|A Gleaner Article by Jeff Franks|
To many of us in the west, the far away Republic of Georgia, nestled amidst the
Caucasus mountain ranges by the Black Sea, is a literal "end of the earth". However,
such a thought would amaze a Georgian believer, since his ancestors knew Christ
long before America was even an explorer's dream. Tradition tells us that Andrew,
Thaddeus, and Bartholomew, Jesus' own disciples, had preached the gospel there in
the first century. Yet our western "end of the world" would remain unknown to them for
the better part of two more millennia.
Who were those first believers in Georgia? I have no doubt that they knew Jesus by
faith and remained true to the scriptural foundations of the gospel. I think they would
have fully honored Paul's admonition to the Corinthians: "I fear, lest somehow, as
the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the
simplicity that is in Christ." I have seen all sorts of medieval and iconographic images
of Andrew, but I reject the thought that this Galilean fisherman would have distinguished
his appearance by the length of his beard, by fine robes, or other priestly adornment. If
he had a halo, it was not likely visible from our side down here. No, Andrew's Georgian
converts would have followed our Lord in simplicity, although what records do we have?
The power and purity of their faith will remain forever in heaven's annals, where we
know that even a glass of water given in Jesus' name is noted.
However, if Georgian believers of the 1st century were like those in Corinth, then they
were "not many wise . . . not many mighty, and not many noble". What happened
to them over the course of three centuries? Why do historians portray the Christian
leaders of 4th century Georgia as wise, mighty and noble, having donned the regalia
of high religion, wearing the bishops' crowns, the ornate crosses and the long flowing
robes? Or is it just that the attentions of earth's historians are a great deal more
galvanized by glitter than by grace? Nevertheless, of the high-church's pomp and
polish, of the gold and the grandeur, records abound. But where are the tent-makers,
the fishermen, the shop-keepers, and the housewives who followed Jesus and led
people to the Lord in the 1st century? Heaven knows! Truly.
|The awe and wonder of Byzantium.|
So when in the fourth century the "state church" had not so much altered, but
overshadowed the simplicity of the gospel once preached to the common man, King
Mirian made Christianity official throughout the land of Georgia (AD 326). The simple
truths of "salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone" were eclipsed
by the pomp and regalia of Byzantine bishops and priests, ambassadors of Emperor
Constantine, who came to endow the Georgian clergy with their "authority" through a
multitude of rites and rituals. Later kings and bishops would commission the building of
awesome temples which remain as venerated relics to this day. I have seen them and
walked in them, and they are truly breath-taking. But did they serve in any meaningful
way to bring souls to Jesus Christ in humble repentance and faith? I don't know.
|A door opened for the gospel.|
I had not expected the Lord would open a door for my ministry in the Republic of
Georgia. In a meeting with the president of the Georgian Baptist Union, who had come
to Kyiv, Ukraine in January 1997, I had somewhat awkwardly presented a plan for
training church planters. He looked so skeptical that when he invited me to come, I was
surprised. "This could only be the grace of God," I thought.
First impressions. The charms of vintage Georgia.
For me coming to Georgia in 1997 was a special gift, like bumping into an old friend.
Everything seemed so vintage and old-worldly enigmatic. The porches on every home
charmed me. In the fall families would hang their orange persimmons on strings to dry
on the porch. Pomegranates, grape vines, and orchards abounded. Ancient temples
adorned mountain tops, preserving memories from centuries past. Above all my new
friends in Christ, mostly missionary pastors, showed the kind of love and warmth that
made them feel like old friends in no time. What is more, they shared the simplicity of
Baptist believers in these parts, a simplicity that in my view is honoring to Christ.
The baptism of Nikita Voronin in the Kura River in Tbilisi in 1867 became a historical
moment for planting churches through Bible teaching and obedience to Christ. These
churches would grow to form a movement of Evangelical Christian Baptists throughout
the countries of the former Russian Empire. Now I was meeting with Georgians who
had come to faith in these very traditions, men and women who were living by the "faith
which comes by hearing" the Word of God.
New churches planted.
Over the next couple of years I trained 18 missionaries in starting new churches.
Church planters often brought their own teams so that in training events our numbers
would swell to 30 or more. Certain men were greatly fruitful in planting new churches,
and in all of this I sensed God's guiding and blessing hand.
Then something strange began to happen.
Over the course of about 5 years certain visible changes caused me great alarm and
consternation. Key leaders among the Georgian missionaries began to wear priestly
garments, headdresses, ornate medallions, and long black robes! Some pastors
grew lengthy beards. What in the world was happening? The president of the Baptist
Union, Malkhaz Songulashvili, a diligent scholar and dedicated servant of the church,
had begun to introduce an Episcopal style of church government. He was highly
intelligent, philosophically adept, Oxford educated, a Bible translator, and president
of the Georgian Bible Society. He reformed worship by introducing liturgical readings
along with priestly garments for bishops and pastors. "Our doctrines remain Baptist," he
assured me in a private meeting. I disagreed, saying that his reforms distort the gospel
message, which in my view is tantamount to crossing doctrinal boundaries. I do not
vilify or judge Archbishop Songulashvili for he stands or falls before our Savior, just as I
do. Nevertheless, I felt responsible for BMAA's cooperation and training of their pastors
and missionaries, and my conscience would not allow me to support those who had in
any heartfelt way adopted these so-called reforms.
Having shared our points of disagreement with the missionaries, to avoid inappropriate
pressure and give them time to react, we waited several months before ending our
mission with them. On that final day we again shared our beliefs and ended the
afternoon with a meal of fellowship in which we all prayed together and wished one
another well. Those who chose to wear the robes were very polite, expressed their
gratitude for the support and training, and went their separate way. A few were in
agreement with us, but as guests of the Baptist Union, we felt that our continued formal
relationship with them at that time would have been wrongly divisive and inappropriate.
Just what was it in our objections that these men could not accept?
Three simple truths.
First, in my view the wearing of priestly garments in a religiously-minded culture distorts
the precious gospel truth that "there is one God and one Mediator between God and
men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all." (1 Timothy 3:5,6) The
common man, not knowing the Bible, immediately sees the beard, the medallions and
the robe as signifying a "mediator" before whom he may confess his sins and from
whom he may seek both absolution and blessing. The common man on the street
needs desperately to know that Jesus Christ alone is our only hope of reconciliation with
God. Why come to him wearing a stumbling block from which he may have little or no
hope of rising to walk in the name of Jesus?
Priestly regalia distorts a second essential truth: all true believers are priests. From the
time of Jesus' crucifixion, when God tore the veil of the temple in two from top to bottom,
every child of God can "come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy
and find grace to help in time of need." (Hebrews 4:16) Dear man of God, when a child
of God sees your beard and robe, how can he know in his tattered jeans that he has just
as much access to the throne of grace that you do in your vestments?
The third truth is a warning: priestly garments can be a seductive temptation to seek
honor for oneself. In Luke 20:46 Jesus warned, “Beware of the scribes, who desire
to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the
synagogues, and the best places at feasts."
Defensively, one brother replied, "Jesus did not say the robe was wrong. He said the
desire for it was wrong." "Exactly," I replied. The uncomfortable silence that followed
A few years passed.
Brother Jerry Kidd and I returned to Georgia to speak with those who had remained
true to the Baptist traditions I outlined above. Over this time faithful servants of Christ,
pastors and missionaries who had been in our trainings, began to come together
and associate freely with one another for support. One of the key leaders in this new
association of churches was pastor and physician Dr. Levan Akhalmosulishvili, who
runs a benevolent medical clinic in eastern Georgia. He served humbly and effectively
in unifying faithful men and women in church-planting and in spiritual leadership. Dr.
Levan invited me to lead yearly prayer retreats and training seminars for their key
pastors and missionaries.
We again offered resources which had been faithfully given to Georgia by our churches.
We came alongside them in church planting, providing DCPI training, leadership
seminars and prayer retreats. Several times I had the privilege of working with Baptist
Medical Missions International under the leadership of Dr. Ralph Izard and Dr. John
Ladd. Once, during the Russian invasion of 2008, we were forced to evacuate during
a bombing raid on the town of Gori. In short, we continued to come and share their
burdens in good times and bad.
Now the good news.
Today there are 38 churches in the newly formed Baptist Union of Georgia! In October
2012 my wife Coleen and I attended their first international congress in Kvareli. The
Georgians had invited Baptist leaders from Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Poland,
Ukraine, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and USA. In addition there were
representatives there from other important missions such as Robert Provost from the
Slavic Gospel Association, John & Stephen Benham from Music in World Cultures, and
several others, including the BMAA, represented by Coleen and me. What a joy! What
a gloriously good time we had!
Here are the words I spoke to Georgian leaders at the congress: "We in the BMA of
America have had the blessed privilege of working with many of you since 1997. We
observed you then when you were faced with strong temptations to abandon some key
gospel truths, the very foundational principles of your calling and ministry. Instead,
you stood strong and refused to compromise the truth. There were others of you who
stumbled, but you recovered and found the grace to continue boldly in service to our
Savior. Well done! I am touched and moved by your faithfulness. Today we rejoice
with you in the formation of your new Baptist Union of Georgia, and we know that the
pastors and Churches of the BMA of America will continue to lend our shoulders to
yours as you plow, water and reap in the harvest fields. May the kingdom of Christ
continue to grow and expand until every man, woman and child in the Republic of
Georgia has heard the true gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."
The "end" is near.
Yes, once America was the "end of the world" to believers in Georgia. But oh, how
technology has taken what was "far" and made it "near"! Today, we can have real-
time face-to-face conversations with our Georgian friends over Skype and Facebook.
The "end" is truly "near" in more ways than one!
I would like to bring far-away Georgia even nearer through the photos on these
pages. Hopefully you will sense the warmth and history of this lovely place, a unique
crossroads between east and west. A place where, if you visit, I think you will discover
what I mean about the feel of bumping into an old friend. And if you do, please keep
your Georgian brothers and sisters in the focus of your prayers and missions activities.