The Church in Eastern Europe

I find that American Mennonites have a deep concern for Christians in communist countries. But when I conversed with them on a recent furlough about the church in Eastern Europe, I found they possessed very few concrete facts.


We can gain a clearer understanding of capitalistic and socialist societies if we emphasize similarities rather than differences, for they are similar in terms of ecology, economics, industry and military concerns. So I believe Christians are called upon to step between the two warring factions.


Similarities between the churches of East and West can also be noted. East European evangelical churches are weak - not because of government pressure - but for the same reasons as they are weak in America: lukewarmness, legalism, stress on the unimportant, power politics, strife between generations, immorality, middle-class self-contentment. It isn't the state, for instance, which is keeping the East German (German Democratic Republic) Baptists from doing a better periodical or having a more dynamic church life. We Christians set our own limits.


Sociologically, there are also similarities. Both in East and West, evangelical Christians are mostly from the working class or rural backgrounds. Both demand more consumer goods and tend to have more money than they actually need. The spiritual problems of a congregation in the Ukraine and one in Johnstown, Pennsylvania are essentially the same. llsegret Fink, an East German theologian, says we Christians are our own worst enemies. No force outside the church can destroy her. The enemy is always along, she says, no matter where we live, for he resides in our hearts.


lt is misleading to view East Europeans as members of a persecuted church. Any periodical is extremely one-sided if it reports only of state persecutions when describing church life in the East. Paul Wee says we must stress the opportunity Christians have in communist societies rather than their persecution. The Russian Orthodox Church once sat in the courts of the mighty and was co-responsible for the oppression of the Russian government. Then came the revolution. Christians who survived were given a new chance to live a liberated witness, for their witness had been freed from the palace. Crawling out of the rubble is never pleasant, but it can be a healing experience.


So after World War II, new opportunities were offered for the church to again become a servant church. I believe that the Lutheran Church is viewed more positively now than when she was still in power. Werner Krusche, a Lutheran bishop and evangelical in the GDR, said recently: "The worst repression of religious freedom has occurred in 'Christian' societies. Numerous small European churches felt therefore truly liberated through the coming of Marxist governments." I surmise that if Polish evangelicals would create a daring and prophetic church today, the country's largest church would oppose them more than the government.


We must be wary of those who paint sensational pictures of persecution. My friends in Poland, in the GDR and in Czechoslovakia do not sneak around corners evading the police on their way to secret meetings. They walk down the street and enter the front door, as does anyone in America. We can meet in an open and very normal fashion. But the sensationalists are misleading. They can make a word of greeting given "in a church behind the lron Curtain" sound like a heroic, daring adventure. If life could only be so exciting


Facts, too, can be embellished. Wurmbrand's organization reported in 1977 that a certain "Bishop B." had been tortured by the GDR. I assume the report refers to Pastor Oskar Brüsewitz, who burned himself to death in Zeitz in August 1976. Numerous Christian press releases claim that young Christians in the GDR are denied a chance to study and are being forced en masse to become grave diggers. This probably refers to a young man who may have refused to participate in semi-obligatory state functions and was denied a chance to study because of "insufficient societal involvement" - a typical problem. Thereupon he apparently chose to work in a cemetery.


In the Baptist church in East Berlin, which I attended until recently, two persons started medical school last fall. One is the pastor's daughter. From 20 to 30 persons in this congregation have university degrees. Others have refused member ship in the government youth organization and were still allowed to study.


Socialist governments are presently most concerned about winning Christians for their political cause, not about destroying their faith. Governments are having a difficult time creating hatred among Christians for all major "capitalists." In the West, such hatred toward Marxists seems to come a bit more naturally.


Western Christians should be very cautious about giving money to scandal-ridden East missions. One should be wary of any groups whose finances and policies are not scrutinized by any denominational bodies. Money can't solve many church problems and I feel East missions place too much faith in it. Americans are tempted to believe that the more money they give, the more the receiving body will be strengthened. But giving to the East beyond a necessary minimum could foster parasitism.


Our help should be in terms of persons. There is enough hard currency in the churches in the East; we need to be more concerned about increasing the quality of witness, not the quantity. Is it not ludicrous for churches torn by inner dissension to be concerned primarily about evangelism? East European evangelicals must get their own houses in order.


We Christians should see the major tenets of Marxism and use them as a basis for dialogue. Christians working in Marxist countries should be concerned about racism, selfishness, joblessness, and colonialism.


Perhaps this is where Mennonites can help. We need to develop a local, non-American evangelical identity. We should be concerned about indigenous church growth and encourage European Christians to do their own writing and composing, not just translate from English. This approach would be an alternative to that of some of the East missions, who unwittingly increase Eastern dependence on the West.


Mennonites should think in terms of long-range, daily, person-to-person contacts. We should live as aliens or nationalized citizens. There are virtually no countries where Christians from the First or Third World are not allowed to live. Nothing can be changed overnight, least of all by visiting Westerners.


Those who are interested in dialogue but are unable to live in the East should cultivate long-term friendships with East Europeans, paying them occasional, low-key, humble visits. They should read literature that presents a different view of socialism from what the American press gives them. Christians must treat Marxists with personal respect. lt is best to forget all tags and see them as persons. Christians who tune out "communists" are most like those communists who can't stand Christians.


Communism comes in many conflicting shades. Many of the greatest enemies of Stalinism are themselves communists. East European governments are also proud of their religious tolerance. Are they in general less tolerant than Americans are of communists? Let us be peacemakers without pooh-poohing sins and differences. What a contradiction it would be for us to throw oil on the fires of America's militarists! Let us stress sameness and opportunity when referring to churches in the East. lt will help us all obtain a truer, more accurate picture.              


Bill Yoder

Lodz/Poland, approx. 1 November 1978


Appeared in the Mennonite “Missionary Messenger” from Pennsylvania in January 1979, 1.215 words


I (Yoder) studied in socialist Poland from June 1978 to April 1980, living in Berlin-West before and after that period.


Notes from May 2022:

Ilsegret Fink was the spouse of the well-known, East Berlin theology professor Heinrich Fink (1935-2020). She is apparently still residing in Berlin-Karlshorst (eastern Berlin). Her statement was published in 1967.


The Lutheran pastor Paul A. Wee sill resides as a pensioner in Alexandria/Virginia.


Werner Krusche (1917-2009) moved from the West to the GDR in 1954. He was the Lutheran bishop in Magdeburg from 1968 to 1983.


The Lutheran Richard Wurmbrand (1909-2001) was amnestied from Romania to Norway in 1964. Three years later he formed the East mission now known as the “Voice of the Martyrs”. He died in Torrance/California.