These are not your average Protestant missionaries. They are highly experienced, seasoned veterans, with decades of experience. They have dedicated their lives to getting Protestant converts, both in Russia and abroad. They have now been invited to speak to many students at an interfaith conference — at an Orthodox seminary — in the heart of Russia's Golden Ring.
Today's seminaries are filled with tomorrow's priests & bishops. To see how the Orthodox Church will look tomorrow, just take a look at Orthodox seminaries today. At 39 of Russia's 40 Orthodox seminaries, training proceeds as expected. Orthodox priests and professors provide future clergy with the training they will need to faithfully serve the Church.
But in the heart of Russia's famous Golden Ring, one Orthodox seminary is taking a different path. Every year, they host an "interfaith conference", where they invite experienced Protestant missionaries to teach the students a Protestant approach to theology and missions. They held their fourth annual interfaith conference on May 13-14, 2019.
In addition to several Orthodox speakers, the following Protestant leaders spoke at this year's interfaith conference at the Kostroma Theological Seminary:
- Dr. Mark Elliott
(Protestant Missionary to Russia for 45 years)
- Dr. Anthony Headley
(Pastor / Author / Seminary Professor)
- Dr. Jon Culver
(Protestant Missionary for 17 years)
- Dr. Kirk Sims
(Protestant Missionary for 17 years / Seminary Professor)
- Dr. Dieumeme Noelliste
(Seminary Professor / Author)
- Dr. George & Linda Roller
(Protestant Evangelists and Missionaries for 35 years)
On this formidable roster of experienced speakers, three men are Protestant seminary professors, four are Protestant pastors, five are published authors, six are doctors, and they have more than 100 years of combined experience in doing Protestant missionary work.
There were some additional unexpected speakers at this conference, including Fr. George Edelstein (whose son is the leader of Israel's parliament), and Fr. Joseph Gleason (an anti-ecumenist who is the senior editor of the Russian Faith news website). Why did these men speak at this particular conference? Such questions will be answered below. But first, it is important to understand the background of the Protestant leaders who were involved.
To better understand just how much experience these men have, it is highly recommended to read the following brief introductions for each Protestant speaker:
Dr. Mark Elliott has made numerous trips to Russia since 1974. For the past 45 years, his travels have involved teaching, leading mission trips in Russia, hosting Moscow conferences on the role of women in the church, and performing onsite evaluations of Protestant seminaries in the former Soviet Union. In 2009, Dr. Mark Elliott joined a group of Protestants in writing a book about Protestant evangelism in Russia, titled "Proselytism and Orthodoxy in Russia: The New War for Souls"
As a professor, he has taught at Asbury University, Wheaton College, Samford University, Southern Wesleyan University, and the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology. At Wheaton College, Dr. Elliott served for 13 years as director of the Institute for East-West Christian Studies, and at Samford University, he served for six years as director of the Global Center at Beeson Divinity School.
Dr. Elliott founded the East-West Church and Ministry Report, a journal that equips Protestants with information they need to perform successful missionary work in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union. He started this publication in 1993, and he completed 25 years as editor with the fall 2017 issue. Dr. Elliott presently continues his association with the EWC Report as editor emeritus.
Dr. Anthony Headly is ordained as a Protestant minister in the Free Methodist Church - USA. He is a licensed Psychologist, and has spent nearly 30 years as a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, where he began serving in 1990.
Dr. Headly has a Ph.D. in Psychology and holds three Masters degrees, including an M.Div. from Asbury Theological Seminary.
He has written multiple books, pastored multiple churches in the USA and Caribbean, and taught theology internationally in places such as the Caribbean, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Russia.
Dr. Jon Culver is a Protestant missionary with OC International. He and his wife Judi served as missionaries for 17 years in Bandung, Indonesia. Dr. Culver received his Ph.D. in Intercultural studies at the School of World Mission, a department at Fuller Theological Seminary.
He is a contributing author to multiple books, including Jesus and the Cross: Reflections of Christians from Islamic Contexts, and Jesus and the Incarnation: Reflections of Christians from Islamic Contexts.
At the 2019 interfaith conference in Kostroma, Russia, Dr. Culver delivered a message on Ishmael and His People in Biblical Promise and Prophecy. His presentation was heavily based on The Ishmael Promises and Contextualization Among Muslims, a paper he had written nearly 20 years earlier for the International Journal for Frontier Missions.
Dr. Kirk Sims served for 17 years as a Protestant pastor and missionary in Ghana, Georgia, the United Kingdom, and Germany, and he is now an Assistant Professor at Asbury University. He received a Ph.D. from Middlesex University/Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, and an M.Div. from Asbury Theological Seminary.
Dr. Sims is ordained as a Protestant minister in the United Methodist Church, and his preaching can be heard online. His wife, the Rev. Nicole Sims, is also ordained as a minister in the same denomination. Her preaching can also be heard online, including a sermon where she tells how she met her husband Kirk.
Dr. Sims wrote a number of scholarly articles about Protestant missionary work, and he is the author of Dynamics of International Mission in the Methodist Church in Ghana. He attended the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, and he has been a delegate to the World Methodist Conference.
Dr. Dieumème Noelliste is Professor of Theological Ethics at Denver Seminary. Before coming to Denver, Dr. Noelliste served as academic dean and then president of the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology, president of Jamaica Theological Seminary, president of the Caribbean Evangelical Theological Association, a member of the Theological Commission of World Evangelical Alliance, and director and chairman of the International Council for Evangelical Theological Education.
He received a Ph.D. in theological studies from Northwestern University. He earned an M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, a Th.B. from William Tyndale College, and received an L.L.D. from Bethel College in Indiana. He has also studied law at the State University of Haiti.
Dr. Noelliste wrote Diverse and Creative Voices: Theological Essays from the Majority World. He is a contributing author to multiple books, including the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, The Global God: Multicultural Evangelical Views of God, Christians and Political Engagement, and Thinking Christianly About Immigration. He has also published several articles in the Evangelical Review of Theology and the Caribbean Journal of Evangelical Theology.
Dr. George Roller has led multiple Protestant missionary trips to Ukraine, he is an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, and he has been involved with Evangelism Explosion for nearly 35 years. He received his B.A. in English at the University of Illinois and his Master’s and Doctor of Jurisprudence degrees from the University of Miami. In 2003 he became the Executive Director of the D. James Kennedy Center for Christian Statesmanship in Washington, D.C., serving as a missionary to members of the United States Congress. He served for 12 years as Executive Director and for 2 years as the ministry’s Ambassador.
After having retired from CCS, George took a two month sabbatical to write a book, and has now returned to his missionary work on Capitol Hill as Ambassador for Hope To The Hill, and as Ambassador for its parent ministry Hope Ministries International.
Dr. Roller has spent the past several years writing a biography of Archpriest George Edelstein, a prominent Russian priest and author who also was a speaker for the Interfaith Conference this year at Kostroma Theological Seminary. (Fr. George is the father of Yuri Edelstein, the Speaker of the Knesset in Israel's Parliament.) Publication of Fr. George's biography is expected in the near future.
Orthodox Speakers at the Conference
Orthodox Speakers at the conference included Metropolitan Pherapont of Kostroma, Bishop Alexiy of Galich, Fr. George Adrianov, Archpriest George Edelstein, Fr. Joseph Gleason, Fr. Dmitriy Trifonov, Fr. Antoniy Michurin, Sergey Chernishov, Irina Yedoshina, Alexandr Gronskiy, Sergey Burlaka, Mikhail Zhigalov, Olga Plusnina, and Archpriest Peter Stepanov.
As the rector of the seminary, and as the priest who organized this interfaith conference, when Fr. George Adrianov was asked for comment, he made the following statements:
"We have no task to convert Protestants. We have a task to acquaint students with people and other views. This works well for the affirmation of our faith. Bonus: Students hear real English and get involved in formulating thoughts as scientists."
"Due to the fact that this conference is unique, the experience of such communication is unique. This is possible now only in Kostroma. Americans will recognize our faith and our view of the problems. Some of them may think that they are teaching us; in fact, this is a mutual process. We make it possible."
— Fr. George Adrianov
One of the most celebrated speakers at the conference was Archpriest George Edelstein, who serves in the Church of the Resurrection in Karabanovo village, not far from the city of Kostroma. He comes from a Jewish family, and he converted to Orthodox Christianity as a young man. His son Yuli-Yoel Edelstein is the Speaker of the Knesset (the parliament in the modern nation of Israel). Fr. George was ordained as an Orthodox priest approximately forty years ago, in 1979. He features prominently in Judith Kornblatt's 2004 book, Doubly Chosen: Jewish Identity, the Soviet Intelligentsia, and the Russian Orthodox Church. Dr. George Roller (Protestant missionary mentioned above) is currently writing Fr. George's biography.
At the conference, Fr. George frequently reiterated that being "Christian" is more important than being "Orthodox". He said that Orthodox Christians and Protestants believe the "same creed". Fr. George — along with many of the Protestants present at the conference — kept saying that all forms of Christianity are essentially part of the Church, and that it doesn't greatly matter whether you are Orthodox, or Catholic, or Protestant, because we are all together in the body of Christ, as one big church family.
Fr. Joseph's attendance at this conference was a bit of a surprise, since he is an outspoken anti-ecumenist who is an editor for Russian Faith news. To better understand the reason for his participation, we had a brief interview:
— Fr. Joseph, you are not normally known for attending conferences of an ecumenical nature. What made you decide to attend this one?
At the time I was invited, I did not realize what sort of conference it would be. I had already been invited to speak at a number of other seminaries and schools in Russia, including the Ekaterinodar Theological Seminary in Krasnodar, the Yaroslavl Theological Seminary in Yaroslavl, and the Varnitsky school in Rostov — an elite preparatory school for young men planning to enter seminary. So when I received an invitation to speak at the Kostroma Theological Seminary, I assumed it would be a similar sort of speaking engagement.
— When did you realize that this conference was unlike the others you had attended?
After arriving at the seminary in Kostroma, everyone went through registration, and then lined up outside for a group photo. This was done first thing in the morning, before the conference began. After the photo, we went into the conference hall to begin hearing the presentations.
In between speeches, I noticed a large number of people speaking English fluently. In this part of Russia, that is a rare experience. I talked with several of them, and discovered that they were Protestant missionaries and professors from America. I remember the moment when it finally clicked . . . "Oh my goodness, half the speakers at this conference are Protestants!"
— Were you upset about them being there?
I was not upset with them personally. They were all very friendly, very kind people. And I can understand why they would want to be there. They had been invited to the conference, and from their perspective, they were trying to be helpful.
What I had difficulty understanding was why the seminary had setup this conference in the first place. From an Orthodox Christian perspective, what is the purpose of sponsoring such an event?
Indeed, it is unique. Fr. George Adrianov said there are 40 seminaries in Russia, and only 5 of them hold international conferences. He said this seminary in Kostroma is the only one which invites Protestant speakers.
— What did you say during your presentation? How did you handle this particular audience?
I realized there were a large number of Protestants in the audience, and I did not want to cause unnecessary offense. On the other hand, I did not want to compromise the Gospel. I did not want to pretend that we were all in close agreement.
So I started by emphasizing the things we all hold in common. Then, later in the talk, I honestly stated that the Orthodox Church is the one true Church, and is the only way to enter fully into communion with Christ.
I told the story about the atheist, Penn Jillette, who is grateful when people try to convert him to Christianity. Even though he himself is not a believer, he is appreciative when Christians invite him to convert. He said:
“I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe there is a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward."
“How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate someone to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”
I said that when an Orthodox priest, such as myself, invites Protestants to become Orthodox, they should not find it offensive. Rather, they should realize that the Orthodox person is trying to be helpful. If I really believe that the Orthodox Church is the only true Church, then how much would I have to hate someone, to not tell them that?
— What was discussed at the conference? Was ecumenism one of the central themes?
They covered many topics. Some discussed general subjects that might apply to any congregation, whether Orthodox or Protestant. Some delved into detailed interpretations of various biblical texts. Others discussed Protestant missions topics which do not have clear parallels in Orthodox contexts. For example: Protestants have various strategies for changing the structure and content of the Sunday morning service, based on the perceived desires of the worshipers. Meanwhile, Orthodox Christians have a set liturgy, and they are not at liberty to reinvent it at will.
Speakers commented on the various "dangers" of following Tradition. They said that Orthodox Christians and Protestants should focus on bringing the Gospel to non-christians, instead of trying to convert one another. Ironically, they also talked about the dangers of heterodox influences in seminaries.
Later that evening, we attended a dinner with the Metropolitan. Many people kept standing and giving toasts, repeatedly stating that all believers are fully members of the Church, regardless of whether they happen to be Orthodox or Protestant. Most everyone would then respond in agreement, clinking their glasses and affirming what had been said. This made me very uncomfortable.
When it came time for me to make a toast, I did not want to be offensive and just walk away, and I didn't want to directly confront them and start an argument during dinner. So I prayed for God to give me a better approach.
During the toast, I talked about Mary and John at the foot of the cross:
Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:25-27)
Jesus said, "Woman, behold your son!" And to John He said, "Behold your mother!" He gave her to John, for him to take care of her, because she did not have any children other than Jesus. This is because Mary is ever-virgin — before, during, and after the birth of Christ.
I said this is a point of unity that many modern Protestants don't know about. Early Protestants — including Martin Luther and John Wesley — believed in the ever-virginity of Mary, and they wrote about it.
I said something to this effect:
All Christians can agree that the Church is a family. You walk into a church, and you know that God is your Father. You look at your fellow Christians and see your brothers and sisters. The Bible says that Jesus is our elder brother.
But where is Mom?
We all say that the Church is a family. And you cannot have a family without a mother!
If Jesus is our brother, then His mother is also our mother.
When Jesus gave Mary to John as his mother, Jesus was giving Mary to all of us as our mother, too.
Then I said,
So I want to do what I think any Christian would do. I want to give a toast to Mary, the Mother of God!
Then I clinked glasses with a few Orthodox believers at my end of the table.
But none of the Protestants seemed interested in clinking their glasses for that particular toast. Apparently they suddenly remembered that Protestants and Orthodox are not as unified as they had been pretending earlier.