With the election of a new Russian Patriarch, Evangelicals are hoping for better relations with the Orthodox. Laws in Russia generally favor the Orthodox Church over any other religious group, and Evangelicals are particularly unwelcome in Russia by the Orthodox hierarchy, as they are often seen as trying to poach existing members of the Orthodox Church.
The clash between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism is often a cultural one, however:
Evangelicals in particular are struggling against the concept that non-Orthodox Christianity is foreign and even unpatriotic. William Yoder, spokesperson for the Union of Evangelical Christian-Baptists of Russia (RUECB), explained the popular conception of religion in Russia: “If you’re Russian, you must be Orthodox. By the same equation, if you’re Baptist, you must be an American.”
The problem is that often Evangelicalism does equal Americanism. Modern Evangelicalism has for the most part married itself to the “American Gospel,” and has thus become divorced from historical Christianity, of which Orthodoxy is a part.
One example: to most American Evangelicals, individualism is a core part of Christianity. The belief that one is saved by faith alone has morphed into the belief that one is saved alone, without any connection to the Church. This meshes well with the “rugged American individualism” that Americans so love. But it is completely foreign to Orthodoxy (and Catholicism, for that matter).
I remember from my Campus Crusade for Christ days that we treated Russia like it was a pagan nation. There was no respect for the 1,000 year Christian tradition of that nation. If a person didn’t profess their belief in Christ in the typical Evangelical way – “I am born again” or “I accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior” – then they were considered among the lost, even if they were a fervent church-goer.
I do believe in religious freedom, but I understand the hesitancy of the Orthodox Church to welcome groups like American Baptists into their country. Perhaps if the Baptists, and Evangelicals in general, were willing to accept the Orthodox practice of Christianity as salvific, the heirarchy would be more open to ecumenical relations.