The Baptist Bearing Robes and Incense
(Revised and Updated, 6/21/2013)
"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.
That is how Cuttino Alexander, 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.
Since the Georgian Orthodox Church withdrew from the World Council of Churches in 1997, the EBCG has been the largest denomination in Georgia that remains strongly active in the global ecumenical movement. It's a member of the Geneva-based Conference of European Churches. Consequently, the relatively tiny EBCG has become known throughout Georgia. Konstantine Gabashvili, a chairman of Georgia's parliament, says, "We cannot think of any other church or confession that has been as active in the life of wider society."
Songulashvili was ordained in 1994 and became an archbishop in 2006, and is himself a remarkable example of bridge-building. His 2008 wedding on top of Mount Didgori included 60 foreign guests from 14 countries. More than 600 Eastern Orthodox, Catholics, Anglicans, Armenian Apostolic, Jews, Muslims, atheists, and Baptists—including the general-secretary of the Baptist World Alliance—attended the ceremony and feast of music and dancing.