31.03.2017

Healthy Debate is Needed

A conversation on the Baptists of Georgia

M o s c o w – Despite controversies, Elimar Brandt of Berlin, a Baptist pastor and long-time director of Christian health-care facilities, see reasons for hope within the Baptist church of Georgia. After five years of post-graduate studies in Oxford/UK, its long-time head, Dr. Malkhaz Songulashvili, returned to Georgia in April 2014. Yet soon he was no longer archbishop: that position is now held by a more conservative colleague, Merab Gaprindshvili.

Even prior to the return from England, a grouping calling itself the Evangelical Baptist Association of Georgia“ had broken off from the mother „Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia“ (EBCG) in October 2013. The Association has roughly 30 congregations and 800 members; the EBCG according to some reckonings may have as few as 2.000 adult members.

„I don’t notice any front between Merab and the other three bishops,“ Pastor Brandt maintains. (Brandt has visited Georgia frequently in the course of the past two decades.) “Merab was and remains a pupil of Malkhaz, who always has been a strong influence on him and Bishop Ilja (Osephashvili). It’s a kind of father-son dispute. I find it very laudable that the (stay-home) bishops did not attempt to resolve everything in Malkhaz’ absence. All sides are attempting to find a way back to each other – that’s my reason for being optimistic. The experiences they have gathered during the course of the controversy have been very challenging and formative.”

Like virtually no other church in the Baptist world, the EBCG takes its own cultural context very seriously. In the Georgian setting for ex., it is unthinkable that a clergyman would serve in a worship service wearing a regular suit and tie. These Baptist clergy therefore wear garments and beards similar to the Orthodox ones; their services include a liturgy with incense and appropriate music. Brandt assures: “They have taken on some of that which is alive in their society. We Baptists have indeed always been partially shaped by that which is prevalent in surrounding society.” John Sundquist, a retired professor of theology for the American Baptist Church, insists: „I know of no other Baptist union or convention in the world that has exegeted its context for ministry as brilliantly and powerfully as (the EBCG) has.”

Yet the EBCG does not follow the lead of the Orthodox majority on all counts – it is instead a mixture of both Eastern and Western elements. Its fourth bishop happens to be a woman: Rusudan Gotsiridze. Despite similar dress, she is readily apparent on any group photo of Georgian clergy. And things do not always turn out as one would expect: This bishop has already received a high government medal. “Rusudan has been accepted widely,” Elimar Brandt concludes. “Even government circles consult with her frequently only social issues and she counsels them.” Yet Malkhaz himself is no feminist; Brandt regards him as playing the role of a traditional husband in his own marriage. “But he remains convinced that all persons should have an equal opportunity to play a leading role in church life.” 

Pastor Brandt concludes: “I know of no European country in which the Baptist voice is more important to society than in Georgia. Even the national president consults with them. There are only a few of them, but their Gospel-based spirit of peace has given them a strong position.” Malkhaz is known for approaching Muslims, among others, in an attitude of friendship. In a worship service on Maundy Thursday in 2014, he washed the feet of a prominent imam.

Caution: Commentary
In my opinion, that EBCG’s movement westwards towards the Protestant and ecumenical mainstream has uncoupled it from the Slavic Baptist unions of Eastern Europe. Elimar Brandt has a different view, for he notes that Bishop Malkhaz deals intensely with the Orthodox world, the church of the East. Yet Brandt concedes that “Malkhaz is aware of that fact that he is not receiving any invitations from Russian congregations”. One could conclude: The EBCG’s cultural orientation is Eastern, but its political orientation is Western.

„He lacks theological give-and-take“, Pastor Brandt adds. “Eastern Europe has few highly-trained Baptist theologians willing to dialogue with Malkhaz. He’s lacking a good counterpart capable of criticising and correcting. And we don’t need people throwing around traditional, well-travelled, one-size-fits-all arguments. We need true dialogue.”

I believe the objective dare not be making a point or somehow defeating the other side. Anyone willing to learn must be able to tolerate differences. Growth and maturation cannot occur without engaging the dissenter. The frequent tendency to decry Malkhaz and his church as mentally unstable is the quickest – and least Christian – means of smothering vital dialogue. That perpetuates stagnation. A conversation with Russian Protestants in this context could be significant and even fruitful.

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Jehovah’s Witnesses on the Verge of being Banned
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Vitaly Vlasenko comments on the development

In a statement published by Moscow’s “Portal-Credo” news service on 24 March, Rev. Vitaly Vlasenko, the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists’ “Director for External Church Affairs” since 2006, brands the very recent de-legalisation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an “unreasonable and dangerous step, for the Russian constitution guarantees every citizen the free profession of his/her faith. It does not state which faith is correct or incorrect. This kind of precedent is therefore highly frightening and raises the question of who’s next.”

He continued: The Ministry of Justice “is beginning to distinguish between proper and improper believers. What will prevent these same officials tomorrow from condemning, say, the Evangelical Christians-Baptists, (Orthodox) Old Believers or Catholics? I think this approach is fundamentally wrong.” Nearly all Protestant denominations have condemned the new legislation.

Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses number roughly 165.000; the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists boasts less than 80.000 members.

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Willi Peters has Died
A note for the Mennonites

Andrey Peters, pastor of a small Mennonite congregation in Novosibirsk, informs us that his father, Vassily (Willi) Peters (born 1940), passed away on 22 April 2016. Willy had been a lay leader among the „Church Mennonites“ (not the Mennonite-Brethren) in the region since the early 1970’s. The father had been ailing for the past decade and Andrey (born 1970) has served for years as a pastor in his stead. Andrey continues to hold monthly church services in the villages of Ordynsk und Lukovka.

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William Yoder, Ph.D.
Smolensk, 30 March 2017
kant50(at)web(dot)de”

A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #17-01.