Evangelical missionaries serving in Central and Eastern Europe have reason to wonder whether any co- operation with Eastern Orthodox Christians is a possibility. The ill-fated attempt at an evangelical-Orthodox partnership in the 1992 Mission Volga remains a painful memory for enthusiasts on both sides. The eventual Orthodox withdrawal reflected their concerns over proselytism (voluntary or involuntary) and followed brief, though intense, media coverage of the upcoming Mission.
Individual Orthodox Christians who participated in the Mission point to this experience as a key moment in establishing relationships with evangelical Christians. Just over ten years later I sat down to talk with two of these Orthodox believers about the work of Scripture Union in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The Russian Board of SU includes a number of evangelicals and several lay Orthodox participants.
As we chatted, the Russian Director and his wife showed me copies of the Gospel of Luke, printed for young people, and published by SU Russia. It was an illustrated version using stills from the Miracle Maker film (released in 2000 and retold with the aid of clay puppets). Earlier translations of the text of Luke had been accompanied by illustrations adapted from the cartoon-style UK version. Trials among young people in Russia were rather negative towards this version as it appeared ‘too simplistic and not serious enough’.
The first edition of Luke’s Gospel for young people ran to 10,000 copies. Its production was a good illustration of the way that some evangelicals and Orthodox believers have been able to find common cause in making Scripture more available and more engaging to young people in Russia. Whilst the work of SU Russia is collaborative, it is appropriately sensitive to the Orthodox Christian context in Russia.
A further example of their co-operation was the publication of a Bible-reading guide called How to Read Mark’s Gospel that was illustrated throughout in a more typically Orthodox style, with the iconic representation of biblical characters and the use of liturgical symbolism.
Accompanying this commitment to making God’s Word more widely available and accessible was personal commitment to regular, small-group Bible study. At around the time of my visit to Moscow, they were about to commence a new pattern of establishing adult Bible-study groups in the communal rooms of apartment blocks and in several downtown Moscow churches. The study groups were intended to be evangelistic as well as inter-denominational, led jointly by evangelical and Orthodox.
Elsewhere in Europe I have observed national Bible Society translation committees at work. These are typically made up of biblical scholars from different Christian traditions, each passionate about the importance of correctly translating the Word of God. Of course, there are disagreements about how some phrases and words should be translated. Baptists are reticent about translating the apocryphal books of the Orthodox canon, for example. Orthodox scholars quibble over an evangelical preference for using terms equivalent to the English words ‘Elder’ and ‘Overseer’ over the more Orthodox- sounding ‘Bishop’. But such difficulties are minor in the face of the urgent task of bringing God’s word in new and fresh ways to the increasingly biblically-illiterate populations of Europe.
Bible translation work continues across Europe, often quietly and below the radar screen of the media. Much of it is collaborative and it’s a cause for grateful thanks to God that many of those involved are also keen students of the Word of God in the context of their Christian discipleship. For this, and related reasons, I have been an enthusiastic supporter of the notion that co- operation between Christians across the traditional divides is most promising where the individuals involved are committed to prayer and Bible study. The Word of God is alive and active and, through prayer and study, lives continue to be transformed and conformed more closely to the image of Christ.
Rev Dr Darrell Jackson is the Senior Lecturer
in Missiology at Morling College, Sydney, and has participated in the Lausanne-Orthodox Initiative. He can be contacted at email@example.com