By Laura Adkins
True evangelism has a cost. For some believers, that cost is time, money, or reputation, while for the early believers, the cost was often their lives or their livelihoods. Christians around the globe make a variety of sacrifices so that they are able to develop relationships and share the freedom, hope, and love that has been brought to the world through Christ.
Christians in Russia have a history of struggle. During Soviet times, religion (“the opiate of the masses”) was banned, and believers often met in secret; some Christians faced persecution during those years. One issue with religion during that era was the division of loyalty. If a citizen was loyal to God, he could not give his full attention and loyalty to the state. Problems would surely arise if the state asked a person of a certain faith to heed a law that was in conflict with his or her religious beliefs.
A New Struggle
Russian Christians are seeing indications of struggle again. On July 20, 2016, a new law was passed in Russia which severely limits and practically forbids any form of evangelization—even relational forms. Many citizens believe that this law (titled “On Combating Terrorism”) is intended to give the Russian government the power to combat potential terrorist cells, as well as shut down avenues that those organizations could be using to recruit. Because of this perceived and publicized purpose, the law received a great deal of support—or, at least, very little dissent—from a majority of the population.
To understand how this law affects Protestant Christians in Russia, a little background information is necessary. The official state religion (which is exempt from this law) is Russian Orthodox, and the word for “orthodox” in Russia is pravoslavnie—pravo meaning “right” or “correct” and slavnie having the same root as the word for “praise.” So in Russian, the word for “orthodox” essentially means “the right way to praise.” The word for “Protestant” is basically the same as the word in English (with the root in the word “protest”); but, the average Russian does not know that the “protesting” is not necessarily against the Orthodox Church.
Since the average Russian does not know the history of the Protestant movement, many Russians think of Protestant Christians as sects or cults. Generally Russians tend to believe that if one is Russian and a Christian, he or she should be Russian Orthodox—because the orthodox religion is the denomination which is part of their cultural tradition. Protestant Christianity is often considered a westernized version of the same basic set of beliefs.
While the new Russian law does not formally forbid the spread of personal beliefs, it does severely limit organized evangelization and puts tight restrictions on what can be said and done even inside Russian homes. One section of the law details that missionary activity is strictly prohibited in residential areas to the extent that prayer or evangelization should not take place in a home if people who are not already members of that certain religion are present.
Pavel, the pastor of a Church of Christ congregation for the last 20 years, had originally agreed to an interview before the law had passed; however, he became concerned for his safety. He wrote to me only the following: “First John 4:18, ‘There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.’”
When speaking to Pavel before the new law went it into effect, he was anxious because of the section of the law which restricts residential premises from being used for religious purposes. His church has been meeting in an apartment, which is technically owned by the church, so he was unsure of how this new law would impact his ministry. It is still unclear; Pavel and his small congregation now may need to find a space that is not located in a residential area to rent.
Pavel came to know Christ through his parents who read and studied Scripture in small groups, maintaining their Christian beliefs as Soviet citizens—which was a great risk. Christians would tear the Bible into small sections and hide it in the linings of their coats to bring to gatherings. Then the members of the group would take turns reading the passages that they had managed to bring with them. So Pavel is familiar with the struggle which believers may face under this new law.
Another pastor in Russia, Timofei, began his church only recently. He had shared that he has no reason to fear this new law, as God is bigger than the law. He quoted Romans 13:1: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” Timofei freely shares his faith with many people because he feels so grateful for the life God has provided for him. He often tells his own story of redemption to people, claiming that he was a “very bad man” and involved in a life of crime when God rescued him. Timofei is now a social worker, and he has a wonderful family. His wife and children help lead the music at the church’s services.
Timofei also sent to me the advice given out by a Protestant Christian advisory board in Russia which details the new law and interprets many of the sections. Some of the highlights are as follows: religious organizations must be registered with the government; any printed, audio, or video material must include the full name of the organization; organizations can be fined if their members are evangelizing without express permission. The penalties are fines between 5,000 to 50,000 rubles (approximately U.S. $80-$800) for citizens and 100 thousand to 1 million rubles (about U.S. $1,600-$16,000) for the organization. Foreign citizens who are found preaching without a contract from a registered religious organization face fines and deportation.
It was unclear in July exactly how the law would be enforced. Many Christians believed that the law was only enacted to use against the Muslim population; however, several Christians and Christian organizations have already been arrested or fined. A church leader near Kazan was arrested for speaking from a stage at a festival because, according to the charges, he did not have a permit to preach in public. His trial was set for August 29, according to the most recent update; the results of the trial have not been publicized. A U.S. minister who has been living and ministering in Russia for 15 years was charged under the new law and has stayed in Russia to clear his name while his family has moved back to the States. A number of other Protestant believers have been fined, including a pastor from Ukraine who was visiting friends and is accused of evangelizing at a friend’s home.
This situation is not the first time Christians in this area of the world have experienced struggle, and their perseverance in faith is inspiring. Perhaps it is because they are used to having their individual freedoms limited that they are assured that their freedom is in Christ and not in their government.
As Americans, we often become more interested with our individual rights and freedoms as citizens, and we forget that our true freedom is the freedom that Christ offers us from our mortality, our sinful nature, and ourselves. I know that I am guilty of this practice. As Paul wrote, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). I sometimes wonder—if our freedoms as citizens were more limited by the government, would we develop a deeper appreciation or a better understanding for the freedom offered us in Christ Jesus?
If we believe that our freedom is in Christ, the verse about perfect love driving out fear makes even more sense. We all take risks when we share the gospel—even in our homes or in conversations with friends. Yet we do not need to fear those risks, because our freedom is in Christ—and that freedom is more substantial than any freedom offered by this world.
Laura Adkins is a freelance writer who lives with her husband, Terry, near Chicago.
*Names have been changed to maintain anonymity.