Malkhaz Songulashvili Back in Georgia

Breaking the Impasse in Evangelical-Orthodox Relations


Georgia’s Baptist Archbishop returns home


Note: We could not publish the following text previously because it was waiting to be published by “Christianity Today” in Chicago. That has now occurred in CT’s edition for June 2013 – we published the German version on 20 August 2012, a Russian version on 11 December 2012. All can be found on this website.


M o s c o w -- “There is a solemn procession to the altar. The choir is chanting. A bishop in a long black robe and a full gray beard swings an incense burner back and forth. We bow. We cross ourselves. It’s a typical Sunday service at the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia (EBCG). Yes, Baptist”. That’s how the Chicagoan Alexander Cuttino, Lutheran vicar in Tbilisi, described a denomination world-famous for its attempts at cultural integration.


The EBCG’s archbishop, Malkhaz Songulashvili, is a remarkable example of connectedness. His festive wedding on a Caucasian mountaintop in June 2008 included 60 foreign guests from 14 countries. The ceremony, followed by a feast of music and dancing, was attended by over 600 Eastern Orthodox, Catholics, Anglicans, Armenian Apostolic, Jews, Muslims, atheists and Baptists, including the General-Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance.


Contextualization matters to the West’s evangelical and ecumenical mainstream – and Songulashvili is one source of that hope. The American Baptist (ABC) theologian John Sundquist states flatly: “I know of no other Baptist union or convention in the world that has exegeted its context for ministry as brilliantly and powerfully as it has.”


Songulashvili describes the options as “being a Baptist church for Baptists or a Baptist church for Georgians”. Consequently, the tiny EBCG has become a known entity throughout Georgia (population 4,470,000). Konstantine Gabashvili, now Georgian ambassador to Italy, has stated: "We cannot think of any other church or confession that has been as active in the life of wider society." Since the withdrawal of the Georgian Orthodox Church from the World Council of Churches in 1997, the EBCG has (as a member of the Conference of European Churches) been the sole Georgian denomination strongly active in the world ecumenical movement.


The Archbishop has struggled to break the long-time impasse in evangelical-Orthodox relations. In Eastern Europe, Baptists are often seen as a fringe, Western-inspired and –funded, fifth-column movement. Traditionally, Baptists have regarded the Orthodox as non-Christian; they in turn have decried Baptists as sectarian heretics. Worshiping God with all five senses is one gift Baptists could receive from the Orthodox tradition “with gratitude”, he states. Consequently, the EBCG has founded a school for icon painting (the visual) and uses incense (smell) in its services. They offer an Orthodox-style liturgy, have a monastic order and hold processions and pilgrimages. This church has “uncovered the treasures” of the Orthodox tradition and attempts to incorporate them into Baptist faith and practice. It intends to remain Baptist in theology while being Georgian and Orthodox in culture.


Structurally, the Georgians now call themselves an episcopal Baptist church – not a union. It is headed by an archbishop with three bishops - yet one of the three bishops is female. Women’s ordination and liturgical dance are two indications of the fact that the EBCG veers significantly from the practices of Georgian Orthodoxy.


Relationship with the Orthodox

The Archbishop describes the country’s Orthodox as both flattered and disappointed. Flattered that Baptists have become emissaries of Georgian Orthodox spirituality elsewhere, they remain disappointed about the Baptist refusal to rejoin the Orthodox fold. He describes the relationship as one of “critical solidarity”: “We criticise them for corruption and religious nationalism” – and for their insistence on preferential political treatment.


Profoundly Baptist is the EBCG’s stress on freedom of confession and conscience. To the extent in which the majority Georgian church and society support the religious neutrality of the state, the Baptist-Orthodox relationship may indeed be becoming a two-way street.


The Archbishop’s understanding of mission could be described as respectful and gentle. Among Muslims we are to “speak of being Christian without imposing anything. The key word should be friendship. We simply show our love and friendliness to everybody, then leave the rest to God.”


Songulashvili has fought for understanding with the Muslim minority and refugees from war-torn Chechnya. After the publication of a translation of the Koran in contemporary Georgian in 2006, he thanked God for it in a worship service at Peace Cathedral. A refugee imam from Chechnya is quoted as promising: “When I return to Grozny, I will do two things: I will build a new mosque because ours was destroyed by the Russians. I will also build a Baptist church because the Baptists were the only people with us in our time of need.” The Archbishop dreams of a utopia in which Christians and Muslims would construct their mosques and churches jointly.


Songulashvili’s successes among Orthodox nationalists are no less striking. After having engaged in serious mischief for five years, Basil Mkalavishvili, a defrocked Orthodox priest, was finally arrested in 2005. His crimes included torching a building simply because it contained 17,000 Baptist-owned Bibles. At the dramatic public trial of Mkalavishvili and several followers, the Archbishop walked up to their cage and forgave them. Asked by the defense about damages, the Baptist demanded “nothing except the red wine which we will drink together when they are set free”. The overwhelmed ex-priest responded in kind, later sending icons and cake to Baptist headquarters. After the priest was nevertheless sentenced to six years in prison, the Archbishop wrote: “In the past we were praying that Mkalavishvili be arrested. Now we are praying that he be released.”


The unreconciled

Yet the task of Georgian reconciliation is far from complete. The EBCG’s movement towards the Western evangelical and ecumenical mainstream has uncoupled it from the ex-USSR’s Slavic Baptist unions. There has been a split even within Georgia: In 1997, Levan Akhalmosulishvili, a surgeon and lay pastor, broke with the EBCG. Akhalmosulishvili had been ordained jointly with Songulashvili in 1994 and served as the EBCG’s general-secretary up until the rift. The Floridian missionary Brian Wolf sees the primary difference in Akhalmosulishvili’s conviction that “Orthodox forms will always trump Baptist theology”. The Orthodox make up 82% of the Georgian population.


Now known as the Evangelical Baptist Association of Georgia, the new union consists of six pastors with 30 congregations and 600-800 adult members. Its official debut was celebrated in Tbilisi in October 2012. The Moscow-based Euro-Asian Federation of Unions of Evangelical Christians-Baptists has already granted it membership. Germany’s “Friedensbote” (a mission of German-Russian émigrés) and the Illinois-based Slavic Gospel Association are pumping in resources. Observers such as Professor Sundquist see the rift as inevitable: “The Baptist unions of eastern and central Europe have no elasticity within their convictions to deal with Georgian Baptists.” The Prague-based European Baptist Federation, once a staunch supporter of Songulashvili, is now hoping for relations with both Baptist bodies.


Politically, Malkhaz Songulashvili has championed the “coloured”, pro-Western revolutions of Georgia, Ukraine and Belarus. Yet he arrived in Belarus in March 2006 without the blessings of Belarusian Baptist leadership and spent three days in jail before being expelled. Baptist leadership in Slavic Eastern Europe and in Central Asia remains committed to discussing political issues behind closed doors.


The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kievan Patriarchate presented the Georgian with a top-level award in April 2011. But this young, Ukrainian church remains at loggerheads with the Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate - the world’s largest Orthodox denomination. Songulashvili has fought against the Russian yoke. It is therefore no easy task to find common ground with Russian evangelicals who are as Russian as he is Georgian.


Songulashvili’s thought mirrors the church and political divisions of Europe. Georgia has broken with Russian-sponsored Eastern Europe over the last 20 years and joined the West – as has the EBCG. He has made significant progress in relating to pro-Western evangelical and Orthodox groupings. Troubled relations with the Russian Orthodox and Protestant fundamentalists remain.


The Archbishop concedes unresolved weaknesses: “It may be true that we do not have as strong of formal political ties with East European churches as we do with others. This is not intentional. I want to believe the time will come when Georgian Baptists can witness together with the other Baptists of Eastern Europe. But this will not happen until the next generation arrives.”


The Future

Numbers on the EBCG diverge wildly. Brian Wolf claims the church has no more than 2,000 adult members – others report of 4,000 or 5,000 members in 60 congregations. Songulashvili speaks of a total community of 17,000 including non-member participants and children. The young remain very much a part of the EBCG. Though youth attendance at Peace Cathedral has lagged since the Archbishop’s temporary departure in 2008, some observers believe strong chances for recovering lost ground remain.


Malkhaz Songulashvili, who had been mostly absent from Georgia over the past five years pursuing doctoral studies at England’s Oxford Center for Mission Studies, moved back home in April 2013. Georgian society would do well to brace itself for new surprises.


William Yoder, Ph.D.

Smolensk, 14 June 2013


Release #13-11, 1.431 words, 9.445 keystrokes and spaces.