by Tom Keppeler
A large Orthodox renewal movement battles the challenges of freedom.
It has been over three years since the world’s attention turned to the events in Romania that ultimately led to the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. With the opening of its borders, this beautiful and sometimes perplexing Balkan country became the focus of multiple aid organizations, mission groups, churches, evangelists, and faith healers, as well as individual entrepreneurs. For most, it was a novelty-a European country with an educated populace but Third World living standards. A country whose warm and hospitable people caught many first-time visitors by surprise. A country where that same effusive hospitality and graciousness often glossed over the darker side of Romanian culture, a side characterized by bribes, favoritism and patronage.
For most Western visitors, however, Romania was an unknown quantity. To be sure, many had heard or read of the large Baptist and Pentecostal churches with their fervent meetings. In contrast, the Romanian Orthodox Church to them represented a compromised state church that had sold its birthright to the Communists for a pot of privileged porridge.
Many visitors were therefore surprised to discover a vibrant renewal movement in the Orthodox Church, Oastea Domnului, the Army of the Lord, which today is uniquely positioned on the religious landscape of Romania. Back in 1986, Operation World author Patrick Johnstone estimated that the Lord’s Army had 300,000 members and another 200,000 sympathizers. Perhaps its greatest challenge in a country of 22.8 million people (19.8 million of whom are Orthodox) is remaining true to its mission of spiritual revival, of "preaching the crucified and risen Christ" in the context of the Romanian Orthodox Church.
A CHALLENGING LEGACY
Oastea Domnului seeks to remain true to the mandate of its founder, Iosif Trifa who was ordained to the Orthodox priesthood in 1910 and laboured the next 10 years in Avram Iancu, a small village in Transylvania near the Apuseni Mountains. During this time he lost his wife and three of his children to accident and illness. In 1921, Archbishop Balan of the Sibiu Synod named Trifa "professor-priest" at the institute of theology in Sibiu. Balan wanted Trifa to raise the spiritual morale of the people, and at the Synod in Sibiu, they proposed starting a gazette. Trifa, who became the editor, named it Lumina Satelor (The Light to the Villages). He worked with a group of theologians from the seminary to instill a new "spirit" in the Orthodox Church; he sought to put "the knowledge of Christ above the dogmas of the church."
The events of history often turn on very small hinges. Indeed, the beginning of Oastea Domnului on New Year’s Eve, 1922, was insignificant. Around midnight, Trifa was in his room preparing an article for Lumina Satelor. In his own words:
On the eve of the New Year 1923,I was reflecting on all my activities of the last 10 years as a priest in the village as well as the past year as editor of Lumina Satelor. I was thinking with sorrow about the vanity of the past 11 years of shouting in the desert without a trace of fruit. It was late at night. Under the window of my house, just then, passed a boisterous group of drunkards. This only increased my sorrow. I fell to my knees crying and I prayed to the Lord to help me in the year that lay ahead to labor with more success.
In this night, the Spirit of the Lord inspired me with the idea of a resolution. A resolution that we’d publish in the following edition of the gazette Lumina Satelor. In this edition, I’d call my readers to enter in this new year, with a decision, a resolution to fight against drunkenness, profanity and other sins. Through the signing of a declaration, we’d call our readers to a decision to fight against sin. We’d call them to volunteer to fight a kind of fiery battle against sins. With this beginning, came what developed into the movement, Oastea Domnului.
Indeed, what Wesley was to the Anglican Church, Trifa was to the Romanian Orthodox Church. As Wesley’s preaching drew crowds from the working classes, so Trifa’s ministry grew among the villagers and field workers. Oastea Domnului grew as a lay renewal movement within the Orthodox Church. People gathered in homes and in small groups for Bible study and prayer. Church meetings were held during which Oastea Domnului members preached.
Before Trifa died in 1938, he left behind many books and articles that were to become the movement’s charter. Trifa’s successor, loan Marini, and others also contributed other writings. By the time the communists took power in 1948, Oastea Domnului was a strong grass roots movement with its own publishing house in Sibiu and its own newspaper, Isus Biruitorul (Jesus the Victor). When the communists took power, the printing house was shut down, the movement was declared illegal, and its leaders were imprisoned. However, Oastea Domnului continued as a growing underground movement
Probably the clearest presentation of Trifa’s vision for Oastea Domnului is his 1934 book Ce Este Oastea Domnului (What is the Army of the Lord?), in which Trifa lays out the purpose and strategy. Four main themes stand out.
1. The centrality of Christ and the cross. Oastea Domnului seeks to bring sinners to the source of righteousness and power … to Jesus the Saviour. With this mark, began the fight of Oastea Domnului and the Lord has blessed this work . .. We must live a life of victory, but we can only live this life by receiving the Lord Jesus and the gifts of victory which are made possible to us through the sacrifice of the cross at Golgotha. Through the Sacrifice of the cross at Golgotha, Satan was defeated definitively. The victory of the Lord was a definitive victory. But the victory of the cross for us has no value if we don’t receive Jesus who brings us the gift of victory.
2. Moral renewal, both at the individual and national levels. Indeed, Oastea Domnului began in part as a temperance movement to fight alcohol abuse and raise the decayed moral standard of the nation. Trifa writes:
I have written much about these two sins: drunkenness and profanity; which Satan has used to murder many a soul. But I must add that Oastea Domnului does not only fight against these two sins. There are those and others who are just as drank, not with alcohol, but with anger, pride, envy, debauchery, greed. Oastea Domnului is a movement of cleansing, of renewal and of total change of those who enter this army. With Oastea Domnului, we preach a renewal of the soul, we preach a change of life’s foundation, we preach a new life.
Today, Oastea Domnului continues to emphasize abstinence from alcohol and tobacco, as well as personal piety and holiness.
3. Commitment to the laity. We who are with Oastea Domnului, work more as so-called lay apostles. This is not a new thing. The lay apostle is the command of Scripture . .. beginning with the two women; the Samaritan women and Mary Magdalen-who proclaimed Jesus upon hearing of him. Throughout Scripture, we see examples of the lay apostle. It is sufficient to remember the word of St. James in James 5:20. Every soul that comes to the Lord in truth is made a proclaimer of Him. That’s the way it was at the beginning of Christianity, that’s the way it should be now. There are those … who see in this a "new danger." They see it this way because they are the same ones who extinguished New Testament Christianity, living Christianity, witnessing and proclaiming Christianity.
Indeed, the role of the laity even today is one of the characteristics of Oastea Domnului. Laymen do all the preaching, evangelism, and leading of local fellowships. Professional or paid ministers are not part of Oastea Domnului ‘s heritage or present practice.
4. A love of and unwavering commitment to the Scriptures. The Scriptures are not only to be studied, but considered the weapon of the Oastea Domnului Christian.
The Holy Scriptures is not just a book like any other book. It is a book of God. A book through which God speaks about his plans. The Bible is a book through which God reveals his plan of salvation for us …. a Christian without the Bible is like a craftsman without his tools. The Bible for the Christian is like the plough to the farmer, the scissors to the tailor, the hammer to the blacksmith, the pen for the writer … that is what the Bible must be for us. A soldier of the Lord without the Bible is like a soldier without his gun.
Fellowships of Oastea Domnului must be above all else, a school of the Bible. The Bible is a wonderful school. This school lasts a lifetime. A soldier of the Lord must be a hardworking scholar of the Bible. A hardworking reader of the Bible.
In many respects, Ce Este Oastea Domnului is looked upon as the blueprint for Oastea Domnului. The teachings and life of Trifa as well as those of loan Marini and the poet Triain Dorz, the third leader, are the heritage as Oastea Domnului tries to define its mission in today’s Romanian religious and societal context.
Although many within the movement thought that evangelism would be on the forefront of the agenda in a newly free Romania, Oastea Domnului in many respects has turned inward, and there has been considerable infighting. A number of men on the national leadership council seem to have varying opinions about the causes of this disunity.
One issue that quickly surfaces is the relationship of Oastea Domnului with the Orthodox Church. During the years of the communists, the Orthodox hierarchy did not officially recognize, and in fact staunchly opposed, the movement. But since the fall of the communist regime in December, 1989, the church has rehabilitated Trifa posthumously and given official recognition to Oastea Domnului. Many fear the switch is motivated by a desire to control, and eventually absorb and diffuse, the movement.
One side within the movement contends that Oastea Domnului’s place is in the church: Meetings should be held in the local churches, and priests and local bishops need to be informed and involved. This side contends that Oastea Domnului is under the authority of the church. It emphasizes the Orthodoxy of the movement, pointing out over and over that it is not a neo-Protestant (evangelical) group, but an Orthodox one.
On the other hand, another side sees its mandate as being a missionary force to, and not under the control of, the Orthodox Church. Advocates of this position believe their calling is to be salt and light and preach the gospel in a spiritually dead, institutional church. This position seems to be in keeping with Trifa’s vision in Ce Este Oastea Domnului. Therefore, it is important to distinguish between Oastea Domnului’s relationship with the Orthodox hierarchy and its relationship with local churches. In reference to the church hierarchy, a member of the Oastea Domnului national council from Moldova commented:
I believe we will finish our journey on this earth without having a good understanding. Because looking back, if they did not understand Jesus Christ, how can they understand where we’re coming from? Only priests that have a pure soul before the Lord will be able to understand us…. There could be an understanding at a small level, until the moment that they see the effect. Because as soon as God develops the work, as soon as people within the Orthodox Church commit their lives to Christ, making a covenant with God, I don’t know that there won’t exist reservations on the part of the Orthodox Church structure.
However, the same leader pointed out that the relationships of Oastea Domnului at the local level really depend on the priests. There are communities where the local priest collaborates with Oastea Domnului. They open the doors of the churches. And the people, hearing and seeing our activities in the context of the church will have more trust/confidence in us. If the local priest is not pre-disposed to us in this way, he will never open the church to Oastea Domnului.
Another leader, who was very close to Triain Dorz, stated that "the first and foremost problem for us today is the same as Iosif Trifa had at the beginning: to ‘rebirth’ Jesus Christ in the Orthodox Church. Although he sees a fairly good relationship with the Orthodox hierarchy right now, he points out that "there is a degree of reticence in certain areas, like there ‘has always been on the part of the church. Along with the fact that there are those that tolerate us, at the same time there are those who don’t see us with a good eye, but rather look at us as schismatics in the church.
The second hotly debated issue is the relationship of Oastea Domnului with foreigners. Historically, there has always been a fear of foreign influence, for three possible reasons. First, there is a desire to keep false teaching (or anything that might contaminate the pure preaching of the gospel) out of the movement. Second, many years of repression and underground ministry forced upon it by the communists have bred suspicion. In those days, security and trust always had to be guarded. This attitude remains even in the more open, free Romania. Third, this fear is fueled simply by the lack of contact with the West during the last 40 years. Unlike the Baptist, Brethren, or Pentecostal denominations, Oastea Domnului has no "sister" denominations or parallels outside Romania.
This second issue contributes to the confusion and discord present in the movement as a whole today. The activities of numerous Western groups with certain Oastea Domnului fellowships have fueled the fire of those opposed to involvement with foreigners. But a number of leaders on the national leadership board want to cooperate with foreign groups, as long as the latter understand the unique role and purpose of Oastea Domnului. One member spoke very strongly about the apparent hypocrisy of some in the movement on the issue.
The foreigners I’ve known have never done us any harm. I’ve had relationships with foreigners since I can remember, since I was a child. But the Oastea Domnului didn’t accept contact with foreigners in the past because of the danger it represented (fines, imprisonment). Only those with courage had relationships with foreigners, that is to say not foreigners but brothers from different countries. They risked their lives and their health, to help us here in Romania. We cried with them, and rejoiced with them…. I have opposition from some today because I have relationships with foreigners. It is a problem of understanding. They want to rejoice in books from outside but not have relationships with the outside.
Oastea Domnului is a unique movement whose charter is to be salt and light, to "rebirth" Jesus Christ in the Romanian Orthodox church. It is not unlike other renewal movements or reform efforts that have arisen throughout church history. But it is unique in that its birth and growth are indigenous. Romania is historically an Orthodox country; Trifa, the founder, was an Orthodox priest. The writers the movement looks to are Romanian- Iosif Trifa, Ioan Marini, Triain Dorz, and others. The hymnology and poetry are Romanian. In a real sense, Oastea Domnului represents a kind of reformation movement in the Orthodox Church. Even today, the preaching at weddings and other Oastea Domnului gatherings continually emphasizes the necessity of a relationship with Christ, renouncing sin, repentance, the grace of God in Christ, and having a personal "covenant" with God. There is spiritual life and vitality wherever local fellowships preach and live the gospel.
The tensions over the Orthodox Church will most likely continue, as they have since Trifa’s day. Quite possibly the movement will become more polarized, with the more progressive, evangelical wing continuing to grow, perhaps eventually leading to a breakup.
Oastea Domnului’s dealings with foreigners may also continue to cause tension. The partnerships that some fellowships have forged with churches outside Romania are often viewed with jealousy by others in the movement, often due to the material aid the Westerners have provided. And since Romania is now relatively free and open, continued contact with outsiders is inevitable. The isolation of the communist era no longer exists. It will remain a challenge for Oastea Domnului to not only resolve the tensions, but to realize that the isolation of the past 40 years is gone.
Theological tensions will continue as well. To be able to meet and worship without interference from unsympathetic local priests, many fellowships are constructing their own buildings. With such facilities already in place in some areas, many fellowships are operating like independent churches. Practical issues such as local leadership, forms of worship, and even the sacraments, namely baptism and communion, could become issues for debate and discussion, especially as many fellowships try to maintain their Orthodox roots while functioning independently.
A final question is, given the more autonomous fellowships expected in the future, how Oastea Domnului can remain true to the vision of its founder, to its charter of evangelism and mission in the Romanian Orthodox Church. The last exhortation of Trifa in Ce Este Oastea Domnului remains a challenge for the movement today.
My dear brethren, fight the good fight, fulfill your duty and journey so that in the end we might all meet again in the heavenly Jerusalem, in the place the Lord has prepared for us to live with Him in eternity.
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