For the past three years reports from Romania have indicated a growing movement of spiritual renewal and growth among the churches there. This year came indications of both compromise and crackdown by the government. News Editor Edward E. Plowman recently traveled to Romania to see and hear for himself. The following account, written by him, is based on his visits among believers and churches, on interviews with Romanian and other workers in the West who carry on a ministry in Romania, and on reports filed by aCHRISTIANITY TODAYcorrespondent who has visited important Christian leaders there several times in the last few months.
To the Christian tourist from the West, the evangelical churches of the Socialist Republic of Romania are a tonic. At many of the churches the services, lasting three to four hours, are packed. Prayers are intense; often dozens lead in prayer during a service. Large numbers of young people attend; they’re active in the choirs and orchestras, and they testify and recite poems they’ve written about Jesus and their faith. The congregational singing is probably unequaled anywhere in the West. Sermons are Scripture rooted and given an intent hearing. No visitor comes away without sensing the fervency, friendly concern, and unostentatious joy of Romanian Christians.
The largest Protestant church in the land is perhaps Hope Baptist in Arad, a city of about 130,000 near the Hungarian and Yugoslav borders (for various reasons church statistics are hard to come by in Iron Curtain countries). To the Western eye the building looks more like a warehouse than a church.
Its masonry exterior tanned by weather and decades of dust, the church is located next to the railroad tracks.
It is ten o’clock on a sunny, warm Sunday morning, and the place looks deserted. No one is milling about outside. Six cars are parked nearby. But the service is already in progress, having started at nine with an hour of prayer. The L-shaped sanctuary looks big enough to contain 300 or so. But the people are jammed together on narrow benches without backs and standing in the aisles and at the edges, and there are some 1,500 of them. On a platform at the intersection of the L is a 140-voice choir (many of the members are young people) and a forty-piece orchestra. The pulpit is at one corner of the choir area. It must be 110 degrees inside, but everybody will stay at least another two hours.
The choir sings, the orchestra plays, and the congregation picks up the tune and spontaneously joins in, moving smoothly through transitions from one song to the next. During the singing, today’s guests from the West are virtually passed along the aisles to a bench directly in front of the choir where space has been reserved. The next two rows are occupied by men taping the service on a remarkable assortment of machines, their microphones dangling from lines strung across the hall. Some of them are lay evangelists who will “take” the service to outlying areas.
Hope’s pastor is loan (John) Trutza. Of the twenty-six Romanians reportedly invited to participate in the International Congress on World Evangelization at Lausanne last summer, he was one of the four permitted to leave the country.
Hope is one of the few churches to have permission to build new facilities. Under complex arrangements and with the aid of Western funds, a new building is under construction not far away. Plans call for a seating capacity of about 1,600.
Glances around the congregation reveal only a handful of Bibles and fewer hymnals. There is a nationwide shortage of both.
Some blocks away is another Baptist church. Perhaps 1,000 people are crammed inside, and dozens who were unable to get in stand about in a shaded area of the courtyard outside. This time several people must leave in order to make room at the back of an aisle for the Western visitors. A soloist is singing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” Again, few Bibles and hymnbooks.
Nearby, in a small hall along a rut-carved dirt street, a gypsy service is in progress. Members in the congregation join in discussion of the sermon text. The gypsies, among whom revival is reportedly spreading rapidly, seem to have more Bibles per capita than the Baptists, but the supply is still inadequate, say leaders. The guests are urged to return to the evening service, when hundreds of gypsies will flock into town and fill the hall to overflowing.
In interviews, Baptist and Pentecostal lay leaders disclose that spiritual revival is surging everywhere in the land, especially in the Transylvania region, touching even segments of the Orthodox Church (more than half of Romania’s 20.6 million population is listed as Orthodox). Many young people are involved. Indeed, the youth in the movement are known popularly as “Revival People.”
Thousands of persons were baptized last year (reportedly between 7,000 and 10,000 Baptists, 5,000 Pentecostals, 4,000 Open Brethren) and large numbers this year so far. Until recently, churches were forbidden to baptize young people and persons not members of church families, a regulation that was in effect a curb on evangelism. With some 200,000 or more congregants, the Romanian Baptists are the third largest Baptist body in Europe (the U.S.S.R and Britain have more), and are the fastest growing Baptist denomination in the world, according to Baptist World Alliance officials.
“The word is out: the Communists are telling their people to read the Bible,” says a lay worker. “They want to know what’s in the Bible so they can counter it.”
Accordingly, universities have been sponsoring weekly debates and dialogue sessions aimed at showing the superiority of atheist ideology to the Bible and churches. These, however, backfired in some cases, say authoritative sources. For the first time, Baptist, Pentecostal, and other Protestant students were joined with Orthodox students in a unified campus witness (the free churches have suffered a lot longer from persecution by the Orthodox than by the Communists). As a result, in their study of Christian philosophy and dialogue with Christians, a number of students and teachers professed Christ.
Accompanying and perhaps somewhat propelling the spiritual upsurge is a reform movement whose leaders have been calling for greater religious freedom. The state Department of Cults, to whom the churches by law are responsible, yielded on some points, balked at others. But with all the spiritual activity and with the latest pronouncement from the reform movement, it now appears that government officials have had it, and a number of church leaders are in trouble as a result.
One of those leaders is theologian Iosif (Joseph) Ton, pastor of a Baptist church in Ploesti and a former pastor of Hope Baptist in Arad.
Ton, according to friends, at one point underwent a period of spiritual stagnation. He left the pastorate and went to Britain, where he took a degree in theology. After three years there he returned to Romania in 1972 and assumed a teaching post at the Baptist seminary in Bucharest.
In 1973 he released a paper in which he traced the erosion of religious freedom, called on fellow Baptists to “break away” from illegal restrictions imposed by denominational officials under pressure from the Department of Cults, and asked the state to cease its interference in the life of the churches. He pointed out that the Romanian constitution guarantees religious freedom.
After World War II Romania was left in the hands of the Soviets who in 1948 installed a Communist regime. A period of harsh persecution of Christian believers ensued. The situation eased a bit in the early fifties when the authorities apparently concluded that the churches could become a powerful ally if cultivated correctly.
In 1954, says Ton, the cults office instructed the Baptist Union to order its churches to curtail their services and activities. The Union officers declined, citing the dearly held Baptist belief of local-church autonomy. At the behest of the state, these officers were replaced in 1955 by leaders more inclined to accept cooperation with the state as a strategy of survival.
A devastating series of compromises followed, asserts Ton. Church services were standardized. Hundreds of churches were closed when a fixed number of pastoral posts was decreed. The churches lost their right to call their own pastors. Lay leaders had to be approved by the state. Baptisms likewise needed clearance. Pastoral pay was channeled through the Union. Pastors and leaders needed permission to speak anywhere than in their own pulpits. Many other “unwritten laws” inhibiting church life were introduced, explains Ton.
His paper calling for reform was widely circulated in Romania. Many pastors and leaders privately sympathized with the paper but feared the consequences of publishing it. The grass roots welcomed it.
Ton was removed from his theology post at the seminary and given an assignment to teach such courses as English, but he withdrew instead. Of fifty pastors who openly backed Ton’s position, a number lost their churches, according to several reports.
Soon, however, many churches began ignoring the restrictive regulations, and the cult authorities ignored the violations—at least publicly. The Romanian government in recent years has been asserting its independence from the Soviet Union and wooing Western trade and tourism. The Ton paper and the predicament of Romanian churches were publicized widely in the West, and delegations of Western church leaders, including Baptist World Alliance officials, have inquired into the situation.
Peter Trutza, a former Bucharest pastor now president of the Florida-based Romanian Missionary Society, visited Romania a few months ago and found reopened churches, unrestricted baptisms, week-night services (formerly prohibited), pastors preaching elsewhere without the previously required permission, and other evidences of increased freedom. The Baptist seminary at Bucharest, he says, was authorized to have twenty students this year—“a great improvement over the past”—with an increase of twenty additional ones next year. More than 100 applied for the current term.
The lack of hymnals and Christian literature remains a problem. A new Protestant hymnal has been prepared and permission obtained to have it printed in Romania, but additional funds are needed to publish it. Between 1968 and 1972 the United Bible Societies (UBS) sponsored the printing (in Romania) of 100,000 Bibles for the Orthodox Church, enough for twenty-one Bibles for each congregation. Conflicting reports say some of these Bibles may be in storage while others were shipped out of the country. The 800,000-member Reformed Church obtained permission in 1971 to import 10,000 Hungarian Bibles. Recently, import licenses were granted to the Baptists, Brethren, and Pentecostals for 2,500 Bibles each, with 1,500 for the Lutherans.
For years, thousands of Bibles annually have been mailed to Romanian believers from individuals and organizations in the West; others have been carried in a few at a time by tourists and mission workers—all quite legally. This year, however, Romanian postal authorities returned 4,000 Bibles mailed by a Romanian evangelist who broadcasts from Paris over a mission radio station. A new “press law” was passed forbidding the unauthorized distribution of literature, tapes, and films produced outside Romania.
In July, Vasile Rascol, 37, a Pentecostal layman of Bucharest, was convicted and sentenced under the law to the maximum two-year prison term prescribed. He had received a supply of Bibles and Christian books from a mission worker and passed some along to a friend. The police discovered the transaction, and Rascol was arrested by an officer posing as a believer wanting some Bibles.
A number of prominent believers appealed on Rascol’s behalf. They contested that the new law as applied abridges religious freedom and is therefore an infringement of the constitution and of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights. Believers have a fundamental right to receive information about their faith, they argued. If receiving and distributing Bibles free of charge is wrong, they said, then thousands of believers are guilty. They objected to the semi-secret nature of the trial, then went on to imply that Rascol’s arrest is but another evidence that the state is out to oppress the Christians. They cited the ouster last year of well respected theologian Pavel Nicolescu from the Baptist seminary as another evidence. In conclusion, they affirmed their loyalty to their country.
Rascol was still in jail last month. A Romanian embassy official in Washington indicated he was puzzled by the new law. He said he often mails gift books, including Solzhenitzyn’s Gulag Archipelago, to relatives back home.
In September, Ton circulated another paper, a bombshell application of Romans 1 that apparently has brought down the wrath of the state upon him. In it, he offers a critique of the atheist ideology underlying Communism. Marx and Lenin did not find that Christianity was untrue, he says. Rather, they looked to atheism to create a “bitter” man, one ideologically prepared for revolution. After the revolution, Ton points out, atheism continued to produce the same kind of man: desperate, bitter, greedy. Thus, says he, the Communist hope of creating the new man is thwarted by its own ideology.
“Only Christ can produce the new man,” Ton asserts. His paper cites a government study showing delinquency is least among Christian youth. “This is proof of what Christ can do, this is what the churches have to offer—the new man, the new society,” insists Ton. Free the churches, he appeals to the authorities; it can result only in good for the country.
At dawn on October 4 seven men, apparently secret police, came and searched Ton’s house, confiscating his books, papers, and sermon notes. The move usually signals an impending arrest. Many of Ton’s closest friends reported their homes too were searched the same day.
Hours later a CHRISTIANITY TODAY reporter interviewed him. “They are angry,” said Ton. “It offends them to show they produce a man with no hope and no scruples. But all I did was apply the first chapter of Romans to the Romanian context.”
Ton said his first paper ignited a new no-compromise attitude among believers, especially among the young. Why the second paper? Said he: “The Lord told me: ‘You must tell this society so much about me and my Gospel that they will hear right up to the top.’ ” The paper is being read all over the land, he commented, even in the universities, and “many are standing up for Christ.”
What if it means prison? His reply: “There is harvest already. We go to this trial rejoicing we were found worthy to suffer.”
As the World Food Conference convened in Rome this month, massive relief efforts continued in Bangladesh, where recent floods left millions homeless and devastated crops. Church groups there are attempting to feed 500,000 people for three months. Leaders say it is increasingly difficult to obtain food. Available supplies are costly. The government has warned that 100,000 or more of its 75 million people may die by next month unless adequate assistance is given. Outside experts say corruption, a poor distribution system, and other problems contribute to the crisis.
Meanwhile, relief airlifts in the Sahel region of Chad, Africa, came to an abrupt end. Citing a New York Times article reporting that there had been corruption and inefficiency in the distribution of relief aid, Chad president N’garta Tombalbaye banned further U. S. shipments of food. American planes and Air Force personnel were withdrawn immediately, having delivered only half of the 4,000 tons of supplies on hand. Another 10,000 metric tons were stalled en route.
Death In Exile
Eleven years ago Catholic bishop Francis Walsh, of Aberdeen, Scotland, was involved in controversy with the Vatican when he appointed as his housekeeper the divorced wife of a Church of Scotland minister. Pope Paul himself ordered the bishop to dismiss Mrs. Ruby McKenzie, but Walsh (by reputation a man of high principle), refused to do so, resigned his see, and chose exile in Ireland.
Last month Bishop Walsh, 73, died in England. The archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, Cardinal Gordon Gray, with two other Scottish bishops, traveled south for the funeral. Referring to Walsh as “a great bishop, a charitable man, and a wonderful worker for the Church,” the cardinal added that it would be “a shame if the misunderstandings of the past were to cloud this fact.”
J. D. DOUGLAS
Lethal But Legal
West Virginia has no law against snake-handling in church services. Therefore no charges were lodged in the death of Lonnie Richardson, 28, who died after being bitten by a rattler he was handling in a service at the Jesus Church of East Lynn. A few months ago his father-in-law had died in the same manner, and the youth had safely handled snakes at the funeral service.
In Tennessee, the state supreme court ruled that an absolute ban on snake handling in church worship services would be an infringement on constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion. But the court directed the lower court at Knoxville that had issued the ban to draft restrictions aimed at ensuring the safety of persons in congregations not wishing to take part in the practice. The case grew out of several deaths at the Holiness Church of God in Jesus Name near Newport and the subsequent arrests of two church leaders.
No end is yet in sight to the public-school textbook controversy in West Virginia (see October 25 issue, page 50). Kanawha County school superintendent Kenneth Underwood announced he will resign as soon as a replacement can be found, and no later than June 30. School board chairman Albert Anson, Jr., resigned outright, saying he would not “capitulate to mob rule.” He was replaced by F. Douglas Stump, considered the swing vote on the five-member board. Two members oppose use of the controversial texts and two favor keeping them. Stump was immediately condemned by both sides for vacillating and not keeping agreements made privately.
A citizens review panel voted to recommend that the board allow the books to remain in the schools. The board was to make its decision this month.
Opponents, led by ministers who say the books contain anti-Christian, anti-home, anti-American, and obscene reading selections, vow the books must go. Late last month the school board’s offices were dynamited, school buses were halted, and demonstrations were held by both sides in the dispute. Local officials feared that a coal strike might add fuel to the fire.
Meanwhile, certain books were removed from Chattanooga, Tennessee, high school libraries pending review, and a Maryland group wants certain texts banned.
Hargis On The Shelf
Evangelist Billy James Hargis, 49, is curtailing many of his activities for health reasons. Known since the fifties for his anti-Communist “Christian Crusade,” Hargis said he was turning over the presidency of his small American Christian College in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to a top aide, David A. Noebel. Hargis, who has a Southern Baptist background, will be replaced by another aide, Charles Secrest, as pastor of the Church of the Christian Crusade in Tulsa.
The evangelist said he also will discontinue tour appearances and drop his weekly television programs. He will, however, continue to record a weekly radio program, and he plans to do several TV specials a year. He will spend part of his time in his Tulsa office, part on his farm in Arkansas.
Informed sources say Hargis is afflicted with an artery condition and has suffered several light strokes. His personal physician accompanied him on a recent trip to India to inspect relief projects. The projects are reportedly given $25,000 monthly by the David Livingstone Hill Missionary Foundation, which Hargis founded.
While there, Hargis told newsmen that the foundation—headed by aide Jess Pedigo—had been hurt financially by false allegations in a Reader’s Digest article. The article complained about high administrative costs and non-existent projects, among other things. Hargis said his foundation has given aid worth more than $500,000 to India and Bangladesh in the past three years plus large amounts elsewhere.
Message To Mormons: Open The Gates
Despite a recently court-pressured revision of former policy reserving senior Boy Scout patrol-leader positions for whites only, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints still faces legal challenges for its discriminatory practices. Officials of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) announced they will extend their suit to include not only the church’s Scout program but also its entire doctrinal and ecclesiastical position on blacks.
President Spencer W. Kimball, the highest Mormon official, was served a deposition and subpoena requiring him to appear in federal court this month “to produce all writings in his possession or in the possession of the church … on every policy or practice of said church regarding persons of the black race.”
The order conceivably could produce a new church-state relations quarrel as intense as that experienced in some parts of the country over aid to parochial schools. Some of the written documents sought by the NAACP attorneys are considered privileged church documents.
According to Mormon doctrine, man is destined to become either a god or an angel in the next life. Only baptized Mormons who are married celestially (mated for the next life) through private temple rites can become gods. Everyone, however, will be “saved” (resurrected, in Mormon teaching); a second chance at godhood may then be accorded the vast majority of earthlings who end up as “ministering spirits.” As things now stand, blacks can become only angels. They were born black, according to Mormon teaching, because they sinned in a preexistent state; this disqualified them for the Mormon priesthood and other privileged status in this life. But, happily, they, too, may be allowed a crack at godhood in the next life—unless through a change in church doctrine, the gates of the temple are opened to them in this life. Doctrine can be changed only if God himself changes his mind and reveals it through President Kimball, the teaching goes.
As pressure mounts (the Mormon Tabernacle Choir recently had a New England appearance canceled because of objections by black clergymen), the prospects of such a revelation become more likely.
Meanwhile, the new $15 million Mormon temple in Washington, D. C., closed its doors to the public forever. Some 758,000 visitors toured the facility. From now on, only Mormon leaders on business and Mormons eligible for certain temple rites will be admitted to the facility.
JAMES S. TINNEY and EDWARD E. PLOWMAN
Consumed By Fire
One of Canada’s well-known evangelical churches, Elim Chapel in Winnipeg, Manitoba, was destroyed by fire last month. A week later two other churches in the city, Knox United and Augustine United, were damaged by fires. Police this month charged Ghaith A. Khader, 24, with arson. He allegedly also tried to burn down the Winnipeg Free Press building. No motive was indicated immediately.
A member of the Elim congregation, Bob Gemmel, an architect, said the building would cost $2 million or more to replace. Consumed in the blaze was a three-keyboard Casavant organ, which would cost $100,000 to replace, plus irreplaceable furnishings and carved woodwork. The church carried $200,000 in insurance.
Built in 1902, Elim had belonged to the Presbyterian Church in Canada before union and the formation of the United Church of Canada. In its early days one of Canada’s best-known writers, Charles William Gordon, better known as Ralph Connor, preached there. After union, the building was bought by a wealthy Winnipeg grain merchant, Sydney Smith, whose son later gave it to Elim Chapel’s congregation. Over the years it became one of the leading evangelical congregations in western Canada. Six to seven hundred people attended its Sunday services. Dr. Tom Schultz, formerly of New Jersey and Florida, is its pastor.
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