FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–The teacher and classmates scoffed and laughed at Heinrich Kehler as he stood at the front of his classroom in Soviet Russia.
In elementary schools, Soviet teachers encouraged children to devote themselves to the Communist Party early in life by becoming “October Kids.” But Christian children like Kehler refused to join.
“The teacher called me in front of the classroom and asked me, in front of all the children, why I didn’t want to become an October Kid,” Kehler recounted.
Born only eight years before the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, Kehler professed faith in Christ as a young boy. He faced hardship for his faith, but his father and grandfather, both preachers, faced greater trials for following Christ. The government exiled his grandfather to Siberia. Later, KGB agents shadowed his father, spying out his church services.
For the Kehlers and other German Baptists living behind the Iron Curtain, such suppression resounded with irony: After all, when Empress Catherine the Great invited Germans to move to Russia nearly 250 years ago, many Baptists and Mennonites — including Kehler’s ancestors — left their homelands to find religious freedom and social stability. With the rise of communism, however, they lost their former freedom and were unable to return to Germany.
But as the Soviet Union crumbled in the 1980s, millions of these Russian-German Baptists returned to Germany and built churches. Persecution had taught them to cling to their theological heritage, even while Baptists in Germany succumbed to the attacks of higher criticism and theological liberalism. Today, these churches are still learning to thrive and proclaim the message of Christ in their free, yet secular, homeland.
A Ph.D. student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kehler now studies systematic theology with a desire to help establish churches in the foundation of Scripture. He also hopes to foster evangelistic fervor in churches, that they will proclaim the Gospel to all Germany.
“Many people, especially church ministers, grew up in the context of Russia and came to Germany, and faced a totally different environment and culture,” Kehler said. “And they interpreted this in a spiritual way. They said, ‘Well, the Russian way is the biblical way.’ … So they distanced themselves from German culture in their churches.”
For many leaders in Russian-German churches and at Southwestern Seminary, the return of Russian-German Baptists to Western Europe was providential.
“This is an incredible example of the Lord at work,” Southwestern President Paige Patterson has said. “By being out of the country, they avoided the liberalism of the German secular university. … God used the Communist Party’s enslavement of them and their sojourn in Russia to bring the Gospel back to Western Europe.”
In order to aid this conservative resurgence in Germany, Southwestern has partnered with Bibelseminar Bonn (BSB), a ministry training ground established by Russian-German Baptists and Mennonites in 1993. By offering a master of arts in theology degree at BSB and sending visiting professors to teach there, Southwestern enables BSB students to gain further theological education after completing their bachelor’s degrees. Kehler received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at BSB before moving to Southwestern’s campus in Fort Worth, Texas, for doctoral work in 2008.
SPANISH REFORMERS, ANABAPTISTS STUDIED AT CONFERENCE — In Seville, Spain — the city where 16th-century Spanish Reformers came to their deaths under the Inquisition — scholars from across the world testified last fall to the contribution of Spanish Reformers and Anabaptists alike to the cause of religious liberty.
During an international conference on social ethics and communications, sponsored jointly by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the University of Seville, SWBTS President Paige Patterson, Southwestern professors Octavio Esqueda and Daniel Sanchez, and Richard Land, president of Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, joined secular scholars in praising this contribution of the Reformers.
Spain has few believers and “a long history of oppression against evangelicals,” said Esqueda, assistant professor of administration and the foundations of education at Southwestern. “Therefore, for the University of Seville to host a conference about the Spanish Reformation represents a huge milestone.
“Although slowly, Spain is now receiving the message of salvation in Christ that the Spanish Reformers boldly proclaimed, even to the point of giving their lives for the sake of the Gospel.”
Esqueda added that the Oct. 26-29 conference “served as an opportunity to remember the 450th anniversary of the public execution of one of the greatest Spanish Reformers, Constantino Ponce de la Fuente.” Once a preacher in the Cathedral of Seville, Constantino was arrested by the Spanish Inquisition and died in prison on Dec. 22, 1560, while awaiting his trial.
The conference in Seville was organized by Spanish Reformation scholar Emilio Monjo Bellido, director of the Center for the Investigation of the Memory of Spanish Protestantism in Seville. In 2009, Monjo presented a lecture on the Spanish Reformers at Southwestern, recounting the story of these Reformers and their dependence upon the expository preaching of God’s Word.
Monjo also donated to the seminary the already published volumes of a series containing the works of Spanish Reformers, titled “Obras de los Reformadores Españoles del Siglo XVI.” According to Sanchez, professor of missions at Southwestern, the seminary is cooperating in the translation of remaining Spanish Reformation documents into modern Spanish and English.
Sanchez noted, “The main leader of the research center (Monjo) has a very strong belief that uncovering these books and acquainting people with the basic teachings of the Reformers can actually be used of the Lord to bring revival to Spain.
The Spanish Reformers, he added, “were on the same page with the Anabaptists on many doctrines, actually, but also on the issue of religious freedom.” Sanchez translated for Patterson during a presentation highlighting this connection at the conference in Seville.
The ethic of religious liberty, Patterson said, is a legacy of the Anabaptists who, like the Spanish Reformers, preached and suffered for the freedom of the church to serve its Lord.
“Whatever the case and however stinging may be the attempts to suppress the idea of a free church in a free state,” Patterson said, “the Anabaptist legacy was released in the 16th century like a tiger from its cage. The ideas discovered by those courageous men and women will never be caged again.
“Let us be invigorated afresh by the superlative examples of these Anabaptists who taught us how to live, how to debate, how to stand and how to die for our Lord.”
Patterson expressed his excitement that the University of Seville would join with Southwestern Seminary to sponsor a conference featuring the contributions of Anabaptists and Spanish Reformers. Although some would say Spain, with its secularism, is hostile to Christianity, “its interest in the Spanish Reformation shows there is a certain openness to consider, at this point, the effects of the Reformation.”
“For a major secular university to co-sponsor with Southwestern Seminary a conference on the Reformation in the city that in many ways spawned the Inquisition,” Patterson added, “is a remarkable development.”
STUDENTS STUDY RENAISSANCE, SHARE GOSPEL IN EUROPE — Nineteen College at Southwestern students and professors experienced cultural, philosophical and spiritual history firsthand last November through an academic tour of Paris and joined undergraduate students in Romania for a class and for outreach.
The team was led by SWBTS professor of humanities David Bertch and college dean Steven Smith.
Paris was an influential city in the development of Western thought, which is the focus of study for students like Ben Watson, whose time in Paris “sort of summed up everything we had been learning in the college for the last four years.”
One of Bertch’s academic contacts led students on a tour of the city and regional landmarks, and Watson learned how the city and its people had been brought through each ideological stage.
“He just wrapped everything together, what we’ve been reading and thinking about, all the history that we’ve learned, and just showed us how it worked itself out in Paris,” Watson said.
The Southwestern students subsequently attended classes with students at Emmanuel College in Oradea, Romania, where Smith and Bertch taught courses on homiletics and world religions, respectively. Class ended each day by 3 p.m. local time, and the Southwesterners accompanied their Romanian classmates in scattering throughout Oradea to share the Gospel.
Watson was excited to share his faith with the people of Oradea, while also getting a crash course in Eastern Orthodox Christian beliefs from the students who served as interpreters during the Romanian part of the Nov. 19-29 trip.
Watson and his classmates were required to read “Questioning Evangelism” by Randy Newman for the trip, and he was impressed how the question-based evangelism method played out in real life as they engaged people with the Gospel.
In addition to class and evangelism activities, Watson and four other men from the college along with Bertch and Smith were asked to share the pulpits of local Oradea churches.
The devotion and discipline of the Romanian Christians encouraged Watson, especially his fellow students from Emmanuel College, who were eager to finish school and get back to their cities.
“A lot of guys had no Gospel presence, or very little Gospel presence, in their hometown, and they were excited to get finished and then go tell people about Jesus at home, and that’s just so refreshing,” Watson said.
“It’s nice to go to a place where you’re not sure how the Gospel is affecting souls, and then you go over somewhere and there’s godly men and godly women who are really excited about the same things you are excited about.”
‘BE AFRAID OF SUCCEEDING’ — Clyde Meador, vice president of global strategies for the International Mission Board, and Gordon Fort, IMB vice president for overseas operations, were the featured speakers during Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Global Missions Week, Feb. 7-11.
“Too often we limit ourselves to doing what we know we can do, staying within the borders we already have,” Meador said in a Feb. 10 message, “when God would call us to do something so much more than that — to give our lives to take His truth to the world.
“There will be those who will say, ‘Oh, but I’m afraid of failing, I’m afraid of failure,'” Meador said, exhorting SWBTS students, “Don’t be afraid of failure! Be afraid of succeeding at things that make no difference.”
In a time of prayer, Meador prayed, “Father, do not let us be satisfied in the place we find ourselves today, or in the dreams we may have created for ourselves. Do not in any case allow us to say ‘let somebody else do it.’ And Lord, do not allow us to shirk our responsibility as possibly some before us have done. Father, use us. Call us to commitment, to sacrifice, to being used of You in amazing ways by Your power.”
Southwestern President Page Patterson extended an invitation after Meador spoke, asking faculty from the Roy Fish School of Evangelism and Missions to assemble at the front. A number of students responded, with the professors embracing the students and praying for them. Then, IMB representatives counseled each student.
“It’s God’s power that draws people to salvation,” Fort reminded during his message. “Why could Paul stay at his task? Because he had the message! He was saying, ‘You know why I can go out and be stoned for preaching the Gospel? Do you know why I can be whipped?’ Because, he said, ‘when I proclaim the Gospel, something happens.”
Fort pointed out the greatness of the task before this generation, how the IMB sent missionaries for 165 years and, still, not everyone in the world has heard the Gospel. The time is now to take up the post and declare the message, despite any trepidation, Fort said.
Students who have already surrendered to full-time missionary service also spoke to fellow Southwesterners of their callings, including Christopher*, a Th.M. student on IMB stateside assignment who shared briefly in chapel about his experiences.
Christopher initially thought he and his wife would serve a local Baptist church after he earned his degree, but to their surprise, they felt God calling them to missions, eventually opening doors for the couple to work among East Asian affinity people groups. He helped plant a church in a city less than 1 percent Christian and uses his studies to help equip the local believers. (*Name changed to protect ongoing work in the region.)
STUDENTS LEVERAGE COLLEGE YEARS FOR GOSPEL — Dozens of children from around the globe play in the parking lot at Ladera Palms apartment complex in Fort Worth, Texas. Women balance large bags of groceries on their heads. Students anxious to better themselves and their families attend ESL classes.
Many of the residents of Ladera Palms are refugees, and the complex is one of the largest in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex where refugees have gathered to live. But Andy Caudill, a student at the College at Southwestern, also calls it home.
Caudill and his friends minister to Burmese refugees at Ladera Palms as part of an outreach by Redeemer Church, a nearby Southern Baptist congregation. The church asked Caudill and several other college students to consider moving into the apartment complex as a team and minister to the community.
Caudill describes many of the refugees as being from “the 10-40 window, places where if you are a Christian missionary you would probably not be able to go; places Christians don’t have access to otherwise.” Amazingly, Caudill notes, refugees from these people groups now live three miles from seminary in Ladera Palms.
Partnered with a recently established Burmese church in the area, members of Redeemer Church hold ESL classes, shares resources and serve the Burmese people in a variety of other ways, including training Burmese Christian men to serve as deacons.
His small group at church “really challenged us on the idea that college is just a transitional phase in life,” Caudill said, adding that he sees the danger in taking in biblical teaching but not sharing it.
“If you are not going out and trying to explain the Gospel to other peoples, by definition you don’t understand the Gospel,” Caudill said, “because it reproduces and it is something that by nature is to be proclaimed.”
Benjamin Hawkins and Rebecca Carter are writers for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.