Like Baptists in many former Soviet-bloc nations, Baptists in Georgia remain a small faith tradition. This minority status impacts how Georgia Baptists view themselves, even amid a controversy over homosexuality.
The Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia includes just 72 churches and slightly more than 5,000 members.
All Protestants amount to less than 2 percent of the 4.5 million people in the country. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought new freedoms and opportunities, but persecution can still flare up.
For the past two years, Georgian Baptists have faced internal divisions over homosexuality and statements by then-Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili.
In the election that followed, Merab Gaprindashvili defeated Ilia Osepashvili. Conflict between former Archbishop Songulashvili and current Archbishop Gaprindashvili continues.
All three key figures talked with EthicsDaily.com.
For Osepashvili, who disagrees with Songulashvili on homosexuality but defends his ministry, the status of Baptists as a minority group should impact how Baptists view other minorities.
He noted that “our church … has always been active in peace building, in promoting equality, justice and freedom.”
Osepashvili noted Songulashvili previously stood up for the rights of Muslims. After some Muslims were assaulted for not wearing crosses, Songulashvili stopped wearing his Encolpion (a medallion with a cross common among Orthodox clergy) “in solidarity with Muslims.”
Osepashvili feels critics of Songulashvili “completely forgot that as Baptists they themselves represent a minority in this country.”
“They had totally forgotten the fact that, very much like the LGBT community, they were also chased by the Orthodox ‘believers’ before,” Osepashvili added. “They had burnt our church in one of Kakhetian villages 13 years ago, they broke into Peace Cathedral, they disrupted a worship service, they mercilessly abused our brothers and sisters, they smashed windows and assaulted people gathered in our church. In those days everyone kept silence. Nobody wanted to protect us. We felt completely helpless that time. In those days it was as embarrassing to defend Baptist religious minority as it is embarrassing nowadays to defend rights of sexual minorities.”
Songulashvili sees the need for unity, even amid disagreements. He argued that “without accepting and celebrating differences there can be no genuine unity.”
“[The] Baptist family has been maintaining its allegiance to the principle of ‘unity in diversity’,” he said. “Now time has come to practice this principle. Baptists should learn how to be loyal to their own principles.”
“We as Georgian Baptists have been looked down by some other Baptists for having our own liturgical style which is rooted in rich tradition of Eastern Christianity,” he added. “Diversity is to be uphold and celebrated not only in liturgy but in the matters of ethics, aesthetics and theology.”
Osepashvili, who stressed his “belief that the unity of the church should not have any alternatives,” noted eight “damaging splits” occurred in the EBC of Georgia over the last 15 years.
“It is not difficult to imagine how strong the Baptist church would have been in Georgia, if the clergy would concentrate not only on evangelization and establishment of churches but on preaching of peace and unity as well,” he argued. “Have those clergymen who left our denomination established the purer and the stronger churches? By no means! The schisms have split and weakened the body of Christ; they left a lot of people wounded and hurt.”
“I used to think that we were in a better shape, regarding the church unity, than the previous generations of our ministers,” he added. “Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case. We have not learned lessons from the past. How can we possibly be preachers of love when we cannot love one another, how we be preachers of forgiveness when we ourselves do not forgive each other, how can we be preachers of unity in Christ when we fail to live in unity?”
Archbishop Gaprindashvili also expressed his desire to see the community remain unified.
“I do not want to imagine the EBC of Georgia as a disunited body,” he said. “We will not make a good impact on Georgian society if the EBC of Georgia is seen to be disunited. Our witness then will be very weak. Therefore, all the ministers of EBC of Georgia have an obligation to make their own contribution in keeping unity. As archbishop that is my chief concern also, and whatever the obstacles to be overcome I will continue to work for this.”
Noting that “we do really need to gain trust from each other,” Gaprindashvili added he initiated efforts to meet with former Archbishop Songulashvili to “make steps for full reconciliation.”
Gaprindashvili also noted that Baptist partners in Europe would be meeting with the various factions in October.
Pledging to do his “best to keep unity of EBC of Georgia,” Gaprindashvili added, “I am ready to resign if I see the church unity is under danger.”
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here.