The Public Council of Baptist denominations meets in Moscow
M o s c o w – The “Public Council” of Russia’s roughly 10 Baptist denominations will need to shift from the past to the future. That was one conclusion of its 10-hour-long session in the Moscow offices of the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” (RUECB) on 23 October. Conversation in the initial years since its founding in June 2006 had focused on past events and the necessity of reconciliation. Following the meeting, Dr. Peter Sautov (Moscow), President of the 48-congregation-strong “Russian Association of Independent Evangelical Churches” (RANETs in Russian), reported: “Younger generations are not interested in issues such as the split of the Baptist Union in 1961. That is one of the reasons why we need new topics that show us the way into the future.”
He continued: „Until now, tradition and practice have been the determining factors for Baptists – not theology.” He reported that the founding of his church association in 1994 was caused not least of all by the rules and regulations in matters of detail being offered by members of the Baptist Union. “We for ex. have only one sermon in our worship services – not three.” The talk by RUECB-President Yuri Sipko expressed a similar concern: “We have gathered today in order to view our global mandate in a broader fashion than we have been accustomed to by the limiting traditions of our congregations. Each of us is in need of an internal reformation, a kind of internal cleansing.”
Peter Sautov locates a common foundation for all in the Bible-centred theology typical for Christians of Baptist persuasion. Concentrating on the Bible will allow Baptists to peel off layers of form and tradition and launch them down a new future path. According to him, the Council also decided on this occasion to found a working group of up to 10 theologians given the task of rediscovering the true core of Scripture. The historic “Seven Principles” of the Baptist faith (authority of Scripture, priesthood of all believers, separation of church and state, independence of the local congregation, communion only for believers, etc.) should serve as general orientation for this group. These principles could also serve as a common foundation for all denominations of Baptist conviction. At the meeting, Mikhail Ivanov, the RUECB’s Department Director for Theology and Catechism, added: “There will be no renewed life without renewed thinking. Every practical new step is preceded by renewed thinking. Precisely for this reason, there can be no Christianity without theology.”
Sautov assured: “We must find a new theological unity that will propel us forward.” A new theological consensus should lead into a new, joint programme of action for the Baptists of all denominations. This new programme would bring Baptists more strongly into the public eye: “We want to build bridges to political circles.” Along with the National Prayer Breakfast, the Public Council desires to become the public voice of Russian Protestants. Yet the Prayer Breakfast encompasses circles going far beyond the reach of Baptist ones.
Dr. Sautov believes that VSEKh (“All-Russian Cooperation of Evangelical Christians”), a creation of Alexander Semchenko, should not be regarded strictly as a parallel, competing organisation. Semchenko is a businessman and Bishop of the 26-congregation-strong “Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians” (Prokhanovtsi), which still belongs officially to the Public Council. VSEKh also encompasses a wider circle than strictly Baptist ones. Yet Sautov believes even Semchenko himself cannot point to a clear theological difference between his organisation and the Public Council. The differences are to be found instead in politics and in personnel decisions. VSEKh is known for its strong loyalty to the present Russian administration.
Since last February, Alexei Smirnov has served as Secretary of the Public Council. He is a leading pastor within the “Association of Brethren Congregations” (ABC) based in Dedovsk near Moscow and Director of the RUECB’s Pastoral Department.
The Stress is on Continuity
Unregistered Baptists elect a new President
At the sixth congress of the „International Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists“ in Tula on 7 and 8 October, Nikolay Stepanovich Antonyuk (from Timoshovsk, Krasnodar region) was elected and confirmed as its new President. His deputy is Gennady Sergeevich Yefremov from St. Petersburg. This makes Antonyuk the official successor to the church’s long-time “patriarch”: Gennady Kryuchkov, who headed the Union from 1965 until his death in July 2007. The two younger men had been named to their positions early in 2008 on a provisional basis. Seven-hundred-fifty delegates and guests had come to the Tula church for this regularly-scheduled convention, which was held the last time at the same location exactly four years ago.
This Union broke with the large “All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” in August 1961 and was long known under the name of “Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists”. Its members were also called “Initativniki” or the “underground church”, for they (until this very day) have always rejected government registration. For this and other reasons, the Union is presently confronting strong state opposition in places such as Kazakhstan, Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.
This Union is also facing internal difficulties. Its official, fresh report from Tula (see „iucecb.com“) states: “We presently are relatively free, but sin is still active. The present danger is that the enemy is attempting to implant liberalism into our circles – which means a too lenient attitude towards sin. The longing for entertainment and wealth is on the increase.” The report continues: “The world is making inroads among our youth. It is changing its outward appearance and (the world) is enticing it with many and various forms of amusement.” Yet resolutions stressed continuity: The church’s servants “found the brotherhood’s way to be good and its intention to continue the same course it had taken during the leadership of Gennady Konstantinovich (Kryuchkov).” The report states in closing: “The irrevocable course of the brotherhood was confirmed once more.” Kryuchkov, the father of nine, had spent the years from 1970 until 1990 conspiratively and on the run, successfully avoiding capture.
Growth for this Union peaked around 1966 when it listed a membership of 155.000. The present report lists a total membership of 70.000 in approximately 3.000 congregations and groups within the entire territory of the former Soviet Union – plus 42.500 children. Declining numbers are due above all to emigration. The registered Unions of Evangelical Christians-Baptists have approximately 310.000 members in the same territory. (Which assumes a Ukrainian membership of 150.000 in the two registered Baptist Unions.) Applying the same proportion between the number of congregations and members results in an International Union membership of 26.000 just within the present Russian Federation. The RUECB, Russia's largest, unified Protestant church, represents approximately 80.000 adult members in 1.750 congregations and groups.
Yet one dare not forget that CIS-countries also possess hundreds of autonomous Baptist congregations not belonging to any of the denominations stated in this article. The International Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists has observer status in Moscow’s Public Council.
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Photo: Dr. Peter Sautov
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