FORT WORTH, Texas (SWBTS) – 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 this 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 desires 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.”
According to Kehler, Russian-German Baptists struggle to avoid two vices: on the one hand, the temptation toward legalism and isolation from German society; on the other hand, the opposite temptation to follow Germany’s native Baptist churches toward liberalism.
“In an effort to find a way out of legalism, I was tempted to fall into the liberal side,” Kehler confessed. His education at Southwestern Seminary, however, has anchored his faith upon the Word of God.
“God has helped me to focus on Scripture in this seminary,” Kehler said. “It was God’s way for me to get focused on the Bible again, to distance me for a little while from the Russian-German problem, so that He might take me back again to really face this problem with the Bible.”
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,” seminary president Paige Patterson once 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 Seminary 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 Fort Worth for doctoral work in 2008.
According to Kehler, the seminary and the Southern Baptist Convention have encouraged Russian-German Baptists to continually “honor sound theology and the Word of God.” With such a foundation, a new generation of ministers in these churches will be able to impact the nation with the Gospel
“Our goal,” Kehler said, “should be to overcome cultural differences so that we may evangelize and preach the Gospel to everybody in Germany.”