights agreements and Western practice. However, beneath the surface all was not well.

The Russian Orthodox Church deeply resented what it considered to be a “flood” of religious rivals with which it now was forced to contend. There were growing demands for the Russian government to enact considerably more restrictive legislation designed to discriminate against the nontraditional religious entities, including other Christian groups. On September 26, 1997, after initially resisting, President Boris Yeltsin finally succumbed to the pressures and signed a new law—“On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations.” The law grants special privileges to “religious organizations” that have existed in Russia for not less than 15 years. “Religious groups,” in contrast, find themselves without the right to own property, receive tax privileges, own or operate educational institutions, conduct charitable activities, or to acquire, import, or give out religious literature. There are serious new restrictions on the activities of foreign missionaries. Non-Orthodox Christians are, at best, second-class citizens.

Excitement about the departure of the anti-religious Communists has given way to serious bickering between religious groups, and within the Christian family of communions as well. Perhaps no issue so crystallizes the differences between the Russian Orthodox Church and other Christians (Catholics and evangelical Protestants) as does the disagreement over “proselytism and evangelism.” Evangelicals insist that they are mainly engaged in evangelism, that is, sharing the Good News with those who are not believers or are not active members of any church. They contend that the great majority of foreign missionaries are not “proselytizing” among the active and seriously Orthodox.

However, the Russian Orthodox do not accept this “evangelical” distinction between proselytism and evangelism. Russian Orthodox leaders insist that virtually everything the evangelical Protestants and Catholics do among native Russians is “proselytism,” since Russian Orthodoxy is the historic faith of the Russian people and most have at least been baptized as infants. Survey data in 1996 indicated, however, that 67 percent of the Russian men and 38 percent of the women did not identify themselves as believers. As late as 1996, the percentage of the population that identified itself as Orthodox was only 50 percent, and the majority of these are non-observant (p. 213).

The Russian Orthodox Church believes that in light of the more than seven decades of Communist oppression, and the resulting weakened state of the Russian Orthodox Church, the truly civil and Christian thing for non-Orthodox foreign Christians to do would be to support the Orthodox materially or at least stand aside and let the Orthodox Church regain its strength. Many Evangelicals respond that the needs of those without a “saving knowledge and experience of Jesus Christ” are simply too great to ignore, despite the demands of the Orthodox to leave Russia to the historic Russian Orthodox Church.

The Russian Orthodox contend that it is really quite unfair for the “well-financed” foreign Evangelicals to compete with the Orthodox Church, weakened materially by decades of struggle with the Communists. In fact, evangelical gains are relatively modest. Though the number of Russian Protestant churches doubled from 1993 to 1996 (from 1,002 to 2,280) (p. 5), the number of churches within the Moscow patriarchate rose from 4,566 to 7,195 (p. 86). Dr. Mark Elliott estimates that in 1997 there may have been a total foreign missionary force of 5,606 in the former Soviet Union (of whom approximately 1,962 may have been career missionaries). Against a population backdrop of 287 million people, this does not, in Elliott’s judgment, represent “a disproportionate share of the worldwide Protestant missionary effort” (p. 200). (Protestants have, proportionate to the population, higher missionary percentages in Brazil, Japan, the Philippines, Kenya, and Papua New Guinea.) And yet Patriarch Aleksii II has spoken of a “massive influx” (p. 7) of foreign missionaries, and Metropolitan Kirill has interpreted Protestant intentions in highly uncomplimentary ways.

In most cases the intention was not to preach Christ and the Gospel, but to tear the faithful away from their traditional churches and recruit them into their own communities. . . . Missionaries from abroad came with dollars, buying people with so-called humanitarian aid. . . . All this has led to an almost complete rupture of the ecumenical relations developed during the previous decades. (p. 8)

Hence, the temptation to deal with the non-Orthodox through legal statute.

Passions run high in these debates, and there are plenty of polemics and strong words on all sides. Although many evangelical missionaries have done their best to be considerate of the Orthodox, there have certainly been examples of those who rushed in with little or no knowledge of the language or the culture.

What is often absent in our consideration of these issues is a full and balanced presentation of the historical background and contemporary scene regarding the religious landscape of Russia. Into this void comes the excellent compendium of essays and articles edited by John Witte, Jr., and Michael Bourdeaux— Proselytism and Orthodoxy in Russia: The New War for Souls.

John Witte, Jr., is a noted legal and human rights scholar who directs the Law and Religion Program at Emory University. Michael Bourdeaux is regarded as the foremost authority in the world on religion in the Soviet Union and Russia. He is the founder and Director of the Keston Institute in Oxford. Much of the research contained in this detailed volume was produced as a result of a three-year project on proselytism worldwide sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Following a very competent introduction by John Witte surveying the topic, the rest of the book is divided into three main parts, with contributions from highly respected authorities representing a variety of perspectives. Part One deals with “Religious Perspectives” and provides excellent historical sections dealing with the Orthodox Church and foreign Christians (Philip Walters) and the positive role of the Orthodox Church in recent historical events in the former Soviet Union (James Billington). The perspective of the Orthodox hierarchy on foreign missionaries (Metropolitan Kirill) is shared, as is an evangelical Protestant perspective (Mark Elliott and Anita Deyneka). There are important articles on interreligious relations (Aleksandr Shchipkov), Catholicism and Russia (Sergei Filatov and Lyudmila Vorontsova), the Muslims and proselytism (Donna Arzt), relations between Judaism and the Russian Orthodox (Yuriy Tabak), the Seventh-day Adventists (Mikhail Kulakov), and recent charitable activities in Russia (Michael Bourdeaux).

Part Two focuses on “Legal Perspectives” by giving a historical survey of church and state in Russian history (Firuz Kazemzadeh), a thorough analysis of the new 1997 law on “Freedom of Conscience” (T. Jeremy Gunn), a Western legal scholar’s defense of special privileges for the Russian Orthodox Church (Harold Berman), and a survey of federal and provincial legislation dealing with religious freedom in Russia (Lauren Homer and Lawrence Uzzell).

Part Three, “Signposts for a New Way,” presents recommendations to American missionaries from an American convert to Orthodoxy (Lawrence Uzzell), as well as proposed guidelines from an American evangelical missionary (Anita Deyneka).

This book contains a fascinating and informative wealth of materials on an important topic for all who care about the future of Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church, Christian missions, and genuine Christian ecumenism. The problems and difficulties presented cannot be easily untangled, but it is certain that the book itself makes a major contribution towards a more informed understanding of these important issues. 

Dr. Kent R. Hill is a scholar of Russian studies, has lived for extended periods in Russia, and is the author of The Soviet Union on the Brink. Since 1992 he has been president of Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Massachusetts.

“The Battle for Russia’s Souls” first appeared in the March 2000 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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