Liturgical Baptists

A principle of the evangelical church growth movement is that worship should change to reflect the culture–right?  So some Baptists in Russia have adopted Eastern-Orthodox style liturgy, complete with incense and icons.  Also a church government with bishops and archbishops.  (So if the culture likes to worship that way, would church growth advocates adopt it over the contemporary styles they favor, but are perhaps growing stale?  You Baptists, is there any theological reason why you could not worship like this?  Calvinist Baptists couldn’t, of course, given the Calvinist theology of worship, but how about the rest of you?)From William E. Yoder at Christianity Today:

“There is a solemn procession to the altar. The choir is chanting. A bishop in a long, black robe and a full, gray beard swings an incense burner back and forth. We bow. We cross ourselves. It’s a typical Sunday service at the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia.

“Yes. Baptist.”

That is how Alexander Cuttino, an American pastor, recently described worship at the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia (EBCG), a denomination famous for its unusual method of contextualizing the gospel. The man behind those efforts: Malkhaz Songulashvili, archbishop of the EBCG.

For many citizens, being Georgian means being Orthodox; 82 percent of Georgia’s 4.5 million citizens identify as Orthodox. Songulashvili, a Georgia native, says he could have created “a Baptist church for Baptists, or a Baptist church for Georgians.” He chose the latter. Call it the seeker-sensitive approach in the former Soviet state.

Songulashvili claims a total community of 17,000, making it the largest Protestant denomination in Georgia. [Editor's note: According to the East-West Church and Ministry Report, statistics from Operation World give 2010 figures of 5,796 Evangelical Christian-Baptist members for Georgia, with a larger number including affiliates of 15,600.] Brian Wolf, a dissenting Georgia missionary with International Gospel Outreach, puts the number much lower, at about 2,000 adult members. Yet its contextual model is powerful. “I know of no other Baptist union or convention in the world that has exegeted its context for ministry as brilliantly and powerfully as [the EBCG],” claims Baptist theologian John Sundquist.

Many Orthodox view Baptists as a Western-inspired and -funded fringe or underground movement, decrying them as sectarian heretics. Baptists, in turn, have regarded Orthodox as unconverted. Yet Songulashvili has “uncovered the treasures” of the Orthodox tradition, he says, and incorporates them into faith and practice. He intends to lead a denomination that’s Baptist in theology while both Georgian and Orthodox in culture—and to break the longstanding impasse between evangelical Protestants and Orthodox throughout Eastern Europe.

Structurally, the EBCG calls itself an Episcopal Baptist church. It is headed by an archbishop and three bishops—one of whom is female. Female ordination and liturgical dance both mark EBCG’s departure from Orthodoxy.

But the tradition of worshiping God with all five senses is one Orthodox gift that the EBCG receives “with gratitude,” says Songulashvili. Consequently, the EBCG has founded a school for icon painting and uses incense in services. It has a monastic order and holds processions and pilgrimages.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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