Mr. VanDerSchaaf is an elder in Faith Church in Jenison, MI, and a member of the synodical Committee for Contact with Other Churches (CC). This article and the one that preceded it in the October 1 issue of the Standard Bearer give an account of a recent visit by representatives of the CC to contacts in Germany and Russia in July of 2007.
On Monday, July 16, we flew from Frankfurt, Germany to Moscow. Our Air Berlin flight arrived in Moscow at about 5:30 P.M. We were met at the airport by Mr. Renat Ilyasov and Mr. Alexander Makeev. Mr. Makeev is an elder in the Moscow congregation of the Evangelical Reformed Church Union of Russia or ERCUR. The ERCUR is the denomination that invited us to come to Russia. Renat Ilyasov was to be our guide and translator during our time in Russia. In those capacities, Renat proved to be an invaluable aid to our work.
Some readers of the Standard Bearer may recognize the name Renat Ilyasov. He has translated some Protestant Reformed materials into Russian. In fact, since our trip, he has completed the transla- tion of Rev. Herman Hoeksema’s tract The Gospel into his native tongue. Renat was introduced to the Protestant Reformed Churches by an American who is familiar with our churches, but who is not a member of the PRCA. Renat and his wife, Masha, are from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and are now living in Russia in the city of Nizhny Novgorod. On Monday evening we took an overnight train from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod in order to visit with Renat and Masha and their four lovely children. On Tuesday, and on other occasions during the week, we discussed with Renat means by which he could help to spread the Reformed faith in Russia. Renat is a talented man who is well grounded in the truth and has a great zeal to disseminate the Reformed faith.
From Nizhny Novgorod we boarded our second overnight train, this time for Kazan. We spent two nights and three days in Kazan as the guests of the ERCUR congregation in that city and of its pastor, Valery Kevorkyants. The ERCUR congregation consists of about 25 people and has two elders and a deacon in addition to their pastor.
I should briefly introduce the Evangelical Reformed Church Union of Russia. The denomination is approximately fifteen years old. It consists of three congregations in three widely separated cities: Moscow, Kazan, and Omsk. The ERCUR holds as creeds the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dordt, and the Westminster Confession. Pastor Kevorkyants recently founded a seminary in Kazan, although it is not a denominational seminary as the seminary of the PRCA is.
Although there were Reformed congregations in Russia as far back as the seventeenth century, there was virtually no organized Reformed presence in the Soviet Union from 1918 until the fall of communism around 1990. There is now official toleration of religions in Russia, and the three congregations of the ERCUR make good use of their newfound freedom. They are serious in their efforts to evangelize. However, toleration does not mean the same thing in Russia as it does in the United States. The state still exercises a good deal of control over churches in the form of permits and licensing requirements. Every region has its Ministry of Religion, and churches that are considered “new” experience particular difficulties if they want to have their own church buildings or their own seminaries. It can be very complicated for a congregation simply to obtain a place in which it may legally meet. One of the first questions that members of the congregations in Russia and Uzbekistan would ask us was, “What relationship do the Protestant Reformed Churches have with the government?”
In Kazan, Prof. Dykstra gave presentations on two evenings to members of the ERCUR congregation. On the first evening he introduced the PRCA, giving a brief overview of its history, beliefs, and denominational life. On the second evening, he spoke on the doctrine of the covenant. On both occasions there were 15-17 members of the congregation present, and each presentation was followed by lively and beneficial question and answer sessions. During Prof. Dykstra’s speech on the covenant, it became apparent that many of the issues relating to the covenant were new to the people. Perhaps we should have expected that. Among this small group of Reformed believers we met one couple who had been members of a Pentecostal congregation only six months before. We also met a sister and brother who had recently come out of Islam. The people were not less attentive for all that; and one of the elders remarked afterward that what Prof. Dykstra said was consistent with what they had been studying on unconditional salvation. We asked the man what he had been studying. He said that Pastor Valery and the consistory had been reading together Calvin’s Institutes and portions of H.C. Hoeksema’s Voice of Our Father’s that had been translated into Russian.
We are grateful to Pastor Valery and to his congregation for their hospitality to us during our three days in Kazan, and for the opportunity they gave us to introduce the PRCA and to discuss the truths of the covenant with them.
One of the unexpected treats of our week in Russia was the opportunity we had to meet Pastors Rinat Fazliev and Dilshod Abdullaev. These two men flew from Tashkent, the capital of the country of Uzbekistan, to Kazan in order to meet with representatives of the PRCA. Pastor Rinat leads two small congregations that tog e t h e r make up the Evangelical Reformed Church Union of Uzbekistan or ERCUU. This group has no official ties to the ERCUR. Pastor Dilshod leads an independent congregation in Tashkent that holds the Westminster Confession as its creed. Recall that Renat Ilyasov is also from Tashkent. He led one of the ERCUR congregations there until he moved to Russia. All three men were introduced to the PRCA at about the same time. They spent much time together discussing doctrine and growing together in the Reformed faith. We spent hours with Pastors Rinat and Dilshod as they asked us good, perceptive questions on doctrine and practice. Many of these questions had to do with the doctrine of the covenant and the topic of the covenant of works, and with divorce and remarriage. The two men demonstrated a deep-seated love for the truth and eagerness to learn, and they revealed their love, as pastors, for the people in Uzbekistan whom they are called to lead. After our discussions, they and Renat continued to talk among themselves until the small hours of the morning.
From Kazan we took our last overnight train-ride, back to Moscow. We arrived about 8 o’clock Saturday morning. After checking into our hotel, we had time to see Red Square and the Kremlin. That afternoon we met with Elder Alexander Makeev of the Moscow congregation of the ERCUR. Elder Makeev had questions for us on the life and walk of Protestant Reformed people.
The next day, Sunday, was our last Lord’s Day in Europe. We attended the worship service of the Moscow congregation. We had underestimated the time that it would take to reach the meeting place of the congregation, and so we arrived a half hour late for the service. The congregation of about 20 people graciously waited until we arrived before they began the service. The congregation meets in a small, third-floor apartment. There is no sign. One must simply know the address and then press the doorbell in order to request admission. We noticed that the windows would be closed when the congregation sang Psalms. We were told that the congregation had to avoid giving any annoyance to the neighbors. Although the congregation has the right to meet, it is not able to find a place that was properly zoned for a church gathering. If the congregation’s worship services irritated the neighbors, then the neighbors might complain and have the group pushed out of its meeting place.
The congregation consists of families and of single people. Here also we met people who had come to the Reformed faith through great difficulty. Some of the members were married, but the Holy Spirit had not worked in the hearts of their spouses.
The service that we witnessed was conducted in the Russian language. Renat summarized the sermon for us. The congregation uses the Psalms of Geneva for its worship, as does the ERCUR congregation in Kazan. The congregation’s two elders are Mr. Alexander Makeev and Vladimir Lotsmanov, who is a professional translator. It was Mr. Lotsmanov who translated portions of H.C. Hoeksema’sVoice of Our Fathers into Russian.
After the service Prof. Dykstra introduced the PRCA to the congregation. Then there was a time for questions and answers between us and leading members of the congregation.
What were our impressions of the ERCUR? The members of the denomination appear to be united on basic Reformation truths, such as predestination. Also, the members of the ERCUR are active in sharing the Reformed faith with family members and acquaintances. It must be remembered that the entire denomination is relatively young and exists in a country whose Reformed tradition was destroyed by communism. The ERCUR is made up almost entirely of first generation believers. Some believers in this denomination have advanced farther than others in their progress to a consistent understanding of the Reformed faith. Also, members of the denomination have come to the Reformed faith by various means. We met two brothers who were introduced to the Reformed doctrine of predestination by American Christian Reconstructionists. One of these men was influenced by Reconstructionism. Thankfully, this brother was willing to listen as Prof. Dykstra showed him the Bible’s teaching on the last things.
On Monday, July 23, we made the two-hour metro and bus trip from our hotel to the Moscow airport. Our eleven-hour plane trip brought us back into Grand Rapids just before midnight on the same day. Because Moscow is eight hours ahead of us who live in America’s Eastern time zone, and because we gained time by flying west, Monday was about a 32-hour day for us. We were happy to be greeted by parents, children, and grandchildren at the Grand Rapids airport.
Was our trip to Germany and Russia of benefit to our churches? We believe the answer is yes. We met with representatives of churches who are sincerely committed to the Reformed faith and who want to be able to spread the knowledge of the truth in their lands. We met people who had come to a knowledge of the Reformed faith when they began to read the Bible. We met others who discovered the Reformed faith when someone gave them a copy of a Reformed creed. Some of these people have given up much of what this world has to offer for the sake of the gospel. Others have borne the reproach of Christ for their confession. We were reminded that God has used the materials that are produced by the RFPA as a means to spread the knowledge of His truth. This is also true of the website of the PRCA.
We urge our readers to remember to pray for the church universal, being reminded that God has His people in every nation. And may each of us, as God grants us occasion, be ready to invite our neighbor to read with us the Reformed creeds, and the Bible.