Friday, December 10, 2010

Baptist "Receptive Ecumenism" in the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia

Yesterday evening I had the privilege of dining with Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia (yes, they have an archbishop--more on that below) at the Eagle and Child Pub in Oxford (the pub where C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and other members of the "Inklings" literary discussion group met regularly). Archbishop Songulashvili is in Oxford for a couple of months of study and writing, and my friend Curtis Freeman (director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina) ran into him there earlier in the day and arranged for us to have what proved to be a most fascinating and rewarding dinner conversation.

Earlier this year I delivered the 2010 Lourdes College Ecumenical Lecture on the theme "How Baptists Receive the Gifts of Catholics and Other Christians," which was subsequently published under that title in Ecumenical Trends vol. 39, no. 6 (June 2010), pp. 11/81-5/85. The lecture/article included this paragraph calling attention to the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia as an example of Baptist receptive ecumenism that defies Baptist stereotypes:

The congregations of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia represent a fascinating case study in Baptist receptive ecumenism that includes striking forms of liturgical as well as ecclesiological reception. In a culture that is historically Eastern Orthodox, the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia has maintained “belief in believer’s baptism, autonomy of the local church, freedom of conscience and religious liberty,” while adopting an ecclesial structure that is a hybrid of congregational and episcopal governance with a threefold ministry of bishops, presbyters, and deacons. In this structure the local congregations are autonomous in relation to one another and to the structure of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia, but they are presided over by a bishop, whose office is a “symbol of unity” with the “ provide spiritual guidance to the whole church as prophet, preacher, and teacher of the Gospel.” The ministers of the Evangelical Baptist Church wear Orthodox vestments and employ the Orthodox use of the sign of the cross, incense, and icons in their worship services. The Church sponsors monastic orders for men and women and a school of iconography. As their archbishop puts it, they “technically should be considered a Reformed Orthodox Church. On the one hand,” he says, “we are committed to the principles of the European Radical Reformation, and on the other hand we hold to our own Orthodox legacy.” In other words, they have received the gifts of the Orthodox tradition and incorporated them into their Baptist pattern of faith and practice.

These aspects of ecumenical reception of gifts from the Eastern Orthodox tradition cannot be attributed merely to the influence of living in an Orthodox culture. They are the fruit of intentional ecumenical engagement between Georgian Baptists and their Orthodox neighbors, and it was not easy for these Baptists whose historical identity was formed in contradistinction to Orthodox identity to decide together to receive these gifts as a community.

Ecumenical reception was also not a one-way street, for the Orthodox Church in Georgia also identified gifts in the Baptist tradition which they believed would strengthen Orthodox faith and practice, including the importance of the proclamation of the word and the relation of baptism to the church's practice of making disciples.

Other Baptists and other Christians have much to learn from this little-known communion and its quest to embody the unity Christ wills for his church in this particular place. I look forward to reading the future publications by which Archbishop Songulashvili and others will document this fascinating and encouraging story.


  1. To be honest with you, Steve, this would be a nightmare for American Baptists. I'll just mentinon a few names: "Archbishop Paige Patterson," "Archbishop Al Mohler," Archbishop Adrian Rogers," "Archbishop Paul Pressler." Do I need to continue? While the cultural and historical environments in Europe, particularly eastern Europe, make such kinds of arrangements perhaps necessary for our Baptist kin in those areas, it would be a disaster for American Baptists and would do nothing but harm our ability here to celebrate and live out our committment to liberty of the individual conscience.

  2. The "Archbishop" thing isn't the main point here, and in any case it's conceived and carried out in a rather different manner. (I'm also pretty sure the possible "archbishops" you've named would be rather uncomfortable with this.) It's also worth noting that the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia ordains women as pastors and bishops.

  3. I know Malkhaz. A few weeks ago, I ate his cooking at a friend's house (an American family); he cooked a variety of dumpling-like dishes (among other items) that are staples of Georgian diets, and that are flavored with spices that are not typically found in American fair.

    Malkhaz is a wonderful man, and I respect his ministry greatly. I've heard him say (on more than one occasion, over a number of years now) that Baptists in the Republic of Georgia wear Orthodox-like vestments, and worship in Orthodox-similar fashion, because to do otherwise would be fruitless.

    They embrace Orthodox trappings, according to Malkhaz, not because they are receiving "gifts" from the Orthodox tradition ... but because of (historical) state, societal, religious, and cultural pressures of an Orthodox-dominated country that push Baptists toward Orthodox-like conformity.

    Malkhaz accepts the historical (cultural and societal) religious pressures of his country, and has thrived by so doing.

    Historically, Baptists in Eastern Europe have been motivated by exterior pressures to incorporate (or not deviate far from) the trappings of the Orthodox (Eastern or Russian) tradition at large (apart from the Communitist era, when religion was generally banned); have not been granted full religious liberty; have often been persecuted; and (apart from the blanket prohibitions of the Communist era) have been closely monitored by state-approved religious authorities/leaders.

    In short, accoring to Malkhaz, the Baptist story in the Republic of Georgia today must be understood in the context of state, cultural, and societal pressure upon non-Orthodox faiths to give deference to the Orthodox tradition.

  4. There are very few Baptist Bishops in Europe - Latvia, Moldova, Georgia. They use the title because they find it in the Bible ! Most of us struggle with it because of the images of the "Prince bishops" from medeaval times (and still there in the Church of England). Whatever, most Baptists have some form of episkope, it all depends how willing they are to own up to it ! Sad we struggle with trhese good Biblical words....

  5. Bruce, that's interesting, for in our conversation Malkhaz explicitly characterized this as an intentional mutual reception of ecclesial gifts, motivated by deep theological and ecumenical convictions rather than purely pragmatic concerns.

  6. This is fascinating, thanks for sharing it. How is the archbishop chosen?

  7. Dr. Harmon,

    Do you believe that the relationship of one Christian group to both the state and national culture can serve as a hindrance to authentic "receptive ecumenism"?

    More specifically, can two Christian groups really practice authentic, uncoerced "receptive ecumenism" when one group is privileged or preferred by the state while the other holds a subordinate role with the state and in society? And where one group claims the overwhelming majority of the population and exerts cultural and political dominance over the other, much much smaller group?

    The 2010 Report on International Religious Freedom for Georgia put out by the U.S. Department of State doesn't exactly indicate a healthy ecumenical relationship (definitely unequal) between the Georgian Orthodox Church and smaller Christian groups. For example, the report reveals that Protestants and other Christian groups (Catholics included) "continued to have difficulty obtaining permission to construct new churches, due to the reluctance of local authorities to issue building permits that could antagonize local Georgian Orthodox Church officials."

    That doesn't sound like "receptive ecumenism" to me.

  8. Steve: From your account of your dinner conversation with Malkhaz, he seemingly said exactly what you wanted him to say.

    Here is what Daniel Vestal said about a conversation he had with Malkhaz, including quotes from Malkhaz (

    “One afternoon, I was visiting with Malkhaz Songulashvili, the general secretary of the Baptist Union in Georgia and pastor of the largest Baptist church in that country. Out of a population of five million, there are five thousand Baptists. This young Baptist is a brilliant linguist, a studied theologian and an ardent missionary. He began to talk about the difference between an Orthodox Christian in Georgia and a Baptist Christian. He expressed deep appreciation and indebtedness toward Orthodoxy for its development of trinitarian theology, Christological confessions, and a sense of mystery in worship. But then he said, with his eyes flashing, “It is in the doctrine of the church and the life of the ordinary Christian that the Baptist witness is so important.”

    In Orthodoxy, the hierarchical character of the church diminishes personal faith and individual responsibility …”

    Vestal then observes:

    “The oppression of Baptists by the Orthodox Church is a result of this radical ecclesiology. This view of the church that says every member is a minister, every Christian is a priest, every believer can be a Bible student and every church is free is a radical view. I am a Baptist because I believe in a non-hierarchical approach to church.”

    As to persecution of Baptists, let’s read the testimony of Malkhaz to the Helsinki Commission Hearing of the United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (

    “By culture the Georgian Baptists remain in many ways Orthodox but by the principles of faith they are Protestants.”

    After lamenting the chasm between the Orthodox Church and Baptists, he continues:

    “The question of religious liberty has become a matter of political manipulations. It seems that most of the political parties have come to realize that a pro-Orthodox policy can be very beneficial in their pre-election campaign. On the other hand ultra fundamentalist Orthodox groups are taking their opportunity to increase their war against religious minorities.

    I have been invited here to bring some clarity about religious violence in Georgia, to answer some questions …

    I do not understand why the Orthodox church and Orthodox believers do not clearly and boldly condemn when sacrilegious actions are carried out in the name of Orthodoxy, when the heads of non Orthodox people are shaved in the name of the Most Holy Trinity, in order to humiliate them, when Bibles and other Christian books are burnt publicly with wild joy, when Catholic, Evangelical Baptist and non Christian clergy are attacked physically and are publicly maltreated.

    I do not understand why the police are almost completely inactive when people are beaten up for their religious belief, when people’s properties are violated and belongings stolen just because they belong to a non Orthodox church or religious group. Very often they say since there is no law about religion we cannot do anything about religious violence. What a silly explanation. It is not an absence of religious legislation which causes religious violence and persecution but rather absence of culture, justice and general law.

    I do not understand why authorities do nothing to put an end to the violence.
    The Georgian constitution does make provision for freedom of conscience and belief.
    Why is the constitution violated by the authorities? Why are the presidential decrees not implemented? Why do not authorities realize that sidelining of religious minorities is not contributing to the integrity and unity of the country which is not homogeneous neither ethnically nor religiously?”

  9. Aaron and Bruce,

    You're both quite right to call attention to Malkhaz's courageous witness to the Baptist ecclesial gift of religious liberty. That, too, was part of our conversation (as was his goose-bump-inducing story about reconciliation between Russian Baptists and Georgian Baptists in the aftermath of their war), and I'm confident that Malkhaz, both of you, and I are all four in agreement about this. At the same time, no one coerced the Georgian Baptists into entering into dialogue with the Orthodox, and no one pressured the Georgian Baptists to receive as ecclesial gifts certain aspects of Orthodox faith and practice.

  10. Historically, Baptists entered into dialogue with the Orthodox to try and alleviate Baptist marginalization and suffering. Culturally, Baptists and other Protestants are essentially required to act in certain ways that pay homage to Orthodoxy ... and yet they continue to be punished and persecuted by the Orthodox culture.

    Steve, it seems to me that the concept of being Baptist in an Orthodox culture enthralls you. Yet Georgian Baptists, who live under the thumb of Orthodox culture, know firsthand the suffering and persecution of such an arrangement.

    The Orthodox faith in a number of nations finds expression in a union (formal or informal) with the state that results in persecution of non-Orthodox. Is this a "gift" to anyone?

    Functionally, the Orthodox believe they are the one true Church, and all other Christians are separated brethren who are not fully Christian. Historically, non-Orthodox were labeled as heretics. Today, in an effort to come across as less caustic, some Orthodox use the term heterodoxy, rather than heretic, to describe the less-than-fully-Christian status of the non-Orthodox. Is this attitude toward other Christians a "gift" to Christianity?

    Many Orthodox clergy and leaders do not believe in ecumenism, insisting instead that those outside the fold must conform to the Orthodox faith in order to be truly Christian. Is such exclusivism a "gift" to Christianity?

  11. Well, I guess that depends on what you consider coercive!

    It was definitely in the interest of the Baptists to enter into a dialogue with the Orthodox Church in dialogue. Again, as the US Department of State notes, Baptists and other groups struggle to get permits to construct new churches because such permits would "antagonize" Orthodox Church officials!

    What you describe as "ecclesial gifts," surely others would see as necessary, pragmatic cultural accommodations in a nation that is 85% Orthodox and historically intolerant towards minority faith groups.

    In light of the testimony provided of Malkhaz and the Department of State report, can you really argue that this is an example of "receptive ecumenism" that should serve as a model for other Christian groups in other nations?

  12. Bruce and Aaron, it should be clear that we all agree on advocacy for full religious liberty as a gift Baptists have to offer the rest of the church and reject all forms of coercion of conscience. It should also be clear that I do not regard Constantinian or neo-Constantinian church/state relationships as gifts that ought to be received by other Christians. Yet it is clear from conversation with Malkhaz that, for example, he sees the Orthodox embrace of the visual arts as aids to spiritual growth as something from which Baptists could learn--a gift to be received.

    Many Baptist churches in the in the US and elsewhere are now following the Christian year and using the lectionary as the basis for the reading and proclamation of Scripture in worship. These practices did not develop from within the Baptist tradition; they were received by Baptist churches that make use of them as gifts from other traditions in Western Christianity that, incidentally, were also historically Constantinian in their church/state relations and that also persecuated Western Baptists. Yet some of us have received such gifts from those traditions as the Western form of the Christian year and the Western common lectionary. That is the sort of receptive ecumenism I'm highlighting and commending in an Eastern context.

  13. Steve, much of what we do today as Baptists did not originate "inhouse," from bible reading to preaching to praying to baptism to hymns to Sunday School to tithing to most of our theology to ... you name it. Such an observation is nothing new.

    So, I am curious why (in your various writings) you are particularly enamored with the Orthodox and Catholic faith - and so quickly willing to overlook the dark side of such faith traditions? You spend a great deal of time lavishing praise on Christian traditions which (one could easily argue) have far darker chapters (historically and present) than do Baptists ... and seemingly little time exploring and extolling the positive dimensions of your own faith tradition. Why is this?

    Now, I do not anticipate that my questions are deserving of an answer. They are simply reflective of my attempts to understand a Baptist who - it seems to me - wishes he were an Orthodox or a Catholic.

  14. Bruce, I'm as Baptist as they come, and ever more I shall be. For what it's worth, I've never even entertained the idea of becoming Catholic or Orthodox. I will, however, own up to having at one time seriously contemplated the possibility of preparing for Episcopal ordination--when I was just finishing up my PhD and had a "non-hiring" experience with the new regime of SWBTS trustees in the late 90s. I had mentally outlined three options: A, find another teaching position in Baptist higher education; B, find a place to serve as pastor in a Baptist congregation with more liturgical inclinations; or C, prepare for Episcopal ordination exams. Plan A is what worked out, and I continue to be grateful for it. Yet my vocation as an ecclesially-connected theologian means that I have a responsibility to do what Peruvian liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez identified as the task of theology: critical reflection on ecclesial practice. My long, deep, and broad experience in the Baptist tradition means that I'm also in a position to reflect critically on elements of it that can be stregnthened; indeed I have the responsibility to do so. I don't think there's some "better" denominational tradition out there to which I should go instead. I believe strongly that Baptists belong to the whole church and the whole church belongs to Baptists, and therefore we as Baptists may consider incorporating into our own tradition something another tradition does well, even while we decline to do so with aspects of other traditions that we believe would be detrimental not only to our own church but to any church. I also believe that the nature of our Baptist heritage means that we are actually in a better position than other traditions to receive the best of the gifts others have to offer while also discerning what is best left behind in this sort of exchange of gifts. As Baptists, we have neither binding detailed confessional statements like the Westminster Confession or Book of Concord nor a foundational theologian with near-canonical status like Luther or Calvin nor a fixed, mandated liturgy like the Book of Common Prayer. Therefore we of all traditions should be free to recieve into the life of a Baptist congregation gifts from other traditions whenever a Baptist congregation is led to do so, and we are free to do so in a manner that best meets the spiritual needs of a particular congregation in a particular time and place. I wouldn't trade being Baptist for any other tradition, and one reason among many is that the whole church can belong to me as a Baptist to a degree that would not be currently possible if I were Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran, or Reformed, for example. But those traditions do have gifts that I believe I and my Baptist brothers and sisters need, and we shouldn't have to cease being Baptist and become something else in order to receive them. Baptists belong to the whole church, and the whole church belongs to Baptists.

  15. Steve and Bruce, great discussion. Steve, I'm hearing a lot of freedom of individual conscience in your words above! That's what keeps you "Baptist." I just can't understand why other Baptist theologians can't acknowledge the supreme importance of this cherished Baptist principle and seem so desirous of drawing theological boundaries.