by Bruce J. Lieske
From a safe distance of 1700 years Christians enjoy identifying with the Christian martyrs of the first three centuries. Sunday school teachers shock their children with hair-raising accounts of how Christians were fed to the lions in the Colosseum.
From a safe distance of 1700 years Christians enjoy identifying with the Christian martyrs of the first three centuries. Sunday school teachers shock their children with hair-raising accounts of how Christians were fed to the lions in the Colosseum. From pulpits ring the words of Tertullian, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church," as pastors try to woo their flocks away from the subtle captivity of Western materialism. But a tragic paradox is happening beneath our noses. In spite of global TV, worldwide news services, powerful short-wave radio, and avalanches of books, most Christians do not realize that the Christian church has probably been persecuted more in the last 50 years behind the Iron and Bamboo curtains than it ever was under the ancient Roman emperors.
A unique challenge to Christian missions exists today in the suffering and persecuted body of Christ in the Soviet Union. After 57 years of communist oppression, the church not only still lives, but is showing signs of renewal arid growth. The challenge to Christians of the free world is two fold: to help heal the wounds of a bleeding and martyred church, and to equip that church to carry out the Great Commission. The Soviet government, expressing the spirit of anti-Christ, would never consent to a foreign mission agency initiating work inside its borders. And so the existing church, perhaps 40,000,000 strong in a country of 250,000,000 people, is the most viable means to evangelize the Soviet peoples.1,2
The religious temper and piety of the Russian people has largely been determined by the Eastern Orthodox Church, beginning in 988 A.D. when Vladimir, the Grand Duke of Kiev, was baptized and established Christianity as the official religion in his dominion. At Kiev, Vladimir compelled the population to be baptized in the Dnieper River, and to this day the name of Kiev’s main street still means "to Christianize by baptism".3 During the reign of Peter the Great (1676-1725 ) the Russian Orthodox Church became completely subjected to imperial power. With the exception of the Old Believers, who refused to accept the ministrations of the "apostate state church," government domination of the church persisted into the 20th century. In the mid-19th century the Evangelical-Baptist movement began in Russia and has been described as a synthesis of Western Protestantism and Russian-Ukrainian piety. Separate from the Evangelical-Baptists were the Lutherans, mostly of German heritage, who constituted a diaspora church to be found almost everywhere. Estonia and Latvia had National Lutheran Churches, and were taken over by the Soviet Union in 1940.
The Revolution of 1917 pitted the spirit of anti-Christ against the Christian churches of the Soviet Union, and with it began an era of unprecedented suffering and persecution. Karl Marx said, "Die Religion . . . ist das Opium des Volkes," and this maxim is the cornerstone of Marxism in matters of religion. When the Bolsheviks gained power in 1917 they lost no time in implementing this philosophy. At the time of the Revolution the Russian Orthodox Church numbered approximately 50,000 priests, 95,000 monks and nuns, and over 100,000,000 members. Immediately after the Revolution she was deprived of her external privileges by legal and administrative actions. Several hundred years of government domination and subsidy had left the Russian Orthodox Church highly vulnerable.
In the early years of communist domination Protestants enjoyed better treatment than the Russian Orthodox from the new Bolshevik rulers. Protestant groups were not easily denounced as counter-revolutionaries and were not identified with the ancien regime. Nor were they associated with icons, elaborate churches and extensive financial holdings. For example, the Lutherans were permitted to open a seminary in Leningrad in 1925, and in 1927 permission was given to publish a newspaper, Unsere Kirche. The Baptists and Evangelical Christians were allowed to publish journals like Baptist, Baptist Ukrainy and Khristianin. But after the 1929 religious laws were passed, efforts were made to eliminate Protestantism step by step.
On April 8, 1929, all previous anti-religious laws were summarized in the Law Concerning Religion, which up to the present has been the basis for the relationship between the state and religious organizations or "associations." Paragraph 8 of that law reads: "The membership lists of a religious society or group of believers must be reported together with the names of ministers…at stated times to the office where they have been registered." Paragraph 17 forbids religious societies "to grant material assistance to their members" and "to organize prayer meetings and the like for children, youth, or women; also meetings, groups, circles, sections devoted to the handiwork, religious instruction and similar purposes".4 This law effectively rules out every collective church activity except the formal Sunday worship service.
It is obvious that the Law Concerning Religion not only represses the church in the Soviet Union, but gives the Soviet secret police the legal tools to harass, imprison and persecute Christians – who are known because of the law requiring registration. And if they do not register themselves, they thereby break the law which requires them to be registered.
The worst persecutions took place during the 1930’s. Agitators were trained. Prizes were offered for the best "godless hymn." Blasphemous cartoons were published. Church buildings were destroyed and converted into clubs or museums by the hundreds. Many congregations disappeared without a trace.
During World War II persecution of Christians eased as the Soviet Union united to fight a common enemy. At this time the Russian Orthodox Church was officially recognized by the government and assigned to an appropriate government agency, the "Council for the Affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church," which most likely is a facade for the MVD (formerly Cheka, GPU and NKVD) and its ecclesiastical section. A similar recognition was granted for the Evangelical Christians and Baptists in 1944. The "All-Union Council of Evangelical Christian/Baptists" was assigned to the "Council for the Affairs of Religious Cults." Walter Kolarz in his book, Religion in the Soviet Union, tells us that recent Soviet policy "consists of making the exiting Churches not only as docile as possible but also as centralized as possible, for a rigidly centralized Church can be more easily compelled to carry out the instructions of the government."5
Christians are frequently jailed for many years because of evangelistic activities, and atrocities against Christians are not uncommon, but the most serious blow to the churches in the Soviet Union is the lack of Bibles and Christian literature. With a few minor exceptions, the Soviet government forbids the publishing or importation of Bibles. To meet the need for Bibles and Christian literature some of the Initsiatiuniki have set up illegal printing presses.6 This is done at great personal risk, and paper must be purchased in small quantities from many stores to avoid government suspicion. Soviet watcher Michael Bourdeaux, who is director of the Centre for the Study of Religion and Communism, estimates that the Initsiativniki have published at least 40,000 Bibles and New Testaments on their illegal printing presses.7
The illegal printing presses of the underground church hardly begin to meet the needs of Soviet Christians. And so most mission agencies concentrate their efforts on smuggling Bibles and Christian literature into the Soviet Union.
One of the largest (if not the largest) of these mission agencies is Christian Missions to the Communist World, and its United States affiliate, Jesus to the Communist World. General director of this mission is Rev. Richard Wurmbrand. After 1945, when the Communists seized Rumania, Wurmbrand led the underground church in that country. Imprisoned and tortured for 14 years, he was finally ransomed to the West for $10,000 in 1964. He came to this country and founded CMTTCW with headquarters in Glendale, California. The mission is now represented in a total of 53 countries of the free world. Methods used by CMTTCW to get Christian literature into Communist countries include literature-filled balloons, air-dropping literature-filled plastic bags where ocean currents will bring them ashore, and smuggling by travel-couriers. The 1972 international financial audit of CWTTCW showed a total income of $2,853,285, and total disbursements of $2,871,833. Administrative disbursements of $549,837 were 19.2 percent of the total disbursements. Bibles and Christian literature accounted for $1,024,485 of the disbursements – the largest single item; $479,446 was spent to help underground pastors and families of Christian martyrs; $260,195 was spent on radio broadcasts to Communist countries, and $121,375 was spent for "travel-couriers and missionaries."8
Some of the other major mission agencies operating within the Soviet Union are: Open Doors with Brother Andrew, led by the Dutch Christian Andrew von der Bijl, who began a one-man Bible smuggling operation to the Communist countries of eastern Europe in the 1950’s, Underground Evangelism, and Russia for Christ. Underground Evangelism claimed in 1971 that it had mailed the Gospel of John directly to one-quarter of a million addresses, using telephone books from major Soviet cities.9 UE claims that the Soviet postal system cannot afford to open every item of mail that comes in from the West; hence thousands of Gospel portions got through. Although beset recently by serious internal problems and alleged financial improprieties, its 1971 income was a healthy $1.7 million.10 Russia for Christ seeks to spread the gospel in Russia and other communist lands. Its ministries are avowed to be "non-political aced solely Christian and Biblical in nature." Its ministries include preparation of Christian scripts for broadcast into the Soviet Union, a Russian language newspaper, and publication of the English language newsletter Freedom, in which are printed news of Christian martyrs. Of particular interest is the mission’s recent emphasis on music broadcasting the gospel into the Soviet Union by means of gospel song.
Future strategy for missions to the Soviet Union must include a continuing education of Christians in the free world concerning the plight of Soviet Christians, and clearly expressed biblical warrants for action. Most Christians in the West are totally unaware that their brothers and sisters in Christ suffer for their faith behind Iron, Bamboo, and Sugar Cane curtains. We cannot bear one another’s burdens if we do not know about them. Most missions to the Soviet Union are presently being done by voluntaristic organizations. Main line denominations should at least pass convention resolutions deploring persecutions in Communist countries, and at most set up their own mission departments to Communist countries – thus demonstrating that this type of missions is a task of the whole church.
The vast majority of Christians in the Soviet Union are Russian Orthodox, who even before the Revolution of 1917 were not closely linked with Western churches. This is one of the reasons why their suffering has gone largely unnoticed. Nor have the exiled and refugee Orthodox groups elsewhere in the world presented a united front, but have rather quarreled among themselves about "autonomy" and "headship." Christ is the head of his church, and he compels us to help his body, no matter what denominational tag their heritage has caused them to wear.
More clearly expressed biblical warrants are needed to motivate missions to countries where the spirit of anti-Christ has free rein. Who are truly faithful to Christ: the Soviet government-recognized churches like the AUCECB, or the underground Initsiatiuniki? What belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? Should mission agencies encourage illegal printing presses in the Soviet Union, and if so, on what biblical basis? We look forward to a new book by Brother Andrew, to be published soon, The Ethics of Smuggling.
Also, a theology of suffering is needed. Peter tells us: "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings…" (1 Peter 4: 12,13a).
What did Peter mean that we should rejoice in sharing Christ’s sufferings? Persecution does not help to purchase our salvation. That was finished at Calvary, and the resurrection of the Lord put the Father’s seal upon it. To share Christ’s sufferings means to share in the sufferings of the body of Christ! We share Christ’s sufferings when we morn for those who suffer, when we pray for them, when we send them the Bibles they need, when we send them the financial help they need, and when we are imprisoned with them, if the Lord so desires.
From his jail cell in Rome, Paul wrote his great "Epistle of Joy" to the Philippians. He concludes: "I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me….I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me. Yet at was kind of you to share my trouble" (Phil. 4 : 10, 12-14 ). The opportunity now presents itself to heal the body of Christ suffering. The churches of the free world have the wealth, the strength and the technology to conduct missions to the Soviet Union. Technology especially is an open door for us. Short-wave radio, high speed printing presses and knowledge of the atmospheric and ocean currents are all part of that open door into the Soviet Union. And today’s international economy demands that the doors of travel between the Soviet Union and the West be kept at least partially ajar. Bibles and Christian literature can be smuggled into the Soviet Union in increasing quantities, if we continually seek creative ways to place them into the hands of tourists, exchange personnel and others. Now is the time to revive our concern. Will we, then, in years to come be blessed by this message from the Soviet Christians: "Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble"?
1. Christianity Today, January 5, 1973, p. 45.
2. Kurt Hutten, Iron Curtain Christians (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1967), pp. 68-73.
3. Christianity Today, October 28, 1966, p. 51.
4. Hutten, op. cit., pp. 3-4.
5. Walter Kolarz, Religion in the Soviet Union (London: Macmillan, 1961), p. 304.
6. The Initsiatiuniki are unregistered "Baptists" who formally split with AUCECB affiliated churches in 1961. They find historical precedent for their militance in the Old Believers.
7. Christianity Today, January 5 1973, pp. 44-45.
8. "The Voice of the Martyrs," Jesus to the Communist World, Inc., 1972 International Financial Audit.
9. Personal correspondence from L. Joe Bass, January 14, 1971.
10. Christianity Today, April 27, 1973, p. 38.
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