Are We a Hyphen or an "And"?
Who are the Evangelical Christians within the RUECB?
M o s c o w – Who precisely are the “Evangelical Christians” within the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” (RUECB)? We Baptists ourselves sometimes add to the general confusion. The Russian portion of the webpage of the RUECB’s Moscow seminary (www.moscowseminary.org) for ex. refers correctly to “Evangelical Christians-Baptists”, but the English portion of the site is entitled “Union of Evangelical Christians and Baptists”. Is our denomination a hyphen or an “and”? Are we one joint hybrid confession, or are we two distinct confessions? We are probably misnamed, for the several leaders I asked believed “and” was a more appropriate description. Dr. Alexei Bychkov (born 1928), General-Secretary of the “All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” from 1971-1992 and a Baptist church pastor after that, again describes himself as an Evangelical Christian. “I initially understood myself as an Evangelical Christian. But as leader of the entire Union, I lost that identity.”
Evangelical Christians and Baptists never merged into a signal denomination until 1944, when – under less than voluntary circumstances – the “All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” was formed. During the years of repression after 1944, the relationship of the two confessions could perhaps most readily be described as a hyphen. Yet in the years since Perestroika, an awareness of confessional distinctiveness has gathered new strength. Numerous groups distanced themselves entirely from the All-Union Council. Two of the 10 denominations now making up the “Public Council” of Baptist-style churches label themselves “Evangelical Christian”. Generally, Evangelical Christians have tended to be more urban, better-educated, more socially-minded and more ecumenical than their more-numerous Baptist compatriots. Yet the Baptist Alexander Tsutserov, now Rector of “Moscow Evangelical Christian Seminary”, defines Evangelical Christians simply as “theologically conservative. They support verbal inspiration and the infallibility of Scripture.”
Evangelical-Christian history is closely tied to the personage of Ivan Prokhanov (1869-1935), who grew up in a Molokan family in Vladikavkas and joined the Baptists in 1887. He later moved to St. Petersburg, joined the Evangelical Christians and headed the movement from 1908 to 1928. He struggled unsuccessfully to unite the Baptists and Evangelical Christians; the unity of all evangelicals was a constant theme of his work. He is known for sayings such as: "In essentials unity, in secondary things freedom, and in everything love." He even went beyond the evangelicals in his search for Christian unity. After the imprisonment of Patriarch Tikhon in 1922, he reached out to and expressed solidarity with his former oppressor, the Russian Orthodox Church. For a limited period prior to 1928, Prokhanov even promoted a form of Christian socialism.
Yet today, this movement’s profile is diluted and its name may on occasion serve simply as an escape route for Protestant groups no longer willing to call themselves “Baptist”. Another example of the same phenomenon is the tendency of Pentecostal churches to label themselves “Evangelical”. This often occurs to the dismay of neighbouring Lutherans. Even though the fundamentalist and separatist theology of many ethnic-German Baptists from Russia now living in Germany – the “Aussiedler” – places them far from the native-Russian, Evangelical Christian camp, some have resorted to calling themselves “Evangelical Christians” (Evangeliumschristen). This is done largely to avoid confusion with native German Baptists, whom the Aussiedler regard as theologically liberal. Tsutserov claims there may now be only within Russia as many as 20 confessional groups calling themselves “Evangelical Christian”. Obviously, “Evangelical-Christian” is both a specific denomination as well as a generic term roughly equivalent to the adjective “Protestant”.
“Evangelical Christians” have suddenly become visible in Russia. A life-long Baptist until February 2008, Moscow businessman Alexander Semchenko held a conference with nearly a 1.000 attendees in a Moscow hotel in late April 2009 celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Prokhanov-headed “All-Russian Evangelical Christian Union”. Semchenko can be readily accused of using the Evangelical Christian name as an excuse and lever to create organisations parallel to those of the RUECB. Yet he is more entitled to the term than many, for he was named Bishop of the tiny “Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians” last year.
Moscow Evangelical Christian Seminary
Initially, I thought I had picked the wrong address for gathering information on the Evangelical Christians when I visited “Moscow Evangelical Christian Seminary” in the north of the city. Despite its name, its Rector informed me at the outset that his institution had always been an interdenominational one. Their website (www.moscowseminary.ru) also stresses the ecumenical nature of its student body. Its 80 students (35 of whom study full-time and on-location) are 40% Baptist, 32% Pentecostal/Charismatic, 15% Evangelical Christian, 6% Methodist and 3% both Nazarene and Presbyterian.
Thanks to financial support from the Greenwood/Indiana-based “OMS International” mission, Alexei Bychkov and Vitaly Kulikov (1936-2007), editor of the now-defunct “Bratsky Vestnik” magazine, were able to found the seminary in 1993. Bychkov stresses that the institution had strong Orthodox ties from the outset and calls the Orthodox visionary Alexander Men – who was murdered in 1990 - one of the institution’s founding spirits. Four Orthodox professors have served on staff up to the present.
The interdenominational thrust builds a strong supporting column in this seminary’s bid for survival. Tsutserov calls his school Moscow’s sole interdenominational seminary and states: “We propose that denominations such as the Baptists come join us. We believe 70% of our teaching is truly interdenominational in character, and we are very willing to let instructors from the various denominations teach the remaining 30% to their own students. There is no need to waste funds and add a fifth wheel – we can supply the basics. Everything is in place. We have gone to all the trouble and obtained permits for everything including the fire code and hygiene. We have paid all taxes. It would be a win-win situation for everyone. The beauty is that we do not attempt to ‘convert’ anyone; small churches feel free to entrust their students to our care.” Obviously, the seminary does not teach adult baptism to Presbyterians or Lutherans. But the question of who-whom still remains regarding the unavoidable and painful process of shrinkage: Which seminaries will be closing their doors to help the remainder to survive?
It is not coincidental that I have used the term “ecumenical” in this text. It is precisely the word Pastor Bychkov chose to describe the orientation of his seminary. And this is where “Moscow Evangelical Christian Seminary” indeed does reflect the Evangelical Christian heritage: its profound interest in fraternal, interdenominational and ecumenical relationships.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Moscow/Berlin, 28 April 2009
A release of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of RUECB-leadership. May be published freely. Release #09-14, 1.057 words, 7.183 keystrokes and spaces.
Note from October 2020: Alexey (or Alexei) Bychkov died after a long illness in 2015. Today,
Tsutserov's "Moscow Evangelical Christian Seminary" may be Russia`s most-recognized Protestant seminary.