MissionSHIFT (Part 2): Free Will Missions

9780805445374_cvr_web1This present article on missions is a part of a dialogue with Ed Stetzer and David Hesslegrave’s new book MissionSHIFT.

Contextualization of the Gospel for a postmodern generation is imperative. For missions, it is where the rubber meets the road, as the work of God through His Son to save creation, essentially comes to the question if God Himself contextualized his message. But instead of covering all related problems at hand, my desire is to write about one contextualization issue related to our work in Bulgaria. {see my article}. It is a theological issue with a strong practical implication in the ministry as it covers a wide range of issues from free reformed theology to the personal salvific experience focusing on the free will of man. My interest is not to take sides and defend a position in the argument, but rather to review its contextualization as a case study in the Bulgarian missionary context in the past 200 years {see my background}.

Although Bulgaria was first Christianized around 8 AD and officially became a Christian state a century later, Eastern Orthodox faith has become but a nominal, culturally comfortable, national religion a millennium later. When first western missionaries “discovered” the Bulgarians, they were a small ethnic group on the Balkan Peninsula under the rule of the vast and powerful Ottoman Empire. British and American missionaries began with translating the Bible in spoken Bulgarian, establishing schools and missions, publishing and educating the people. Only then did they move toward establishing churches and eventually were instrumental in the restoration of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church as an autonomous autocephaly.

By that time two major mission agencies worked in synchrony in Bulgaria – the American Board, working predominantly in Southern Bulgaria, and the Missionary Society Methodist Episcopal Church, which established churches north from the Balkan Mountains in Bulgaria. Obviously, the Methodist church was Wesleyan Arminian in view of free will and with very socially proactive renewal theology in mind. The American board, however, was presented by predominantly Congregational and some Presbyterian ministers, who as graduates of leading reformed universities in America at the time, should have been very strong Calvinists and reformed oriented in their theology. But they were not.

Dr. Elias Riggs, one of the translators of the Bulgarian Bible, a missionary for over half a century in the Near East Mission of the American Board was a prime example for that. A superb theologian, author of many revolutionary works and outstanding communicator in the native tongue of several Balkan nations, he never accented on his reformed view for salvation. He certainly believed in predestination as pointed out in an extensive commentary of the Bible he published. And he had the opportunity to strongly defend his position in a number of occasions, while publishing the first Bulgarian newspaper Zornitsa, printed by the missionary press in Constantinople. {see URL of series with English Google translation}

But Riggs chose to regard the theological view of the majority of Bulgarians, who believed in free will as traditionally Eastern Orthodox do, as well as his Methodist colleagues with whom he worked closely for a number of years. Realizing that the Bulgarian nation under Turkish yoke and Greek Orthodox religious oppression needed exactly free will to move toward national identity realization, he published a multitude of articles defended the freedom and will of every man, woman and child. He defended their right to read the Bible in their mother tongue and to have an independent church with services held in the Bulgarian vernacular. And when tens of thousands of Bulgarians were slaughtered by the Turks in the April uprising of 1876, Riggs led the international correspondence involving a number of leading missionaries and journalist who reported to their respective agencies and newspapers the horrible acts of genocide they witnessed in Bulgaria.

Historians have long regarded the fact that this very media action created a process of social transformation which led to the liberation of Bulgaria only two years later and its establishment as an independent state shortly thereafter. But all of this would have been impossible, if Riggs and his fellow colleagues held strong to their theological views, disregarding the understanding of God which the local people, the local existing church, and the theological need one whole nation had.

But the story does not stop here. When Communism took over Bulgaria in 1945, the evangelical church was outlawed and services for the next half century were held underground. But Bulgarian believers never accepted the oppression of individual freedom and religious liberty as God’s will for them. Virtually all evangelical denominations during the Regime, including Baptist and Congregational, were free will believers. It was their only way to survive the persecution of the atheist social dominion and to see Bulgaria transformed at the end, after the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

It was not until the turn of the century, that some missionaries in Bulgaria began speaking of reformed theology in the new Bulgarian postcommunist context. Modern day Hyper Calvinists approached Bulgaria with their “Christian reconstruction,” which created a temporary clash between Bulgarian protestant identity and the newly introduced message. It was a good thing to see and understand new theological trends applied in Bulgaria.

But a decade of trying to apply this theology over the Bulgarian churches proved without any result. Virtually all existing Bulgarian protestant denominations subscribe to the free will theology while claiming historical evangelical roots, identity, theology and praxis; thus continuing the missional contextualization on which Bulgarian Protestantism was built 200 years ago. And it just happens, that today, in the beginning of the 21st century, it is this very foundation, historical roots, church identity, Biblical theology and evangelical praxis based on the doctrine of free will that the people of Bulgaria need for one new social transformation of mindset and society in order to reach their potential as a church and a nation in the new era of Postmodernity. Who says God does not work in mysterious ways anymore?