The Big Gap in the Middle
Is it money that keeps VSEKh afloat?
M o s c o w – Is more than money keeping the „All-Russian Fellowship of Evangelical-Christians” (VSEKh) afloat? Is it more than the brainchild of a single ambitious person? Will the Fellowship survive the death of its benefactor – or at least the death of his bank account? Such questions were abuzz among observers of its second national conference, held from 26 to 28 April in Moscow’s “Izmailovo Hotel”. The industrialist Alexander Semchenko (born 1948) sank hundreds of thousand of dollars into this congress and its 800 participants. By now, the 2008-founded VSEKh (BCEX) claims to represent 21 small church unions consisting of 665 local congregations.
Its detractors describe the Fellowship as a totally artificial creation. In an interview just prior to the Congress, Alexey Smirnov, President of the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” (RUECB), claimed that VSEKh was attempting to split that which long ago had melted into one. “They call themselves ‘Evangelical-Christians’. For them, we Evangelical Christians-Baptists are suddenly only ‘Baptists’. We cannot serve jointly with the person (Semchenko) who started this until he repents from the splitting and destruction of fellowship he has caused. This is for us a spiritual issue and matter of principle.” The RUECB-President called the new movement “unbiblical”, for it is only an “outgrowth of resentments”.
Clear in any case is that VSEKh has been fishing without prior agreement for personnel in the ponds of other churches. Until 2008, Leonid Kartavenko, Simon Borodin (both from the Missions Department) and even Alexander Semchenko himself had been leaders under RUECB-auspices. Two years later, Pavel Kolesnikov (Baptist pastor in Zelenograd near Moscow) und Irina Metrofanova from the RUECB’s Catechism Department followed suit.
The Congress itself featured passionate supporters of VSEKh. Not a few of its adherents interpret the new Fellowship as a protest against the hierarchic “nomenclature” of the Soviet era, known for making major issues out of minor ones (styles of baptism, clothing and music for ex.). Precisely this “old guard” has championed the Baptist subculture with its long, unwritten lists of rules and regulations. In contrast, VSEKh’s annual Easter concert offers an amazing mixture of party, sound and show. Leonid Kartavenko wrote: „Evangelical-Christians are more open to society, to new people and to methods of bringing the Gospel to them.”
In one conversation, a seasoned guest from the West attacked the fund-centered thinking of recent decades: “One was out to get donations – not to become a partner. One took all the funding one could, but otherwise let it be known that ‘we want to remain as we are’.” Nevertheless, the Unions were so concerned about pleasing Western sponsors that they “lost sight of the internal forces arising at home”. Addressing the absent traditionalists, the guest said: “As soon as the money sources here dry up, you’re off to America. No one believes any more that you really care about Russia. Who can still count on you? The West is fed up with this.“
The big gap in the middle
Russian Protestantism sports a big gap in the middle between „traditionalists“ and the Charismatics. The non-Charismatic VSEKh intends to place itself in that gap between traditional Protestant culture and the Charismatic world. A Western European guest admitted: “The platform for dialogue which Semchenko’s money has created is indeed an artificial one. It’s only a stage. But the concern propping it up is a very real one.”
Alexander Fedichkin, a RUECB-pastor in southern Moscow, cannot accept the claim of artificial creation. He reported that his own longing for an inter-denominational and open evangelistic movement has been around since the 1990s. Since Semchenko does not veer from the essentials of evangelical faith, Fedichkin described his thinking as “very biblical”. This longing, and not Semchenko’s spare cash, is the driving force behind the movement. The Baptist Anatoly Kaluzhny, Senior Pastor of a non-Union, non-Charismatic congregation of 1.500 in Kiev, said it even more clearly: “VSEKh – that’s what I am. It represents precisely that which I also want.”
Those camped on the wide turf between the fronts appeal for a relaxed position on the heated questions dividing Russia’s evangelicals. One observer explained: “As soon as someone speaks about the gifts of the Spirit, he is disqualified as a Pentecostal. But that’s unacceptable: In the long run, we cannot restrict ourselves to anti-Charismatic positions. A serious discussion is OK. We otherwise create aggressiveness and end up losing our young people.”
Though the large, once-Baptist congregation in Tushino (northwest Moscow) belongs to Sergey Ryakhovsky’s Charismatic union, it is participating in VSEKh. One person concluded: ”Congregations such as this one have not found a true home among the Charismatics – in their hearts they remain Baptists.” Is a new, left-wing of the Russian Baptist movement in the making?
For those in the gap, traditional Baptist struggles on the proper form of Baptism have no appeal. Baptism without immersion is par for the course in VSEKh congregations; those baptised as infants are usually accepted as members without rebaptism. Joint evangelistic efforts with the Orthodox are not ruled out.
Some of VSEKh’s member unions regard themselves as Calvinist, but they appear to welcome discussion. One visitor explained: “Even those who think in Calvinist terms do not define themselves by citing their adversaries. In this country, we have in the past always defined ourselves by naming our enemies. But this movement wants to describe itself as being for something. That gives us a new kind of Russian identity.”
A Western observer claimed it was the “old nomenclature” which has hampered inter-denominational efforts such as the Evangelical Alliance, the Lausanne movement and initiatives of Christian businessmen. Yet VSEKh is nearly without Soviet-era leaders.
This observer added that he had attended a Congress meeting dedicated to foreign mission at which the assembled expressed their willingness to fund 30 missionaries for Africa. “Those are fully new tunes!”, he exclaimed. „These people have a completely new level of self-confidence on mission. Things like that have a future because the West will support initiatives such as this one.”
The „All-Ukrainian Union of Associations of Evangelical Christians-Baptists”, one of Europe’s largest Baptist unions, is regarded as a citadel of traditionalism. Its membership peaked a few years ago at 135.000. It was claimed in Moscow that membership is now dropping at the rate of 3.000 per year. Quotes on RUECB-membership range from 72.000 to 80.000 – tendency apparently downward.
Anatoly Kaluzhny prophesied in Moscow: “The Baptist Unions are going to have a hard time. Choices abound – a congregation is now free to choose the union it likes best.” But due to the long-term presence of multiple confessions, the presence of choices is hardly new – new is only the potential size of the VSEKh-alternative.
VSEKh-adherents claim to register an exodus of younger, educated and „innovative“ persons from the RUECB. “Regional associations have been formed by leaders who couldn’t adjust to the administrative style of the old unions. And the old unions never did understand how to keep the innovative forces under their wing.” That person added: “If this experiment VSEKh flies, then a lot will be leaving Evangelical Christian-Baptist circles. The force of innovation supporting these groups is enormous.”
Yet one should not assume that VSEKh plans to manage without Western connections. Southern Baptists from Georgia made a special trip to attend the Moscow congress. Leading representatives of the “Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism”, the „International Federation of Free Evangelical Churches“ (IFFEC) and the German mission “Light in the East” were also present. Missions such as “Wycliffe”, “Radio Teos” and the Latvian “Baznica” also attended. One observer concluded regarding the appearance of Lausanne: “The came because they see this new group as having a future.”
One foreign participant predicted: “The ‘Free Evangelical Churches’, the ‘Evangelical Covenant Church’ as well as the ‚Christian and Missionary Alliance’ invested significant amounts of cash in Russia. That was usually routed through the Baptist Union and they all decided against forming their own denomination. But if VSEKh ever turns into a church, then the temptation to join up will be too strong to resist. They will finally have something very concrete to show for their efforts.”
The observers all seemed to agree in Hotel Izmailovo: For now, VSEKh is only a network and not a church. At present, it is only a conglomerate without clear profile. It consists among others of Baptists, Evangelical-Christians, Charismatics, Messianic Jews, Calvinists and Arminians. The Presbyterian and Five-Point-Calvinist Valerian Ten hopes to turn VSEKh into a church, yet his theology has insufficient support. But many others are also convinced that within time the network will become a church. In the strict sense, Evangelical-Christians have already formed their own small denominations.
A major factor for Russia’s Protestant landscape is whether the RUECB intends to compete with VSEKh for control of the wide turf between Baptist subculture and the Charismatic world. Will RUECB congregations on the grassroots level be flexible enough? Will they be able to concentrate on the true essence of the Gospel? In Moscow it was stated: “If the RUECB chooses to uphold tradition, then it will be inviting a powerful competitor – VSEKh – into its own house.” But there indeed are signs that some youthful Baptist pastors are aiming for the gap in the middle.
The historical Baptist Union – the RUECB – remains the largest, unified Protestant church in today’s Russia. There indeed are indications that it can integrate middle-of-the-road forces. It is also likely that the advocates of VSEKh exaggerate their own strength as well as the weakness of the other side. VSEKh is also managed in a hierarchic fashion – unavoidable in view of the massive monetary gap between top and bottom.
A competitive struggle is emerging between VSEKh and the Charismatics on one hand vis a vis the RUECB and its allies on the other. VSEKh intends to put an end to the RUECB’s long-term role as the first among equals in Protestant relations with government and Orthodoxy. But this conflict sheds negative light on the public reputation of Protestants. Western churches and missions should therefore not use their words and finances to deepen this internal Baptist split. Some still cherish the hope that Alexander Semchenko and his many projects might find their way back into the RUECB’s fold. They are needed there badly, and the differences are much more of style than of content. For that to occur, heavy portions of flexibility, patience and endurance would be needed on all sides.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Smolensk, 11 May 2011
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content. He intends to inform and does not claim to speak for any specific organisation in this instance. Release #11-07, 1.727 words, 11.047 keystrokes and spaces.