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When Baptists became Pentecostals

No Return to the Cradle

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A report on Tushino Evangelical Church

 

Commentary

 

M o s c o w – In 1992, a congregational plant in the north-western district of Tushino began as a hopeful outreach of Moscow’s “mother hen”: the historic “Central Baptist Church”. But by 2002 Tushino was no longer a Baptist congregation. What began as a cell group meeting in Pastor Alexander Kuznetsov’s flat, had grown into a full-fledged Charismatic congregation. Tushino was a particularly big loss for the Baptist movement, for its impressive congregation (today roughly 400) also sported a large church building – a great rarity in space-starved Moscow.

 

The disappearance of Tushino Baptist Church is particularly painful because its leaders were the offspring of Central Baptist. Kuznetsov (born 1960) and his assistant, Andrey Petrov, were both active there as youth leaders. Alexander’s father, Alexey Kuznetsov, became the first pastor of the Tushino congregation; son Alexander was ordained a Baptist minister there in 1994. Past members of the Tushino congregation still speak warmly of Alexey Kuznetsov. One of its former leaders states: “Alexander’s father was like a father to many of us, too. As long as he was around, he was able to slow the Charismatic trend.” Kuznetsov Senior died in 1997.

 

As the music grew louder and the teaching increasingly Charismatic, Baptists left in droves. One of the church’s deacons, who departed in January 2002, reports: “Our sanctuary had been turned into a discotheque. I cited being a Baptist as my reason for leaving.” By the following year, well over half of the congregation had departed. Today, the Tushino congregation retains only a small number of its original members. Eighty of the 200 who exited formed a Baptist congregation in a nearby basement. That group has not fared particularly well and is now meeting at another Baptist church in Khimki just north of Moscow.

 

In 2000, the still-Baptist congregation became the official owner of an impressive meeting place: the one-time culture hall of a bankrupt textile factory. Alexander Kuznetsov stresses that not only Baptists are unaware of the identity of the non-charismatic, North American donors who had made the purchase of the building possible. Even he is only aware of the intermediaries with access to the actual donors. That also is said to have ethical reasons: “The right hand should not know what the left one is doing.” Kuznetsov is adament in pointing out that funds for the purchase of the structure did not pass through his hands. But being that he and Petrov were the actual founders of the congregation and had access to funding for purchase of the building, they were at a distinct advantage when it came to overcoming the desires of the majority.

 

The congregation is proud of its financial self-sufficiency. In a conversation, the Pastor stated: “We do not have any partners in the West. We simply have personal friends – and they consist of a married couple residing in Richmond/Virginia.” The extensive renovations on the church building, which cost roughly half of the original purchase price, were covered by the congregation alone. Kuznetsov insists: “If we only had a traditional understanding of the Holy Spirit (as Baptists do), we would not have achieved our financial goals.”

 

Tushino was expelled from the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (RUECB) in 2002. In May of the following year, the congregation joined the Charismatic, Sergey Ryachovsky-led Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” (ROSKhVE). This large, loosely-structured umbrella supplies its members with government registration and remains a welcome partner for congregations led by strong individuals committed to forging their own, independent path. ROSKhVE-members include Moscow’s “Good News” “megachurch” headed by the Oklahoman ex-Baptist Rick Renner.

Russia’s Charismatic leadership contains many ex-Baptists, and Tushino is no exception. (This is less true of the Pentecostal denomination of Pavel Okara, for it is rooted in the historical movement reaching back to Czarist times.) Tushino’s division is most likely a product of the Baptist tendency to reach verdicts and expell quickly, and the Charismatic tendency to experiment recklessly while disregarding the sensitivities and convictions of others. Baptist deliberations on Tushino were lengthy – but Charismatic churches in general have many worshipers who feel they were unjustly and rapidly excluded from Baptist circles. Alexander Kuznetsov repeatedly stresses that it was the Baptist Union which expelled him and his church – not vice versa. Yet those who left counter that the Pastor was unwilling to make the compromises necessary for continued unity.

 

Tushino’s Senior Pastor adds: “Change is never easy, for its leads to a polarisation of opinion. But without it, one cannot bring a movement forward:” He is very gifted in working with the young. Youth and music festivals, summer camps and youth involvement in the Sunday services have made the congregation especially appealing to the young.

 

Developments since 2003
At the point of the organisational break with the RUECB, Tushino’s position on Charismatic teaching was relatively radical. Dissidents report that the highly-frightening “Toronto Blessing” of 1994 made inroads there. Alexander Kuznetsov is a backer of Alexey Ledyaev, the flamboyant, ethnic-Russian head of the Riga/Latvia-based “Novoe Pokolenie” (New Generation) denomination.

 

Yet segments of the world Charismatic movement are moving towards the evangelical mainstream and Tushino is no exception. Though he continues to defend Benny Hinn elsewhere, Kuznetsov stressed in a conversation with our department that his congregation has never been a friend of the “health-and-wealth” gospel. “There needs to be a balance,” he stated. “We do not say that a believer must in every case be wealthy and healthy.”

 

Speaking in tongues is also no requirement for membership at Tushino. “In contrast to the Pentecostals, we do not believe that only those persons who speak in tongues have received the baptism of the Holy Spirit.” Speaking in tongues “is a matter of one’s personal faith – not a question of church polity”.

 

Kuznetsov generally expresses solidarity with Rick Renner and the embattled, Nigerian-born, Kiev pastor Sunday Adelaja – both of whom have taken on the title of “Apostle”. Yet he distances himself from their teaching of the “Apostolic vertical”. “We believe a brotherly form of leadership is necessary. We do not see a basis for the vertical form of rule as practised by Sunday.”

 

Kuznetsov’s wife, Ludmilla, was ordained a pastor five years ago. Yet he hastens to add that his Belarusian-born spouse is not a deacon and could not become the senior pastor. “But a pastor who works with people, family matters and the service of women can also be a woman.”

 

Alexander Kuznetsov wants his congregation to be a movement, not a denomination. Though he also describes his congregation as Pentecostal, he states: “I still consider myself to be a Baptist. It was not my decision to remove us from the Baptist Union. I think a church like ours could enter the Baptist Union and broaden the spectre” of its ministry. He still feels himself to be neither fish nor fowl: “When we were in the Baptist Union, they regarded us as Charismatics. In ROSKhVE, they now hold us to be Baptists.”

 

In stark contrast to Rick Renner, this Senior Pastor stresses the vital importance of interdenominational cooperation. “No congregation or denomination can afford to be self-sufficient,” he insists. “Without unity of the church, a significant evangelical movement and awakening is impossible.” He is particularly happy about the 40-member “pastor’s club” he recently helped found, for it includes Baptists. From 2005-2009, Tushino’s building was home to the interdenominational, partially-Presbyterian “Russian-American Christian University”.

 

Pastor Kuznetsov admits past mistakes, but he does not regret the fundamental route his congregation has chosen. He finds something very promising in its understanding of the Holy Spirit. Though he makes overtures and not a few Baptist observers desire reconciliation, one-time members regard some form of re-merging as highly unlikely. The pain of loss is still real and they see no indication of Tushino willingness to compromise significantly – wind down its loudspeakers several decibals for ex. - for the sake of church unity. In view of the congregation’s ability to survive on its own, there is no obvious need for Tushino to return to the cradle from which it arose.

William Yoder, Ph.D.
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Moscow, 16 October 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 #09-31, 1.333 words, 8.527 keystrokes and spaces.