Back to School

Yesterday I received my letter of acceptance from London School of Theology, where I will begin my postgraduate studies starting this September to get a Master of Arts in Integrative Theology.

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I will be studying via distance learning, which means I won’t have to travel at all and will be able to make my own schedule, both of which are important to me since I’m a full-time pastor and have a family at home. I looked into a local school in Colorado, but I prefer the British approach to education. Also, British schools are more affordable than US schools when it comes to studying Christian theology because in the US it is only taught in private universities because of the separation of church and state – whereas in the UK public universities can have theology departments. I would recommend Americans who want to study theology to really consider looking into studying via distance learning in Britain.

I’m excited to go back to school and continue my theological education. It’s been nice taking a year off, but I am ready to get back into it.

I am still in Kyiv; I fly home tomorrow morning. Today I got to visit Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary and speak to the students and staff.

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The faculty and students of Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary

Several months ago I met a couple who live in Berthoud, CO who run an organization called Ukraine Orphan Outreach. It was through them that I got connected to people at the seminary, and as it turns out there are several people from Calvary Chapel in Ukraine who work and study there.

I was impressed with their school and its mission: “To strengthen churches and transform society” – as well as the work they are doing to accomplish that. Having an interdenominational evangelical seminary in Ukraine is a great asset to the church here.

The school has many students from outside of Ukraine, and recently they started a second campus of their school in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. They also operate several mini-campuses in cities around Ukraine, for people who want to study with them but have difficulty coming to Kyiv.

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A class at UETS

I’m praying that God uses and blesses the work of UETS to raise up and train many ministers of the gospel to work in this country and the former republics of the Soviet Union.

Done with School, and a Few Other Things

I love finishing projects that I start. The only thing is, I also really like starting projects. So I sometimes find myself with several long term projects – but over the past few weeks I've been able to finish up a few of them.

For the past several months I was very busy finishing my dissertation for my theology degree. I started at this university when my first child was the same age as my current youngest child: 5 months old. Now, in completing my dissertation, I am done – at least for now… I would like to continue.

The title of my dissertation: What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Implications of Epistemology and Culture for Christian Thinking, Practice and Mission

Another thing I've been working on for a while that I was able to complete: During the 10 years that I lived in Hungary I spent a lot of time getting different kinds and levels of residence permits and visas. By the time I left I had permanent residence and a work permit, which I gave up when I moved to the US. No big deal, because I have no plan to move back. But about 2 years ago a friend in Hungary told me that I should look into becoming a Hungarian citizen and that I might meet the requirements for citizenship. I looked into it, and I did – so, a year ago I applied for Hungarian citizenship, and I just found out 2 weeks ago I received it. Last week I traveled to Los Angeles for my naturalization ceremony at the office of the Hungarian Consulate.

Receiving my Hungarian citizenship from Kálmán László, consulate general of Hungary.

I'm not really sure how it will benefit me, but it is meaningful nonetheless. My wife and kids are Hungarian citizens, and I does encourage me to spend more time making sure the kids learn Hungarian and have that identity.

Another long term project we've been working on is getting out of the debt we incurred from the adoption we did. It's been an exercise in budgeting, downsizing and penny pinching, inspired by a Dave Ramsey class, and at the end of June we will have that project complete as well.

I've also finished a few books recently:

The men's group at our church has been going through Mere Christianity by CS Lewis, following a study guide and video series by Eric Metaxas. A lot of the videos refer to Lewis' autobiography, Surprised by Joy, so I picked it up and started reading it. In it, Lewis tells the story of how he became an atheist and then the process by which he turned from atheism to deism and finally to Christianity. “Joy”, spelled with a capital J, is the thing which all people are looking for and get glimpses of throughout their lives in various ways, but which can only be found in and through a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Sounds interesting, right? I have to say, Surprised by Joy left me surprised with boredom. I had a really hard time getting through the book, and felt that a lot of the material was indulgent details which had nothing at all to do with the story he was telling. That part though, the story of his journey from a nominal Christian upbringing, to atheism, to deism and finally to Christianity, was truly captivating. The last chapter was particularly good. It's worth reading if you are a CS Lewis fan.

The other book I finished recently was John Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent. I heard somewhere that it is good to read fiction because it fuels creativity and imagination in a way that other media does not. I read a lot of non-fiction, particularly theology books and biographies, and so I want to make sure that I read some good fiction from time to time as well and I have it in mind to read classic novels and literature.

The Winter of Our Discontent was interesting, particularly in how it dealt with moral and ethical issues, as well as issues of contentment, and pressures in society which create dissatisfaction. The novel describes how people often cross their own moral and ethical lines to get what they think they want, and when they get it, they are still discontent and often more miserable that they were before. I think it's a great commentary on society and on the fallen human condition.

Ironically, The Winter of Our Discontent and Surprised by Joy have their core theme in common. The only difference is that whereas Steinbeck didn't answer the question of what it is that human beings are ultimately looking for: the true quest beneath all our quests, Lewis did. And although Lewis' writing style is harder to read, Surprised by Joy actually answers the question posed by The Winter of Our Discontent.

 

I'm enjoying this season.

 

Big Shoes

Starting today, I am now teaching Bible class at Longmont Christian High School.

I took over for Don Monteath, a great godly man who taught history and Bible for many years at LCS; he taught our son for the years that he went to school there. Mr. Monteath didn't only teach the kids, he also loved them very much and they knew it. Mr. Monteath didn't teach at the school because he needed to, he taught there because he loved the kids and he loved teaching.

 

Don Monteath passed away in December. I attended his memorial, and it was packed. There was an open mic and the memorial went on and on with former students, family members and friends sharing their memories.

I heard it said recently that what the church needs most is more great men and women of God, who serve God and take part in His mission simply because they are Christians and that is what Jesus called all of His followers to be about until His return.

I consider it a privilege to get to teach these students the Bible, and to fill Mr. Monteath's shoes in this role.

 

To Seminary or Not to Seminary

Seminary – AKA “Semetery”: the place where young people who love God go to have their faith shaken and their enthusiasm killed forever. At least that’s how seminary was portrayed to me as a young Christian who was eager to serve the Lord.

Today, as a pastor and seminary student, I have to say that I actually agree with that. I can see how seminary can kill a young person’s faith and enthusiasm. However, I think that seminary is a good thing, and something pastors should do. For me, going to seminary has been one of the best decisions I’ve made, both personally, and for my calling as a pastor.

I didn’t start going to seminary until after I had already been ordained and pastoring for years. The group of churches I was ordained in didn’t require formal seminary training in order to be ordained; they simply required 4 years of theological training, which could be received in an institution like a Bible college or seminary, or on the job, through apprenticeship/discipleship. I did the latter. I was encouraged that men like Peter were unlearned men whose training came from having been with Jesus.

When I had been a pastor for a few years, I began to really feel the desire to deepen my understanding of theology, church history, and the many other topics that are taught in seminary courses. A friend of mine turned me on to a great school in England, which I have been attending now part time for several years. I’m not doing it because I need a degree in order to become a pastor; I’m doing it to make myself a better pastor.

We need to train the called, not call the trained.

And I have to say – I think this is the ideal way; I believe that we should be training the called, not calling the trained. If someone has a calling on their life and an enthusiasm to serve the Lord, then why would we lock them up for 4 years and tell them to read a bunch of books before they can go out and serve the Lord?  That’s now what Jesus did. Read the first few chapters of the Gospel of John – you see people who had little to no theological understanding leading people to Jesus. The woman at the well went and told the whole town about Jesus. The man born blind simply testified to what had happened to him.  However, enthusiasm can only take you so far, especially as a pastor. The job of a pastor is to teach and the lead as a shepherd, and they need to be able to do that with understanding about God’s Word and people.

The Problem with Being Self-Taught

I know that many people would respond that one doesn’t need to go to seminary in order to get a theological education. Surely there are a number of books available, and if one is a disciplined student, then they can simply educate themselves while doing the work of the ministry.

Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones is perhaps the greatest example of a master preacher and pastor – certain one of the greatest of our modern age. He was known by those who looked up to him as “The Pastor”. Dr. Jones never went to seminary nor had any formal theological training. He had studied to be a medical doctor, and later switched to Christian ministry, becoming a pastor. Dr. Jones is often cited as a perfect example of how one does not need to be sequestered in a seminary in order to receive theological training – it is possible to be self-taught.

Here’s the problem with being self-taught, which I realized years ago, when I desired to deepen my knowledge base and started trying to teach myself:  When you teach yourself, YOU pick what you want to learn and read. The great thing about being part of a seminary program is that I am forced to read and consider viewpoints which I would have otherwise avoided. Basically, self-taught people tend to read things which simply bolster the positions which they have already held.

For some people, being faced with views other than those who they already hold leads them to confusion and uncertainty. Certainly I have become a lot less dogmatic about things I used to be dogmatic about, because I more understand now the complexity of the questions and arguments. And it is this uncertainty which leads to confusion and disillusionment for many young seminarians who go to seminary because they want to know God more and because they have a passion for the Gospel and for serving others like Jesus did. They go to seminary hoping to be set on fire in a greater way and be given tools to minister effectively, and find themselves bogged down in discussions which bring into question things which they never thought were issues! And then the Bible becomes a book you read for school, and you hear people splitting hairs on seemingly irrelevant theological arguments, and it can easily kill one’s enthusiasm.

The study of theology is faith seeking understanding – Saint Anselm

As Anselm said: The study of theology is “faith seeking understanding”. And I believe it should be treated that way. Karl Barth taught that Christian theology should be an endeavor done by Christians who are committed to Jesus Christ. I agree with that. I also believe that if someone has a desire to serve God, we should encourage that, rather then kill it by making them jump through a bunch of hoops first. Let’s see who is called and then be diligent to train them, rather than training people to death and then asking them to be called and enthusiastic about the Gospel.

What do you think?  Seminary, or not to Seminary? Comment below!

How Effective was Government Persecution of Orthodox Churches in Russia During the Communist Period?

I have been toying with the idea of posting some of the articles I’ve written for seminary up on this blog for people to read and discuss. A few friends mentioned they would be interested in this one in particular. The following is an article I wrote for a class on Twentieth-Century Church History. Feel free to chime in and leave a comment below. (Just a heads-up that it’s written in UK English; those aren’t misspellings!)

The twentieth century, along with being a time of great technological development, was a period of some of the most intense persecution of Christianity the world has ever seen. Multiple sources have estimated that more Christians were killed for their faith in the twentieth century than in all other centuries combined. Much of this persecution happened under the rule of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and Asia. Not least among the persecuted churches was the Orthodox church in Russia. However, the Orthodox church did not cease to exist, and now enjoys a constitutionally privileged position in Russia. Tertullian famously wrote, ‘the blood of Christians is seed’; the implication being that persecution, rather than causing the extermination of Christianity, actually causes it to become stronger and to spread. Was this the case in regard to Orthodox Christianity in Russia during the communist period, or did the persecution ultimately reach its objective?

First of all, we must consider what the objectives of the government persecution were. As the largest and most influential religious organisation in Russia, the persecution of the Orthodox church by the Soviet government was both ideologically and politically motivated. Ideologically, one of the ultimate objectives of Marxism was the elimination of all religion. Politically, the Orthodox church had been very closely tied to the ruling houses of Imperial Russia, and thus, in the minds of the communists, was part of the old system which they were trying to overthrow. The fact that during the Russian civil war many prominent Orthodox supporters fought on the side of the ‘Whites’ certainly contributed to the persecution of the church once the ‘Reds’ eventually triumphed. Although all religions and Christian groups suffered persecution during the communist period, the Orthodox church was often treated uniquely; there were times when non-Orthodox were allowed greater freedom in the hope that their growth would weaken the Orthodox church, and there were times when the government sought to work through the Orthodox church as it did through its puppet regimes, to influence people or gain popular support for its agendas.

Some historical context is helpful for understanding the place of the Orthodox church in Russia prior to the communists coming to power. The official christianisation of the Russian people is recognised as having taken place in 988, when Vladimir I led the citizens of Kyiv to the Dnieper river for baptism. One of the factors in Vladimir pronouncing Christianity to be the official national religion was that he believed it would be a means of unifying his divided people by giving them a common sense of identity. Vladimir aligned his people with Constantinople, the ‘second Rome.’ Vassily III was the first Russian ruler to take the title of ‘tsar’, which comes from the Latin ‘caesar’. In 1589, the Patriarchate of Moscow was established; the Patriarch of Constantinople recognised Russia as the political but not ecclesiastical successor to Constantinople, and the tsar was acknowledged as successor to the Byzantine Emperors, but Moscow was not acknowledged as the ‘third Rome’, though its form of Christendom and church-state relations followed that model. Russian history after this point was marked by a struggle for authority between church and state; at some points church leaders claimed supreme authority, while at others the church was reduced to a department of the state and the clergy as state servants. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Peter the Great suppressed the Moscow Patriarchate in favour of a synod which ran the church as a department of the state, limiting its freedom. Thus, in Russia there was a tradition of autocracy reaching back several centuries, in which the Orthodox church, while enjoying considerable privileges, was subjected to the state. When the communist regime made the churches answerable to a government department, this was nothing new to the Orthodox church. The traditional patterns of church-state relationship in Russia meant that the Orthodox church was surprisingly able to adapt to life under communism, where they found themselves once again in a struggle with the state for authority and once again subjugated to the state. In some ways the situation the Orthodox church found itself in under communism was one they were well-prepared to cope with because it was more familiar to them than, for example, Western-style pluralistic democracy would have been.

The Orthodox church suffered great losses during the communist period, but they also received some surprising benefits. After the Bolsheviks took power, a prolonged period of repression began, rising steadily throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s. The Orthodox church was virtually ‘decapitated’; between 1918 and 1926, over 100 bishops were executed and thrown in prison, along with tens of thousands of priests—85,000 clergy were put to death in 1937 alone. Stalin, a dropout from an Orthodox seminary, continued Lenin’s policy of persecution. During the first decades of Soviet control, the number of functioning Orthodox churches was reduced from around 55,000 to about 500, and the number of monasteries was reduced from 1,025 to 0. The Orthodox church, at least on the surface, ceased to exist; it was forced underground, with believers being led by clergy who took up ordinary occupations to mask their religious activity and to support themselves. We are only left to wonder if the Orthodox church in Russia would have survived at all had this level of persecution continued, because in 1943, Stalin introduced a reversal in policy and allowed the Orthodox church a limited amount of freedom in exchange for their support of the war effort. Such changes in policy happened a number of times during the communist period, with bursts of persecution and moments of reprieve, but it was always generally suppressive, and it was clear that the view of the future held by the communist powers was one which did not include religious groups of any kind, much less the Orthodox church. However, the Soviets were not opposed to using the church in the short term as a mechanism for influencing and controlling people in their empire, as Stalin had in 1943. Furthermore, it was easier to control centralised institutions than underground bodies. Thus, from 1940 the Uniate churches of Ukraine and Central Europe were forcibly united with the Russian Orthodox church and the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate was extended after 1945 to include Orthodox churches in Bulgaria and Romania as they came under Soviet political domination. The Russian Orthodox church had a history of attempting to extend its influence, and ironically, it was the Soviet regime who helped them to do so during the communist period.

The way the communist government of the Soviet Union approached the Orthodox church in Russia differed from policy of the communist government in China towards Christianity. The main reason for this is because communist social thought did not have to undo Christian cultural influence in China as it did in Russia, which had been shaped by centuries of Christian allegiance. In China the Christian community had always been a minority; it was smaller, less influential, and closely associated with foreign influence. Russia, on the other hand, had experienced centuries of Christendom, in which the Orthodox church, far from being considered a foreign entity, was part of the historical and national identity of Russia and the Russian people. This is precisely what Soviet policy sought to undo, as well as the reason why this was as incredibly difficult task, which they never fully succeeded to accomplish. It seems that this was ultimately accepted by the Soviet government, who in 1988, at the millennium of the christianising of Russia, not only allowed, but even participated in the commemoration by minting a gold coin. In the newfound liberty after the end of communism, the Orthodox church rushed in to fill the void in national identity left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Symbols and paraphernalia of Orthodox worship began to reappear and the remains of Tsar Nicholas II and his family were disinterred and reburied in an Orthodox cathedral in Saint Petersburg. In 1997 a new law in Russia put the Orthodox church in a constitutionally privileged position and limited the freedom of other religious groups. Orthodox priests have been seen blessing Russian army recruits going off to war in breakaway provinces. It would seem that these are signs of a return to Christendom and the failure of the decades-long Soviet policy of persecution.

Statistics, however, suggest that the government persecution of the Orthodox church was not without effect. It is estimated that by 2000 there were around 80 million self-identified Orthodox Christians in Russia—about half the population. The other believers of all religions made up roughly 15 million, leaving approximately 65 million Russians professedly without any religious belief—an astonishingly high proportion compared with countries outside the former communist lands. Of that 80 million, somewhere between 3-15 million actually attend church even once a year. This disparity between practice and professed identity has led some to suggest that Russia is in fact one of the most secularised societies in the world.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, one of the greatest challenges that Orthodoxy has faced is how to cope with Western-style pluralistic democracy. The collapse of the Soviet state, while allowing the church far greater freedom than it had had at any time since 1917-1918, came at the expense of its ability to influence many of the churches once under the Soviet sway. One of the great legacies of communism has been internal church division. The reappearance of the Uniate churches and the formation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as well as schismatic Orthodox churches in Russia, Ukraine and abroad have significantly weakened the Moscow Patriarchate. Whereas the Orthodox church in Russia, for many centuries under tsarist rule and then still under communist rule was one, unified, ‘national’ church—Orthodoxy in Russia and its former areas of influence is now splintered and divided. Thus, it seems that the vision of a renewed Christendom is something which can never again exist in the same way it did during Russia’s imperial period. The legacy of the communist era is that it forced Russia out of Christendom in an irreversible way.

How effective was the government persecution of the Orthodox church in Russia during the communist period? On the one hand, in the wake of the communist era, an astonishingly high number of Russians profess no religious belief and the once-united Orthodox church is now splintered, divided and weakened. In this sense, the persecution was effective. On the other hand though, it failed to accomplish its ultimate objectives of destroying the church and its role in society. Although there is evidence that church attendance was in decline during this period, it was also in decline in the West; state persecution did not make much difference. In fact, in some ways, Soviet policy helped to strengthen the church by keeping it united and by increasing its sphere of influence. Considering the rapid decline of Christianity in Western Europe—and even more recently in countries like Poland, which remained extremely loyal to the Roman Catholic Church throughout the communist period, but has seen decline in that area since it has become more of a Western-style democratic society—one is left to wonder what would have happened if the communist authorities would have not persecuted the Orthodox church, but had treated it as irrelevant and quietly excluded it from public life, as the democracies of Western Europe did as they transitioned out of Christendom. If the Soviets would have done that, I expect that Orthodox faith in Russia would have gone the way of Lutheranism in Sweden and Anglicanism in England—and maybe it is now, but the transition would have been, I believe, quicker and easier. Forbidden fruit is always sweeter; persecution only strengthens the resolve of the faithful. The real way to kill a religion is not through persecution, but by making it appear irrelevant and making its adherents complacent and uninterested in it.

Bibliography

  • Ferguson, S.B., D.F. Wright and J.I. Packer, eds, New Dictionary of Theology (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988)
  • Grass, T., THY305 Twentieth-Century Church History (Cheltenham: University of Gloucestershire, 2013)
  • Graves, D., “Tertullian’s Defence”, Christian History Institute, <https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/study/module/tertullian/> [accessed 06/12/13]
  • Jackson, E. and T. Grass, THY206 The Early Church to the Enlightenment, ed. by J. McKeown (Cheltenham: University of Gloucestershire, 2011)
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  • Noll, M.A., Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, 2nd edn (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1997)
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  • Pell, G., “Persecution of Christians is still rife today”, The Telegraph, 24 August, 2013 <http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/opinion/persecution-of-christians-is-still-rife-today/story-fni0cwl5-1226703406943> [accessed 06/12/13]
  • Vos, H.F., Exploring Church History, Nelson’s Christian Cornerstone Series (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994)
  • Walters, P.M., ‘Russian Orthodox Theology’ in New Dictionary of Theology, ed. by S.B. Ferguson, D.F. Wright and J.I. Packer (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), pp. 599-605