Review: Evangelical Christian Baptists of Georgia

November 28, 2015

I recently wrote about a controversy dividing Baptists in the former Soviet-bloc nation of Georgia (see two-part articles here and here). For the articles I talked with three key Georgian Baptist leaders. As I finished my articles, Baylor University Press published a book by one of the three, former Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili. So I grabbed a copy of his new book, Evangelical Christian Baptists of Georgia: The History and Transformation of a Free Church Tradition.

It is an excellent and informative book. Georgian Baptists are quite unique as a more liturgical church that in many ways resembles the Orthodox tradition more than what is typically found in Baptist churches in other nations. Songulashvili explains how this evolution occurred as Georgian Baptists sought to minister in their cultural context. This difference sometimes led to misunderstandings, such as when Soviet authorities researched Baptists during the middle of the 20th Century. The Soviet leaders made critical mistakes as they relied on publications from Russian Baptists to make assessments about Georgian Baptists.

"I realized that we could not be just a mere copy of other Baptist churches in Europe or the United States; we had to be a Georgian Baptist Church fully aligned with Georgian culture, remaining in critical solidarity with that culture but judiciously addressing the political reality in which the church’s mission was set," Songulashvili writes in the book.

The parts of the book I particularly enjoyed emerged as Songulashvili traced the political implications of Baptist worship. He noted the role the first Baptist church played in providing medical assistance during Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878).

"The Tiflis Baptist Church gained the favor of the authorities because of their social engagement," he explains in the book. "This had political implications for them.”

Within a few years, however, the situation for the church shifted as "the number of Orthodox converts started to grow" and "[t]he existence and growth of Tiflis Baptist Church became a political event from the perspective of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Empire." This led to "years of permanent persecution" with "imprisonment, torture, and exile."

After the rise of the Soviet Union later, the tensions between faith and politics grew.

"In the formative times of the Baptist and Evangelical Christian groups, the dramatic social and political changes in the life of society (revolutions, wars with Armenia, British and German interventions, and Russian occupation) also played an important role," he explains. "People were in search of emotional and spiritual spaces that would provide a safe harbor in tumultuous times. ... what was preached by these two groups of evangelicals directly confronted Communist ideology, and it was dangerous to enter into confrontation with that ruthless force."

"Political hypocrisy and corruption at all levels of society caused enormous despair," he adds. "[T]he overwhelming corruption and hopelessness in society was one of the reasons the ECB succeeded in growing in numbers and strengthened their position in the country."

As Songulashvili notes how the Baptist faith and practices inherently carried political implications, he claims "the Eucharist is always a political act." This sentiment matches nicely with the key argument in my new book, Sacramental Politics: Religious Worship as Political Action.

Songulashvili writes in his book how leaders from the Baptist World Alliance assisted Georgian Baptists and how an international focus among Georgian Baptists impacted their faith. Additionally, he notes how various relief efforts impacted the Baptist churches and opened doors for growth. This included helping care for wounded during wars, counseling after World War II, and refugee work in more recent years. 

Although he covers lots of history, dates, and names, Songulashvili does a good job keeping the story moving and connecting the spiritual implications. I recommend the book for those interested in church history, Baptist faith and practices, or issues of religion and politics.