Exchanging the Red Star for the Cross
Bishop Zivko Lavrentije was based in Hildesheim, Germany during his tenure as the Serbian Orthodox Bishop for Central Europe. Today, he heads the diocese of Sabac-Valjevo in west-central Serbia. Bishop Lavrentije is a leading spokesman of the moderate, internationally-minded wing of Serbian Orthodoxy.
You are chairman of the Yugoslav Bible Society, a position which requires you to cooperate with Protestant leaders. You have consequently been labeled a "Judas" by Serbian nationalists in the press. Why do you nevertheless insist on continuing in this position?
The Bible Societies are the best Christian organizations in the world. They would like to give the Bible to every person, and they don't interfere otherwise. It is a great pleasure and honor for me to make a contribution within such an organization. I have also had some contacts in Yugoslavia with the Gideons. I would like very much to cooperate with all those involved in the distribution of the Good News. I have cooperated extensively with [the Baptist theology professor Aleksander] Birvis in Belgrade as well as with some Pentecostals.
A Baptist woman in Belgrade told me a few months ago that she reckons with a new period of persecution, coming this time from Orthodox circles. Can you understand her fears?
Our people are not educated enough about religion. They don't know what Orthodoxy means. They also don't know the meaning of the so-called "sects". We would like to explain this to them. Also, we have people among the clergy who are completely extreme. For them even the Catholics are schismatics.
For me, there is another criteria: The World Council of Churches (WCC) distinguishes between sects, and those churches who recognize the cross, the Holy Trinity and Jesus. Some groups such as the Satanists and Jehovah's Witnesses thereby remain outside the fold. But we cooperate with those who accept the main dogmas of Christianity and are members of the WCC. We cannot take Holy Communion together, but we can cooperate, especially in the distribution of the Bible.
Atanasije, the Bishop of Mostar now living in exile in the Serb-controlled city of Trebinje, vehemently attacked the mayor of Trebinje a year ago for tolerating the work of the Adventists in his city. How do you regard the Adventists? They are the largest Protestant denomination in Bosnia.
They are [at least indirectly] members of the WCC. They are accepting of the Holy Cross, they accept Jesus and the Holy Trinity.
There have been a multitude of problems in Novi Sad (northern Serbia) between evangelical groups attempting to do evangelistic work and the Orthodox. What can we as free church people and Baptists do to help reduce these tensions?
Be correct and restrict yourselves to your religious mission. I know of people who have added their own tracts to humanitarian parcels telling others to believe so and so. This has made some of our people very cautious. They say such donors are not concerned about humanitarian care, only about the spreading of propaganda. But believe me, I know the Reformed people in Novi Sad and we cooperate closely. I also know the Lutheran Bishop [Andrej] Beredi very well.
But there are some [Orthodox] extremists, who do not know their own faith. And if they do not have Christian love, then they cannot understand others. They cannot even understand me, a Serb bishop, and they criticize me. So how can we expect them to understand someone who is coming from overseas and is completely new?
Would you not agree that many Orthodox are Orthodox on paper only? They have no faith, or only a very dead faith.
Oh yes, and we have more problems with them than with the atheists. When these people were still atheists, we knew each other and what we could expect from one another. Now, these people have exchanged the red star for the cross. They have changed on the outside, but not on the inside. These new members, soldiers for ex., need time to come to Christ. I am very sorry to say that not even 10% of our soldiers or teachers can pray "Our Father" with conviction. They do not yet know the ABC's of Christianity. We need to prepare them, but that will take time.
Would you agree that Orthodox clergy need to become better informed about other churches?
Absolutely, because we do not have enough connections with Christians around the world. First of all, we have not been very active in the World Council of Churches, especially since the embargo was imposed several years. I am editor of "Misionar", a religious magazine, and I receive no information from other churches, not even from Zagreb or Ljubljana. We are very, very poorly informed about Christian life outside our country.
Could you envision Protestants working together with the Orthodox to missionize people in Yugoslavia?
There is a Catholic charismatic lay movement which originated in Spain 20 years ago. They now have about 200,000 members. I was in Loreto, Italy 20 days ago for a meeting with 20,000 boys and girls. They would like to organize something in Serbia, and I am in agreement with that.
I can help you in my diocese, but I am not responsible for other diocese. Some bishops are completely exclusive. But for me I would say: "You are welcome."
Dr. William Yoder
Berlin, November 21, 1995
Written for "Religion in Eastern Europe" in Rosemont PA, 885 words
Note from October 2021: Born in 1936, Bishop Lavrentije (Trifunovic) served from 1973 until 1989 as the first Serb-Orthodox bishop for Central Europe. After that, he was bishop for Sabac and Valjevo in Serbia proper. Since 2006 he has served strictly as the bishop of Sabac, which is located 80 km west of Belgrade.