A measure of how much more difficult it is to plant and maintain a church in Russia, as opposed to Ukraine can be seen in what happened to existing evangelical churches in Crimea after Russia seized that area from Ukraine in 2014. Pentecostal, Baptist, and other Protestant churches that had not previously been subjected to persecution from the state suddenly found themselves the targets of government raids, fines, and intimidation. Conditions in the Donbas pro-Russian separatist region which is under defacto Russian control were even worse.
Recently I shared a request from ARP NEWS for prayer and donations to help the refugees who are fleeing the war in Ukraine. Earlier I had shared a prayer request asking for prayer for the people of Ukraine and had added my own request for people to please also pray for the Evangelical Reformed Seminary of Ukraine and their teachers, families, and students.
Apparently, these two requests were too much for one of my Reformed Christian Facebook friends who sent me a message demanding to know why the ARP and I were praying for and supporting the Ukrainians who are, according to him, abortion loving, “Globohomos” instead of the Russians whom he characterized as a Christian nation under a Christian leader who had outlawed abortion and homosexuality.
I wrote the following answer to him but was unable to send it as he blocked me soon after sending his message. Since I’m finding that there are many other Reformed Christians on Facebook who have similar views, I’ve decided to publish my reply publicly.
“Thank you for writing to me, I have tried to answer the concerns about Russia and Ukraine that you raised in your message, I have also tried to include links backing up everything I’ve stated here.
To call Russia “a Christian nation” is extremely problematic, to say the least. It is true that the Putin regime has extremely close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and it would not be an exaggeration to say that the Russian Orthodox Church is almost the established church of Russia but like many established churches, the ROC uses its strong ties to the state to try to eliminate other religious groups within their country.
In recent years the Russian government has imposed laws that make it illegal to evangelize outside of an officially recognized church and attempts to get outsiders to join your church is considered illegal missionary activity. As a result, attempting to plant a new Reformed church in Russia is very difficult as the process of persuading non-members to join it is technically illegal.
The Russian laws restricting non-ROC religious activity got much worse in 2021 when Putin signed an amendment to Russia’s religion law aimed at “protecting the spiritual sovereignty of Russia.” The law requires that if a missionary or pastor received their religious training outside of Russia, say at a Reformed seminary in America or Europe, they have to go through a process of mandatory state re-education, and then be certified by local authorities.
Other laws make it illegal for religious organizations to use their own religious identifiers in their names unless they are permitted to do so by the government. Churches and church members frequently find themselves under surveillance by the state and Protestant churches and seminaries have been closed by the government and their congregations banned from using them. Because of the increasingly hostile attitude of the Russian government to any non-ROC religious activity in Russia, it was added to the Open Doors World Watch list of the top 50 countries where it is most dangerous to be a Christian in 2019 and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom’s tier 1 list of religious freedom violators in 2017 (please note this was when USCIRF was still working under the Trump administration).
True Freedom of Religion exists in a country when:
1) The government does not give preference to any one religion or anti-religious group above the others.
2) Clergy may perform all of their religious duties without violence or danger.
3) The laws of that country do not interfere with or hinder the free exercise of the religion of ordinary people and all citizens are free to conduct their lives according to their own profession of faith.
4) The civil magistrate takes care to actively protect the free exercise of religion and as a result, religious assemblies may occur without molestation, violence, or disturbance.
All four of the principles above are actively violated in Russia, and therefore we can safely say that Freedom of Religion does not exist in Russia.
It is also important to note that the Russian Orthodox Church, which is virtually the Russian State church, formally denies all of the Solas of the Reformation including Justification by Faith Alone, and just about every tenet of the Reformed faith including all five points of Calvinism. The Russian Orthodox Church also has seven sacraments, not the two given by Christ in the Bible. As Reformed Christians, we can therefore affirm that the Russian Orthodox church does not have the marks of a true church and that we do not believe that people can be saved by believing what they teach.
By contrast, there is far greater religious freedom in Ukraine and setting up churches and seminaries and evangelizing is much, much easier than it is in Russia. And while the Ukrainian Orthodox church is also not happy about new non-Orthodox churches being planted they do not have the same hand-in-glove relationship with the Ukrainian state that the ROC has with the Russian state. For this reason, many Reformed organizations have established their church plants and seminaries in Ukraine where it was also possible to train Russian pastors even though they would be subjected to restrictions when they returned to Russia. Many other North American Presbyterian and Reformed Churches (NAPARC) have strong ties to Ukraine and were a vital part of helping to establish the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ukraine in 2008.