Ukraine's Baptists have Become Very Public

Ukrainian Baptists Celebrate in Kiev


Resurgence and continuity on the 400th anniversary of the Baptist movement




M o s c o w / K i e v – Ukrainian Baptists have like no other East European Baptist union made a successful leap into the public limelight. That was apparent during the four-day-long celebrations in the Ukrainian capital marking the 400th birthday of the global Baptist movement. Beginning on 27 August, a consultation involving 250 representatives from 26 countries took place in Kiev’s Central Baptist Church. The most memorable event was a moving, three-hour-long celebration involving 5.000 participants in the state-owned national palace “Ukraine” on 30 August. Even the choir consisted of 370 singers. Eyes moistened as the hosts used multimedia to review the long years of tribulation under communist rule. “Who could have guessed!” exclaimed the Lviv-based Catholic news service RISU. “The world did not reckon that after decades of persecution and repression, that after grave trauma and humiliation, Baptists would arise anew to speak calmly of their faith.”


The Kiev event celebrated both the continuity and resurgence of the Slavic Baptist movement. As had been done at the large youth festival in Odessa a year earlier, the closing communion contained symbolic elements demonstrating the passing of the torch to the younger, post-Soviet generation. In an interview with RISU, Grigory Komendant, the retired President of the “All-Ukrainian Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists”, stressed continuity. Methods can change, but “the young must understand that they are no pioneers. Principles of faith exist which dare not be revised through a liberal or conservative approach.” Victor Hamm (Winnipeg), an evangelist for the “Billy Graham Evangelistic Association”, added: “We stand on the shoulders of our fathers in the faith, who were here before we were. My father Gerhard Hamm spent entire nights praying with leading non-registered Baptists requesting that the mighty Soviet Union might once again hear loudly-and-clearly the call of the Gospel. That time has come. Let us use the time well to win others for Christ!”


Lubomir Husar of Lviv, Patriarch of the Greek-Catholic church, delivered his greeting in person. But the closing event also included written greetings from State President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko and Kiev’s Lord Mayor Leonid Chernovetsky (a Charismatic). The Baptist Alexander Turchinov, First Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister’s right hand, held a speech at the closing festivities. Yuri Reshetnikov, Baptist and head of the once-feared State Ministry for Religious Affairs, called his church the Ukraine’s fourth-largest denomination. Twenty-nine-year-old Pavel Unguryan (see our release of 18.8.2009), Baptist National Youth Director and member of the national parliament, was a primary organiser of the event.


The impression was left that Ukrainians tend to regard themselves as precursors of the Baptist movement among Slavs. In his interview, Komendant commented on the recent visit to Ukraine of the Moscow Patriarch Kirill and stated: “Kirill does not completely understand the Ukrainian nation. Due to the nature of its territory and influence, Russia could be described as a Slavic-Asian entity. Yet Ukraine is by contrast a truly Slavic country.” Reports on the conference stress the participation of Ukrainian émigrés. A Russian reported - without regarding the Baltics - that in matters of religion, Ukraine and Moldova are the most religiously-free countries of the former USSR.


Numbers were lofted with considerable abandon – representatives usually spoke of 200.000 Ukrainian Baptists. In Kiev, Tony Peck (Prague), General-Secretary of the “European Baptist Federation” (EBF), reported that a fourth of Europe’s 800.000 Baptists are Ukrainian. Komendant stated that the Ukrainian union had already in 2002 passed the British one as Europe’s largest Baptist union. Yet the EBF’s handbook for 2009 lists membership for the “Baptist Union of Great Britain” as 136.777; the “All-Ukrainian Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” – 133.258. Ukraine also has non-registered Baptists and the 10.000-member Baptist “Brotherhood”; yet the United Kingdom also fetes additional Baptist unions and independent Baptist congregations. At the EBF’s all-European anniversary celebrations in Amsterdam in late July (attended by 900), Unguryan had spoken of 40.000 Baptist youth in Ukraine. Yet in Kiev, RISU reported on a youth percentage of 40%, which would be exactly double that amount.


It is stated that total membership of the USSR’s „All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists“ during the 1970s was roughly a million. Yet Yushchenko’s word of greeting on 30 August mentioned that only 3.000 Baptists had survived the era of Stalinist terror. Komendant reported that Ukraine had 90.000 Baptists when its Union became independent of Russia in 1991. Clear is only that significant amounts of growth have indeed occurred.


Matters worthy of consideration on opening day

The necessity of critical self-reflection became apparent on opening day no later than the lecture of Mikhail Ivanov (Moscow), Director of the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” theology department. In his talk he underscored the vital role of freedom of conscience in the formation and thriving of the Baptist movement. He stressed repeatedly that freedom of conscience must be extended to all, including “Pentecostals, Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Krishna and even atheists”. What we demand for ourselves must be extended to others.


Yet this foundation of Baptist theology contradicts the defensive, protective mindset of East European culture. We therefore “are often silent when Charismatic congregations are persecuted” due to the fear that we might subject ourselves to charismatic tendencies. It is much more convenient to reduce freedom of conscience to "freedom for the preaching of the Gospel". Our churches are insufficiently rooted in Baptist teaching. “It is imperative to busy ourselves with the theological consolidation of our congregations, so that we may not even passively continue to support the repression of dissenters.”


The acceptance of alien thinking was mentioned already in the very first lecture on opening day. In it, the Baptist historian and pedagogue Sergey Sannikov (Odessa) described in detail the extent to which the world view and theology of Slavic Baptists at the close of the 19th century were influenced by Prussian Mennonites who had emigrated to Ukraine. The traditional clothing style and the order of church service, church discipline, pacifism, removal from the world and political abstinence are not of Baptist origin, but rather vestiges of Mennonite influence. Sannikov therefore called for shaping a new, decidedly Baptist identity.


Many North American circles would be more than willing to aid the East Europeans in such an endeavour. Yet Rick Warren was criticised by one lecturer for being among the many North Americans who profess a Calvinist understanding of salvation. Eastern Europe has a long tradition of adherence to the Arminian position with its tendency towards “salvation by works”. East Europeans suspect in the Calvinist teaching of unconditional, eternal salvation, which has appeared en force only during the past two decades, a carte blanche for immoral behaviour. This lecturer, Pastor Alexander Sipko from Spokane/Washington, prophesized that persons holding to such a position could experience “a rude awakening“ at the close of their final hours.


In the interview mentioned, ex-President Komendant assured that a „reasonable balance“ between resurgence and tradition could lead to a new consensus between the generations: “Never is only one side guilty.” That left unanswered the difficult question as to the exact point on the value scale at which equilibrium can be achieved.


William Yoder, Ph.D.

Department for External Church Relations, RUECB

Moscow, 18 September 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. Release #09-27, 1.172 words, 7.818 keystrokes and spaces.