Why Russian Churches Need Membership
Church membership, once a prominent practice among Russian evangelicals, has been largely abandoned by Russian churches. This severing from biblical practice has had negative effects on the health of our churches. At the same time, by looking at our past, Russian churches have the opportunity to retrieve our commitment to church membership and biblical ecclesiology.
ORIGINS OF THE RUSSIAN EVANGELICAL MOVEMENT (1867–1928)
Healthy churches take membership seriously, even in Russia. Vasily Vasilyevich Ivanov, the editor of the first Russian Baptist magazine, affirmed the importance of church membership at the beginning of the 1900s:
All those who wish to join the host of God’s people must have . . . signs of their rebirth from the Spirit. And it is necessary that these signs of life manifest themselves not only in words. . . . Should one pay attention to the fact whether the Spirit of God actually performed the act of salvation in him? Has he died to the world, and has he given himself to the Lord. And now, as His obedient servant, does he want to serve Him and bear His yoke? All of this must be strictly observed by the entire congregation, and especially its presbyter, as the gatekeeper of the House of God (Mark 13:34). . . . When accepting new members to the church, they must be announced that they must accept all the duties of Christ’s slaves and contribute to all spiritual and material means of congregation improvement and the spread of gospel news throughout the world (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:41).
Early Baptists in Russia regularly promoted church membership for three primary reasons. First, these believers recognized that membership was clearly taught in Scripture. Second, they recognized the importance of regenerate church membership—that those who were truly born again would desire fellowship in a community of saints, be held accountable, and participate in church ministry. Finally, in contrast to the parochial Russian Orthodox churches, out of which many of them were converted, Russian evangelicals recognized that the Bible taught the priesthood of all believers—a doctrine which supported and shaped their understanding of church membership. These commitments catalyzed faithful churches and helped evangelical Christians remain faithful during the years of intensified persecution in the Soviet era.
In the Soviet era, Russian evangelicals dwindled from 2 million to 500,000. At one point during the Soviet era, the government only recognized 360 out of the 3,600 evangelical churches as legal. The Soviets limited the rights and opportunities of evangelical Christians. Many were sent to the Gulag to endure physical torment. Others were sent to the torture chambers of the NKVD.
My great-grandfather was shot for his commitment to Christ. My grandfather was exiled to Siberia.
Throughout this persecution, church membership supported, strengthened, and defended local churches. It ensured Christian confession wasn’t merely nominal. Believers knew that joining a church meant counting the cost to be a disciple of Jesus—believers would follow him, to death if necessary.
Not surprisingly, evangelical churches were brimming with true and active believers as they maintained the purity of the church. Church membership was not just a matter of biblical fidelity, it was also a survival strategy. In the face of persecution and government sanctions, membership maintained the vibrancy of the church’s witness.
Granted, sometimes local churches made it too difficult to join a church. For instance, when I, as a young person, wanted to join the church, I was required to memorize the Sermon on the Mount in addition to making a credible profession of their faith. At the same time, these persecuted evangelical churches were characterized by hospitality, warmth, and gospel proclamation. These communities evidenced love and mutual commitment to each other for the glory of Christ. The local church was the center of the Christian’s life and ministry, and we esteemed membership as central to our personal faithfulness and corporate witness.
FREEDOM AND EMIGRATION (1990–2010)
In the late twentieth century, freedom arrived unexpectedly. Yet this freedom was both a blessing and a trial. At times, it seemed our newfound religious freedom proved more detrimental to the health of local churches than persecution.
Weary of oppression and humiliation and in the face of a collapsing economy, many evangelicals emigrated out of Russia. Even today the largest evangelical Russian churches are in America, not Russia.
As faithful Russians left, new threats to the church emerged. Surprisingly, the most destructive influence on the church came not from a godless, atheistic state, but from Western missionary organizations. While many missionaries have faithfully labored in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, some of them have harmed Russian evangelical churches. How?
1. Weak or false ecclesiology. Regrettably, many Western missionaries imported anemic ecclesiology to Russian evangelical churches. Unbiblical philosophies of ministry began to be substituted for meaningful church membership. Some missionaries promoted the idea that local church membership was not necessary, that membership in the universal church sufficed.
2. The priority of missiology over ecclesiology. Regrettably, many missions organizations who came after the collapse of the Soviet Union valued missiology above ecclesiology, rather than recognizing how each depends on the other. As a result, many missionaries never joined a local church. In fact, some even began to view churches as resourcing centers to support missionary agencies rather than the other way around.
In general, these attitudes led to the weakening of the church. Many Christians no longer viewed the local church as central, and much of the “ministry” in Russia was neither tethered to a local church nor did it strengthen local churches. Currently, many ministries and organizations in Russia continue to discredit, either intentionally or unintentionally, the local church—some even claiming that the local church is an unreliable entity, one which Christians should avoid.
Russian churches desperately need a reinvigorated sense of church membership. As membership has waned, Russian evangelical churches have become weaker and less effective. Parochial or recreational-motivational religious meetings are the new norm—and in these meetings, pastors don’t faithfully preach the gospel or create caring communities of love and discipline where a congregation of saints can grow together in the gospel.
CHURCH MEMBERSHIP: RECOVERING A LOST RUSSIAN HERITAGE
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ivan Stepanovich Prokhanov, an evangelical leader who greatly influenced the formation and development of the evangelical movement in Russia. Prokhanov recognized that church membership was an important part of the path to the gospel awakening in Russia, an indispensable conviction that would lead to healthy local churches and reformation.
His writings and memoirs reveal an unwavering commitment to the importance of church membership. Evangelical churches in his era issued membership cards and the largest church of that time, under the ministry of the famous Russian Baptist preacher Wilhelm Fetler, even issued special badges to church members. They wanted to remind themselves that they were to be different from the world and that they were called to preach the gospel. They labored to hold one another accountable to Christ
If we want to see the gospel advance in Russia, then our churches must return to meaningful and biblical church membership—embracing the heritage left to us not only by the teachings of Scripture but by faithful Russian churches that so vividly displayed the gospel in previous generations.