Bringing Together Past and Future
A conversation with Rev. Gennady Sergienko
M o s c o w -- Gennady Andreyevich Sergienko was born in Moscow in 1957 and grew up in its historic Central Baptist Church. He received a Masters degree from Dallas Theological Seminary (1994) and is now a doctoral candidate in New Testament Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena/California. He has been a lecturer at several Moscow theological schools and Rector of one. He is presently Senior Pastor of Moscow’s Second Baptist Church.
Our department hopes this interview will be followed by others with church leaders of various persuasions.
Brother Sergienko: What has the theological transition of Russian Baptists since 1990 been like? What was it like before, what has it become today?
The historical changes of the 1990s opened the doors for unprecedented opportunity. But they also presented Russian Baptists with new challenges. Regretfully, many of our believers used the open doors to escape from the country entirely. In my estimation, the number of evangelical emigrants amounts to hundreds of thousands. Emigration had its negative impact in that it impoverished the leadership structure of the Baptist Union – even on the highest level. I pay tribute to those who had the courage to stand up to the challenge and take charge. Yet they had to learn how to do things while already on-the-job. “Learning by doing”, they say.
As is well-known, the 1990’s brought with them a massive influx of foreign missionaries of all persuasions. This forced the leadership of the Baptist Union to choose new partners. From my perspective, an unfortunate choice was made in favour of North American, fundamentalist-type missions and churches, which formally were not Baptist in name or belief. This was lamentable because it severed the traditional ties and relationships with the world-wide Baptist family. It is ironical that we basically rejected the hand of fellowship extended by organisations which had supported us during the communist era.
Could Russian Baptists really have chosen otherwise?
The choice made was understandable in a way, for Russian Baptists historically always leaned toward the more conservative branch of Protestantism. The insanity and tragedy of the Stalin era alone made one read the Bible through the grid of the Apocalypse! The atmosphere of new freedoms and the absence of outward censorship finally gave us a chance to say aloud what we really believed. No wonder there was a natural linkage to groups which shared a similar belief-system and values. Especially impressive for us was the fact that the spokespersons of these groups bore revered titles such as “Doctor” and “Professor” just as the “liberals” did. Now, 20 years on, we can see the results of this cooperation.
You have spoken to me about the work in Russia of “The Master’s College” (and Seminary) from Santa Clara/California. This institution is headed by Dr. John F. MacArthur and its Russian branch is called “Samara Preachers’ Institute and Seminary”.
There also have been good impacts, but now I have in mind primarily the negative impact of our US-sponsored education. There is a clear trend toward a more authoritarian and exclusivist paradigm. Take, for example, the graduates of the Samara preacher’s school. When returning to their congregations, they often cause serious problems leading to splits. I’m referring in particular to several regions in South Russia (Rostov), Bashkortostan (the region around Ufa) and the Omsk region of Siberia. The young neophytes (proselytes) return to their sending churches after one or two years of training with “bad news”: The faith of their forefathers was deficient - they did not adhere to the right set of doctrines.
This rhetoric is occurring in the name of a solemn devotion to the inerrancy of Scripture. This is where the toughest challenge lies, for Russian Baptists always have taken the Bible seriously!
But now we are being forced to use a terminology stemming from a totally different historic milieu. Under the slogan of “inerrancy” of Scripture we now understand the inerrant interpretation of Scripture. But a fundamentalist reading of the Bible suppresses the multiple voices of Scripture in favour of one particular interpretation, one particular set of doctrines. And if you do not share that view, then you are out! The purpose of education is reduced to indoctrination. Scripture, instead of being a witness to Jesus Christ, becomes a means of forcing ideological commitment to a particular worldview. I wonder whether in the minds of these preachers, many of whom once embraced communist ideology, Christianity is not simply a substitution of new words for old thinking.
Although Russian Baptists did not have much of an exposure to “theology” in the past, they did have a clear, Christ-centred approach to the Scripture. Isn’t this the hermeneutical key which the Risen Jesus gave to his disciples in Luke 24? Our strongest point in former times is now being perceived as a deficiency - our forefathers allegedly “did not know better”. Yes, our forefathers were mostly illiterate and simple people. But they knew Jesus and laid down their lives for that commitment. Now we are buying into the ever-present temptation to find a road to a superior form of knowledge. We have the tempting possibility of latching onto the ultimate “truth”. Paul, however, was not embarrassed to say that our knowledge is partial, that we do not see as clearly as we would like (1 Cor 13). He even regards claims to a superior knowledge or gifts as signs of spiritual immaturity (1 Cor 13:11). So we have the unfortunate development within the Russian evangelical community that each tiny, individual group claims to have exclusive access to the truth! This certainly does not help win people for Christ, nor does it support chances of a constructive dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church.
What other tendencies are characteristic for this new movement?
I would mention first of all the elevated role of the leader. The priesthood of all believers is being substituted by the authority of one. And this is logical: If the leader is the one who holds the truth, then an unconditional submission to his vision and will is only natural.
Secondly, small groups are the sole emphasis of church life. Small groups are a sound principle in the creation of church life - except for those instances when they occur to the detriment of all other ministries. I have witnessed situations in which the local pastor lost the ability to communicate with his members because they were accountable exclusively to the leader of their small groups. On any small issue, they had to consult their leader. Small groups are then used to construct a clearly sectarian type of structure, in which everyone is tied into a chain of subordination. Human-controlled efforts substitute for life in the Spirit.
Thirdly, there is an emphatic negation of any role of women in church life. And I mean not just the office of teaching, but literally any role. Women are allotted passive positions as submissive creatures under male leadership. This kind of chauvinism is something new even in our male-dominated society.
Where do we go from here? What are the changes of developing an indigenous theology?
Regretfully, the ground has not yet been laid for the development of an indigenous, Russian Baptist theology. As I said before: We are not ready for an education which is more than indoctrination. We do not realise that in doing so we are continuing to “sing” in a well-adapted but foreign voice. The accent betrays its country of origin. No wonder we have suffered such a loss through emigration! Who would want to continue living in an adulterous, hopeless Babylon? We have remained in essence a marginalized, self-contained religious minority unable to engage in a meaningful, contextual reading of Scripture. For that reason, we feel more at home in first-century Palestine than in the realities of modern Russia. We read the Bible in order to escape the challenging realities of the present. But the calling of the people of God always was to bring together past and present. That is the prophetic task of the church today, and we have to ask ourselves whether we are prepared for that challenge.
Interviewed by: William Yoder, Ph.D.
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Moscow, 22 November 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 nor of this department. Release #09-36, 1.345 words, 8.207 keystrokes and spaces.