Apologetics russian-eagle

Published on February 22nd, 2012 | by Bojidar Marinov


Russia and the Gospel: Challenging the Strong Man

“I have conquered an empire but I haven’t been able to conquer myself.”

Thus said shortly before his death Peter the Great, the ruler of the Russian Empire from 1682 till 1725. There were good reasons why he said that. The man who controlled the destinies of millions of people couldn’t control his own epileptic fits, nor could he control his love for drinking and feasts which made his health problems worse. He changed Russia completely. So thorough was that change that a traveler to it in 1682 wouldn’t recognize it in 1725, when Peter died. And yet he couldn’t control himself even when he knew that his conduct and his personal life needed change.

It is not surprising he couldn’t conquer himself. He did not have an ideology of “self” to start with. All his ideology, all his thinking and perception of reality had been groomed from an early age to think only of an empire as a true entity. The individual was missing from that picture of the Russian mentality and culture. The individual existed only as a cog in a bigger machine, as one of the crowd. The thought that the individual was a separate entity with specific rules and principles for his conduct was foreign to Peter, as it was foreign to the majority of Russians at the time; and in fact, was foreign to the very mentality of the Russians at the time. Not that Peter didn’t change his mentality to a certain extent – his visits to Christian Reformed countries like the Netherlands and Britain did create in him some vague, instinctive respect to the value of human life, whether it was the life of a noble or of a serf. (The sickness that brought his death was caused by his wading in ice-cold water to save drowning soldiers.) But he didn’t see in depth the very spirit of the Western civilization; he only saw in the West the technologies, the military superiority that made mighty empires. That instinct to value human life was not enough to make him understand the individual as a moral entity. He didn’t have the ideology – or rather, the theology – to understand the human being as a being.

All that mattered was the Empire. He himself, and everyone else, served the ideal of the great state which conquers people. He tortured and killed his own son for opposing his policies. He changed completely – by government decree – the theology and the liturgy of the Russian church to fit the new agenda for the Empire he had. Everyone in Russia had to become a Westerner – by centralized government decree, not by personal choice. There was no individual personal choice to start with anyway. No one believed in such a thing, and Peter didn’t care to create a new belief in a personal choice. He just took the shortcut to make Russia a civilized nation by government choice. Individuals meant nothing so why bother changing their thinking, souls, morality? Why teaching them to conquer their old habits, addictions, lusts, when that could be achieved by a centralized decree, under the threat of punishment?

And therefore, why change himself?

This has been the problem with Russia from the beginning. Or, rather, not from the very beginning but after the decentralized confederation of tribes and cities called Kievan Rus collapsed in fratricidal wars and was subjugated by the Mongol Horde in 1240. The new Russia which arose in its place and defeated its enemies had nothing to do with the old free order. It had completely changed into a collectivist society with a pyramidal structure where everyone – even the merchants and the entrepreneurs – existed for the purposes of the centralized state in Moscow. The consequent military victories of the Grand Princes in Moscow against the Mongols in the east and the Polish-Lithuanian and the German knights in the west established the political power even more strongly.

By the time of Ivan Grozny (16th century) Russia was a complete totalitarian state, from top to bottom, with the population enslaved to the centralized power. A person did not exist for himself and for his own pursuit of happiness; everyone existed for the state. And the Eastern Orthodox Church did not help much in the process. Lacking the theology of the individual as a political and social entity, the Orthodox Church only reinforced the statist ideology of the Russian Czars. A Reformed movement in the 15th century did capture for a while the minds and the hearts of large masses of people among both the nobility and the commoners. Unfortunately, focused on religious observances, it failed to produce a social and political alternative to the growing power of the centralized state. In 1504, the Russian state struck back. By 1533 the Russian Reformation was dead. The Czar was established as the highest power in the land, with the church firmly under imperial control. There were to be no more widespread experiments with individualism in Russia. All existed for the state. The new religion – the Russian state – was established firmly, and nothing could exist outside of the state.

In time, even the Cossacks, the free people of the steppe, would bow their heads to the Empire in Moscow. They resisted for several centuries. Some even led rebellions against the centralized power in Moscow; Stenka Razin (in the 17th century) and Emelian Pugachev (in the 18th century) were the most successful of all. But even Razin and Pugachev did not have an ideology of liberty to offer; both men propagandized their rebellions as restorations of the “lawful authority of the Czar” rather than as a quest for liberty and justice for all. Europe had its Magna Carta, the free cities, the Reformation and its products – Switzerland, the Netherlands, England and Scotland, and eventually America. Russia had nothing of the sort. All social and political life – and even the resistance movements and the Church – were to be in the context of the centralized totalitarian state. There were no individuals to be worth mentioning. And therefore Peter the Great never thought of individuals as worth mentioning; or as worth discipling in moral self-government and self-discipline. Not even himself.

A hundred years after Peter’s death, in December of 1825, a group of young army officers staged a revolt in Saint Petersburg. The young men had participated in the Napoleonic Wars, and spending their time as occupation forces in France and Germany opened their eyes to the difference between the social structure and ideology of Europe and Russia. Their revolt – named the “Decembrist Revolt” – was very short-lived. They never understood that there was a deeper cause for the problems in Russia; and that deeper cause was ideological and theological. Even though they desired the same self-government and dignity for the individual for all Russians, they were not joined by enthusiastic masses desiring liberty and justice for all. By 1825 the established religion was the state. The problem was religious. Liberty was impossible in a land where the great idol in the society was the state. And a religious problem was not to be solved with political revolt. The religious foundations of liberty which the Reformation developed in Western Europe were not present.

And then, 92 years after the Decembrist Revolt, when Russia had its first liberal (in the European sense of the word) government in the summer of 1917, with Alexander Kerensky as Prime Minister, it lacked popular support. Not many in Russia understood the concept of being free of government control. In terms of religious commitment, the Russian population still expected to have a centralized government which controls all the decisions. The idea of individual self-control was not a popular one. A few months later, Kerensky’s government fell to the Bolsheviks. The ensuing Civil War (1918-1923) was a struggle between one group of statists – the czarist Whites – and another group of statists – the Communist Reds. The individual and his liberty were never discussed nor even proposed as political agenda.

The state was god walking on earth. Russia had Hegel’s ideal applied in practice long before Hegel, and in a much more consistent form than Hegel’s Prussia ever achieved.

And when Hitler invaded Russia, what Stalin did was to dig out of the dust the old religious hymns for the military and use them in almost unchanged form to inspire the troops. The same religious fervor in fighting for the czarist regime was used to fight for the Communist regime. Nothing had changed.

In reality, while on the surface it looked like Russia went through two great transformations – one under Peter the Great and another under the Communists – from a spiritual perspective nothing changed. The same central idol, the idol of the state, remained in power throughout all centuries after the 1400s. Even after the fall of the Soviet Empire in the 1990s, the timidly liberal administration of Boris Yeltsin eventually gave way to a return to statism under the former KGB agent Vladimir Putin. The official religion in Russia remained the centralized state.

Where was the church?

The Russian Orthodox Church gradually surrendered. It became an arm of the centralized power in Moscow, something like a Ministry of Religion to serve the powerful of the day. It first served the Czarist regime. After the Communist Revolution it suffered in the hands of the Communists for a while, until Stalin – always a calculating mind – decided to use its propagandist power to rally the Russian population to fight against the invading Germans in 1941. The church was expected to serve the state; and it had no power to resist. Nor the ideology to resist. So thorough has its surrender to the idol of the state become that when a few years ago Kirill, a priest with open ties with the KGB, was appointed Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, no one seemed surprised. That same Kirill was the first to congratulate the Stalinist dictator of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, for his election victory in 2010. And that same Kirill just a couple of weeks ago declared the Putin era a “Divine miracle” and sharply criticized the democratic protesters who demanded reforms and rule of law.

There is a “strong man” in Russia; and I mean not the current political leader in the Kremlin. Russia, for all these centuries, have been ruled by a religion of collectivism and statism. A religion which has never been very different from the religion of pagan Rome: the cult of Caesar. Just like pagan Rome, that religion has accommodated different other religions to serve it. The statist religion of the Russian state has accommodated even Christianity to serve its purposes. The “strong man” is that religion of statism, the religion that denies the existence of the individual and his life, liberty, and property, unless they serve the collective entity of the state.

And unless Christianity challenges that “strong man,” Russia will never be evangelized.

In an earlier article, “Missionaries of the Ax,” I argued that a missionary has never done his job well unless he has challenged the main idol in the society. While evangelizing the German tribes, Saint Boniface discovered that his converts, when they were not equipped with a vision that challenged the central religion of their society – including in its social and political implications – tended to return back to their pagan ways. Boniface had to challenge that central idol, the god Thor, who alone through his power and cunning controlled the world of gods, and therefore the world of men. Boniface took his ax to Thor’s oak. The German tribes converted almost overnight.

It is hard to say whether similar overnight conversion will happen in Russia. But one thing is sure: So far there have been no missionary, no preacher, no church, no Christian teacher or group, who have issued a challenge against the totalitarian state and its religion of statism in Russia. Evangelical and Reformed missionaries, even though they have flocked to Russia in large numbers after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, have only touched the periphery of what the Russian society is, and is based upon. Missionaries have preached individual salvation. But they haven’t preached the individual, and his worth in God’s eyes, and his worth as a political and social entity. The idol of the Russian state has never met a religion which challenged its supremacy. There is no voice in Russia which says, “There is another king, one Jesus” (Acts 17:7).

A long-term successful evangelism in Russia must start with a very important message which the Gospel brings to those who are touched by it: libertarianism. The value of the individual in God’s eyes, the value of the individual human life and the liberty of the individual to pursue his calling under God. As long as the liberty – political and social – of the Gospel is missing from the mission endeavors and preaching in Russia, Protestant Christianity will be just another trophy in the Russian state’s Pantheon of faiths and gods, admitted as long as they do not stir the water and do not challenge the absolute power of the rulers. The Russian people – and I am speaking generically here, of course – have been conditioned for centuries to think of themselves as servants of an Empire, of its quests for statist dominion. Patriotism has been offered as the unifying element of the society – patriotism, of course, defined as the glory of the state. In a culture that glorifies the state, God can not be glorified. Therefore, the first job of a missionary should be to preach against the glorification of the state; and show the Biblical value of the individual, and his place before God, and in his society.

Following from that goal, a missionary must realize that the idolatry of the totalitarian state has created a dependence of the population on the care, the decrees, and the decision-making process of the state. When I visited Russia in 2003, and talked about homeschooling, the most frequently asked question by my hosts was, “Is it legal?” They were professing, committed Christians. Some of them had been criminals in their previous lives; they had served their terms, and had returned to their families, and had started churches, teaching and preaching in an ungodly society. But when it came to specific practical actions like teaching their children instead of leaving them to the pagans, the reaction wasn’t “Is it Biblical?” but “Is it legal?” In their perceptions, and in their thinking, the issue of government “legality” was still more important than the issue of whether it was a Biblical imperative or not.

A missionary to Russia must have a theology that can break that psychological, economic, and social dependence on the state in his converts. He must be able to present a vision of a community which can survive without having to rely on the state for guidance, education, welfare, economic survival, or family integrity and faithfulness. That vision of such a community must start with teaching the individuals the basic skills for a free man, a free individual who can make decisions independently from earthly human institutions, based solely on his obedience and loyalty to God and His Law. Without such vision for the individual as an independent agent of dominion under God, the spell of the idol of statism can not be broken. No matter how many converts a missionary can have, they will be like the first converts of Boniface: serving God on Sundays, and Thor Mondays through Saturdays.

This is a difficult message to bring to Russia. Unlike the evangelism of the missionaries so far, it will raise a challenge against powers who are committed to preserve their power over the minds and the hearts of their subjects, no matter what the cost. It may prove too hard a task for many American missionaries. The Russian state has always regarded any talk about libertarianism and individual liberty with suspicion; when it comes supported by the Gospel of Christ, it may alarm those powers. But it must be preached and taught nevertheless – whether through internet publications in Russian or through Russians themselves who have come to salvific knowledge of Jesus Christ and understand the comprehensive nature of His Gospel.

Difficult or not, it must be preached, and the “strong man” must be opposed and defeated. There’s a world to be conquered for the Gospel; and we as Christians better get to work.

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About the Author

A Reformed missionary to his native Bulgaria for over 10 years, Bojidar preaches and teaches doctrines of the Reformation and a comprehensive Biblical worldview. Having founded Bulgarian Reformation Ministries in 2001, he and his team have translated over 30,000 pages of Christian literature about the application of the Law of God in every area of man’s life and society, and published those translations online for free. He has been active in the formation of the Libertarian movement in Bulgaria, a co-founder of the Bulgarian Society for Individual Liberty and its first chairman. If you would like Bojidar to speak to your church, homeschool group or other organization, contact him through his website: http://www.bulgarianreformation.org/

8 Responses to Russia and the Gospel: Challenging the Strong Man

  1. E Harris says:

    I was struck by the ease with which the Eastern Orthodox Heirarchy just gets in line. I guess it’s hard to shake old ideas, when a culture really hasn’t been solidly exposed to new ideas. The gospel has a lot of individualism in it. How Jesus came as one man, lived as a man, led as a man. Our collective-ness comes from God in Heaven, not from any earthly form…though we do live here.

    I believe that a major reason why ‘the church’ has not been effective in resisting tyranny in many places in the world… is because it has surrendered to it’s own SPIRITUALIZED version of the same thing!

    Like the whore that rides the beast/Babylon. It (in itself) does not truly have a heart for individuals. It devours them in it’s own heirarchical/numbers/image system. So because many in the church are caught up in this mentality IN SPIRITUAL THINGS, they cannot break free from the earthly collectivisms either. They simply lack the philosophy. As you said.

    Because to change their philosophy may mean that such judgement would begin at the House of God!

    Many institutions continue to call themselves “xxx church” or “xxx church” even though the NT rebukes such division. In the New Covenant, we are christian believers IN this city or that city (this neighborhood or that neighborhood). Believers always had differing opinions – but came together as individuals (not individuals purposefully representing seperate CAMPS.) Christians are individuals, and individually lead their families, under God. Is Christ divided? But we have maintained massive COLLECTIVISTIC distinctions between varying camps of believers…trying to keep believers locked up into our own distinctive pens/sheepfolds, without letting them out.

    This denominational/heirarchical mentality in the church makes our leaders have thought processes that are more akin to heathen leaders than Jesus Christ! It is because our leaders lead with the minds of sheep-keepers and number-crunching wolves, that they cannot think in a manner that helps them make the case against statism! The theology of the organic “house church” movement is getting close to the truth on this matter. Any rebuke of tyranny must ensure that we don’t have the embryo of the same thing operating in our midst without rebuke!

    There was a falling away from the way Jesus led. The apostles were constantly trying to shepherd people out of pagan beliefs, and statist/collectivist compulsions, and wolves who wanted to mount up over the sheep. This is a re-occuring theme in the New Testament. Yet…as the gospel spread (as it has)… a falling away must have occurred. Because most christians today do not live with the purity of NT ways in mind. We have way too many traditions and beliefs (and ATTITUDES) in every denomination, that are unjustified by pure scripture.

    The only way to rebuke authoritarianism using the authority of the gospel… is to revert to sola scriptura. The PURITY of New Testament conviction. Even if it means silently (or loudly) changing our denominational/congregational/heiarchical mindsets. Western Civilization as a whole is being judged, RIGHT NOW. And God (and the secularists) are using Islam to judge it. Islamist collectivism and monotheism was learned…from somewhere. Mohammed was a learned young man, who had travelled & traded with the Holy Roman Empire as a merchant. He just didn’t buy into the Trinity, and Jesus Christ as the Son of God. So he took his reformed monotheistic attitude back to his wayward pagan culture…and the power of monotheism gave force to his message. But most of his collectivistic attitudes were a combination of native culture, human nature, and the heirarchical/manipulative ways of the Roman Heirarchy itself!

    Most people don’t hold to any form of Protestant Historicism any longer. It does need a lot of work (it can easily be reconciled with postmillenialism, and 70ad events). The early protestants marked the papacy as the man of sin. And they would not budge on that point. THE strong man was directly confronted. THIS is what gave moral authority to the Reformers! And it was in response to this challenge that the Counter-Reformation rubber-stamped two competing theories: Futurism AND Preterism. In other words “Look to the future, look to the past, but don’t look at us!” …Protestants didn’t buy it. Until the Catholic Church seemed to no longer be as big a threat, and the protestants began to realize that they were all doing basically variations of the same heirarchical theme as the Roman Catholics were doing. So OUR collectivized group identity (over and above the simplicity of Christ) can’t really be that bad, can it? It’s always the OTHER GUY’s collectivized group identity that is the problem!

  2. Yury says:

    Bojidar, perhaps these people who asked “Is it legal?” were merely afraid of sanctions from the state agencies for their refuse to bring their children to the state school. As far as I know, it is legal to teach children at home under the condition that parents bring them under the yearly state exams. But there is a danger of persecution under the present paternalistic fervor of the Russian state, though the particular pretexts for state sanctions could be fabricated by the officials out of thin air and have nothing to do with schooling. The state uses “juvenal justice” as a tool of oppression against the political opposition and can use it against the religious opposition too. Thus the mass homeschooling movement in Russia requires among other matters strong legal support.

    • Yes, Yury, I concede there are more factors involved there, and one factor doesn’t explain all. I was not trying to judge these people, only to understand the overall focus of their beliefs and expectations.

      You and I have work to do. Lots of work.

  3. Matthew says:

    Mr. Marinov,

    Have you ever written about Ukraine’s history?

    • No. I love the Cossack culture and I have researched it a lot. Ukraine’s history is surprisingly rich, and much of it is gory and very difficult to even hear about.

  4. Phil says:

    This article seems to explain what the present president of the US is desperately trying to bring about here, a complete dependence on the state. Trouble is, even in an orthodox Presbyterian church, we don’t hear the call for libertarianism. Instead, after a class on Islam, I hear that we don’t have that problem here, of the church being one with the state. True enough, but it was stated as church shouldn’t influence the state.

    By the way, you note that the first converts of Boniface served God on Sunday and Thor on Monday through Friday. Was Saturday a day off? (smile)

    • :) I meant through Saturday. I will change it immediately.

    • Lee says:

      “True enough, but it was stated as church shouldn’t influence the state.” -Phil
      “serving God on Sundays, and Thor Mondays through Saturdays” -Bojidar

      Is this what is meant by “the gospel of Two Kingdoms”? Here in Mainstream Protestant Christianity America, the pastors seem to preach against this type of thing, but only so far as the proverbial “water cooler” moments at the workplace. I’ve yet to sit under a pastor or preacher who will openly endorse a political view from the pulpit. This may be why we have a large Statist political agenda on the rise -the faithful have seemingly stepped out of the social arena.

      It seems as America goes further into liberalism it gets further from libertarianism. Or, rather, the further we get from God the more we rely on the state; Communism being the most prevalent example.

      Thank you for the article, it’s made some good connections for me.

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